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George Swede Essay

George Swede
Honorary Curator, 2008–2009

Tracks in the Sand

by George Swede

Why Do We Write?

Novelists, already rich and famous as a result of their work, continue to write into old age while established poets, with almost no financial reward or fame for their work, also continue to write for a lifetime. Clearly, neither group devotes decades to their chosen vocation for only fame and glory. What, then, motivates them to keep going?

A number of psychologists have tried to explain this persistently high level of motivation. Sigmund Freud felt that it came from the sublimation of pent-up emotion resulting from unconscious conflict. Carl Jung thought it was an inborn drive of the collective unconscious. Alfred Adler believed it stemmed from feelings of inferiority while Otto Rank considered it to be the result of a desire for individuality. Eric Fromm hypothesized a need for transcendence and Max Wertheimer an inborn need to construct patterns (or gestalts). Both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow felt it came from a need for self-actualization (Woodman, 1981).

All of these theories strike a chord; they are all appealing explanations for the consistently high motivation shown by writers. But, after decades of studying this phenomenon from two perspectives, that of a poet and that of an academic psychologist, I believe the most complete answer lies with a combination of the theories of Kornei Chukovsky and Albert Bandura (Swede, 2003).

Chukovsky (1971) believed that children from the ages of two to five are linguistic geniuses. Children at this age, in their attempts to master their first language, invent words and experiment with rhyme, rhythm, and metaphor. They see this learning as play, not work. Chukovsky provides numerous examples, such as this poem by a four-year-old boy:

The raven looked at the moon—oon—oon
And saw in the sky a yellow balloon
With eyes, nose, and mouth in a round face,
Swimming with clouds at a slow pace. (p. 76)

With Chukovsky as my inspiration, I took notes whenever my sons said something unusual during their early years. Here are two utterances that startle with their poetic inventiveness:

16/7/1972, Andris, age 3 years, 10 months (in anger to his brother Juris): “I’m going to pull your bones out and swim in you.” 19/1/1973, Juris, age 5 years four months: I had a bad dream last night, a nightmirror. (Swede, 1976, 2003)

Note that Chukovsky’s example, as well as the metaphors from my sons, show a connectedness with the immediate environment—that is, a haiku-like directness with current experience. I believe that children between two and five are not only linguistic geniuses, but also blessed with the capacity for the haiku way of seeing.

When children begin school, their interest in poetic wordplay and perception declines as their attention becomes focused on how to read and write, do arithmetic, science and history, as well as how to deal with the social challenges of a school environment. A few students, however, continue to express their poetic outlook into adulthood, in spite of the many distractions along the way. They consider poetry important and believe in their capacities to grow and develop as poets. How does this happen in a world that considers athletes, actors, bankers, broadcasters, CEOs, cops, doctors, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, singers, soldiers, and tycoons much more important than poets? In my opinion, Bandura’s (1997) self-efficacy theory best explains how this can happen:

Self-efficacy beliefs are constructed from four principal sources of information: enactive mastery experiences that serve as indicators of capability; vicarious experiences that alter efficacy beliefs through transmission of competencies and comparison with the attainments of others; verbal persuasion and allied types of social influences that one possesses certain capabilities; and physiological and affective states from which people partly judge their capableness, strength, and vulnerability to dysfunction. Any given influence, depending on its form, may operate through one or more of these sources of efficacy information (p. 79).

In Bandura’s terms, the students who insist on becoming poets, despite the fact that they cannot make a living writing poetry (other than for greeting card companies), must have had repeated positive feedback about their talent. This can occur in a number of ways: from the personal satisfaction of having finished a poem one considers successful; from comparisons of one’s work with that of peers; from praising comments by respected others, especially established poets; and from the exhilaration and excitement one feels while engaged in the process of writing poetry.
Biographical sources are replete with examples of such forces at work to shape a person’s destiny for poetry. I will focus only on William Carlos Williams, someone with a recognized kinship to haiku. In his autobiography (1967), Williams states that at age 16, when a heart murmur forced him to give up baseball and running, he turned to poetry: “I was forced back on myself. I had to think about myself, look into myself. And I began to read” (p. 1).

Another person might have begun to read about archeology or astronomy, but Williams from early childhood had been raised in a family that valued language and literature: “My father was an Englishman who never got over being an Englishman. He had a love of the written word. Shakespeare meant everything to him. He read the plays to my mother and my brother and myself. He read well. I was deeply impressed” (p. 2).

Williams took the sense of self-efficacy formed by success in baseball and track and redirected it toward other areas for which he was also well-prepared—reading and, eventually, writing poems—pursuits that continued even during the rigors of medical school. According to Bandura’s formulation, this persistence was likely maintained by Williams’ sense of accomplishment when a poem was finished; by positive feedback from his peers; and, in time, from editors for literary magazines and book publishers as well as established poets.

Those of us who write haiku are even more unknown to the general public than mainstream poets such as Williams, and thus are even less likely to be motivated by money and fame. We too must have maintained a love of language long after Chukovsky’s linguistic genius stage. Most of us, however, also developed an interest in observing nature together with a Far-Eastern-based philosophical outlook involving reflective detachment (later, I describe the details of how this might have happened to me). Among writers of poetry, we seem to be a group made distinct by influences in addition to the love of language.

Why Haiku?

Once in a while I ask myself how it happened that I ended up writing mainly Japanese short-form poetry. To date, I’ve been able to identify a number of possible reasons. Taken together, they seem to explain why, almost. Because some readers have probably asked themselves the same question, I thought one person’s search for connecting strands might be interesting.

I started out as a free-verse poet, publishing my first poem in 1968 and my first collection in 1974. Then in 1976 I was asked by the editor of a literary journal to review a just-released book by the University of Toronto Press, Modern Japanese Haiku by Makoto Ueda. As I read the 400 anthologized haiku, I felt as if blinders were being taken from my eyes. I learned that it was possible to write objectively about everyday experience without serious intrusions of the ego. Such work was a tonic for someone grown weary of reading about personal obsessions, including those in my own work.

To review the book fairly, I read as much about haiku as I could. Fortunately, the University of Toronto library had many publications dealing with the form and, a few weeks later, I sent in a review that appears, to me, even now, to have been written by someone relatively knowledgeable. While studying and working on the review, I also began to write haiku. The form seemed to fit me like a favorite pair of walking shoes and, in 1977, I published my first haiku in Bonsai, a U.S. haiku periodical. To my surprise and delight, it won an award for that particular issue:

Still noticeable
among the bare trees
a TV antenna

I then became obsessed with writing haiku, churning out over a thousand a year for a while and publishing around ten percent of them. In terms of time and effort spent, I had become a dedicated haiku poet.

I felt I had a natural predilection for the haiku and a few years later discovered an attraction to the tanka form as well. But from where did this affinity come? To me, Ueda’s book was merely the spark that set it off. I suspected some other possible causes. One explanation did leap out at me. When my mother and stepfather and I emigrated to Canada from-post World War II Europe, we settled near the village of Oyama, British Columbia for three years. Oyama was named after a Japanese general who commanded forces in Manchuria during a war with Russia in the early twentieth century. Prior to World War II, Japanese came to the region to engage in fruit farming and gave the village its name. But, upon our arrival in 1947 to live with my mother’s parents on their fruit farm, no Japanese lived there anymore. When Japan entered World War II, practically all Japanese-Canadians were interred in camps with the result that their farms around Oyama were left abandoned, even for years after the war.

