Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2003

Courtney Ruffner

John Wills

Courtney Ruffner

Courtney's Haiku



John Wills: Great American Haiku Writer

As my hunt for an author began for my contemporary author essay, I realized that I needed to find someone with whom I could greatly connect to their haiku. My search ended when I stumbled across John Wills’ haiku in Cor Van Den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology. I found that I tended to like the nature aspect, which virtually all of Wills’ haiku capture. His haiku drew me into my childhood memories and for that reason, I wanted to know more about the author behind the haiku.

John Wills was born in 1921 and perished in 1993. A great deal of his seventy-two years was spent writing and discovering the world of haiku. His journey was not spent alone, however, as he wed Marlene Mountain. Together they combined haiku projects with him writing the poem and her creating the artwork behind the poem. Their ideas of haiku differed to a certain point as Wills did not exactly follow traditional haiku rules. His early haiku was written based on his love of English and American literature as well as children’s poets. Wills thoroughly enjoyed children’s poems and Chinese poems and as mentioned before, was never a concept person. He was independent to a certain extent and liked to do things his own way.

After writing haiku for several years, Wills’ first book, Weathervanes, was published in 1969. Shortly thereafter in the same year, Back Country emerged. Since that time, he has had several other publications including River, The Young Leaves, Cornustubble, and Up a Distant Ridge. Most of his books not only included his haiku but also illustrations by his wife, Marlene Mountain.

Many haiku experts have said that Wills had a sort of iambic meter to his haiku style. The reader could read the haiku and not only get the sense of the haiku but could feel movement in it as well. Meter is rarely employed in haiku but Wills often used it to create a subtle musical flow in his haiku. Such is the case in the haiku:

dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush

                                                  The Haiku Anthology, 301

This haiku flows much like that of English poems. Although Wills did not like to follow the haiku writing rules per se, I believe this poem employs a bit of Zen principle. This haiku gives the image of a river with the mention of the bird, the waterthrush, yet does not say that it’s actually about a river. This is a bit of wordlessness, one of Eric Amann’s Zen principles from his Wordless Poem. Wills has created the picture of a river but in not so many words.

After studying a bit more about Wills, I discovered that many of his haiku were written during a time when he and Marlene lived in the mountains of Tennessee. This explains why most of his poems are about rivers and the beauty and simplicity of nature. Through further research of poems, I found that many of Wills haiku not only employ the wordless element of Zen but also use many seasonal words. Whether it is a haiku in which he states the season or is speaking of an animal or something else that represents a season, the seasonal element is often there. Such is the case in one of his autumn wind haiku.

autumn wind . . .
the rise and fall
of sparrows

The Haiku Anthology, 288

As with most of John Wills’ haiku, this one is very visual for me. I am taken back to when I was young and I would go outside with my dad to fill up the bird feeders. We would look up and see all of the birds just soaring above us, waiting for us to leave so they could eat. I can just picture the sparrows being so light that they do not even have to try to fly as the wind carries them up and down, up and down. This also gives me a sense of the iambic measure that Wills is known for. With the up and down motion it is somehow carried forward as well, creating a progression as in a musical number.

River, Wills’ third book, River, is solely based on river haiku, just as the name would imply. There are a few haiku in this particular book that I feel are worth mentioning due to the natural element as well as wordlessness and iambic meter. The first of these haiku comes early in the book and in my mind is about a fisherman.riding

with the autumn leaves
this morning

This haiku is also very visual for me. I can see a fisherman out very early in the morning. His line is cast and he’s just waiting patiently but as he waits, the current begins carrying the boat downstream along with anything else that happens to meat the misfortune of falling into the water. In this case that would be the leaves. I especially like the way that he spaced the second line of the haiku. It’s as if the boat is the second line and the leaves are the first and last just waiting to catch up and surround the boat. I also get the sense of meter with this haiku as there is a certain motion created by the water.

Another haiku I really liked from River reminded me of a canoeing trip I took with my family as a child.

the river
drops among the rocks hammers
down the shallows

Although I’ve only been canoeing once in my life, there are a few things about the trip that I distinctly remember. One of those things was the fact that whenever we were in deep water, we could look down and see the large boulders underwater as the water was very calm and still. Then in the shallow water it was very rapid flowing and just deep enough for the canoe to pass over the small pebbles below. This haiku captures the idea of a mountain river very vividly. I enjoy how he uses the word ‘hammers’ to describe the madness created by the river as it becomes rapids. The scene created by this particular haiku was very intriguing to me and I think that is why I like it so much.

Of all of the haiku written by Wills, there was one that I found that caught me a bit off guard as it is a bit out of the ordinary for his style of writing. Regardless, I still enjoy the moment captured by the haiku and think it should be included here as a contrast to the nature haiku.

in an upstairs room
of the abandoned house
a doll moongazing

The Haiku Anthology, 304

I like the way that Wills personified the doll in this haiku. When I first read the haiku I was not at all expecting for the last line to be about a doll. The haiku completely caught me off guard and I think that is what is so intriguing about it. The way the doll is just staring outside at the moon brings the doll to life in a way and therefore makes the house seem not as abandoned. I’m not quite sure where Wills was going with this haiku but I like it nonetheless.

One of the final haiku that I have chosen to include here is yet another dealing with water however in this case, I do not see a river as in most of his other haiku but an ocean shore.

water pools
among the rocks then pools
and pools again

The Haiku Anthology, 293

Once again, Wills has used a bit of iambic meter in this haiku. The motion of the water is like that of lilting notes of a song. I can see the in and out motion and hear the water moving almost like the sound of a stringed instruments bow going back and forth across the strings. I just really like the way that this haiku uses that meter to create a more vivid image in the readers mind. It adds that extra little bit of pizazz that a reader might not realize upon first reading but might later realize after the fact. This haiku gives me the sense of the waves coming in and out from the ocean and drowning the rocks only to leave them uncovered and dried up in the end.

Finally, there is one haiku I must write about as it is my favorite of all of the John Wills haiku I found. This particular haiku reminds me of last summer when I had the opportunity to live just outside of Seattle and go hiking in the mountains.

the hills
release the summer clouds
one by one by one

The Haiku Anthology, 296

On one occasion, my aunt and uncle took me camping in the mountains and we went on a hike through the woods along a mountain lakeshore. As we rounded a corner, I could see the foothills all around. I normally don’t notice many details but the picture was so surreal that I took it all in. I can remember the clouds floating around the foothills. I could see them for a moment and then they’d disappear behind the next hill only to emerge from the other side. As I read Wills haiku, I was immediately reminded of that instant. After my research of Wills, I can see that this haiku also has a hint of the iambic meter with the emergence of each cloud portraying a musical beat.

After researching John Wills, I now see just how unique his writing style is. He is one of the few writers who use iambic meter. Perhaps I like to think he uses it more often than he actually does but that could be the music major in me. I found it quite interesting to see how he uses the meter considering I originally chose him based simply on the fact that he wrote about nature. Little did I know that I would find the musical connection there too. I am glad I chose John Wills for my author study as I learned a great deal about him and also about the use of meter in haiku.

Works Cited

Van Den Heuvel, Cor, ed. The Haiku Anthology. New York: Norton, 2000

Wills, John. River. Elizabethton, TN: Folsom Printing Company, 1976


Additional information on John Wills can be found at the following websites:

—Courtney Ruffner

©2003 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors