Shangri-La: James W. Hackett’s Life in Haiku
(Part Two of Two)
JAL Contest 1964
Nineteen sixty-four was also the year in which James Hackett was captured in the spotlight and suddenly became the top haiku poet in America. In that year, in connection with the 1964 Olympics, Japan Airlines organized a haiku contest in the United States. Seventeen radio stations in different parts of the country received a total of some 41,000 haiku entries from which the five best in each region were selected and submitted for a final judging. The contest was judged by Alan Watts, the preeminent Zen teacher and expert in America in the 1950s and '60s. Watts wrote in an introduction to Haiku '64, the JAL contest compendium that contained the 85 semi- final haiku, “Haiku represents the ultimate refinement of a long tradition in Far Eastern literature which derived its inspiration from Zen Buddhism.” Clearly Watts and Hackett were on the same wavelength in terms of haiku aesthetics.
Hackett first read Watts in the mid-1950s, and the two men were acquainted through correspondence at least as early as 1963. Hackett writes that he learned of Watts from the latter’s broadcasts on Pacifica radio and revealed in an interview that
[Watts] was always very kind to my work. Back in the 1960s, he read some of my haiku on his radio broadcast in San Francisco. He then suggested that haiku in English should make full use of poetic figures of speech, as is common in poetry. After the broadcast, I wrote Alan a respectful but critical letter explaining that the haiku moment, like Zen, is not a symbol of anything else, and should never be treated metaphorically or allegorically. 
Mention of Watts raises a larger question too: in what way was Hackett involved in the “San Francisco Renaissance,” one of the most important crucibles of American haiku? One would assume that a young man vitally interested in Zen and living in San Francisco in the years after World War II would have been deeply immersed in the group of seekers and poets that was exploring Oriental culture and religion at the time. I can find no indication, however, that Hackett participated actively in the San Francisco Zen Center or other aspects of the Bay Area intellectual scene.  Watts certainly knew Hackett’s work, and Watts’s endorsement appears on the back cover of several of Hackett’s books. In the biographical sketch that he provided to The San Francisco Haiku Anthology  Hackett dubbed Alan Watts (and Harold G. Henderson) “friends of my work,” but it is unlikely that the two men were ever close. Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, and Jack Kerouac are among other literary and spiritual figures active in the period whose blurbs were used on Hackett’s books but who similarly seem not to have enjoyed a personal relationship with him.
In any event, prompted by a desire to travel to Japan and meet R.H. Blyth, Hackett entered the JAL contest. The now-iconic haiku that was the National Winner was one he had not originally intended to submit, but was suggested by his wife: 
A bitter morning:
Sparrows sitting together
Without any necks.
As we noted before, this haiku had been published a year ear- lier in American Haiku 1:1 (1963) in a more succinct (and, in my opinion, superior) version:
It also appeared in Blyth’s book in this version, but printed in small caps. Curiously, the text of this haiku that was included in Hackett’s collection Haiku Poetry (1964) was the prizewinning version but with the Blyth-style indentations and small caps. Over the years at least seven versions, mostly with slight formatting or punctuation changes, have appeared.
The prize for winning the JAL contest was a trip to Japan, but this proved to be bittersweet compensation for Hackett. He later wrote, “I had been planning to pay my respects to Dr. Blyth in Japan. The ticket awarded by Japan Airlines in their first USA haiku contest was in my hand, and I eagerly looked forward to sharing silent tea with Blyth in his Oiso home. However, Dr. Blyth died on October 28, 1964, the same year in which I entered the JAL Haiku Contest primarily to visit him.”  According to the very laudatory biographical sketch of Hackett published by D.W. Bender in the online World Haiku Review (and included on Hackett’s Web site),  on his 1965 trip he also visited “Zen monasteries and temples, and their roshi and priests. Among them were Soen Nakagawa of Mishima City, and Sohaku Ogata of Kyoto who both felt that Hackett’s ‘way of haiku’ was one of the best means for the true spirit of Zen to reach America.”
Second only to his correspondence with Blyth, Hackett values his relations with Harold G. Henderson, from whom he received some 85 letters from 1960 to 1974. Bender writes, “Hackett also corresponded with American haiku scholar, translator and author, Harold Gould Henderson for almost eleven years and together with Blyth, these three pioneering men interacted and inspired one another through their common interests,” but she surely overstates their comity a bit, as Henderson and Blyth’s relationship cooled in later years, probably precisely because of disagreements over the importance of Zen in Japanese haiku. Nonetheless, Henderson clearly thought that Hackett’s haiku were among the best being written (not unqualified praise, however, as Henderson found most of the thousands of English-language haiku he had been sent “hopeless junk.”  Henderson included for discussion three of Hackett’s signature haiku, as well as his twenty “Suggestions for Beginners and Others” in the 1965 booklet Haiku in English. In a letter reacting to the news of Blyth’s death at the end of 1964 Henderson also made clear that he thought Hackett to be Blyth’s heir-apparent. He wrote, “Willy-nilly—his mantle seems to have fallen on you. Not that you can be the form [firm?] prop that he was. But I hope that you will be willing to try to be.”  Willy-nilly, however, by the end of 1964, while Hackett’s star was nearing its apogee, his influence on the direction of English-language haiku was already diminishing.
J.W. Hackett’s first book, titled Haiku Poetry and published in Japan in 1964, contained 150 of his verses in the format Blyth had used in the History. As appendices Hackett included his twenty “Suggestions for the Writing of English Haiku” and a long spiritual poem, “Way Beyond Reason.” The entire body of his haiku, and the appendices, next appeared in four volumes (to suggest the four volumes of Blyth’s Haiku?), also called Haiku Poetry.  Volumes One and Three were printed in June 1968, Volume Two in July, and Volume Four in November, not by Hokuseido but by a new publisher, Japan Publications, Inc. Volume One contains the exact same 150 haiku as Haiku Poetry but formatted without the small caps and stair-stepped with initial capitals and terminal periods. Volumes Two, Three, and Four each has 198 new haiku in the same format, a few of which had appeared in American Haiku and one of which had been among the Blyth collection. These books are subtitled “Original Verse [or Poems] in English,” a point he underscored in his Preface: “The poems in this series are original creations in English and are not translations of Japanese haiku,” as books of English-language haiku were still quite rare.
A notice on the back cover of his 1968 books indicated that a compilation of all four volumes of Haiku Poetry was to be published in June 1969. The individual volumes underwent several printings at least through October 1969, when the promised compendium, titled The Way of Haiku: An Anthology of Haiku Poems, was issued.  This volume contains all 744 haiku in the four-volume set.
Hackett’s next three books were revisions and reworking of this basic corpus of work. In 1968 he selected 135 haiku, all but one published in his earlier books, and packaged them in a large format book for children with two-color illustrations titled Bug Haiku: Original Poems in English by J.W. Hackett.  This is a charming book and in many ways Hackett’s best because it has a unifying theme and an integrity that his other books lack.
With the publication of Bug Haiku and The Way of Haiku, Hackett slipped almost entirely out of the public eye. He apparently received visitors at his garden home, including Kiyoshi and Kiyoko Tokutomi, the founders of the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society, an event that was documented by Teruo Yamagata, now president of the Yukuharu Haiku Society in Japan, in Haiku Journal, volume 3 (1979);  however I am unable to document any other public activity or publication of new work for 15 years, although it is possible that during this time he was judging American entries in some of the JAL contests which had become international, biannual, and involving only children. Twelve of Hackett’s earliest haiku were included by Cor van den Heuvel in the first edition of The Haiku Anthology in 1974 and were continued through the following two editions.
Hackett’s next blip on the radar came in 1983 with the publication of The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett,  again by Japan Publications. This is one of only a few books I know that uses “Zen” twice in the title (Blyth did so too in his collection Zen and Zen Classics), underlining that Hackett considers his haiku to be “Zen haiku,” something to be differentiated from haiku at large. This book contains 775 haiku, only 50 of which were previously unpublished. A few of the older haiku were revised, however, some of them quite extensively; for example, this one, which had appeared in Way: 
Each rippling wind
Winds play on the stream,
[“Refrects” is an apparent typo in the original and I am not sure whether “reflects” or “refracts” is intended.]
Most revisions are minor, however, and tend to improve the haiku:
Mountain meadow now
Mountain meadow now
The cantankerous crow
The cantankerous crow
The front cover flap of the book sheds some light on Hackett’s long silence and the rationale for bringing out a new book of old haiku: “For the past decade he has been writing longer forms of poetry: some mystical, some idyllic, and some similar to the nature poems of the Chinese.” A large sampling of these longer poems is included in the book, and he appends as well his “Suggestions for Writing Haiku in English,” now reduced to eighteen in number. In addition to a preface by Abbot Eido Tai Shimano of the Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York state and Hackett’s own “Author’s Introduction” and “Acknowledgments,” the book carries a “Foreword and Comments,” the same text as appeared as a foreword in The Way of Haiku, plus some praiseful excerpts from letters by Blyth, who at this point is almost twenty years in his grave. Herewith, Hackett again retreated into his privacy and isolation for another nine years.
Seventeen of Hackett’s haiku were included in the 1992 San Francisco Haiku Anthology. Hackett read from his Zen Haiku and other Zen Poems and signed copies at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco, on 21 March 1992.31 Garry Gay’s review of the event seemed restrained: “The event was especially exciting as he read many well-known and favorite haiku that are often talked about in haiku circles.” Reportedly, Hackett is a strong reader and cuts an authoritative figure at the lectern. Audio samples of Hackett reading some of his longer poems are available on his Web site. Hackett was also in attendance at the Yuki Teikei Haiku Society’s Asilomar retreat 9-12 September 1993, where he gave a talk and slide show about his visits to Japan.
Other activities in the U.S. in the 1990s included judging the Timepieces haiku contests organized by Rengé/David Priebe in Los Angeles from at least 1993 through at least 1997 and several of the JAL children’s haiku contests. In the summer of 1993 he delivered the keynote address at the second Haiku North America conference in Livermore, California. On 16 September 1995, according to a note about the occasion in Woodnotes 26, Hackett read some of his published Zen haiku, plus 21 new haiku, as one of the features at the second reading in the Haiku City series, at Borders Books in San Francisco. In 1995 he also gave an interview to John Budan that was published in Woodnotes 30 (1996) and is cited here in several places. Ten of Hackett’s haiku, all published, were anthologized in André Duhaime’s Haiku sans frontières Web site in 1998.
Travels and Foreign Connections
The past ten years have seen the reemergence of Hackett as a grand old man of haiku—but now in an international context. In the 1990s and 2000s the Hacketts did a fair amount of traveling. In the Author’s Note to his most recent book, A Traveler’s Haiku (2004), Hackett includes a remarkably ironic rendering of the platitude “travel is so broadening”: “At its best, travel helps us transcend the insularity and hubris which can distort and limit our understanding of the world.” Apart from his visit to Japan in 1965, Hackett visited China and Japan in 1993, Romania in 1994, Western Europe in 1996, and Japan again in 2002. Places mentioned in his book also include India and Nepal, Egypt and North Africa, Canada, and Mexico. He delivered keynote addresses—both of which excerpted material from his essay “That Art Thou”—at the International Haiku Festival—Romania in Constanta in September 1994  and the World Haiku Festival in Akita, Japan, in 2002. As he had done on earlier visits, in 2002 Hackett spent about three months in Japan visiting mostly temples. He also went to Blyth’s home in Oiso, met with members of Blyth’s family, and paid his respects at the graves of Blyth and D.T. Suzuki at Tòkeiji in Kamakura. 
Over Blyth’s grave:
an offering of spring rain,
muddy knees, and brow. 
