Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Meg Schleppenbach

Meg's Haiku

Meg's Essay on Evetts

Profile on Evetts

Profile on Swede



Evetts and Swede: Senryu Masters

Dee Evetts and George Swede are worthy of comparison for many reasons. First of all, both write a large amount of senryu. Evetts’ stated in an email interview that about seventy percent of his work is senryu, while Swede’s collection Almost Unseen presents true haiku very rarely. Second of all, Evetts cited Swede as a major influence upon his current work in the same email interview. Evetts said that he only began experimenting with senryu after reading Swede’s work, since he at first found senryu to be extremely trivial. Finally, Swede and Evetts both come from English-speaking cultures outside of the United States, though both are also frequent visitors and residents of the country. I thought it would be interesting to compare two English-language haiku writers who are not members of my own nationality.

Evetts was born in England in 1943 and first became involved in haiku writing in the late 1960s. He has since become a co-founder of the British Haiku Society and an organizer of many haiku-related events in New York City, his current place of residence. His most famous collection of haiku is endgrain, which was published in 1997 and received the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award. His haiku is characterized by images of people that describe their emotions and psychology in a humorous manner.

Swede was born in Latvia in 1940 and moved to Canada in 1947. He also began writing haiku in the late 1960s. His collection Almost Unseen was published in 2000. Like Evetts, Swede is known for producing haiku that reveal truisms about human psychology. He is also noted for his interweaving of natural elements with aspects of human nature.

When comparing Swede and Evetts, I found that many of their haiku are extremely similar, even focusing on almost exactly the same settings and thematic content. These haiku were great fodder for looking in-depth at word usage, word order, and images in the haiku. I also looked at how both of them utilized natural images in haiku that are mainly about people. Overall, I found that Evetts implies meaning and emotion through direct images, while Swede concretely states feelings. I also saw that both use natural elements to highlight and express parts of human nature.

The following are four matched pairs of haiku from the authors. Following each pair is a discussion of my personal responses to both haiku and of how the haiku are similar and different.

passport control
a bee’s flight interweaves
the chainlink fence

Dee Evetts
endgrain, p.28

passport check
my shadow waits
across the border

George Swede
Almost Unseen, p.57

These senryu both incorporate the same setting (passport controls on country boundaries) and similar thematic ideas, such as freedom and mobility. I found it almost eerie how similar these haiku are upon first reading. However, after closer inspection, differences were revealed in the self-other relationships incorporated and the severity of the images.

Evetts’ haiku traditionally includes images of people or the implication of people, and this senryu is no exception. The image I get from this haiku is of a person in his car on the border of two countries, waiting in a long line to get his passport checked. He watches the security guards check each person’s passport and waive them through. As he nears the guards, he notices a bee flying through the chainlink fence on the border. It is almost as though the bee is taunting him, showing him how it is more free and uncontrolled than a person.

Swede’s senryu gives me a somewhat different picture. Since the speaker’s says he sees his own shadow, I must assume he is no longer in his vehicle. For some reason, the passport control has made him step out of the car, presumably to check his vehicle for contraband or items that cannot be taken into the next country. Thus, I see the speaker as being agitated and nervous. In this state of waiting for approval to cross, which may possibly be denied, the speaker notices has close he is to being in the new country. His shadow is across the border, and a few more steps would get his person across too. However, he must wait in agony, with the chance that he shadow will be the only aspect of him that moves on into the next country.

Thus, the superficial implications of the images in the haiku are quite different. Evetts’ haiku seems more easygoing in the mood of the person, as it presents a simple observation. There is no idea of nervousness or waiting inherent in the description of the person’s mood, as the person is left out of the haiku entirely. My reading of it involves waiting, but that idea is not stated directly. Swede’s poem has a more overtly agitated tone. He uses the word "waits," implying a person who is almost tapping his toe in frustration.

Evetts, who is a leader in poetry about people, is actually subtler about the presence of a person in this poem. The reader infers that someone is witnessing this bee’s flight and perhaps creates the idea that the person seeing the bee is waiting himself to cross the border. However, Swede states the presence of a person directly with the use of the phrase "my shadow." The haiku is immediately personalized and involves a human being who is waiting.

Finally, though Evetts’ senryu is more calm than Swede’s in the mood of the person involved, the words used to describe the border itself are much harsher than Swede’s. While Swede uses the word "check" to describe the border, Evetts uses the word "control." Obviously, Evetts must find this border check extremely confining. He continues, describing the border with the words "chainlink fence," which calls up images of prison or just enclosure in general. The use of the word "bee" also seems to be no accident, as a bee is a very harsh, stinging insect. It is an insect that annoys almost all people. Swede does not use these harsh words to describe the border. Thus, Evetts creates a frustrated image with his word choice.

Therefore, these haiku both create the idea of frustration and annoyance at the border. Evetts creates this mood with nouns that build a description of the passport control itself. Swede, on the other hand, uses a verb to describe the mood of the person. His nouns themselves are rather non-descript. Both achieve the same sensation and similar images with different methods.

rainy night
half the cat
still indoors

Dee Evetts
endgrain, p.xx

back in the house
the cat carefully shakes each leg
morning dew

George Swede
Almost Unseen, p.43

I chose to compare these senryu because both of them involve images of a wet cat. The settings are quite different, but the end result for the cat is the same. I also liked how differently each tells a similar story.

The image I receive for Evetts’ haiku is a cat that has asked to go outside, probably because of some perceived animal near the house. The cat is jumping and scraping on the door. After the owner opens the door to let the cat out, however, the cat notices the downpour. It still wants to see what the news from the outside is, but it jams itself in the door crack, halfway in and halfway out, so that it does not get wet. The owner stands there in frustration because the cat wants to have his desire both ways.

