Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Shannon Kroner

Penny Harter:
An Appreciation of Night
and Nature Through Haiku

Shannon Kroner

Shannon's Haiku



Penny Harter, author of many types of poetry, was born in New York City. She graduated from Douglass College of Rutgers University, and she began publishing longer poetry in the 1960s. It was in the early 1970s that Harter started experimenting with haiku. She lived in New Jersey until 1991 when she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico wither her husband and writing colleague, William Higginson. The couple has three children. While in New Jersey, Harter taught literature and writing, and she served as a writing consultant for one of New Jersey’s larger school districts. Starting in 1972, she conducted writing workshops in various schools in the National Endowment for the Arts Poets-in-the-Schools Program, as well. Over the years, she has published fifteen books of poems, including four of haiku.

Awards and Honors

Harter has received many awards and honors throughout her career as a writer and teacher. Her most recent award was received this year. Harter was the recipient of the William O. Douglas American Nature Writing Award for her work appearing in American Nature Writing 2002. Her work has long reflected nature and appreciation for the planet in its natural state. This most recent award is a testimony to that facet of her work. Harter has received numerous fellowships and awards for her poetry from such organizations as the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America. She has also won prizes and honorable mentions in the Haiku Society of America's Harold G. Henderson contest and the Haiku North America 1999 contest. In addition, she was awarded First Runner-Up in the Valentine Awards from The Heron's Nest.

Harter’s Appreciation for the Natural World
With Emphasis on Night/Dark Imagery

From the beginning of this assignment, I wanted to study a female author whose haiku appealed to me through imagery and emotion. I found this in Penny Harter’s work. As I began collecting and reading her haiku, I noticed that her themes and images were very seldom people-oriented. Instead, she seemed to focus more on nature, animals, and the outdoors, especially in her more recent work. I further noticed that there is an abundance of nighttime and/or dark imagery throughout her haiku. These trends became the foundation for my contemporary author study, with an emphasis on the images of nighttime and darkness.

An interview with Harter confirmed her affinity to and appreciation of the natural world. When asked what it is that colors her writing, Harter responded, "We moved to Santa Fe because of its extraordinary beauty and cultural diversity. Because the horizon and sky are so omnipresent here, my writing has become more and more oriented toward the natural world, hoping to affirm the Earth and place it in the context of the cosmos. Poems in my earlier books reflect the mid-Atlantic, Eastern environment…Always, place has informed my imagery." Furthermore, an e-mail response sent by Harter’s husband and writing colleague, William Higginson, expounded upon her attraction to nighttime:

Harter has always been sensitive to the dark, in particular to twilight (what the French call "crepuscule"), which can be either at morning or evening. She is fortunate to have excellent vision in low-light conditions as well as better-than-average long-range vision, and finds the border zones between day and night, and between the darkness of space and the illumination of planets and stars, fascinating. She also reads widely, especially in the natural sciences.

One of Harter’s books is dedicated solely to her haiku illustrating night images. Shadow Play: Night Haiku is a children’s book and was compiled as a collection of her night haiku from her previous works and collaborations. Higginson provided some interesting insight into this particular book, which further highlighted Harter’s delight of night and nature. The illustrator of Shadow Play interpreted the title to mean the way nighttime shadows fall upon a wall. However, Harter’s original intent with the title was in reference to "game in which one holds her hands in a beam of light, causing a shadow to fall on a surface, and manipulates the hands to create apparent silhouettes of different things or animals." Higginson went on to say, "As with shadow play in this latter sense (the game), Harter delights in working with the facts of nature and specific events to create striking and unusual juxtapositions. Perhaps because people are a little less familiar with things under low-light conditions, some of her more striking poems and haiku deal with things in this setting."

One such haiku that I felt used an "unusual juxtaposition" is in Shadow Play on page 8.

through the telescope
the mountains on the moon—
Grandmother yawns

This haiku intrigued me because it incorporates images not typically found in haiku-telescopes, the moon (in terms of astronomy rather than a romantic context), and mountains on the moon (rather than a traditional setting). These objects are not often considered when contemplating elements of nature or when considering typical haiku images and themes. In addition, the third line comes as a surprise to the reader, which I felt was very effective in developing the imagery of the haiku. After reading the first two lines, I envisioned a little boy looking through his childhood telescope at the moon and the stars. One would not expect the final line to mention an elderly woman. I can see one of two things possibly happening in the third line. Either the grandmother is watching over her grandson, or it is the grandmother herself who is looking through the telescope at the mountains on the moon. In either case, the image I received was an unusual juxtaposition of astronomy and an individual not typically associated with such an image.

