Magnolia Blossoms:
Georgia Newspapers Bring Haiku to the Peach State, 1961—1968

On the day after Christmas in 1961, Susan Myrick, the advice-for-the-lovelorn columnist for the Macon Telegraph writing under the name of Fannie Squeers, turned her overly-cultivated gaze upon “the current fad for Haiku poetry.”  The steel-eyed Southern matron derisively ranked it on the same level as “Twist music and beatnik poetry.” [1]  Well, so much for holiday cheer.
Myrick had company in her disdain for the beret and bongo coffeehouse crowd.  “There’s a beatnik doll on the market,” one joke went.  “It has no working parts.”[2]
Sydney Harris of the Macon News offered a more balanced take.  “Of course, many of the Beatniks are fakers and deadbeats,” Harris declared.  “On the other hand, if out of it there emerges a handful of men and women with something new and striking to say, with a fresh vision of society, with a challenging approach to the problems of personal existence—then it will be worth all the beards and sandals and the other nonsensical insignia of the tribe.” [3]
While the Beats did embrace haiku, the link between the poets and the poetry did not prevent the emerging 17-syllable literary structure from making its separate way into American literature.  Haiku soon found its own advocates in the Peach State.
In March of 1962, the film reviewer for WETV in Atlanta compared the opening sequence of Louisiana Story to three haiku in a half-hour primetime broadcast. [4]
With election season over and the Georgia forests turning color that year, Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson’s thoughts turned east to the autumn.  In  a November column, he introduced haiku and senryu to the paper’s readers, explaining the former as reflecting the “mystic wonder of nature” and the latter as the counterpart that “cruelly exposes reality.”  Patterson  offered a half-dozen examples in the column, including these two:
Only the sound
Of white camellias falling
A moon-lit night.
“Now then!
Right up to
The wine shop!” [5]
The editor had been introduced to haiku two years earlier when he heard the author Harold Martin and fellow Constitution writer Ralph McGill read aloud from a thin collection of translated Japanese verse.  “Martin,” said Patterson, “is a man in front of whom you do not want to shove in line.  Because he is large enough to defend himself, he reads poetry.  To see these hulking brawlers sit and read such lines as follows might even turn the stony blankness of today’s teenager into self-examination.” Patterson concluded his recollection of the haiku reading by sharing two:
Dew evaporates
And all our world
Is dew . . . so dear
So fresh, so fleeting
Fever-felled half-way,
My dreams arose
To march again . . .
Into a hollow land [6]
The thin collection to which Patterson refers in his account of the reading is the Peter Pauper Press volume Japanese Haiku by Peter Beilenson.   Two other notable works can be found in the same pages:
While I turned my head
That traveler
I’d just passed . . .
Melted into mist
Afternoon shower . . .
Walking and talking
In the street:
Umbrella and raincoat!
And so the works of the masters were first heard in Atlanta.
Patterson became a leading white voice in the South for racial equality during the turbulent 1960s.  In the dark autumn of 1963, at the invitation of Walter Cronkite, Patterson read his entire column “A Flower for the Graves” on The CBS Evening News in eulogy for the victims of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on civil rights in 1967. [7]
A second thin volume of haiku also circulated at the time, A Net of Fireflies, by Harold Stewart.  Beilenson presented his work in a four-line format to align with illustrations along the margins of the book’s pages.  Stewart chose a titled and two-lined rhymed style:
Around the bucket, morning glories cling:
I beg for water at another spring.

Between the barley’s bending ears of grain,
The path has narrowed since the heavy rain.
Translation always distorts an original.  In a front-page Constitution column in December of 1962, Ralph McGill selected a less-forced rendition of a haiku when he encapsulated the fragile state of the world by invoking Buson’s classic image of a butterfly on an enormous, one-ton temple bell:
The butterfly sleeps well
Perched on the temple bell. . .
Until it rings!
“The air today is filled with disturbed butterflies,” McGill continued in words that are just as true now as they were more than 60 years ago.  “So many bells have rung in so many places in today’s world.” [8]
The practice of haiku was considered newsworthy enough in the early spring of 1963 for the Macon News to nod in approval when Georgia Poetry Society member Stella Muse Whitehead received “an international mark in the Haiku Format” by a Japanese magazine. [9]
The Telegraph itself followed suit two years later by logging in a Comings and Goings column that Furman University’s literary magazine, “The Echo,” had published a haiku by a local resident enrolled as a senior at the school.[10]
Haiku would soon enter the lexicon and the substance of American culture.
Rudi Gernreich’s spring Haiku collection of 1967 brought the name and a minimal use of fabric into American fashion “anywhere the model’s courage—and the censors—will allow.” [11]  Georgia’s fashion editors took notice. [12]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra violinist Richard Robinson’s composition “Haiku” was performed at the Symposium for Contemporary Music in February of 1968.  The Atlanta Constitution called it “a lovely, Webernesque setting of three short Japanese poems.”  In addition to a brass ensemble, the piece featured percussion, violin, clarinet, piano and a soprano soloist.  [13]
The Atlanta Public Library opened its summer First Monday Films series that year with a showing of The Day is Two Feet Long, an eight-minute color film “recreating the poetic experience of haiku.” [14]
By the end of the decade, the poems of Basho, Buson, Chiyo-ni and all their kin were easily found on Georgia bookshelves, leaving plenty of room in the fancy parlors for the debating societies to dispute or promote the works of Richard Brautigan and Rod McKuen.  The masters were already at the wine shop.

[1] Macon Telegraph, December 26, 1961, page 13

[2] Columbus Ledger, January 18, 1960, page 5

[3] Macon News, February 15, 1960, page 4

[4] Atlanta Constitution, March 13,1962, page 10

[5] Atlanta Constitution, November 10, 1962, page 4

[6] Atlanta Constitution, November 26, 1960, page 4

[7] Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 14, 2013, pages A1, A5

[8] Atlanta Constitution, December 13, 1962, page 1.  Critics denounced the last line of this translation, contending it destroyed the essence of the poem.  National Geographic Society in Herald and Review (Decatur IL), April 26, 1962, page 10

[9] Macon News, March 13, 1963, page 9

[10] Macon Telegraph, May 14, 1965, page 13

[11] New York Daily News, February 2, 1967, page 58

[12] Columbus Ledger, January 8, 1967, page 9

[13] Atlanta Constitution, February 20, 1968, page 8

[14] Atlanta Constitution, June 23, 1968, page 24-A

A version of this article was published in the Spring 2023 newsletter of the Georgia Poetry Society: https://georgiapoetrysociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Spring-2023-newsletter.pdf


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