Swede’s poem presents a direct and more active image. I see a cat coming in from a night sleeping outside. The cat is covered with dew from the grass, and, as it comes in, it cleans itself up and makes itself presentable, almost like a human. The cat is preparing itself for its day inside.

Like in the last matched pair, the authors differ in their use of verbs and nouns. Evetts’ haiku actually includes no verbs at all. The entire image is created by nouns, and not particularly descriptive nouns at that. No adjectives or descriptors are assigned to the cat; instead, the image is simply presented as is.

Utilizing a completely different style, Swede uses verbs and adjectives to create meaning in his haiku. He describes what the cat is doing by using the word "shakes." He also assigns a mood to the cat’s motion, terming it "careful." Unlike Evetts, Swede feeds the reader the mood of the cat. Evetts simply allow the reader to infer the mood, given the image.

The order in which the images are presented is also crucial to how the reader interprets these haiku. Evetts chooses to put the idea of wetness first, thus drawing a connection between the cat and the "rainy night." Swede, however, does not need to include the image of wetness until the end. He describes the cat’s motion, and then leaves the reader guessing until the last line to discover why the animal is doing what Swede describes.

Though I like both senryu, I would have to say that Evetts’ more clearly fulfills the elements of traditional haiku. Evetts avoids verbs and uses nouns. He presents the images and does not include any of his own judgments or interpretations of the image. Swede, on the other hand, describes the cat’s movement and mood, giving the reader less interpretative work to do.

unexpected news
she stands staring into
the cutlery drawer

Dee Evetts
endgrain, p.13

my hands just washed
yet I wash them again
after the news

George Swede
Almost Unseen, p.78

These senryu both share the subject of unwanted and startling news. Both also deal with the human reactions to this type of news, though the results are very different. For Evetts’ haiku, I see a woman receiving the news over the phone that she is pregnant. She has been in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner, and she happens to be putting silverware away when she gets the call. She is shocked at the news because she cannot afford a child, and she is unmarried. She cannot help but think of using a sharp knife on herself as she stares into the cutlery drawer and hears this news.

Swede’s haiku gives me the same sense of quiet desperation as Evetts’. Again, the setting is in the kitchen. This time, I envision a man, who has just received word that someone close to him has been seriously injured in an accident. As the accident is described, he begins to feel incredibly dirty and turns to the sink to wash his hands again. This poem captures that feeling of uneasiness and uncleanliness a person gets when confronted with disturbing news.

Evetts and Swede use different structures to describe basically the same emotion. Evetts’ poem utilizes juxtaposition. He makes no verbal connection between the idea of "unexpected news" and the woman’s staring. However, his placement of the lines next to each other allows the reader to make this implicit connection and laugh, even though it is a serious topic.

On the other hand, Swede, as in the last matched pair, hands the reader the emotions. In order to do this, he personalizes it and gives himself the authority to talk about the mindset of the person involved. By using "I," Swede makes it impossible to question the description of the hand-washing incident and its connection to the news. Swede tells the reader, with a narrative link, that the hands were washed again because of the news. Thus, Swede does create a verbal link between the news and the action.

Overall, Swede’s poem is more active than Evetts’. Evetts’ implies what might happen with the woman, or at least what she might think about happening. Swede shows us what does happen because of the news. He also shows a propensity for writing haiku that use a single root word twice, by using two forms of the word "wash." I have never appreciated haiku that use the same word twice, but this one definitely works because it helps emphasize the repetition of an act.

bitter night
choosing the red side
of the quilt

Dee Evetts
endgrain, p.27

I forget my side
of the argument

George Swede
Almost Unseen, p.44

I chose to compare these two haiku because they both deal with arguments and involve the use of nature juxtaposed with human emotion. In my opinion, Swede’s really completes Evetts’ haiku. Were they linked together, Evetts’ would present the night of an argument and Swede’s would illustrate the morning after the argument. I thought it was really interesting that these haiku connect so perfectly, so I chose to compare them as well.

For Evetts’ haiku, I envision a couple having a fight on a somewhat chilly summer evening. About an hour after the blowout, they both turn in to bed. They speak no words, and there is an icy silence. However, the speaker makes his emotions clear by grabbing the quilt and putting the red side on him. The speaker’s wife reacts by turning away from him.

In Swede’s haiku, I see the speaker in the first haiku waking up. The sun is shining on his face and he feels warm externally and internally. He turns over to see his wife asleep and forgets that they even had an argument. He places his arms around her and gently wakes her up.

Both of the author’s use natural words to express a seasonal element and an emotion. Evetts uses the word "bitter" to describe not only the atmosphere after the fight, but the literal temperature. The fight, along with the cold weather, becomes a major issue between the couple. Swede uses sunrise to describe the feeling of waking up warm, but also to show the dawning of a new emotional time. The fight is over and a new peace is beginning with the sunrise.

Again, Evetts’ shows his use of nouns over verbs, while Swede shows exactly the opposite. Evetts utilizes only nouns in his haiku, with the exception perhaps of the gerund "choosing," which is used here mainly as a noun. Swede personalizes the poem (using "I") and includes a verb describing the speaker’s emotional point-of-view. Once again, Evetts lets the reader infer an emotion by presenting two juxtaposed images. Swede hands the reader the emotion he is supposed to understand in the poem.

Overall, Swede and Evetts have a great deal in common thematically, but differ in their approaches to presentation. Both use humor as a mechanism through which they explore human nature. They also utilize nature when it emphasizes human psychology, but do not tend to use nature alone. However, Swede and Evetts differ a great deal in word choices and order. Evetts prefers to use nouns and create concrete images, while Evetts uses verbs and directly states emotions to his audience. Both are excellent senryu writers and could probably benefit from creating some haiku or rengay together.

—Meg Schleppenbach

©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors