Naomi Beth Wakan’s The Haiku Bag

First published in Haiku Canada Newsletter (need to confirm the issue).


The Haiku Bag by Naomi Beth Wakan. Lightsmith Publishing, 1999, 116 pages. $10.95 plus $3.50 postage from the publisher at Box 376, Qualicum Beach, B.C. V9K 1S9, Canada.


When I first read Naomi Wakan’s earlier book, Haiku—One Breath Poetry (Pacific Rim Publishers, 1993), I immediately thought that it was an excellent book for teaching haiku to children—and also worthwhile for adults. Its lucid prose gives a tempered view of haiku and its history, and outlines the variety of qualities and techniques that make good haiku work. If the book stumbled at all, it might have been in the inclusion of original English poems that were weak or sometimes contradicted the book’s own recommendations. However, all of these English poems were by children, so their inclusion seemed easily defensible as an encouragement to child readers to also try haiku. What the book did not include was any poems by Naomi herself. Who was she? Where did she come from? I had not read her poems in any of the usual haiku journals. In the wake of all the book’s carefully crafted and obviously well-informed words about haiku, I wanted to read some of the author’s poems and know more about her.

        Now, with Naomi Wakan’s latest book (she has also written more than twenty books for young people), I have that opportunity. The Haiku Bag is small in size (4¼ by 5½ inches), but sports more than a hundred pages, the last fifty of which present 118 of Naomi’s own haiku arranged in four seasonal sections. The book’s first fifty pages present short prose sections on “What Is Haiku?,” “How Haiku Can Be Written in English,” “Hints on the Writing of Haiku in English,” “A Brief History,” and “Some Notable Haiku Masters.” The material largely reflects the prose content of Haiku—One Breath Poetry, although much more briefly, and the text is rewritten for adults, without most of the Japanese translations or any of the English poems by children. Having so much enjoyed the author’s 1993 book, I found myself less thrilled with the repackaging of this prose, also because the new text seemed insufficiently edited and, for me, was frequently marred by less than professional typography and design. As a publisher and professional editor myself, I may be more sensitive to typography than most haiku readers. However, just as the words of a good haiku should be as transparent as possible, enabling us to experience the subject and implied emotion rather than just see the words about the subject, so, too, good typography and design should be similarly “invisible” so you turn page after page without noticing it. Excessive or insufficient design or failures in the details of typesetting mar too many haiku books, and this one is not an exception. For just one example, with this book I found myself distracted by the running heads: on every other page the author’s name was bolded except for the first letter. Other lapses in attention to typographic detail bothered me. Haiku is a poetry of detail. They should be presented in such a way that no details of poor presentation get in their way.

        Unlike with her previous book about haiku, I also found myself bothered by subtleties of meaning. For example, the author says of seasonal words that they indicate “when the haiku was written.” That may often be the case, but for both Japanese and English haiku I believe it is more accurate to say that season words indicate the season of what the poem is about, which may not be when the poem was written. She also says that “These small poems do not express feelings.” While it’s true that haiku should not state feelings but imply them, haiku certainly do express feeling, at least by implication. She says, instead, that haiku “are the poetry of images.” Yes, but the images of haiku are meant to convey intuition and suggest emotion, even if indirectly. Although her emphasis on the image and experience in haiku is a good impulse, to say that haiku do not “express” feelings is potentially misleading.

        Where I grew most disappointed in the book, however, was in the author’s poems. In the prose section she rightly states that “Intellectual analysis is totally alien to the real intention of haiku—the immediate experience,” yet she offers numerous poems like the following, where the last lines are intellectual analyses that completely deflate what are sometimes promising images:


       Golden dawn

Pouring in the window

     Spring promise


   Two eagles

On one tree . . .

Summer bonus


          Fresh soil

Around new fruit trees

     Fall preparation


        The bulbs are

Barely pushing through

    Winter discontent


She also writes that “Haiku shouldn’t include philosophical statements about what you are sensing,” yet what do the preceding poems do? Here’s another of many poems in direct contradiction of her own good advice:


     Cherry blossom

The promise of youth

     Never fulfilled


She says “Don’t be intellectually clever” because “it won’t help produce a real haiku,” yet she offers these:


      Tugboat passing

The swell hits the shore

    Every which wave


      Nurse trees

A hundred saplings

    Taking the tit


She writes that haiku “are always written in the present tense,” yet includes the following poems that she could easily tinker with to make more immediate:


Admiring the buffleheads,

    Five otters reared up

   Demanding attention


        The little tree

   Grew well this year

On the swamp garbage


In Haiku—One Breath Poetry she says that metaphor and simile should be avoided because “if you say something is like something else, for example, ‘a girl is like a rose,’ you are no longer talking about the girl.” However, several of her poems in The Haiku Bag contain simile and metaphor:


          Trees at night

Their leaves like blossoms

       In the headlights


     The sun changes

The rain-dropped bush

       To diamonds


In Haiku—One Breath Poetry, she writes, “Don’t tell the reader what to feel, tell the image and let it cook in the reader’s own mind. Don’t say, ‘How sad!’ Show what is sad.” Yet this:


         Fall onions;

Harvesting and cooking

      Both sad things


A couple of poems do rise a little above the water line, however. Though slight, perhaps the following are among the book’s best poems, the second of which brings to mind Nick Virgilio’s “lily” poem:


      Under the tree

Open blossoms catch

   Evening shadows


    Still pond

The lily breaks

   The silence


Many of the poems also reflect the author’s life and location on Gabriola Island in British Columbia (one reads about Mount Baker, eagles, log booms, tides, seals, and otters). Knowing where she lives makes it easier to surmise that the “line-up” in the following poem is for a ferry, the schedules for which frequently govern island life:


Red and gold morning

First car in the line-up

  A clear view ahead


Whatever the reasons may be for the contradictions between her prose and her poetry, this poet seems to be writing in too much isolation—not the desirable isolation of an offshore island, but an isolation from other English-language haiku and the practices and perceptions that show in the best of this poetry (starting each line with a capital letter, another typographical distraction that most English-language haiku poets avoid, is one possible hint of this isolation). Fortunately, in her afterword, “Why I Love Haiku,” the poet concludes that “Haiku help me appreciate the small things of daily life and help me feel the links and unity in all that happens to me.” In Haiku—One Breath Poetry, Naomi Wakan presented an introduction to haiku that I have long recommended—do seek it out if you don’t have a copy already. The Haiku Bag cannot be equally recommended, however, mostly because of the puzzling disconnect between its theory and practice. Even the book’s title is puzzling, yet it is not explained. Nevertheless, as long as poets are enriched by the small things of daily life through their haiku, or haiku attempts, it may not matter what anyone else might have to say.