Essay from Russell Streur


The New York Times wasn’t ready to declare it a real craze, not yet, and it certainly wasn’t consuming the country the way coonskin caps, hula hoops and telephone booth stuffing did.  Still, there was something in the air as the decade of the 1950s faded, and other observers felt the same wind.
In January of 1959, The New Yorker noted a “current passion in the country for things Japanese, from A (for ‘Architecture’) to Z (for ‘Zen’).  H would be reserved for Haiku, described as the primary literary industry of the island nation.  “To the Japanese,” the magazine said, “the composition of these hauntingly vivid little poems would seem to be almost as natural, and necessary, as breathing, and every Japanese who is able to read and write is therefore likely to be a practicing poet.”  
That same month, Dolly Reitz, writing in her “Occupation: Housewife” column, told of reciting haiku back and forth with a friend over holiday tea:
A childless housewife
How tenderly she touches little dolls for sale.
You hear that fat frog in the seat of honor singing bass? 
He's the boss.
Swallows flying south
My house too of sticks and stones
Only a stopping place.

Cherry-Blossoms, the third in the series of haiku anthologies issued by Peter Pauper Press, was published the following year.  The poems were arranged in four lines to conform with illustrations on the margins of each page.  To follow through the seasons (New Years was considered its own season):

New Years

In the New Year Dawn
Solemn and 
Tall cranes go marching

From the mountain pass
See the sunlit
Castle town . . .
Flying new-year kites


Endless Maytime rain . . .
Sneaking back one
Night, the moon
Perched in the pine-tree

Dull dreary rain-day . . .
Dripping past
My gate a girl
Bearing irises


Ah roadside scarecrow
We’ve hardly
Started gabbing . . .
And I have to go

Stubborn woodpecker . . .
Still hammering
At twilight
At that single spot


On this plain of mist
Nothing but flat
Endlessness . . .
And red-rising sun

Within pale silence
Spreading from
Evening moonlight . . .
Sudden cicada


Bitter winter wind . . .
Won’t it blow
Right off the sky
That day-old crescent?

A harsh-rasping saw
Music of
Cold poverty
In winter midnight

1960 also saw the publication of Harold Stewart’s A Net of Fireflies.  Stewart titled his translations and composed them as couplets.  The Baltimore Sun quoted eight for its review of the book.  Among the selections:


The same old village: here where I was born,
Every flower I touch—a hidden thorn.


Angrily I returned; awaiting me
Within my court—the tranquil willow-tree.

Plum-blossoms give their fragrance still to him
Whose thoughtless hand has broken off their limb.


And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze,
And so the blossoms fall, and so my days . . ..

A sixth-grader from Honolulu might have written the best haiku published in 1960:

The house on the hill
Is always full of laughter
Until the friends go

Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of the American interior design magazine House Beautiful, felt the Eastern wind blowing sooner than most arbiters of taste, fashion and literature.  Over the span of five years and seven trips, Gordon spent 16 months in Japan in the late 1950s.  Her travels there laid the foundation for a landmark two-issue report on Japanese culture published by the magazine in August and September of 1960. 

Described as “[one] of the most influential issues ever by a design magazine,” the August issue carried articles on Japanese food, gardens, music, and other topics.  The magazine saw and felt haiku everywhere it went in Japan, and something of the enthusiasm for the 17-syllable literary form rubbed off on its American audience.
Haiku and Japanese poetry readings were held at coffee houses, libraries, and universities in California, Florida, Maine, Texas and other states. Speakers at the events included exchange teachers, Japanese wives of college professors, and domestic devotees of Japanese culture.  Flower-arrangement and origami were also presented at the gatherings.

Delayed a day by a snowfall, a writers’ club in Mason City, Iowa, studied haiku at a dessert luncheon.  Composing greeting card verse was announced as the subject for the club’s next gathering.

Scientists introduced six chimpanzees at the Baltimore Zoo to typewriters.  Most ignored the contraptions, but one named Spunky seemed to enjoy typing away with his two index fingers.  “He writes in short one or two-word phrases,” said one of the scientists, “jerky, unconnected, but deeply perceptive.”  Researchers tied together coherent strings of typing and compared Spunky’s results to the “fleeing, momentary, image of beauty” of haiku:

I am horrified
Could we die? Go
Deaf to joy.
Cry on . . . fighting.

Bess Hines Harkins of Oxnard, California, published three of her early haiku in the local newspaper on February 19, 1959, and was interviewed the next day on television. Ethel Herman of Fort Pierce, Florida, became known “the haiku woman” in the local press for her devotion to the form. 
As far back as 1958, the California Federation of Chapparal Poets conducted a contest for the writing of haiku.  In 1960, the club added tanka to the category of Japanese poetry.

Later that year, the San Francisco Examiner would even quote two haiku from the crosstown Star:
Unexpected guests!
Close off our unmade bed!
There! But!
Dust under chair.
--“F. P. H.”
Circular prison
Street lamp has captured three
Busy moths
‘til dawn.
--Julie Harden                                  
“Haiku,” the Examiner added, “are literary salted peanuts.  Start nibbling and you find it difficult to stop.” 
Another commentator sarcastically labeled haiku as “the greatest thing since the sack dress” and then doubled down by attesting the sack dress had been the greatest thing since haiku.

A California writer tried without great success to place the debate within the fictional context of a haiku tournament between Japanese poets and American balladeers.  In a series of seven matches, the players eventually find common ground between Tokyo Bay and the Potomac in the timeworn and unsatisfying vision of a brotherhood of man based on the bonds of beauty, truth and good. 
In an April 1960 interview with the Hartford Courant, Ambassador to the United States Koichiro Asakai called haiku one of Japan’s greatest inventions and then issued a note of caution.  “It is hard to see,” said the envoy, “how haiku can be written in any language but Japanese, since the harmony between the Japanese language and the haiku form is so amazingly high.”
Kenneth Rexroth tended to agree with the ambassador.  “American imitators of Japanese haiku . . . almost never come off,” said the designated spokesman of San Francisco’s anarchists and avant-garde artists, on whom Time Magazine bestowed the unwanted title of Godfather of the Beat poets.  “[They] miss the deep foundation of the culture.” 
But by the spring of 1961, Americans reached for pen and paper when the cherry blossoms began to bloom. 

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