My favorite haiku of Harter’s is one of her more recent works. Written in 1999, this haiku actually repeats some of her earlier work that never made it out of her personal files according to Higginson. It won her first runner-up recognition in the Valentine Awards from The Heron’s Nest as well.

evening rain—
I braid my hair
into the dark

I found this haiku on the Internet and it was sent to my by Higginson, where he noted that it is one of her more widely acclaimed recent haiku. I thoroughly enjoy this haiku for many reasons. My initial attraction to it was due to my connection to it. I can picture myself, not necessarily braiding, but playing with my hair after I have just stepped out of the shower.

After imagining myself within the haiku, a different image and feeling began to form. There is a sort of play on words here, in my opinion. The image of the woman braiding her hair into the dark paints two pictures for me. I see her braiding her dark brown hair in the late evening before she goes to bed. She is braiding her hair until you can barely see the bottom of the braid because it is so dark in her room. The darkness of her hair and the darkness within the room begin to blend together until you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. I also like the rhythm of this haiku; the rhythm of the rain compliments the rhythmic twisting of the woman’s hair. When someone braids strands of hair, it becomes patterned and natural after a few minutes. This makes the poem very calming and peaceful as the image of the braiding and the sound of the rain could almost put someone in a trance.

The sensory appeal in this haiku is wonderful as well. It incorporates the sound of the rain, the sight of the darkness, the feel of the hair (wet hair in my vision), and the smell of the hair as well. It seems like a woman’s hair always smells of flowers or some perfume-like scent. Furthermore, Harter’s night/dark imagery appears, along with the natural image of the night’s rainfall. The combination of the woman’s movement, the rainfall, and the nighttime atmosphere give the haiku an almost romantic feeling. A second haiku of Harter’s, which is more obvious in its romantic theme, can be found in Global Haiku on page 58.

moonlight gleaming
on the grapes—the lovers
can’t stop laughing

The imagery in this haiku is jovial yet tranquil at the same time. The image of the lovers laughing and the "gleaming" moon conveys a sense of brightness and excitement from the laughter and the love being exchanged between the couple. Moreover, the purple imagery from the "moonlight" and "the grapes" provides the scene with the serenity of an evening lit by the moon and filled with the love of two people. The nature element provided by the grapes and the moonlight complements the natural emotions being expressed by the lovers. This haiku is more than just romantic in my opinion-it borders on exotic. I picture a young couple walking through a vineyard at night. The only light is that from the moon. They are hand in hand, laughing heartily from the depths of their souls. The magnitude of their laughter matches the magnitude of their love for one another. The placement of the lovers in a vineyard is what makes this haiku transcend romance and become exotic.

One haiku that I feel has a unique combination of light and dark imagery is on page 1 of Shadow Play.

mountain thunder
between the stars

This is a beautiful haiku both in its imagery and in its wording. The phrase "mountain thunder" is interesting because it suggests that the thunder is an intrinsic quality of the mountain, rather than the storm that is brewing. The reader knows it is dark outside because the stars are out; however, the image is rather bright because of the lightning flashing and because of the light from the stars. This haiku is a perfect example of Harter’s passion for the natural world and for her sense of the night’s darkness. I see a pattern of night and nature alternating in the scene this haiku illustrates-night sky then mountains then stars then lightning. These four images mingle with each other, yet they alternate forming a pattern.
Another example by Harter that I really liked is, again, in Shadow Play.

out the train window
the night trees
darker than the sky

~ page 5

I love the image of the "night trees" being darker than the sky. It is like Harter is differentiating "night trees" from daytime trees. The wording, therefore, makes this haiku intriguing. There are no verbs in this haiku. This adds an excellent effect, especially since there is a lot of movement in it (i.e. the train), which, for some authors, would necessitate the use of verbs within the poem. I have always thought it was interesting how, even at night, you can look out across a field or forest and the tree line will still stick out against the sky. This poem conveys that perfectly.

The image I see is a train traveling through the mountains. It is the middle of the night so all the lights are off inside the train. If they were on, all you would see when looking out the window would be your own reflection and the reflection of the inside of the train. The only light is from the moon, which occasionally is passed by a thin cloud, and the headlight of the train. Every minute or two, there is a break in the mountainside, and you can tell there are trees outside. There is no definition to the leaves, and it cannot be distinguished where one tree ends and another begins (also because the train is moving too fast), but it is obvious they are out there because they are the darkness that defeats the star-laced sky. This haiku also demonstrates an appreciation of nature. By illustrating that the trees are darker than the sky, the trees have some deeper, richer quality, thereby suggesting the beauty and superiority of nature.

All of the aforementioned haiku are quite busy in their imagery. One of Harter’s simpler haiku comes from In the Broken Curve, page 85.

clearer tonight
the craters
on the moon

The simplicity of this night haiku allows it to paint a poignant picture. Again, I picture a little boy using his telescope. There is a look of triumph on his face because he can finally see something interesting when he looks at the moon. The first line of the haiku suggests that he has been trying for days to see the moon’s surface. Tonight is the night! The second image is that of the moon and its craters. This is an image much like the famous shot of Neil Armstrong bouncing on the moon. In my opinion, Harter’s astronomy haiku demonstrates just as much appreciation for nature and the natural world as her haiku about the weather, mountains, animals, and trees. According to science, the moon, the stars, and the planets were in existence before anything else. What could be more natural?

One of Harter’s more domesticated haiku can be found on page 13 of Shadow Play.

all night rain . . .
on the bed, the cat
licks his fur

Though this haiku has a different atmosphere than the previously discussed haiku, it still incorporates both night imagery and elements of nature. The rain and the cat are both from nature, and the context of nighttime is plainly stated. I enjoy this haiku for the simplicity of its image and its contrast with the complexity of the word structure. The image is uncomplicated-it is raining outside, and inside, a cat is resting on a bed licking his fur. However, the word structure and punctuation of the haiku are more intricate. The use of the ellipsis creates a forced break in the haiku. In addition, the comma in the second line inverts the phrase "the cat licks his fur on the bed", making the structure of the haiku even more complicated. While some readers may be annoyed by the heavy punctuation (which some argue disrupts the flow of haiku), I feel that it adds integrity to an otherwise simple haiku.

A final favorite of mine by Harter again comes from Shadow Play.

all night storm . . .
my room fills with
snow light

~ page 16

I am infatuated with snowstorms, so I automatically connected to this haiku. I also think that there is no prettier light than that from the moonlight reflecting off of freshly fallen snow. Whenever it snows, I open my blinds at night to let the light in from the moon and the snow. Because of my personal connection to this haiku, I really like the term "snow light". It connotes a soft, gentle glow that is delicate and precious. This is a complimentary contrast to the first line that suggests a harsher image through the use of the word "storm". The indication that it snows all night also adds to the severity of the image portrayed in the first line. I felt a progression from this haiku when I first read it. When I read the first line, I was outside. As I read the second line, I moved inside into a bedroom, almost as if I was simply stepping through a wall like a ghost. The third line illustrated a dark room, slightly lit by the white light filtering in from the snow falling outside the bedroom window. There is also a progression, not only in place, but also in the feeling of the images. The first line is hard in the image it presents, the second line is neutral, and the third line is very soft. The storm and the snow represent the nature aspect in this haiku.

Penny Harter illustrates her sensitivity to the natural world and to darkness in many of her haiku. She paints aesthetically pleasing images through the use of various elements of nature and of nighttime/darkness, while experimenting with contrasting images and different juxtapositions of words, phrases, and images. Her style is complex, in that she does not write just one type of haiku with respect to imagery, work structure, theme, or linking. It is this variety that makes her haiku appealing and applicable to many different audiences. All of these components make Harter’s work unique and widely recognized.

A Few More Of My Favorites From Shadow Play

the monkey’s face
between my hands—
winter twilight

~ page 16

the coolness of dirt
between toes

~ page 19

the snowman’s smile
melts in the moonlight—
spring thaw

~ page 22

closed bedroom door—
her shadow darkens
the crack of light

~ page 26

on my wall
two monsters fight—
shadow play J

~ page 26

Works Consulted

" Talks to Penny Harter" 14 March, 2002. <>.

Harter, Penny. In the Broken Curve. Quebec: Burnt Lake Press, 1984.

Harter, Penny. Shadow Play: Night Haiku. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Higginson, William. E-mail response interview. 22 April, 2002.

"Penny Harter Biography" 14 March, 2002. <>.

Swede, George and Randy Brooks, eds. Global Haiku. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 2000.

—Shannon Kroner

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