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Honorary Curator Lorraine Ellis Harr

Lorraine Ellis Harr
Honorary Curator, 2001–2002

by Ce Rosenow

Lorraine Ellis Harr was an important figure in the history of American haiku. She lived in Portland, Oregon, where for almost four decades she worked tirelessly to promote the understanding of haiku and to encourage the reading and writing of haiku in English.

Opal Lorraine Ellis was born on Halloween, October 31, 1912, in Sullivan, Illinois. Her father left the family when she was three years old. Lorraine was the youngest of three girls, and they moved with their mother to Cooperstown, North Dakota to live for several years. Lorraine’s mother had a sister who lived in Portland, and the sister’s husband promised Lorraine’s mother a job if they came west. When they arrived, they discovered there was no job. Her mother had $20 to her name, but with her tailoring experience she found work at a cleaners. After high school, Lorraine also worked at the cleaners before getting married. She had two sons, Lynn (1935) and Gary (1939). After several years of being a widow, she married again. That marriage ended in divorce. In the 50s, she was diagnosed with melanoma on one leg and was told she had three to six months to live. Around this time, she met Carl Harr through a mutual interest in Scientology. Carl was about twenty-five years younger than Lorraine, but he continued to ask for her hand in marriage until she agreed. They were married in 1958, and had a happy marriage until Carl’s death in 1994.

Lorraine Ellis Harr was already writing children’s stories, inspired by the tales she told to her two sons, when, in 1963, she heard about a haiku contest sponsored by Japan Air Lines. She studied up on the form and submitted one of her early efforts. Her poem was picked as one of the honorable mention winners and that encouragement set her on her haiku path. She once revealed in an interview that she often wrote more than one hundred haiku in a day.

In 1972, Harr founded the Western World Haiku Society, one of the first English-language haiku societies in America. This group drew its members from all over the United States and from many countries around the world. Harr worked closely with many influential Japanese poets and formed lasting friendships with a wide circle of poets. Many haiku writers answered in a poll done in 1985 that Harr either published their first haiku, or that her influence and instruction taught them about haiku.

Harr organized the Western World Haiku Society contests and edited both its newsletter and six anthologies of Western World Haiku Society Annual Contest Award winners. She led haiku workshops and lectured on haiku at venues throughout the Portland area, working closely with such organizations as the Japan America Society of Oregon and the Portland Japanese Garden.

Harr also published articles about haiku in newspapers, literary and educational journals, and other magazines. Always interested in developing the best ways to teach English-language haiku, she focused many of her educational articles on the pedagogical issues of teaching haiku in American classrooms. In 1972, she took over the editorship of Haiku Highlights from Jean Calkins. She renamed the journal Dragonfly: A Quarterly of Haiku and published it from 1972 to 1984 (by comparison, Modern Haiku began in 1969, and the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond did not start publication until 1978).

As an early and well-respected American haiku journal, Dragonfly established Harr’s reputation as an editor with a sincere interest in circulating only the best examples of English-language haiku. Due to her identification with the magazine Dragonfly, some Japanese poets began to call her “Tombo,” which is Japanese for dragonfly. She adopted the name for herself and for the Tombo Haiku Group that she founded in Portland as a way to mentor new haiku poets and to support poets who had been studying with her for many years.

Through her writing, editing, lecturing, and teaching, as well as through her voluminous correspondence with poets around the world, Harr encouraged a traditional approach to haiku. As is demonstrated in her critical writings such as “The Isn’ts of Haiku,” “Haiku: The Playful Phrase,” and “Guidelines to Haiku Writing,” Harr emphasized an approach that is grounded in the Japanese history of the genre. Her goal was to help readers avoid perpetuating the “misconception that haiku is a little poem of 5-7-5 syllables all about nature that has caused our textbooks to be riddled with much misinformation.”

In her own poetry, she used a wide range of season words (kigo, in Japanese) and often wrote seventeen-syllable haiku that break evenly in lines of 5-7-5 respectively—though not nearly as much as some people believed. Harr was also interested in a certain degree of experimentation achieved by testing the limits of traditional haiku. In some instances, she experimented with the formal qualities of the poems. For example, she was one of the first poets to work with one-line haiku, publishing a collection of them in her book, Sundowners. In other instances, she experimented with arrangements and themes. In Pathways of the Dragonfly: Seventy/Sevens, she published seventy haiku sequences, each containing seven haiku, while Tombo presented a collection of 226 haiku about dragonflies. In fact, most of Harr’s book-length haiku collections tended to work with a single theme or group of themes.

Harr published fifteen books of poetry, most of which are collections of haiku. However, in addition to writing haiku, she also wrote senryu, linked verse, tanka, haibun, free-verse poetry, cinquains, and children’s literature. Her second-last book, Walls of Silence, presented a collection of tanka written in memory of her husband, Carl Harr. And her last book, Under the Roan Cliffs (2005), cowritten with Brad Wolthers, featured linked verse focusing mostly on nature and cowboy-related themes.

Lorraine Ellis Harr died at 9:45 p.m. on Friday, March 3, 2006 in Portland, Oregon. She was 93 years old.

Books by Lorraine Ellis Harr

Cats Crows Frogs & Scarecrows. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1975.

The Red Barn: Variations on a Pastoral Theme in Haiku (For My Mother, Myrtle Hickman Ellis). Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1975.

Tombo: 226 Dragonfly Haiku. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1975.

Ripe Papayu & Orange Slices (After the Chinese). Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1976.

Snowflakes in the Wind. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1976.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1974-1975. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1976.

The Selected Senryu of Lorraine Ellis Harr. Kanona, N.Y. : J & C Transcripts, 1976.

A Flight of Herons: Haiku Seascapes & Seasons. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1977.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1976-1977. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1978.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1978. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1979.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1979. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1980.

Sundowners. Manchester, NH: First Haiku Press, 1980.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1980. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1981.

China Sojourn. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1981.

Editor. The Anthology of Western World Haiku Society 1981. Kanona, NY: J & C Transcripts, 1982.

Pathways of the Dragonfly: Seventy/Sevens. Salt Lake City, UT: Middlewood Press, 1986.

Editor. Frog Bites. Portland, OR: Pond Stars Press, 1993.

Walls of Silence. Irving Street Press, 1998

Under the Roan Cliffs: A Collection of Renga. Mountains and Rivers Press, 2005. [With Brad Wolthers]

Modern Narrow Roads to Matsushima. [publication information missing]

Poems for Peter K. [publication information missing]

Poems for Sarah J. [publication information missing]

Selected Haiku by Lorraine Ellis Harr/Tombo

No other sound—
just Spring rain dripping
through wisteria

                                                                   Spring moon;
                                                                   ferns uncurling between
                                                                   the river rocks.

Under the window
all night long, lovesick cat’s
amorous yowling.

                                                                   Tide pools;
                                                                   Under this rock too is something
                                                                   that crawls away.

Running from the sun
shadows of the shore bird’s legs
. . . lengthening

                                                                   This midday heat!
                                                                   The dry nets hang stiff
                                                                   smelling of fish.

how to explain
the ways it looks—dragonfly
on Queen Anne’s Lace

                                                                   Redwing blackbird—
                                                                   one short shrill cry of alarm
                                                                   rattles the cattails

Autumn sunrise;
At the edge of the birch woods
clumps of goldenrod

                                                                   Here in the garden
                                                                   mending the patched old scarecrow
                                                                   . . . another season

sundown shadows gather on the ribs of the dairy cows

                                                                   Midwinter gloom—
                                                                   she turns on the lights
                                                                   in her doll’s house


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