a frog leaps in
A man on a San Francisco street was once asked what a haiku was. “I think that’s a tide coming from the ocean,” he guessed. That may be one perception of haiku. The establishment of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library in Sacramento seeks to change such perceptions.
According to the American Haiku Archives mission statement, haiku and related poetry can enrich lives. The archives are dedicated to the collection, preservation, and promotion of this poetry as a vital component of literature in the English language. The archives were officially inaugurated at the California State Library in Sacramento on 12 July 1996, with about 70 people in attendance.
State Librarian Kevin Starr hosted the event whose participants included Hiroshi Furusawa, director and consul of the Consulate General of Japan; Tom Wilkins, executive director, and Kathleen Kimura, president, of the Japan Society of Northern California; and Barbara Ressler, president of the Haiku Society of America. Letters of commendation from these guests as well as from Robert Hass, poet laureate of the United States, were read.
At the inauguration, Curator of Special Collections Gary Kurutz talked about the use of the archives, took questions from the audience, and also led a tour of the facility after a luncheon catered by the office of the state librarian. Readings of haiku were given by Kay F. Anderson, Dee Evetts, Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Garry Gay, Lee Gurga, James W. Hackett, Margaret Molarsky, Barbara Ressler, Kiyoko Tokutomi, and Michael Dylan Welch.
So, what is haiku? Definitions abound, and have fed a fountain of debate in past decades, but rather than restrict haiku to any narrow definition, the American Haiku Archives seek to be inclusive of all approaches. Essentially, haiku in English is a brief form of one-breath poetry using objective words to convey (imply rather than state) subjective feeling about a moment of heightened awareness or keen perception of nature or human nature. Other approaches tend more, or sometimes less, toward the Japanese custom, which traditionally embraces the use of season words (kigo), so-called cutting words (kireji), a set syllable count, and other characteristics that have evolved over the centuries in Japan.
Indeed, haiku has a long and storied past, not just in Japan but around the world. Haiku first reached American shores about 100 years ago. In the 1920s Imagist poets such as Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound helped popularize the haiku form, as did Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac in the 1950s. American attempts at the form were largely influenced by major translations of the Japanese master by R. H. Blyth, Harold G. Henderson, Donald Keene, Kenneth Yasuda, and others in the 1940s, 1950s, and later. Early in the 1960s, haiku magazines began to appear in North America, soon followed by various books and anthologies. In October of 1968, a group of poets in New York City started the Haiku Society of America (HSA), the first haiku organization outside of Japan. The Haiku Society of America has since inspired the formation of numerous haiku groups around the world. Haiku has been taught in North American schools for decades, and today many thousands of poets write and publish choice examples of this diminutive poetic transplant. International haiku conferences convene in various North American cities. In the United States, national, regional, and local groups meet regularly, and dozens of independent haiku journals publish many thousands of poems annually.
In the midst of this activity, there has been a pressing need for a place to collect and preserve haiku and related literature. That need has now been met by the formation of the American Haiku Archives, through the efforts of Michael Dylan Welch, Garry Gay, Jerry Kilbride, and George Olczak in California with the help of Tom Clausen, Ce Rosenow, George Swede, and Elizabeth Searle Lamb elsewhere [New York, Oregon, Ontario, and New Mexico, respectively]. Also assisting from the Haiku Society of America have been president Barbara Ressler [Iowa] and treasurer Raffael de Gruttola [Massachusetts] and other HSA officers. The core committee worked with Dr. Kevin Starr, Gary Kurutz, and their staff to procure the donation of key haiku libraries from Elizabeth Searle Lamb, the Haiku Society of America, and other sources. Elizabeth Lamb, a charter member of the HSA and longtime editor of the HSA’s haiku journal, Frogpond, has accumulated one of the world’s largest private collections of haiku literature. The donation of her library is the cornerstone of the collection. At the July 12 inauguration of the American Haiku Archives, Dr. Starr named Elizabeth as the archives’ first annual Honorary Curator. Other donations are forthcoming, and the Haiku Society of America will be donating books and journals on an annual basis.
The archives’ material, primarily in English, includes books, magazines, pamphlets, recordings, art work, photographs, letters, papers, and ephemera. It also encompasses other historical and contemporary material from individuals, groups, publishers, and societies around the world, from whom the archives actively invites future and regular contributions. The archives seek to make its material accessible to the general public, especially students, poets, writers, and scholars.
The formation of the American Haiku Archives helps validate haiku as an American form of poetry, dependent on yet distinct from its Japanese progenitor. The future holds the possibility of Internet access to the archives’ holdings, and the accumulation of a growing body of literature and ephemera. This material will be available in perpetuity to students, teachers, poets, scholars—anyone with an interest in haiku. As a result, perhaps the next time someone on the street is asked what a haiku is, he or she will know the answer. In the meantime, why not try writing a few haiku yourself?
from the bread truck’s roof
Tom Clausen, Ithaca, New York
Hole in the ozone
my bald spot
Garry Gay, Windsor, California
Jerry Kilbride, San Francisco, California
the year turns—
on the harp’s gold leaf
Elizabeth Searle Lamb, Santa Fe, New Mexico
into the basket
Barbara Ressler, Dubuque, Iowa
in the curve of the foothill
Ce Rosenow, Portland, Oregon
circling higher and higher
at last the hawk pulls
its shadow from the world
George Swede, Toronto, Ontario
after the quake
pointing to earth
Michael Dylan Welch, Foster City, California