The Open Gate: A Haiku Journal

Introduction   van Gogh   The Lost Battalion   A Boy Tries

In The Open Gate: A Haiku Journal, I have used modern Haiku to describe some of my experiences and perceptions during the past 78 years. What is a Haiku, and what are the differences between classical Japanese Haiku and modern Haiku?

Classical Japanese Haiku are short poems consisting of only three lines, containing neither rhyme nor rhythm, that are arranged in five, seven, and five syllables (a total of only 17 syllables). Typically, a season reference is included, adjectives are discouraged, and the Haiku should be true to feeling, not conceptual, and devoid of ego. Gilbert Highet, renowned author, scholar, and professor, described good Haiku as being “deceptively simple.” And Basho, the acknowledged 17th century master of Japanese Haiku, reputedly said that if one is able to produce even a few good Haiku in a lifetime, that is enough.

Some years ago Japan Air Lines ran a contest for Haiku written in English and received an astonishing response of about 40,000 individual entries, of which only 200 were judged suitable for publication. Evidently, writing Haiku is quite popular and writing good Haiku remains difficult.

What accounts for the popularity of Haiku in English, and in many other languages as well? For one thing, writers of modern Haiku tend to view the strict rules for classical Haiku as goals rather than constraints. For another, especially in western countries, greater freedom of expression allows for the direct expression of feelings rather than having to mask them as Nature experiences. I believe such innovations are in keeping with Basho’s dictum, "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old, I seek the things they sought." And Oscar Wilde’s wonderful description of a beautiful form would certainly include modern Haiku: "The singular characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see. It is Beauty that makes the reader a creator in turn, and whispers of a thousand different things not present in the mind of its creator."

I started this Haiku journal at age 55. The first 11 poems in Part I are recollections, in chronological order, of much earlier events. The remaining poems were written largely as events occurred, except for a few that I was unable to write until years later.

Some poems acknowledge the enduring influence on me of various well-known writers, poets, composers, and artists, and some poems are dedicated to special friends including Jim Craib, Walter Landauer, Bill Hess, Ken Siegel, and Saeko Ogasawara. Among the family members referred to are my son Dan, who died of cancer at age 29, and my uncle "J.P." with whom I lived for eight years. He was one of the last survivors of the rightly famous and much lauded "Lost Battalion" of World War I.

The division of this journal into Parts I and II at age 70 is indicative of the sea change in me at that time caused by my own bout with cancer.

I encourage everyone to keep a Haiku journal. Writing Haiku is fun and also an enriching experience that can lead to increased self-knowledge and greater powers to intuit feelings and to describe them succinctly, all of which lead to better Haiku. As for other "rewards," the answer is best given by Emily Dickinson:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.


  Copyright © 2006 J. C. Greene.