Haiku: Discovering George Swede

George Swede

Last winter, noticing that my poems were getting shorter and shorter as the years got longer and longer, I found myself turning to the Mother of all short-form poetry—haiku. I read voraciously its anthologies and journals, its how-to books. Wherever I looked, one haikuist in particular seemed to be looking back at me: George Swede.

He was like the person you keep running into who doesn’t say much, but what he does say sticks to you with the imprint of affinity.

alone at last

I wonder where

everyone is

A spotless mirror. Our desire to be alone pushing against our inability to be alone. Add to that, the solitude of those eight words connecting.

Traditionally in the West, we remember moments and write stories to get to those moments. In haiku, that strange import from 17th century Japan, compliments of Zen master Basho, the moment itself is flash-frozen in time, and dialogues with the silent white space on the printed page, that mysterious estuary into which the moment’s energy empties beyond explanation.

Swede, the 81-year-old Latvian-born Canadian psychologist whom for many years was a “university prof” at Ryerson University, continues to write haiku at his home in Toronto. Ideas still come quickly despite his diminished energy, but he finds he has less patience with the writing process now than in the past.

“If ideas don’t come quickly enough, I move on to something else. Thus, my daily morning writing time has shrunk to a half hour or less (from an hour or more.)”

Cognitive slippage

half the grand glacier

already in the bay

Swede has published more than 20 volumes of haiku and has been translated into 23 languages, among them Farsi and Norwegian, Spanish and Hungarian, Japanese and Ukrainian.

One of Swede’s great strengths is his tonal dexterity. His humor, for instance, is at times veined with melancholy:

            leaving my loneliness inside her


As he thinks

of another haiku—she thinks

of another man

He is at home as well with surrealism:

empty baseball field

a dandelion seed floats through

the strike zone

Basho’s karumi (lightness) can define much of Swede’s work, but the darkness is never far away.

I didn’t know much about his Latvian background. I knew was born in Riga in 1940. The Russian Army invaded Latvia that year. The Nazis invaded a year later.

I phoned him one afternoon and asked him many things, beginning with his early life.

“My father was shot by the Nazis when I was two or three,” he said evenly. “My mother said he was involved with the underground. My mother soon got involved with another man. His name was Arnold Swede. He adopted me. We escaped Latvia at night in a yellow truck. We drove through this forest toward Germany, ironically. There was a pistol on the dashboard. I still have a strong memory of that.”

So that, I thought, marks the beginning of how a Latvian boy becomes Canadian haiku master. In an email he mentions seeing the destroyed buildings in the Ukraine today, and how it reminds him of “the ruins in which I wandered as a child.”

Providentially, Swede’s second wife, Anita Krumins, a haiku writer like himself, was born to Latvian parents in a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. They have been married 52 years.

The Swede’s arrived in Canada in 1947. They went to live with his grandmother and step-grandfather who had a farm in Oyama in British Columbia. Three years later, Arnold Swede died of TB, and he and his mother moved to Vancouver.

“I don’t understand,” I said, “how poems like yours, so lightly held, could emerge from a childhood like yours.”

“My step-grandfather, Henry Stoddard, played a vital role in shaping my life. He was a gentle, kind person. Also, there was my grandparents’ dog Laddie, a Newfoundland Lab Mix. Afternoons I’d roam with him to a nearby forest and through open grazing lands with cattle skulls on the ground.”

I pressed him a bit more about his transition. He answered a bit more.

“I have always nurtured a connection with the immediately perceived no matter where I am at in the moment—in a forest, in the center of a large city, or in my study. This comes from a childhood spent largely alone. It grounded me.”

I’ve been able to find only one poem by Swede dealing with his birth-father’s death. A tanka (traditionally a 31-syllable, five-line poem going all the way back to the seventh century Imperial court of Japan), it appeared in his 2016 volume, Helices.

Nazis shot father

and flung his body into

a mass grave—

wildflowers, butterflies, bees

on the memorial mound

It was preceded by this more Swede-sounding tanka.

I search the obits

for once-good friends—

our garden’s

daily births and deaths


Though familiar with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg through a mutual friend, he kept his distance from the haiku of the Beats influenced by Zen Buddhism.

“I didn’t like being bound by the rules of any institution. Actually, the haiku form itself puts any writer into a Zen like mode.”

Swede’s aversion to rules puts him at odds with haiku traditionalists as well. There were tense moments when he was invited to teach Canadian school children haiku in the late 70s. He holds that the 17-syllable, 5-7-5-line Japanese haiku structure that is taught in Canadian and American classrooms, and culturally acknowledged generally, is misguided.

“Japanese haiku has almost always been written in a single line arranged in a column, as the Japanese language flows vertically, not horizontally. A 17-syllable haiku in Japanese is

about 12 syllables in English. A 17-syllable haiku in English is seen as too long when translated into Japanese. So, it’s ironic, this emphasis on the need for 17 syllables.”

He told school children to stop worrying about 5-7-5. Teachers were dismayed at having to endure their “educational tool,” as Swede describes it, being dismantled before their very eyes.

after defining haiku

each of us at our

own urinal

World events may have darkened Swede’s light side, but when we spoke, and he found himself unable to recall a single specific incident as an itinerant haiku teacher to school children, he surrendered to a long burst of hopeless laughter.

“COVID has brought Anita and me even closer than we have been in all our years together.

“Because of the pandemic, we became largely housebound since 2020. We have everything delivered, including wine (both suffer heart and lung irregularities.) Anita has prepared all the lunches and dinners, and I all the breakfasts. Anita has become a gourmet home cook who tries to avoid repeats as much as possible.”

The man she cooks for is a gourmet poet of the moving mind. He cooks very small meals, in many different flavors, almost always on a low flame:

One button undone

in the clerk’s blouse—I let her

steal my change


I forget my side

of the argument


a grain of sand

in my umbilicus

the theory of everything

Dining on Swede’s haiku, you may find that what you taste is yourself.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet. He has spent much of the last five years writing and assembling poems about his mother’s Alzheimer’s. In 2019, Presa Press published a volume of his poems titled, The Road To Canaan. His work has appeared in Parabola, Tricycle, Spirituality & Health, Sojourners, The Moth (Ireland), Tears In The Fence (UK) and other publications.

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