Pacific Northwest haiku poet Robert Major was born on 9 August 1920, and died on 18 May 2008. I wrote this memorial to share at a national meeting of the Haiku Society of America held 27, 28 June 2008 at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. First written on 23 May 2008. A shorter version of this memorial appeared in The Heron’s Nest 10:3, September 2008. I also created a memorial page for Bob on the Haiku Northwest site.
Robert Major was for nearly two decades one of the leading and more distinctive haiku poets in the Pacific Northwest. He wrote mostly in a 5-7-5 pattern, though not slavishly, and paid close attention to having clear and immediate images, often with a seasonal reference and a two-part structure. His haiku were frequently infused with a subjective touch, or sly and sometimes self-deprecating observations.
In his book Shadows on the Shoji, published in 1997, Bob noted that he started writing haiku in 1990. I don’t recall when I first met him, but it was probably a few years after he started on his haiku path—at age 70! Like me, he was an editor, working for many years at McGraw-Hill (for whom I also once worked, although in a different office) and at the University of Washington Department of Publications. With this background, it was no wonder that his poems were always meticulously crafted.
At the Bashō Bash in Portland, Oregon, I asked Bob to sign my haiku autograph book, for which I ask poets to write one or more of their best or favourite haiku. Here are the two poems Bob wrote for me on 11 May 1996:
Before turning in
we step off the cabin porch
to check on the stars
Peering in the door,
a mirror reflects my face
among the antiques
The preceding poem exhibits a playful sense of humour, as does the following verse from his chapbook:
First trip to Japan.
We find the Japanese crows
all speaking English
Whether he wrote with humour or with a light seriousness, Bob’s fulsome style and honest or playful depictions of nature and his small-town surroundings won him admiration and respect. At Haiku Northwest meetings, when he was able to attend, we could always count on him to articulate his critiques of other poems carefully, passionately, and with insight.
Here’s a poem of mine in remembrance of Bob:
spring’s deepening green—
beside the silent heron
our long shadows touch
Bob had a long and, I believe, rewarding life, and many of us in the Pacific Northwest were fortunate to know him. Despite his long life, though, perhaps his life and all of our lives are like the shadows on the shoji screen in the title poem of his 1997 chapbook:
For a little while,
our shadows on the shoji
as the candles flame
I was last able to talk with Bob on May 8, 2008, ten days before he died. He was excited about the special meeting of the Haiku Northwest group with the Port Townsend haiku group coming up two days later. But he realized, with clear disappointment, that the day’s events would be too much for him to handle. Fortunately, just afterwards, Alice Frampton was able to take him some of our handouts, poem sheets, and a card we’d all signed. I hope it gave him a small measure of comfort and a renewed sense of belonging just before he was called home.
When I talked with Bob on May 8, he promised to send me a bio for the Haiku Northwest website, but he was not able to do so. How quickly his last few days passed! He did give permission to put five poems on the website, and the following are two favourites of his five selections. The first may well be his signature poem, and the second might be considered Bob’s death poem—exemplary poems that are both fitting as last words (the first of which Bob has said was inspired by Lee Watson):
silent Friends meeting . . .
the sound of chairs being moved
to enlarge the circle
reaching a wide stream . . .
the trail continues
on the other side