Review of Modern Haiku:
The Robert Spiess Memorial Issue (2002)

Review of Modern Haiku - The Robert Spiess Memorial Issue (2002)
by J. Zimmerman.

* Robert Spiess * Haiku * Haibun * Translations * Reviews * Speculations * Order Modern Haiku * Books

Robert Spiess.

The first third of the magazine is a memorial to Robert Spiess (1921-2002) and his many contributions to the development of haiku in North America.

In 2000, Japan honored Robert Spiess with the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize, to recognize his life of contribution.

The memorial begins with 5 pages of a modest autobiography that John Stevenson helped Robert Spiess to compile. Then Poems and Prayers for Bob Spiess is a section of 9 pages, containing haiku and haibun by Gary Snyder, Cor van den Heuvel, and other colleagues and friends.

A letter of appreciation by Arima Akito (Former Minister of Education and Sciences in Japan) and Haga Togu (President of the Kyoto University of Art and Design) shows the regard for Robert Spiess in Japan.

The last major portion of the memorial is Michael Dylan Welch's The Haiku Gatekeeper. This is a remarkable essay of living history. It records the highlights from the interview that Welch began in the mid-1990's. Welch would mail Spiess two or three interview quesions now and then, and after a couple of months, Spiess would mail his replies.

Questions and answers touch on the responsibilities of an editor, and other aspects of Spiess's life and contributions.


Haiku and senryu fill 19 pages. Many of the poems are good. Because the poems are printed alphabetically by author, you soon find the work of U.S.A. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, the Zen poet Jane Hirshfield, and the beloved Gary Snyder, as well as some last poems by Robert Spiess.


Haibun (interleaving prose and haiku) fill 5 pages with the work of 9 poets. Elizabeth Hazen's Shadows Cross is especially delightful in its use of the haiku to illuminate the prose, the prose to illuminate the haiku.


An 11-page article by Hiroaki Sato gives A Brief Survey of Modern Japanese Haiku by Women. It is an extract from his book White Dew, Dreams, and This World, coming in 2003. The poems of 23 different women are given, together with a summary of each of their roles in haiku development. The translations are shown in a single (horizonal) line. For example, this is one from Kitahara Shimako (b.1917):

  I wrap scallions in a newspaper where I read about Picasso. 


Modern Haiku's reviews are of great interest, occupying almost 20% of the magazine. The reviewers are mostly well-known authors and editors.

William J. Higginson (author of several books on writing haiku) finds strengths and weaknesses in reading ("a painful roller-coaster ride") How To Haiku, by Bruce Ross.

Randy Brooks is more enthusiastic ("I recommend that you buy this third anthology") about Summer Dreams: American Haibun and Haiga, which Bruce Ross edits with Jim Kacian and Ken Jones. Lee Gurga (Past Editor of Modern Haiku) and Michael Dylan Welch review three other books.

16 other books and booklets each get a paragraph or two in a "Briefly Noted" section.


Robert Spiess's short speculations have been a long-time tradition in Modern Haiku. So, it is bitter-sweet to see the 15 numbered paragraphs of his speculations 859 to 873. My favorites are #869:

  One of the virtues of haiku is that because of its brevity, 
  it is both speech and a mode of silence. 

and the final one, #873:

  Haiku are no vehicle for preachment or propaganda, even of the 
  noblest kind. They must have appropriate form, freshness of detail,
  integrity of tone, and especially, relevance to human experience,
  often involving our relation to outer nature.

To order Modern Haiku.

Order Modern Haiku

See also review of Modern Haiku, volume 34.2 (2003). Its haiku and senryu includes work by Billy Collins and Sharon Olds. Its book reviews include essays by William J. Higginson.

Other Books on Haiku.

Buy Essential Haiku The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa edited by Robert Hass. The past-poet laureate of the U.S.A has compiled this enthralling collection of his own essays in which he summarizes the lives of three masters and inventors of the haiku tradition in Japan:
  • Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the ascetic and seeker,
  • Yosa Buson (1716-83), the artist, and
  • Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), the humanist.
He presents their lives, their prose, and 300 of their poems.
Buy Haiku Seasons The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World by William J. Higginson.
Buy Haiku World Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson, Meagan Calogeras (Editor)
Buy Japanese Haiku The Japanese Haiku, by Kenneth Yasuda.
Buy Haiku Handbook Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku by William J. Higginson, William S. Higginson.
Buy Introduction to Haiku An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Basho to Shiki by Harold Gould Henderson (Editor). First published in 1958, it analyzes the development of Japanese haiku under the leadership of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. Includes the Romanized ("Romaji") transliteration of the original Japanese, indicating the sounds of the original poem. Henderson translate mainly into 5-7-5 syllables (heavy compared to the 5-7-5 of the quick Japanese onji) and rhymes the first and last lines (sometimes feels a bit forced).

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