Johnny Baranski: A Poet of Conviction

First published, in a shorter version, in Frogpond 41:1, Winter 2018, pages 104–108. A PDF version of this essay is also available on the Haiku Society of America website. First written in January and February of 2018. Also posted to the Haiku Northwest website (with additional content). Also see the results of the 2018 Johnny Baranski Memorial Haiku Contest sponsored by National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo).

Johnny Baranski

1 May 1948 – 24 January 2018

One of North America’s longtime haiku stalwarts has died. After a struggle with lung disease, Johnny Baranski passed away at the age of 69 on January 24, 2018 in Vancouver, Washington, surrounded by his children—and surrounded, through online messages and email, by a worldwide family of haiku poets and other friends. Johnny’s family read many messages of love and support to him before he died.

         On the back of White Rose, Red Rose, his December 2017 haiku book with David H. Rosen, we learn that “Johnny Baranski has been writing haiku and its related forms for over forty years. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Pencil Flowers: Jail Haiku [1983]; Convicts Shoot the Breeze [2001]; Just a Stone’s Throw [2006]; and Blossoming Pear [2013]. His newest collection Fireweed will appear in the Folded Word chapbook series in 2019. A member of the Haiku Society of America, Haiku Canada, and the Portland Haiku Group, Mr. Baranski lives in Vancouver, Washington.” What we do not learn, but see hints of, is that Johnny spent time in prison after his arrests for nonviolent resistance to war and the Trident nuclear weapon system. As a result of repeated protest actions over many years, he spent two to three years of his life in prison. He was also active with the Catholic Worker community, for which he fought for farm worker rights, social justice, and other issues affecting marginalized communities. He was a man of firm conscience, yet his resolve was quiet, as shown in his many poems about prison life and poems of social consciousness. No one can write prison-related haiku without standing in Johnny Baranski’s long shadow.

        Johnny also published Poems from Prison in 1979, Silent Silos: A CounterBOMB Haiku Sequence in 1985, Fish Pond Moon in 1986, Hitch Haiku in 1987, and Beads of Glass: A Rosary Haiku Sequence in 2016. For the Seabeck Haiku Getaway, which he attended regularly, he also produced energetic and thoughtful trifolds of recent haiku to share with others. He received the 2001 Virgil Hutton Memorial Haiku Chapbook award, and numerous awards in the Haiku Invitational contest sponsored by the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. When seven of Johnny’s prison poems were included in Montage: The Book (Winchester, Virginia: The Haiku Foundation, 2010), editor Allan Burns noted that “Johnny Baranski, who did prison time for protesting against war and nuclear weapons, was confined by civilization in the most literal and terrible sense—and yet found in haiku a way of freeing himself to steal back his stolen moments.” Johnny cojudged the Haiku Society of America’s Henderson haiku contest in 2013, and edited the Haiku Foundation’s “Per Diem” website feature on the theme of war and peace for August 2014. He was also the featured spotlight subject in an essay by Paul Miller in Modern Haiku 46:2, Summer 2015 [this interview is presented on the Haiku Northwest website]. Johnny’s poems appeared in Jim Kacian’s 2013 Norton anthology, Haiku In English: The First Hundred Years, in Dimitar Anakiev’s 2013 Kamesan’s World Haiku Anthology on War, Violence and Human Rights Violation, in the 2014 Haiku Northwest 25th anniversary anthology No Longer Strangers, and in many dozens of journals and websites around the world. Johnny also posted on Twitter as @haikumonk, and contributed regularly to various haiku-related Facebook pages. Here are three poems from Jumble Box, a 2017 anthology of poems by National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo) contributors:

                the food bank

                shelves picked clean

                snow moon

                                                                             winter moon

                                                                             the A-bomb dome

                                                                             casting a shadow

                our time together

                short but sweet

                prison yard snow

        In September of 2018, NaHaiWriMo held a contest in Johnny’s honour. You can read the results, judged by Paul Miller, on the NaHaiWriMo website, where he said that “I found [Johnny] to be a generous and likable person, in addition to being a talented poet.”

        When Johnny died, hundreds of condolences appeared on social media. Writing on Facebook, Tom Clausen said “Johnny had a sage sense for the ages to go with an eternal child quality of wit and wonder that will live on in everyone who knew and loved him,” adding that he was “Much beloved in the haiku community and well known for his political activism, his devoted faith, his love of his family and friends, the sports teams he followed [the Chicago Cubs baseball team, the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, and Notre Dame—he was born in Chicago] and his interest and ability to identify classic cars no matter what condition they were in [Johnny drove a Mustang, and before that, a Camaro, and sometimes referred to himself as an old jalopy]. Although I never met Johnny he was someone I always admired and viewed as a kindred friend. Johnny leaves anyone who knew him with wonderful good memories and gratitude for the gift of his indelible being him.”

        Here’s a selection of other Facebook comments in response to Johnny’s passing: Peggy Hale Bilbro wrote, “I felt as though I knew Johnny’s warmth and sensitivity through his poetry.” Cameron Mount said, “Everything I know about him and his history as a poet and political activist convinces me the world has lost a good man. He’d been writing haiku longer than I’ve been alive, but that didn’t stop him from encouraging new haiku poets.” Mary Davilla said, “I never met him personally, but was always encouraged by his faith which he showed in his poetry.” Gabriel Bates wrote, “The world has lost a one-of-a-kind poet and human being. You’ve left your mark.” Jerry Dreesen wrote, “I always enjoyed his poetry and his take on the world.” Susan Burch said, “Loved all his prison and old jalopy ku. He is a great writer who will be missed!” Kris Lindbeck said, “His poetry has touched me. His intelligence, faith, humor and toughness shone through in his haiku.” Beverly Acuff Momoi wrote, “I have been moved by his haiku for many years. He was a very special person and will be missed.” Jessica Malone Latham said, “What a spark of light that illuminated our world.” David John Terelinck said, “How rich we all are for having known and loved his work.” Brendan McNassar said, “I’ve been lucky enough to know Johnny my entire life. He was a formative force to me as a child and aspiring poet/lyricist. I keep a copy of his book Pencil Flowers with my treasured belongings. His art, his coolness and his smile will be missed.” Margaret Chula said, “I feel blessed to have known this gentle, quietly humorous, and highly ethical man.” Yvonne Cabalona said, “I always enjoyed Johnny's poems. I looked forward to them each day on Facebook.” Claire Everett said, “Such respect for Johnny and huge admiration for his poetry and the life he lived.” Michael Henry Lee said, “A great poet and champion of peace.” Randy Brooks said, “A wonderful haiku poet and man! We will miss his good humor. It has been such a joy reading his haiku over the years.” Alexis Rotella said, “We will all miss Johnny Baranski . . . a moment of silence heard round the world.” Rebecca Drouilhet said, “A wonderful humanitarian, poet and haiku friend. He will be sorely missed.” Michele L. Harvey said, “Johnny was a fine poet with a kind, generous heart.” Barry George said, “God bless you, Johnny. Thank you for your kindness, your courage, the spark in your eyes, your sense of humor.” Sandi Pray wrote, “I honor you, I learned from you, I laughed with you, I cried with you, and now . . . I miss you.”

        The following are eight of Johnny’s poems, one each from Frogpond (36:2), The Heron’s Nest (13:4), Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (New York: Norton, 2013), the 2013 HSA members’ anthology, and the 2011 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival, his book White Rose, Red Rose, and three from Blossoming Pear, the last of which is engraved on his gravestone:


                     where have you flown off to

                first frost

                                                                             in ten summers

                                                                             the convict’s first visit


                in the prison graveyard

                just as he was in life—

                convict 14302

                                                                             a walk-off home run

                                                                             up and over

                                                                             the prison wall

                for a moment

                the war be damned

                cherry blossoms

                                                                             all alone on this beach

                                                                             I too am

                                                                             but a grain of sand

                prison lights out

                drifting off to distant places

                a train whistle

                                                                             road to freedom

                                                                             just a stone’s throw beyond

                                                                             the prison yard

                long before I came

                long after I leave

                blossoming pear

        You can listen to a recording of Johnny reading a selection of his haiku at the Living Haiku Anthology or on YouTube. An extended selection of Johnny’s finest poems starts at the Mann Library haiku page. To learn more about one instance of Johnny’s peace activism, in opposition to the Vietnam War, watch this video on Vimeo. See also a news story that introduces a documentary movie about draft board raids in which Johnny participated.

        The central thread of Johnny Baranski’s life was conviction—his beliefs and ethics. In cleaning out their father’s apartment, Johnny’s three children found the following poem by William Stafford in a frame on his dresser. Amy Baranski said, “It was there for decades, given to him in the 1980s by his Catholic Worker friend, Mufti McNassar. We are including it in the program of his memorial mass.”       +

               The Way It Is

                 There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

                 things that change. But it doesn’t change.

                 People wonder about what you are pursuing.

                 You have to explain about the thread.

                 But it is hard for others to see.

                 While you hold it you can’t get lost.

                 Tragedies happen; people get hurt

                 or die; and you suffer and get old.

                 Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

                 You don’t ever let go of the thread.

         The back cover of Johnny’s last book, White Rose, Red Rose, says that “While the world is under threat from so many dangers . . . the language of flowers will prevail.” This belief was central to Johnny’s life, part of the thread that guided him. In his last few days, Johnny wore a mask to assist his breathing and could not speak. Before deciding to remove the mask, and dying two days later, he motioned to his children for a pencil and paper and started writing. It was his last haiku, his jisei, or death poem. It is a poem filled with hope, the language of flowers, his final gift of haiku sharing:

                one last breath

                before dying—

                plum blossom

        Thornton Wilder once wrote that “The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” The haiku community offers its deepest gratitude to Johnny and his family for his life and for his haiku. When others died, he was always quick to post the following message on Facebook as an expression of his faith: “Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.” Now it is Johnny’s turn to receive this blessing. May the perpetual light shine upon Johnny Baranski.