Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Natalie Kussart

Elizabeth Searle Lamb's Haiku

Natalie Kussart

Natalie's Haiku

Profile of E.S. Lamb



flight of the cranes
surely just dream but
this white feather

(55th Annual Basho Festival, 2001)

Who is Elizabeth Searle Lamb?

Elizabeth Searle Lamb was born in Topeka, Kansas on January 22, 1917. She graduated from the University of Kansas with majors in Music and Harp. In December of 1941, she married her husband, Bruce Lamb, and lived with him in Trinidad, Spain for two years. Because Elizabeth was only in the United States for brief periods of time through out the next few years, she did not have a chance to pursue her music career. Therefore, she began to write and publish different types of materials, and this eventually led to poetry.

In 1961, Elizabeth and her husband moved to New York. This is where she was first introduced to the art of haiku. She began to study, read, and write about this form of poetry. She became a member of the Haiku Society of America (HSA) in 1968. In 1971, ten years after she learned of haiku, she became the president of the HSA. Since this time, she has had her work published in many haiku magazines and newspapers. She has participated in many festivals and held various offices. Lamb has also been the editor for the HSA’s quarterly, which is entitled Frogpond.

Through this study, I have noticed she likes to write haiku about art and also for specific people. Today, she lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she likes to call herself a Southwesterner.

How does Elizabeth Choose a Subject?

The reason I chose to write about Elizabeth Searle Lamb is because of her approach to writing haiku. Elizabeth only writes about the "now moments" in life. She captures the moment as it is or as a sharp memory that has surfaced. This means that she never actually chooses her subjects. Instead, she lets the images of the moments somehow choose her. Elizabeth wrote a statement as the "Contributors’ Comment" in Hummingbird V:3 March 1993 about her approach on haiku.

It is to capture the moment: light on a bricked up window in Greenwich Village, faint crowing of a rooster early in the morning after a death has come, colored sails in an Amazon harbor after rain. It is to track down the real wetness of incomprehensible tears. It is to resurrect a tiny prism of memory into a moment that lives with color, scent, and sound. These are, for me, the functions of haiku, senryu, and the short lyric. Captured in the amber of words, the moment endures.

After first reading this statement, I began wondering how certain subjects "choose" Elizabeth. I think the moment can be trivial or it can be immensely important. However, it must be happening now and be vivid enough for the rest of us to see it. She mentions that haiku comes alive with color, scent, and sound. I believe these are the three key elements to making moments into "now moment". Once the reader can see the different colors, smell the air around them, and/or hear the sounds being made, it brings the haiku to life for everyone not just the author.

I would like to share a few of Elizabeth’s haiku so that it is easier to understand her method to "choosing" topics.

wind in the sagebrush—
the same dusty color
the smell of it

Across the Windharp, p. 36

I image taking a walk in a dry desert. As I get closer to home, the wind starts to blow harder. The sagebrush by my home is brittle and without leaves. It is yellowish-brown just like the dust that has blown up by it. I can smell the mustiness and dryness of the dust.

I bet Elizabeth has experienced this image many times because she lives in New Mexico. One day, while walking or looking out her window, this moment probably "choose" her as a subject for this haiku. It was nothing special, but now it is an image captured in the form of a haiku.

the toy dumpster
inches from the snowbank
spring thaw

Across the Windharp, p. 102

For this haiku, I image driving down a country road after the last snow. The white snow is starting to melt and turn brownish. Green buds are beginning to sprout from the ground and the trees, and I can smell spring in the air. As I continue down the road, I see a house. In the ditch, a red object is sticking out of the snow. I drive slower to get a closer look, and I realize it is a toy dumpster that has been left behind by a child. It has been buried all winter in the snow.

I love this haiku because it truly captures a moment. This is not something that we see everyday, but it is also something that is not very significant. However, she has captured the colorful and beautiful moment in this haiku.