One might observe that from the beginning the style and diction of Hackett’s haiku in many ways seemed as British as they were American, so it is not surprising that he hit it off well with the top British haiku poets. In about 1990 Hackett made the acquaintance of James Kirkup and David Cobb of the British Haiku Society, and that year he was invited to lend his name and judging skills to a new BHS haiku contest, the first of which took place the following year. In 1994 he was in London in connection with the British Haiku Society’s publication of a book of readings from Blyth, The Genius of Haiku.  The BHS journal Blithe Spirit also published a short essay of Hackett’s, “Basho and Nature” in 1998.  At this time he also met Susumu Takiguchi, former vice-president of the BHS, who had recently founded the World Haiku Club in Oxford. The WHC organ, the online omnibus journal, World Haiku Review, published “A Personal Conclusion” from “That Art Thou: A Way of Haiku” in its first issue (May 2001) ; an essay “Reflections,” a haiku he had selected for commentary, and one of his haiku sent to UNESCO in celebration of World Poetry Day in volume 2, issue 1;38 and a long biography of him by Debra Woolard Bender in the second 2002 issue.  Hackett was named honorary chairman of the World Haiku Club and contributed a foreword to Takiguchi’s 2000 book The Twaddle of an Oxonian. 
Possibly owing to Kirkup’s key editorial role in the Japanese biannual journal Ko, Hackett’s haiku, longer poems, and essays began to appear there in 1992 and were much in evidence through the autumn-winter 2000 issue. In 1995 a Japanese crew came to Hackett’s home and recorded an interview with him about haiku in America for broadcast on Japanese TV.  Likewise, thanks to his acquaintances in Ireland and France, two books of translations of Hackett’s works appeared in the mid-1990s: Le cri du faucon, haikus et autres poèmes zen (1996),  in French translations by Patrick Blanche, and 30 Zen-Haiku (Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1995)43 in English with Irish translations by Gabriel Rosenstock.
In 1992 Ko included his essay “Why I Entered the 1964 Japan Airlines Contest” in which he confirmed that his motivation was indeed to meet Blyth, his “mentor and friend ..., with whom I wished more than anything to simply share tea and silence. (A rare spiritual affinity made our relationship one that could dispense with words.)” — a rather remarkable statement considering the fact that the two had never met. The autumn-winter 1993 issue of Ko (11) printed three of Hackett’s previously published haiku in holographic form under the heading “Zen View” and dedicated to Koko Kato, Ko's editor. A photo of the two of them at Nagoya station appeared too. An essay entitled “Haiku: Another Endangered Species,” which was later published in Ion Codrescu’s journal Albatross,  is also included. Three of Hackett’s long poems appeared in spring-summer 1994 (26), autumn-winter 1995 (3), and autumn-winter 1997 (2) issues. Ko published several of Hackett’s haiku, some of them new, in its issues in 1996, 1997, and 2002, the latter issue featuring 38 haiku.
Following his participation in the Constanta haiku conference, Hackett became a regular contributor of haiku and short essays to Ion Codrescu’s international journal Albatros/Albatross, beginning with volume 3 (1994), and in Codrescu’s later enterprise, the journal Hermitage. A number of Hackett’s haiku from this period were published virtually simultaneously in Ko and Albatross.
In 2004 a book of new haiku—new at least from his basic collection from the 1960s—was published by Hokuseido Press.  A Traveler’s Haiku: Original Poems in English presents 191 of James Hackett’s verses written on his world travels over several decades. They were new verses, except for 24 that were published in Ko from 1995 to 2000, two that had been included with the 1996 interview in Woodnotes, two from Blithe Spirit in 1998, and five that appeared in Hermitage in 2004. Inexplicably, this book was not reviewed in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, or Blithe Spirit. In his very positive review in Hermitage,  however, Michael McClintock compares it to “a long, chatty letter from a favorite uncle.” He goes on to write:
The remarkable instrument that Hackett invented for himself way back then, to express his special haiku vision and consciousness, remains intact today and is as flexible and wide-ranging as ever. The poems unfold, phrase by phrase, like bubbling creek water, with good humor, calmness, and unhurried pleasure. The language is rich in sound and variously modulated to carry its freights of mood and tone; the imagery is full of tactile cues and physical presence: Hackett’s style reaches out and touches his subject matter but never pokes or jabs at it.
McClintock explains, “I infer that this collection has been cumulated from mostly unpublished, travel-themed haiku Hackett has written over the past thirty years. They will be new poems to his readers, but they are not necessarily newly written.” He finds many of Hackett’s haiku significant and memorable:
Poems like the following exert an iconic power, giving memorable expression to some of the deep problems of our time in history, and asking questions that have adhering to their substance issues that are both spiritual and practical....”
High rise construction ...
cut and roped into riggings,
the Pandas' forest
In the case of this haiku one can agree with McClintock, but others that he singles out in this passage are subverted by melodrama, cliché, and mannered diction: 
Building a campfire . . .
suddenly sent straight to hell
by front page news
Mid manicured shrubs
and designed gravel, my spirit’s
longing for the wild
Apart from A Traveler’s Haiku, since 2002 little of Hackett’s work has appeared in ink on paper. Four of his older haiku were recycled in the Mainichi Daily News online haiku column in 2003, 2004, and 2008, and three others were published in Hermitage 3 (2006). According to Bender, “He has at least 1,000 unpublished haiku and other Zen-influenced poems,” but it is not known whether he has any plans to publish them. Mostly Hackett continues to work on his long poetry, “That Art Thou,” and his Web site.
So what should we make of James W. Hackett, his Zen life, and his haiku poetry? He was clearly a pioneer of American haiku, probably the first to devote so much of his life and study to the writing of haiku. After 1964, the magical year in which he won the JAL contest and had a collection of his work published with the blessing of R.H. Blyth, and for at least a decade thereafter, Hackett was also the most widely known and heralded haiku poet in the nation. The reaction of the British haikuist Stephen Henry Gill is not atypical: “James Hackett was the only American haiku poet I had heard of until late in the eighties.” 
Whether to admire Hackett for his decades-long singularity of purpose and dedication to the preeminence of Zen in haiku or to find his brand of mysticism and deliberate self-isolation from other poets and spiritual thinkers adequate cause to dismiss him as quaint, peripheral figure we each will have to decide for ourselves. In the 1960s, in very short order, other North American haiku poets outstripped Hackett in prominence and quality of work. Ironically, these other pioneers were quite mindful of the relationship between Zen and haiku and were themselves literary and spiritual children of R.H. Blyth. All, however, took a broader view of haiku than as an art bound hand and foot to Zen, and they looked for inspiration to Japanese haijin other than Basho. Hackett, meanwhile, was tending his garden of 750 haiku poems, absenting himself from the tempestuous public discussions of haiku craft and practice, and grumpily complaining about the direction that English haiku, as well as humankind, was taking. Hackett concludes “That Art Thou” with “A Personal Testimony,” which includes this remarkable paragraph:
Naturally, some writers would be followers and even participate in the intellectual maelstrom if they so choose. But others would courageously follow their own star—solitary or unconventional though their way may be. Then, steeled with resolve, endeavor to take the way—come Hell (the maverick’s aloneness) or high water (the high dudgeon of critics).
In sum, I would suggest that early on James Hackett earned his niche in the pantheon of haiku, partly because he was there “firstest with the mostest,” and partly because a few of his early haiku are true classics—sparrows sitting without any necks, the fish motionless in the stream, the shape of the hawk’s cry, and my personal favorite, which I haven’t yet cited,
Half of the minnows
within this sunlit shallow
are not really there. 
Like the minnows, however, perhaps the other half of Hackett’s presence is now not really there.
Notes (Continued from Part One)
13. John Budan. “That Art Thou: An Interview with James W. Hackett,”
14. It is difficult to prove a negative proposition. Hackett was certainly not a leader of the San Francisco Zen students. He is not mentioned in Monica Furlong’s biography Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), in Watts’s autobiography, In My Own Way (New York: Pantheon, 1965), or in Jack Foley’s detailed “A California Timeline 1940–1999” in his O Powerful Western Star: Poetry & Art in California (Oakland, Calif.: Pantograph Press, 2000).
15. Jerry Ball, Garry Gay, and Tom Tico, eds., The San Francisco Haiku Anthology. (Windsor, Calif.: Smythe-Waithe Press, 1992).
16. James W. Hackett. “Why I Entered the 1964 Japan Airlines Contest.” Kô autumn–winter 1992, 20.
18. Debra Woolard Bender, :”James W. Hackett (1929- ).” World Haiku Review [Web] 2:2 (2002). <http://www.worldhaikureview.org/2-2/whf2002_ prelude6.shtml>, republished on The Haiku and Zen World of J.W. Hackett [hereinafter Hackett Web site]. <http://www.hacketthaiku.com/>.
