Haiku appreciation at the United Nations

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — This month I was judge of the Japanese division of the haiku contest sponsored by the United Nations International School (UNIS). John Stevenson, editor of Frogpond, the magazine of the Haiku Society of America, judged the haiku written in English.

I don’t know how many decades ago Japan-related entities began to sponsor haiku contests outside Japan, but when I became aware of such things, Japan Airlines was the lead player in that endeavor. More than a dozen years ago, though, Japan’s economic difficulties and toughening global competition forced the airline to abandon its haiku sponsorship overseas. Here, in New York, luckily, the Japan Society picked up the slack by sponsoring a contest for high school students in this city, but it, too, gave up several years ago. So, the UNIS stepped in.

The U.N.-affiliated school sponsoring a haiku contest necessarily reminded me of Dag Hammarskjold and Raphael Salas. Having observed haiku since I accidentally served as president of the Haiku Society of America three decades ago, I have known that U.N. Secretary General Hammarskjold wrote haiku. Also, I was asked, in the mid-1980s, to write a foreword when U.N. Under Secretary General Salas, who established the Population Fund in 1969, decided to publish a collection of haiku to mark his 56th year. The book, published in 1985, was appropriately titled “Fifty-Six Stones.”

I had read Hammarskjold’s haiku in “Markings,” the 1964 English translation — by W.H. Auden with Leif Sjoberg — of what the diplomat had left as “a kind of diary.” But I did not know how Hammarskjold came to find the haiku form until last year, when Kai Falkman published “A String Untouched” to explicate Hammarskjold’s haiku. In it, Falkman suggests that Harold Henderson’s “An Introduction to Haiku” was probably Hammarskjold’s immediate guide. The book was among the paraphernalia found in his bedroom after he was killed in a plane crash during his peace mission in the Congo in September 1961. It was published in 1958 and Hammarskjold wrote a total of 110 haiku in 1959. So the world’s top diplomat’s conversion to the world’s shortest poetic form was swift.

Falkman himself had come to haiku after he was posted to the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo, which, by coincidence, happened in the year Hammarskjold died. Much later he started questioning Auden’s translation until, several years ago, his criticisms led the New York Times to carry a substantial dispatch on the subject from Stockholm. Falkman’s main point was that Auden wove too much of his personal angst into Hammarskjold’s writings in working on Sjoberg’s English drafts. (Auden had candidly stated, “It is no secret that I do not know a single word of Swedish.”)

That particular brand of willfulness is not too clear to me as I compare Auden’s translations of Hammarskjold’s haiku with Falkman’s, probably because Falkman’s criticisms mainly concern his prose. Here is a haiku, in Auden’s translation, from one of the four groups into which Hammarskjold put his pieces:


In a gray twilight

His sensuality awoke.

Falkman renders this:


In the gray twilight

He awakened to his sex.

Falkman tells us that Hammarskjold admired Linnaeus, calling him “the shining Prince of the Summer Land.”

I never had a chance to learn how Salas came to compose haiku; he died a few years after we met. But he had an “abiding interest in Japanese culture,” as he wrote in his own preface to his book. Also, he counted among his friends some prominent Japanese. At the restaurant to which he invited me to discuss my writing a few words for his book, he told me that a number of Japanese leaders supported his work at the U.N. One of them was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), an advocate of population control. Here is the haiku Salas wrote for the man, on the occasion of his turning 88:

As the light touches

the pine needles, Softens ever

the moss on the tree

Population control at the time was still unburdened with concerns over the demographic distortions inevitable to it.

Hammarskjold and Salas approached haiku writing differently. The Swedish diplomat stuck to the total count of 17 syllables but was flexible in the apportionment of syllables to each “line,” a formula Auden maintained in his translations (and Falkman has ignored to avoid “superfluous words”), whereas the Filipino diplomat maintained both the total count and distribution of syllables, though his pieces are notable for punctuation and other oddities.

In case a Japanese reader is unthinkingly tempted to decide that Hammarskjold “misunderstood” the haiku structure, I must point out that how to distribute syllables within the total of 17 was a major point of argument among Japanese haiku theorists during the 1910s and complete flexibility was one conclusion.

And flexibility overall has been the hallmark of haiku composition in non-Japanese languages, as contest submissions clearly show. So, in the elementary division in English, my colleague John Stevenson gave first place to Katherin Martinez (P.S. 86), who wrote:

warm day

reading a book

by myself

First place in the middle school division to Hannah Kay (Blue Rock School) for:

A book lies open

no one is reading

crackling fire

First place in the high school division to Po Yu Li (Midwood High School), who wrote:

In the morning

The smell of butter and toast —

Faucet slowly dripping

And honorable mention in the elementary division for a 5-7-5-syllable haiku!

tasty triangle

tomato mushroom pepper

pepperoni too

This haiku was a group effort by: Jasmin Arroyo, Emma Popovic-Bogdanich, Angelica Grandizio, Johnathan Horowitz, Christian Morcelo, Victor M. Ortiz Jr., Maximilian Lupa, Valerie Fernandez, William Medina and Wyatt Rader — all from The Child School.

Hammarskjold and Salas would have been overjoyed and proud to see these children gathered in front of the podium during the awards ceremony cheer when the selection of their composition was announced — that in the lobby of the Secretariat Building of the United Nations.