Columbia, returning
from space, lands precisely
on her own shadow

Across the Windharp, p. 54

I image the space shuttle falling through the atmosphere at an unimaginable speed. As it gets closer to the ground, its shadow can be seen. Then all of the sudden, the space shuttle touches the ground exactly where its shadow had been one moment before.

This haiku is not one of my favorites. However, I decided to include it in this essay because it is something that is a big event. The other haiku, so far, have been examples of insignificant things that were made beautiful through haiku. It is also possible to record "now moments" with important events, as Elizabeth did with this haiku.

Before I give more examples of Elizabeth’s haiku, I would like to mention another way she makes haiku into "now moments". Elizabeth told me sound, rhythm, and spacing are all important when trying to truly capture a "now" moment.

First, when defining sound, I think it could mean two different things. It could be the repetition or similarity of the letters or syllables in words (assonance). Or it could mean a word that resembles a sound, such as pop, quack, or crunch. These words make us not only see a picture but hear the sound it makes.

on the winter balcony
first star

Across the Windharp, p. 31

This haiku conveys a lovely moment. I image standing on a balcony during the winter with my boyfriend. I begin to shiver so he wraps his arms around me. We both watch the sky until the first star of the night shines down on us.

Because of the way Elizabeth spelled "shiver", I can hear myself saying "burr" as I rub my cold arms. Also, I think the repetition of the letter "r" in the words "shiver", "first", and "star" makes the haiku good.

Second, Elizabeth said rhythm is important. For rhythm, I think of the way the haiku flows—the musicality of it. Does the haiku flow easily and nicely, or is it jerky? Some poets say that the Spanish haiku are nicer to the ears than English haiku. However, I think Elizabeth believes that if we find just the right words, then English haiku can also have rhythm and musicality.

by the night light
tiny spider’s tiny web
leaving it there

Across the Windharp, p. 23

I image taking a stroll around my house in the moon-lit night. As I am walking back inside, I see a small spider in his little web. The lamp on the side of the house illuminates it. Usually, I sweep the webs off with the broom, but this time I decided to leave it.

I think this haiku is particularly nice when looking at rhythm. It has a set of rhyming words, as well as a word that is used twice. This makes the haiku flow nicely and beautifully. Elizabeth could have wrote, "by the light/spider’s web/leaving it there". This would have conveyed the same meaning, but it would not have had the same rhythm.

Finally, spacing is important to Elizabeth to make a haiku a "now moment". When reading through her haiku, I noticed she does not over-use spacing and indention. She only uses it when it is important to the meaning of the haiku. I think this is an important skill that takes time to learn correctly. Elizabeth has a wonderful haiku that uses spacing to enhance the moment of the haiku.

in the hot sun
still swinging
this empty swing

Across the Windharp, p. 30

I image a humid, hot summer day. A mother and her daughter walked to the park to swing. After a while, the weather became too unbearable. The mother lifted the little girl out of the swing and held her hand as they walked back home. Although the mother was no longer pushing the swing, it continued moving back and forth a few more times on its own.
If the space was left out of this haiku, it would not be nearly as good. The space for me represents the swing going up. . . and then coming back down. It also could represent the empty seat on the swing. I think Elizabeth did a wonderful job capturing the "now moment" in this haiku by using spacing.

I would like to address one last question in this essay. If Elizabeth believes all haiku should be "now moments", can haiku ever be fictitious? Surprisingly, she still believes it can. "Imaginary moments [are okay] sometimes, perhaps, but even those, I feel, probably arise from some hidden kernel of experience," Elizabeth stated.

I have learned, through studying Elizabeth’s work, that haiku is not so much about what you write about, but how you write it. Any subject can be made into a beautiful moment through haiku. I am honored to have had Elizabeth Searle Lamb, the first woman of American haiku, as the focus of my essay. I will close with two of her haiku that are some of my personal favorites.

an old woman
ladles some kind of soup
into a carved gourd

Across the Windharp, p. 79

his voice
reading his poems

Across the Windharp, p. 63

—Natalie Kussart

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