Shangri-La: James W. Hackett’s Life in Haiku
 (Part One of Two)
An abandoned board —
shaping, sunning, becoming
a Shangri-la for bugs. 
Among the more problematic poets associated with the begin- nings of the American haiku movement is James W. Hackett. He catapulted to international fame in 1964 when a haiku of his took top honors among thousands submitted in the first Japan Air Lines haiku competition. Hackett, a keen student of Zen, learned of haiku from a book of R.H. Blyth’s given to him by a friend.  Hackett sent his work to Blyth, with whom he had begun a correspondence grounded in both men’s conviction that Zen and haiku are inseparable. Blyth was impressed and included a selection of Hackett’s work in his 1964 two-volume History of Haiku. Four years later a major collection of Hackett’s work was published in Japan.
At this point, however, Hackett virtually disappeared, apparently publishing nothing and making no public appearances for fifteen years. He surfaced briefly in 1993 at the time his collection of haiku was republished in America, then submerged again for another ten years until he began to become moderately active in non-American haiku circles. In fact, Hackett early on was aloof from the American haiku community. He was never a member of the Haiku Society of America or any local California haiku group and has not published a single new haiku in any American haiku journal since the early 1970s.
What are we to make of such an enigmatic figure? Hackett was clearly one of the founding fathers of English-language haiku and was recognized as a pioneer of American haiku by figures as august at R.H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson.
At the time of his greatest fame, in the mid-1960s, his haiku were unquestionably among the best being written outside Japan. Over the years, bits and pieces of Hackett’s haiku aesthetic became known, and they have been gathered into an essay entitled “That Art Thou,” which was published on Hackett’s Web site in recent years. He never aggressively promoted his Zen-infused view of what true haiku poetry should be, and because of his long, largely self-imposed isolation Hackett’s own haiku were marginalized. In the meantime most Western haiku poets rejected the notion of an ineluctable relationship between Zen and haiku.
In this essay I would like to bring out the high points in Hackett’s biography and bibliography and discuss his haiku aesthetic. I should stress at the outset that I have never met Hackett nor have I corresponded with him. This assessment of his life and works is based on the public record—his books, journal publications, and his Web site—augmented by secondary sources and observations from haiku poets who have known him personally or worked with him on haiku projects.
James William Hackett was born 6 August 1929 in Seattle and attended the University of Washington where he earned an honors degree in history and philosophy.  He later obtained a graduate degree in art history from the University of Michigan.
A serious accident in his youth resulted in a redirection of Hackett’s life. Details are fuzzy, and Hackett’s own descriptions move quickly from sparse facts to mysticism and even melodrama, as in this excerpt from a 2002 speech:
At this time, I suffered a life-threatening injury that profoundly changed my values and direction. This trauma was an apocalyptic experience in which I met death with each breath, and every live moment was an epiphany. In a baptism of blood I became directly aware that the Way of Zen and Tao was ever present, in a NOW that is Eternal. Having survived, I sought redemption for taking life for granted. I resolved to somehow express my new-found love of life, and to honor the omnipresent miracle of Creation. 
Spiritually reborn after a serious accident in the 1950s, my reverence for the reality of this eternal NOW led me to a Tao-Zen way of life. Finding Japanese haiku could best express my new-found love of this moment—directly perceived—I began to adapt it to English. For me, haiku has always been more than a poetic form, or even a literary pursuit, but rather a Way of living awareness—an art of Zen. 
It seems most likely that shortly after he graduated from college, Hackett was involved in a motorcycle accident and was thrown through a plate glass window. Severe lacerations developed sepsis and caused him to be hospitalized for a lengthy period and slightly restricted in motor skills thereafter. In any event, this event marked his turn toward the Tao, Zen, and, later, haiku.
Hackett married, probably in the early 1950s. His wife Patricia was a music teacher with interests in musical anthropology. She taught music at all levels, elementary through university, until her retirement as professor of music at San Francisco State University.  They had no children, but Hackett was always surrounded by numerous pets—dogs, cats, birds, fish—that became frequent subjects for his haiku. I have found no evidence that Hackett ever held a salaried job; he seems to have been largely supported by his wife.
Hackett’s residence was usually given as San Francisco in the 1950s and ’60s. Later he and Patricia lived in what he dubbed a “garden house” he named “Zen View” at La Honda, California, in the Santa Cruz Mountains midway between San Jose and the Pacific. Nearby lived three other poets, Christopher Thorsen, David LeCount, and Christopher Herold. The latter worked in Hackett’s garden for a period of time. After Patricia’s retirement, in about 2000, the Hacketts moved to Maui, Hawaii, settling—where else?—in the village of Haiku. Among their neighbors there is poet W.S. Merwin.
Hackett was encouraged along his path into Zen and haiku by two of the founding fathers of English-language haiku, R.H. Blyth and Harold G. Henderson. Blyth especially was a strong proponent of a close connection between haiku and Zen. In the biographical sketch he provided for the first edition of The Haiku Anthology,  Hackett wrote that he discovered haiku in 1954 through the writings of R.H. Blyth and Alan Watts. Apparently by the late 1950s Hackett had written a number of haiku and began to look for opportunities to publish them. Most likely through an announcement in the Saturday Review, Hackett learned of plans to publish a new journal, to be called American Haiku and be the first publication outside Japan to be devoted to haiku. Hackett’s work was very much in evidence in the first issues of American Haiku: eleven of his haiku were published in the first issue and eight more in the second (both dated 1963).  These included (in issue 1:1) these now-classic haiku that appeared in print for the first time:
The fleeing sandpipers
turn about suddenly
and chase back the sea!
and this one, which was awarded First Prize in the maiden issue:
Searching on the wind,
the hawk’s cry
is the shape of its beak.
Relations with R.H. Blyth
Without question, Hackett’s relationship with R.H. Blyth was the defining influence in his writing and haiku aesthetic. Hackett began to read Blyth’s books in 1954, during his early studies of Zen, and at a certain point, probably in 1959 (Hackett writes that he was “not yet thirty”), he sent a letter to Blyth in Japan inviting a critique of his work. According to Hackett, he corresponded with Blyth for five years, until the spring of 1964.
Five letters from R.H. Blyth to Hackett are posted on Hackett’s Web site. The one identified as “First Letter” is dated simply “late 1950’s,” and the Final Letter” is dated [April? 1964]. Blyth usually addressed him formally as “Mr. Hackett” and signed his own letters “RHB.” To my knowledge Hackett has not made public any of his letters to Blyth. In one place he says that according to the family, Blyth did not retain his correspondence, so if Hackett did not keep copies himself, which seems likely, they may be lost. It is not clear how many letters the two men exchanged in these five years or with what regularity or frequency.
Hackett explains why he wrote to Blyth:
Significantly, it was not Blyth’s awesome erudition or his intellectual genius that caused me to contact him. I did so out of respect for his spiritual-aesthetic approach to the haiku experience. Blyth possessed an acuity and spiritual understanding I found in no other translator. . . .
After some six months of writing, I sent a collection of my haiku poems in English to Dr. Blyth, and in a cover letter told him that an unusual, Zen-revealing sentence in one of his books caused me to seek his counsel. His sentence read: “There’s more significance in the sound of the nib I’m now writing with than anything I could say.”
Already in the “First Letter,” however, Blyth refers to “the volume you sent,” suggesting that Hackett actually sent his manuscript at the very outset. In any event, in that letter Blyth proceeds to offer a rather stout critique of some of Hackett’s haiku:
I feel that (the) one fault of your verses is that they contain too much material, that is, you must make them more simple. From this point of view, the following is excessively complicated and intellectual.
A bright quiet night;
Blown by the moon, a pine branch
Rests against the wall.
The first line is unnecessary. In the following there are too many epithets.
The blocked line of ants
Broadened to brief chaos . . . then
Smoothly went round.
Later, Blyth comments on
The wise child brought me
Such a precious birthday gift . . .
This old withered orange
“Wise,” and “Such,” and “precious,” and “old” are all worse than unnecessary.
Blyth plunged directly in to the 5–7–5 discussion, observing to the young poet: “The only thing to do, it seems to me, is something revolutionary for you,—either to forget the 5, 7, 5 in English, or do what the Japanese does, pad out the verse with meaningless syllables.”
In signing off, Blyth writes, “I suppose you are going to pub- lish your verses. If so, I will be glad to go over them one by one, mutilating and disinfecting and extirpating them.”
The second of the Blyth letters, dated 15 February 1960, that Hackett includes on his Web site suggests that Hackett had been circulating his haiku manuscript to publishers, but without success. “I too feel troubled at the fact that your works cannot be published at present. I myself believe in you and your haiku. As I have said before, I think your verses as good as, and sometimes better than those of the higher ranks of haiku poets in the past.” The last sentence of this paragraph certainly cheered Hackett. He used it in a composite of extracts from Blyth’s letters as endorsements for his later books. In this letter, moreover, Blyth wrote that he was “going to put the best of the verses at the end of my 5th volume of Haiku which I am working on now.” This became his two-volume History of Haiku. 
A letter dated 31 May has “1964” in square brackets, apparently added by Hackett, but it must have been written a year or two earlier than 1964, if only because the “Last letter”—see below—was tentatively dated “[April? 1964].” This letter was sent to cover a collection, which Hackett says has not survived, of his haiku that Blyth had marked with symbols to indicate his reactions. Blyth’s intention to publish a selection of Hackett’s work in his History of Haiku was again mentioned, and an inkling was given as to why he was doing so:
I want to show people, I mean Japanese people, that there are Americans who can out-do them in their own field, when they have been shown how to play the game . . . . Or to put it another way, I would like to get rid of nationalism in culture as well as other things, and have Esquimaux play Othello and Hottentots excel in the organ fugues of Bach.
In Blyth’s last letter, tentatively dated by Hackett “April? 1964,” he wrote: “Your letter fortunately arrived in time to do what I suggested before, introduce your work in Volume II of The History of Haiku. This is all set in type, but after telephoning about it to Mr. Nakatsuchi [of Hokuseido Press], he was more than willing to have an appendix added. . . . ” The chronology of publication would suggest that Hackett’s final communication to Blyth was written within a few months before April 1964.
Hackett’s haiku, together with Blyth’s consideration of haiku and Zen in English-language poetry, appear in the last chapter of his History of Haiku (II:351–63). Blyth explained: “The following thirty [actually thirty-one] verses are chosen, not altogether at random, from a forthcoming book of haiku by J.W. Hackett of San Francisco. They are in no way imitations of Japanese haiku, nor literary diversions. They are (aimed at) the Zen experience, the realising, the making real in oneself of the thing-in-itself, impossible to rational thought, but possible, ‘all poets believe’ in experience.” Curiously, the format Blyth used for Hackett’s work was different from that for the Japanese haiku in the History. Hackett’s were set in all small caps. Why? Perhaps to call attention to these verses or differentiate them from “real” haiku? Four of the haiku selected by Blyth were among those that had been published in American Haiku 1:1 and 1:2, though this was not acknowledged in Blyth’s book.
The “forthcoming book of haiku” that Blyth had referred to saw print as Hackett’s Haiku Poetry,  a 5 x 7 paperback containing 150 haiku, including all but one of those that had appeared in the Blyth appendix. The book was published in 1964 by Hokuseido Press—Blyth’s publisher in Japan—and, as made clear in Blyth’s final letter to Hackett, Blyth had clearly used his influence to gain publication, a mark of his esteem for Hackett. There was some delay in the publication (as noted in American Haiku 2:1), as it was advertised and reviewed in American Haiku 2 as to be published in 1963. The brief review said in part: “[Hackett’s] wide representation in [American Haiku #1] established him as one of the foremost practitioner-authorities on haiku in English” and went on to say that book was “necessary reading to anyone seriously interested in haiku in English.” The book was to be distributed by American Haiku.
I have dwelled at length on the chronology of the first publication of Hackett’s haiku because the events of 1963–64 caused a major rift between him and the editors of American Haiku, James Bull and Clement Hoyt, and probably the fledgling American haiku movement in general. In Blyth’s final letter to Hackett he consoled the young poet,
As for the foreword to your book itself, I am very willing to write one, but after reading Mr. XXX’s shocking letter, I feel that we should be imitating him if I scratch your back in public. I think your book should stand by itself, and would be only weakened if the Archangel Michael wrote a foreword.
