The Bones of the Dead

First published in Woodnotes #4, Winter 1990, page 1. The spirit in this declaration might be seen to have driven many of the accomplished and accomplishing poets who were part of the Haiku Poets of Northern California in its increasingly influential early days.

Tom Tico at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park in 2014.

by Tom Tico


“Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” —William Blake


Whatever is being done, or has been done, in the English-language haiku owes its origins to the Japanese haiku poets, especially to the four greats: Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Their work and their lives are studied and revered, and justly so, for they did outstanding work in the field of haiku—work that will last.

But their day is past and our day is at hand. Why should we place them on a pedestal to which we always gaze upward? Is it not better to realize that they are the foundation upon which we stand? They brought haiku to a certain point, and now we carry it on beyond that point. Can we broaden the range of haiku, develop it further than they developed it, and perhaps write haiku that are just as deep as if not deeper than what they wrote? I say, why not. In fact, if we do not do this, we do them a disservice, for each one of them went beyond what had gone before, and expanded the range of haiku into new areas. Should we do less?

Walt Whitman, in his clear, simple, distinct style, expresses the point well:


The immortal poets of Asia and Europe have done their work and pass’d to other spheres,

A work remains, the work of surpassing all they have done.


Whitman knew that there was no limit to the human spirit, and that whatever had been accomplished in the field of art was just a stepping-stone to even greater accomplishment:


I conn’d old times,

I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,

Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.


An attitude such as this might be construed as egotism or arrogance, but, in truth, it’s a wonderful assertion of one’s own individuality, a great expression of self-esteem.