One of the empty, but still locked, farmhouses was across the road from that of my grandparents. I recall going by the mailbox with a Japanese name to look in the windows from which I could glimpse furniture and decorations that were of Eastern design. Perhaps this early experience helped to sensitize me subconsciously to Japanese things. And, it was not the only one. When I was ten, my family moved to Kamloops, a small city about two hours’ drive away, for my stepfather to receive treatment for tuberculosis at a sanatorium. During the two-year stay, I became best friends with the two sons of a Japanese dentist and spent much time at their home that was full of the things reflecting their heritage. Today, Kamloops has a sister city (Uji, Japan) and, according to the Kamloops city website, the relationship was initiated by the Kamloops Japanese Canadian Association.

My stepfather’s illness was too advanced for successful treatment and when he died in 1952, my mother and I moved to Vancouver, which then already had a large Asian population. During high school, two of my best friends were of Chinese heritage. In hindsight, after strong friendships with Japanese and Chinese Canadians, it was not surprising that at the University of British Columbia I studied Japanese and Chinese history for two years. To go any further, I would have had to study the Chinese and Japanese languages and decided that psychology was more in line with my abilities.

The connection to things Japanese continued after I graduated with a B.A. in psychology in 1964 and got married shortly thereafter. Although my wife and her family were British-Canadians, their lives were imbued with Japanese culture. The father was a house-builder, whose homes reflected his strong interest in Japanese design. All were built with interior Zen gardens and I recall with fondness spending time in the lovely one in the middle of their family home. Even today, one can see the father’s Japanese-style roofs and facades dotting the landscape in West Vancouver.

In the following years, the hippie culture began to blossom in Canada and, of course, it was interwoven with Asian religion and philosophy. While never a true hippie, I did espouse some of its Eastern-based values, especially after moving to Toronto, which by the late 1960s and early 1970s, had become more avant-garde than Vancouver. After my first wife and I divorced in 1969, I grew interested in writing poetry and was at first influenced by poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Keruoac and later by Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. For the most part, the work of these poets was accessible and full of strong images and was the kind of poetry to which I aspired in my writing. It also prepared me, I think, to appreciate, a few years later, the haiku in Ueda’s anthology.

But do these childhood and adulthood influences really explain my strong attraction to haiku? Why was I not drawn to other types of Japanese or Chinese poetry? Most likely, another aspect of my early life also helped to direct me towards short, sensory-based poetry. In Oyama, I was a lonely child with the closest playmate two-and-a-half miles away. For hours several times a week, I wandered with my dog through the wild hills beyond the farm, my attention riveted by hundreds of arresting things: wildflowers, grasses, thick woods with overgrown pathways, dozens of different birds, deer, skulls of range cattle, the lake in the valley below, cloudless days, stormy ones, and so on. I never formed an overarching view of the things I encountered. I simply experienced. Individual, direct memories of that time remain vivid, even now, more than fifty years later, and have been the source of many haiku.

I like to believe that I have identified my main reasons for writing haiku. For me, they lead like spider threads to the center of a web. Then again, no one can ever understand him- or herself completely and other explanations doubtlessly lie hidden to me and perhaps are obvious to others.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Chukovsky, K. (1971). From two to five (M. Morton, trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Original work published in 1925).

Swede, G. (1976). (Metaphoric utterances by my two sons prior to the age of seven). Unpublished raw data.

Swede, G. (2003). Poetic innovation. In: L. Shavinina (ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation (pp. 471–484). Cambridge, U.K.: Pergamon.

Williams, W. C. (1967). I wanted to write a poem: The autobiography of the works of a poet (Reported and edited by Edith Heal). Boston: Beacon Press.

Woodman, R. W. (1981). Creativity as a construct in personality theory. Journal of Creative Behavior, 15 (1), pp. 43–66.


This essay combines two columns from the online periodical Simply Haiku: A Quarterly of Japanese Short-form Poetry. “Why Do We Write?” appeared in 2006, Vol. 4, No. 1, and “Why Haiku?” appeared in 2005, Vol. 3, No. 4. Together, they appeared in Malyon, C. (ed.) (2007). Imagination in Action. Toronto: The Mercury Press.


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