Haiku for the Heartland

[FEB. 1, 2000]  It may seem unlikely that a Lincoln dentist keeps winning international prizes for poetry written in a 300-year-old Japanese form, but to Dr. Lee Gurga it is all very natural.

Gurga’s interest in haiku began in 1966, when he discovered a copy of translations of Japanese haiku in a Chicago bookshop.  A native of Chicago, he had enjoyed the poetry he studied in high school.  But haiku made an immediate impression—it was love at first reading.

After this “discovery,” Gurga read and wrote haiku in isolation until the mid-1980s, when he found other poets who were interested in the form. 

Gurga’s skill in blending the elements of the Japanese haiku with the Midwestern experience has brought him recognition in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and even Japan.  Reviewers and editors have called him a major figure among American haiku poets and praised him for capturing the essence of the Midwestern landscape.

A poem with a distinct heartland flavor won the grand prize in the Kusamakura International Haiku Contest in 1996:

rows of corn

stretch to the horizon . . .

sun on the thunderhead

This haiku appeared in his 1997 volume, In & Out of Fog, published by Press Here, Foster City, California.  The book itself won first place in the Haiku Society of America’s National Book Award in 1998.  His latest volume, Fresh Scent: Selected Haiku of Lee Gurga, published by Brooks Books, Decatur, was the Haiku Society’s first place winner in 1999.   


[ Left:  Emiko Miyashita, Co-Translator of over 320 Haiku poems; Right: Dr. Lee Gurga ]

Most haiku have a reference to nature, Gurga says.  In fact, his own definition of haiku is this: “A short poem that uses images of nature or the seasons to present an intuitive and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  That instant of time is sometimes called “the haiku moment.”

Any reader who picks up a book by Gurga does not have to sit and puzzle out a poem’s meaning for Gurga believes that haiku should be accessible to the ordinary reader.  In fact, he sees haiku as the world’s most accessible literary form.

“It is poetry written by people in all walks of life for a popular audience.  It is not poetry written by professional poets for an elite audience,” he says.   A poem from Fresh Scent illustrates this, using an image almost all readers have seen.

a bike in the grass

                        one wheel slowly turning--

                        summer afternoon

Haiku was unknown in the United States until after World War II, but soon grew in popularity.  The Haiku Society of America was founded in 1968 and publication of the first anthology of haiku in the United States came in 1974.

Because haiku began as an introduction to a longer poem, there is an inconclusive element about it for the reader often “finishes” the poem.  Therefore, Gurga contends that “there are two arts to haiku—writing it and reading it.”


Although the traditional Japanese haiku has seventeen syllables, often in a 5-7-5 ratio, such exact syllable count is not relevant for English haiku, Gurga concludes, because of the structural differences in the two languages.  In English the number of syllables can vary, depending on the content.  

[ Dr. Lee Gurga ]

(Picture credit: Howard Kilby)

In terms of reading haiku, Gurga states that it is different from Western poetry. “The Western poet presents you with something and then tells you what he thinks about it.  Haiku presents something the poet found significant and then lets the reader find that significance.  Haiku focuses on the world around you, not on your internal state.” Gurga himself confesses that he often finds his inspiration while walking his dog, Fay, through the woods and prairie on his property.

                        fresh scent--

                                    the labrador’s muzzle

                                            deeper into snow

It is no surprise that Gurga has a long and impressive list of awards and publications, including a 1998 Illinois Arts Council Poetry Fellowship.  In addition, he has won first place in haiku contests in North America and Japan.  His work appears in at least fifteen anthologies and he has given lectures in California, Washington, D.C., Great Britain and Tokyo.

Gurga published his first volume, a mouse pours out, in 1988, his second, The Measure of Emptiness, in 1991, a third, dogs barking, in 1996 and Nine Haiku in 1997. He now serves as associate editor of the Journal of Modern Haiku, the oldest journal of Haiku studies in the United States.  He is also listed in the Directory of American Poets and Writers of Literature and is one of the organizers of the Global Haiku Festival to be held April 14 through 16 at Millikin University in Decatur.

The inspiration Gurga receives from being an integral part of the haiku community makes him want to inspire others as well. Gurga sees America today as lacking the interest in poetry that exists in Japan.  “A hundred years ago, poetry was part of life in the United States.  Almost all newspapers and magazines printed poetry, often written by people in the community.  Japanese papers and magazines still do,” he says.       As a result, he encourages the growing interest in haiku and would like to see more appreciation of poetry in America.  “The art of making haiku has enriched my daily life,” he says, “and I think poetry could enrich the daily lives of others.”

Editor’s note: Gurga and his wife Jan live in rural Lincoln with their three sons, Ben, 18, A.J., 16 and Alex, 11.  The Gurgas came to Lincoln twenty years ago because they thought Central Illinois would be a good place to raise a family, and because Lincoln had an opening for a dentist.  At present he practices at the Apple Dental Center at 415 Pekin Street in Lincoln and at 105 East Main Street in Williamsville.

Gurga’s latest book, Fresh Scent, is available at Prairie Years in downtown Lincoln.

[Joan Crabb]

[Natalie Jeckel-ed]