After I read XXX’s letter, I felt miserable all day, not that I felt sorry for you, but for the fact that such a person exists. But still we know that all Kings and Emperors and Presidents and Prime Ministers and Heads of Universities and Companies and Popes and bishops and priests and even editors are liars and hypocrites and robbers, and, as Christ said, not one of these “rich” men shall set a foot into Heaven—so why feel miserable? You may say, “They all stand (or fall) together, so why should not we?” That’s just the point, and just the difference between us and them. We stand each many by himself, in the style of Thoreau. (But I will write the foreword if you like, just as I sign my books for people as they like.)
The person designated as “XXX” was Clement Hoyt, who had taken over the editorship of American Haiku for the two 1964 issues. The recipient of Hoyt’s letter is not entirely clear, but it seems that it went to Hackett, who sent a copy to Blyth. The letter may no longer exist (especially if the original was sent to Blyth), but certainly had to do with Hoyt’s reaction to the news that Hackett had completed the deal to publish his book Haiku Poetry with Hokuseido. The manuscript had been developed in part with the help of the American Haiku editors, and they had agreed to publish this volume—it would have been their first book of haiku (as well as Hackett’s, of course). American Haiku editor James Bull was deeply saddened by the experience, but Hoyt, a man known for his strong opinions and lack of reticence in expressing them, was furious at what he considered Hackett’s double-dealing. Original haiku by Hackett were never again published in American Haiku—in fact, only once or twice were his haiku even used as examples in essays in the journal. Sportingly, Hackett’s Haiku Poetry was mentioned among the recommended books of haiku through the 1964 issues (but as being published in 1963 by Hokuseido), and for one or two issues thereafter as being available from Japan Publications, Inc. or from the author directly.
Not only did Hackett no longer publish in American Haiku, with two small exceptions, (17 poems that were included among a collection of 28 haiku in Leroy Kanterman’s Haiku West issues 1:1, 2:1, and 2:1 (1967–69) and three haiku that accompanied an interview with Hackett in Woodnotes 30 ), no new haiku of Hackett’s appeared in any American haiku journal from 1964 on. He did start to publish again in non-American journals in the 1990s, but only after 25 years of silence.
A brief but balanced review by Gustave Keyser of Hackett’s book Haiku Poetry appeared in American Haiku 3:1 (1965, 37). Keyser wrote: “Mr. Hackett successfully demonstrates that true haiku can be produced in English . . . . For the most part, Hackett adheres to the objectivity, clarity, and simplicity he advocates; but sometimes his immersion in Zen mysticism leads him astray into statements marked by cultist subjectivity.”
It was this devotion of Hackett’s to Zen over haiku that was the crux of the argument between him and the American Haiku editors. Clement Hoyt—himself a haiku and senryu poet and student of Zen under master Nyogen Senzaki since 1937—struck the next blow with a long essay in American Haiku 4:1 (1966, 20–28) titled “Zen in Haiku,” which, without mentioning Hackett, was clearly aimed at him; rather the direct attack was targeted at Blyth. Hoyt warned against the fallacy that “weighty” scholarship had come to be understood as “profound” or “authoritative” and pointed out that of the ten books of haiku scholarship that had been published in English by that time, six fat tomes were by Blyth. Blyth’s volumes were heavy with discussions of Zen in haiku, whereas the other scholars—Henderson (two books), Kenneth Yasuda, and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science—devoted a few pages at most to the issue and generally took a very measured view of the influence of Zen on haiku and vice versa. Even Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, a mentor of Blyth’s and the person most credited with exposing the link between Zen and haiku, was not as extreme in linking the two as was Blyth. Hoyt went on to detail some of the confusing discrepancies between various of Blyth’s explanations of the relationship between Zen and haiku, such as these, which he singled out from the Preface to the first volume of Blyth’s Haiku, with page numbers in parentheses:
Haiku are to be understood from the Zen point of view. (iii)
. . . the word “Zen” is used in two different ways and the reader must decide for himself which is intended. (iii)
I understand Zen and poetry to be practically synonyms. . . . (v) . . .
haiku is haiku . . . . (v)
[Haiku] has little or nothing to do with poetry, so-called, or Zen, or anything else. (iv)
If we say then that haiku is a form of Zen, we must not assert that haiku belongs to Zen, but that Zen belongs to haiku. In other words, our notions of Zen must be changed to fit haiku, not vice-versa. (v)
. . . if there is ever imagined to be any conflict between Zen and the poetry of haiku, the Zen goes overboard . . . . v)
. . . haiku is a way of life . . . it is a religion . . . . (iv)
Haiku is a kind of satori . . . . (vii)
Hoyt ends his essay as follows:
It is apparent that Blyth’s theories about Zen in haiku do not stand up. By their very nature, they cannot endure, except as others make him the High Hierophant of yet another sect of Zen (there are already several sects), the Patriarch of a new haiku-religion. Blyth’s monumental six-volume encyclopedia of haiku is invaluable—but only if the reader runs a mental blue pencil trough every line about Zen, except when the word is used in a historical sense. To the Zen masters for Zen; to the haiku authorities for haiku: by “weight,” by authority, by plain common sense, each separate study will lead to an inescapable conclusion—forget Zen in haiku.
This essay probably followed the general outlines of the letter two years earlier that had upset Hackett and Blyth so much. Hoyt’s attack on Blyth, a man whom Hackett idolized, was surely deeply distressing for the young American.
1. Shangri-La is a utopia featured in British author James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon (London: Macmillan, 1933; New York: Morrow, 1936). According to Wikipedia, for example, “In the book, ‘Shangri-La’ is a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. In the novel Lost Horizon, the people who live at Shangri-La are almost immortal, living years beyond the normal lifespan. The word also evokes the imagery of exoticism of the Orient. The story of Shangri-La is based on the concept of Shambhala, a mystical city in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Horizon_(novel)> (accessed Dec. 1, 2009).
A version of this essay was presented at the Haiku Society of America Quarterly Meeting in Eugene, Ore., March 7, 2009. The complete paper, including sections devoted to “That Art Thou” and Hackett’s haiku aesthetics and poetics, is available from the author at <email@example.com>.
2. J.W. Hackett. Bug Haiku: Original Poems in English. Tokyo: Japan Pub- lications, Inc., 1968, 50. Hereinafter cited as Bug Haiku.
3. Woodnotes 30, 34.
4. Details of Hackett’s life are based on various published biographical materials, notably the author blurbs on the covers of his books; biosketches in anthologies, including Cor van den Heuvel, ed., The Haiku Anthology: English Language Haiku by Contemporary American and Canadian Poets (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1974); and Jerry Ball, Garry Gay, and Tom Tico, eds., The San Francisco Haiku Anthology (Windsor, Calif.: Smythe-Waithe Press, 1992); the biographical article by Debra Woolard Bender, “James W. Hackett (1929– ). World Haiku Review [Web] 2:2 (2002), <http://www.worldhaikureview.org/2-2/whf2002_prelude6.sht- ml>, republished on The Haiku and Zen World of J.W. Hackett (hereinafter Hackett Web site), <http://www.hacketthaiku.com/>; and conversations and correspondence with friends and professional associates of Hackett’s, including Christopher Herold, Michael Dylan Welch, Gayle Bull, William J. Higginson, Cor van den Heuvel, Ikuyo Yoshimura, and David Cobb.
5. James W. Hackett. A Traveler’s Haiku: Original Poems in English. To- kyo: Hokuseido Press, 2004. Herinafter cited as Traveler.
6. James W. Hackett. “R.H. Blyth and J. W. Hackett,” keynote speech, World Haiku Festival, Yuwa-town, Akita, 20–22 September 2002, Hackett Web site.
7. “James W. Hackett” in Ball, Gay, and Tico, eds., The San Francisco Haiku Anthology, 185.
8. A short author sketch about Patricia Hackett appears on the Web page for her book The Musical Classroom on the Barnes & Noble Web site, <http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Musical-Classroom/Patricia- Hackett/e/9780130262622> (accessed Dec. 1, 2009).
9. van den Heuvel, ed. The Haiku Anthology (1974).
10. American Haiku was published in Platteville, Wis., from 1963 to 1968, with various issues edited by James and Gayle Bull, Don Eulert, Clement Hoyt, and others.
11. R.H. Blyth. A History of Haiku. Volume 1: From the Beginnings up to Issa. Volume 2: From Issa up to the Present. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963–64. Hackett’s haiku appear on pages 352–61.
12. J.W. Hackett. Haiku Poetry. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1964.