19. American Haiku 1 (1963), 2.
20. Harold G. Henderson to James W. Hackett, 25 December 1964, on Hackett Web site.
21. J.W. Hackett. Haiku Poetry: Original Verse in English. Volumes One–Four (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1968). Hereinafter cited as HP3, HP4.
22. James W. Hackett. The Way of Haiku: An Anthology of Haiku Poetry.
(San Francisco: Japan Publications, Inc., 1969). Hereinafter cited as Way.
23. J.W. Hackett. Bug Haiku: Original Poems in English. (Tokyo: Japan
Publications, Inc., 1968, 50).
24. Not seen.
25. J.W. Hackett. The Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems of J.W. Hackett. (Tokyo: Japan Publications, Inc., 1983). Hereinafter cited as Zen Haiku.
26. “Each rippling wind”—Way, 192;”Winds play”— Zen Haiku, 120. 27. HP4, 9; Way, 191. 28. Zen Haiku, 165. 29. HP3, 6; Way, 122.
30. Zen Haiku, 120.
31. Woodnotes 12 (spring 1992), 23; Woodnotes 13 (summer 1992), 19.
32. “Resumé of 'That Art Thou: My Way Of Haiku.'” Albatros/Albatross 4:1/2 (spring–summer/autumn–winter 1995), 5–9/9–13. See also the note of thanks from Patricia and James Hackett to the conference organizers in the same issue, 130/135.
33. See description and photos, James W. Hackett and Patricia Hackett. “Journey to Oiso and the Home of R.H. Blyth” on the World Haiku Review Web site: <http://www.worldhaikureview.org/3-2/jwhackett_journeytoo- iso.shtml>, and “Visiting R.H. Blyth’s Home” on the Hackett Web site: <http://www.hacketthaiku.com/RHBlythsHome.html>.
34. Budan, 36
35. British Haiku Society, editors. The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R.H. Blyth on Poetry, Life, and Zen. Introduction by James Kirkup (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1995).
36. James W. Hackett. “Basho and Nature.” Blithe Spirit 8:1 (1998), 34–35. The essay had appeared previously in Ion Codrescu, editor. Ocolind iazul / Round the Pond: a Romanian/English Anthology. Translations by Mihaela Codrescu (Constanfa, Romania: Editura Muntenia, 1994), in Romanian and English, and in French in Patrick Blanche. Le Cri du faucon (Nyons, France: Voix d’Encre, 1996).
37. “A Personal Conclusion” from “That Art Thou: A Way of Haiku” World Haiku Review [Web] (May 2001)
38. James W. Hackett. “Reflections.” World Haiku Review 2:1 (March 2002). <http://www.worldhaikureview.org/2-1/jwh_reflectsuggest.shtml>; <http://www.worldhaikureview.org/2-1/jwh_selection.shtml>.
39. Bender, “James W. Hackett.”
40. Susumu Takiguchi. The Twaddle of an Oxonian: Haiku Poems and Essays. (Oxford, England: Ami-Net International Press, 2000).
41. Budan, 36.
42. Patrick Blanche. Le cri du faucon, haikus et autres poèmes zen. Montélimar, France: Ed. Voix d'encres, 1996.
43. J.W. Hackett. 30 Zen-Haiku of J.W. Hackett. Translated into Gaelic by Gabriel Rosenstock. Indreabhán, Conamara, Ireland: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 1994.
44. James W. Hackett. "Why I Entered the 1964 Japan Airlines Contest." Ko, autumn-winter, 1992, 20.
45. Albatros/Albatross 3:1/2 (spring–summer/autumn–winter 1994), 89–93.
46. James W. Hackett. A Traveler’s Haiku: Original Poems in English. (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 2004). Hereinafter cited as Traveler.
47. Michael McClintock, “Hackett on the Road and Still Longing for the Wild.” Hermitage 2:1/2 (2005), 184–87.
48. “Building”—Traveler, 1; “Mid manicured”—Traveler, 29.
49. Blithe Spirit, 2000, 10:4, 54.
50. R.H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 2: From Issa up to the Present. (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1963-64, 360).