Robert Spiess was a familiar presence in English-language haiku for over 50 years, both as a haiku poet and as the longtime editor of the influential magazine, Modern Haiku. Richard Straw wrote this remembrance of Bob.
Bob Spiess was a fine poet, editor, thinker, correspondent, canoeist, friend, man. His presence will be missed, but his influence will never fade.
When Bob died in hospice in Madison, Wisconsin, at 9:00 p.m. on March 13th at the age of 80 and a half years, he was comforted by friends. At the end, it’s important that others help us make the transition from life to death. When I heard that Bob had died, my first thoughts were of my father, who died of cancer on April 9, 2001, also in hospice. Walt Straw passed away in Marion, Ohio, as my mother, sister, brother-in-law, and I were by his side. After 4 days without an IV or any food and just ice chips on his lips and increasing amounts of morphine to ease his pain, my father went quietly in the morning after Palm Sunday.
His breathing ends;
the sound of birds waking
from an open window.
Mark Alan Osterhaus, a friend of Bob’s who was with him at his end, e-mailed Emiko Miyashita on March 13th:
Yesterday, we had a beautiful spring day in Madison. Another friend of Bob’s
(Tim) and I actually rolled Bob’s hospice bed outside and on to the patio.
The sun filled his face, the fresh spring air filled his lungs, and the sound
of birds filled his senses.
Bob’s time is not long………..but I can assure you that his journey to
the other side has been as peaceful as possible.
Antonio Porchia wrote in Voices (Knopf, 1988) an aphorism for those who encounter death firsthand: “I saw a dead man. And I was little, little, little…My God, what a great thing a dead man is!” Porchia wrote three other aphorisms that Bob, had he read them, might have incorporated in his many Speculations:
Out of a hundred years a few minutes were made that stayed with me, not a
A hundred years die in a moment, just as a moment dies in a moment.
In its last moment the whole of my life will last only a moment.
In fact, Bob was on a similar wavelength when he wrote in his New and Selected Speculations on Haiku (Madison, 1988, pp. 9 and 10) the following thoughts:
There is no haiku moment of true awareness if the previous instant is not dead, if the ego still clings to what it has named in order to feel secure
in its desire to perpetuate itself. The haiku poet needs must live only by
The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future—and
thus a true haiku is vitally important because it is a moment of total and
genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.
If Bob wrote a death poem, I hope that it will be shared. Here are a few of the spring haiku from Yoel Hoffmann’s Japanese Death Poems (Tuttle, 1986). The last one is especially appropriate in a memorial for Bob, who combined so much of the East with the West.
the smells of things…
moon above plum blossoms.
—Sohoku, age 64, 1743
The melting snows:
of eighty years.
—Kenju, age 80, 1759
a taste of nectar!
Water in the spring.
—Kimpu, age 60, 1726
Clouds of flowers
fall not knowing
east or west.
—Yaohiko, age 81, 1777
In early 1988 when I was editing Pine Needles, the North Carolina Haiku Society’s quarterly newsletter that ran for just a few issues in the late 1980s, Bob sent me a letter containing some practical advice about how to edit a haiku journal. At the time, Modern Haiku had been in publication for about 20 years, and Bob had been its editor since 1977. Bob included such useful advice in his letter that he allowed excerpts from it to be used in the autumn 1988 issue of Pine Needles (Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 10):
An Editor’s Brief Notes About Haiku
Perhaps I can very briefly mention a couple of points about haiku that can apply to most haiku poets. One is the overworked theme—such as the moon’s reflection being shattered in the pond or puddle, or the empty swing on the vacant playground or rocker on the porch being moved by the wind (plus a plethora of others). I realize that these can be a now-moment for a haiku poet, but the poet does not realize how many others have written and continue to write the same thing.
An editor realizes this over the years, especially when they come in practically every day. Certainly nothing wrong with ordinary events, but they need a fresh angle of perception or a deeper appreciation or deeper expression than in the usual situation of the more or less mere recording of the perception.
The other point is the juxtaposition of the entities in a haiku. They should not be too closely related in “texture” or content, but also must not be so distant from each other as to be mystifying for the reader. There needs to be some sort of felt-significance between them.
Also, a haiku should not sound prosaic or choppy when read; it seems to need a sort of “hidden rhythm” that accords with the theme—this can only be felt, not ratiocinatively explained.
Later in 1988, Bob probably chose to publish my “dark shoreline” in Modern Haiku because he loved water so much.
one last cast
with the wind
In July 1989, I sent him a few haiku/senryu, as well as a letter with details perhaps about my recent experiences canoeing and fishing here in central North Carolina. In reply, he accepted one senryu (“some of the others were close ones,” he noted in a parentheses), sent a new $1 bill, and wrote the following:
I appreciate all the information in your letter. Very little canoeing—drought & very hot & deer fly time!
By the way, I’m sure his haiku correspondence was overwhelming at times, so any reply beyond a short note was probably a chore for him. In May 1990, a year after giving up the editing of Pine Needles in order to focus on my growing family and my day job as a technical report editor, I ordered a copy of his New and Selected Speculations on Haiku (Madison, WI, 1988). On the first inside title page, he wrote the following text:
Keep the canoe moving
—or just drifting
In February 2001, I sent Bob a brief letter updating him of my activities during a 10-year hiatus away from haiku and asked about what he’d been doing and writing. In reply, he thanked me “for my informative letter,” asked what I’d been writing, and included a price list indicating the availability of his publications. Just 2 of his 10 books were out of print, including his first book, published in 1966 and titled The Heron’s Legs. (See Notes below.)
Along with an order for a copy of his A Year’s Speculations on Haiku (Madison, WI, 1995), I sent him a short note and 15 versions of one haiku draft about a lone Eastern bluebird chanting a plainsong in a pecan tree on a false spring day in January. It was sent just for sharing, not for publication (or as a submission for publication). In reply, he sent by airmail his updated book of Speculations with the following text written on the first inside title page:
With myriad best regards.
May Bob now freely coast on calm waters, untroubled by life’s myriad problems.
Besides editing Modern Haiku and writing numerous book reviews, Bob Spiess wrote the following books:
The Heron’s Legs (1966)
The Turtle’s Ears (1971)
Five Caribbean Haibun (1972)
The Shape of Water (1982)
The Bold Silverfish and Tall River Junction (1986)
New and Selected Speculations on Haiku (1988)
The Cottage of Wild Plum (1991)
A Year’s Speculations on Haiku (1995)
some sticks and pebbles (2001)
Bob gave Paul David Mena permission to republish some of his speculations on this Speculations page.