Randal Johnson: 1938–2010

Olympia, Washington

June 5, 1938 – December 21, 2010

Remembering Randal Johnson

Randal Johnson’s 1993 book, The Slant of Winter Light, begins with a quotation from Peter Matthiessen: “To live right here right now, moment after moment. So simple, and so very difficult.” If we take this to be Randal’s approach to haiku, we see this reverence for the moment in poem after poem throughout his work. Randal emphasized this stance when he wrote the following in introducing the same book:

I began writing haiku in 1961. One summer afternoon I sat under an apple tree in the garden of the house my wife and I rented in Seattle. I had just finished my BA degree and was working in a bookstore. Rustling leaves interrupted my reading, perhaps of D. T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, for this book was an exciting discovery for me at this time. Something about the late summer afternoon, the quiet and solitude of the garden, the discovery of “sabi” and “wabi” and Zen inspired my first haiku:

rustling leaves

plunk! an apple

on the bench beside me

I completed a stint in the army, more study at the University of Washington, and fifteen years of teaching English (sometimes teaching haiku) before I returned to writing haiku in earnest. I would return from walks along the Entiat and Mad Rivers (flowing into the Columbia below Lake Chelan) with pocketsful of haiku. I read all the haiku books I could get. I submitted work to haiku journals. Sometimes, to my great satisfaction, it was accepted. Interest in Haiku and Zen Buddhism went together for me. “Sabi” and “wabi” became not only Suzuki’s definitions of the basis for an aesthetic. As much as possible, I tried to make simplicity and aloneness a way of life through Zen meditation and close observation of nature.

The following are four commentaries on haiku that appear with each of four seasonal dividers in The Slant of Winter Light, each one also a comment on his haiku life:

  • Part of the challenge of writing haiku is trying to break through the traditional form to say something that isn’t trite or inane or merely commonplace. Though the subject matter is often commonplace, the haiku succeeds if a new insight or image, an unusual expression elevates it. An irony in this pleases me.

  • Like the pointillist paintings of Seurat—thousands of dots of various colors—so each haiku is a dot, a lifetime of haiku the portrait of a life.

  • My path with haiku: recording simple images of nature—plants, animals, water, the earth in every season; trying to accept my place here and now, trusting awareness of this ever-changing process of which I am a part.

  • My dog listens for nuance to know my meaning—a gentle rising tone, a harsh command. So I look at the trees, the water, the sky.

The following are selections of Randal’s nuanced haiku, all but the last from The Slant of Winter Light.

the saxophonist

warms up his keys

spring rain

spring rain

before I get the wipers on


cows on a hill top

under their bellies

summer sky

a bee sting throbbing

I lie awake and ponder

the nature of stars

drifting clouds

their shadows bending

on the hills

change from my pockets

rattles in the dryer

autumn morning

I wake refreshed

the wild bird feeder

empty of seed

slower than the rest

now and then

a big flake falls

the pencils sharpened

I stand distracted

the smell of cedar

winter lunch counter

white cups waiting upside down

in white saucers

how perfect the snow

on the river’s other side

where no people go

the patch of sunlight

the dog was lying in

has moved on

A simplicity of focus permeates these poems, a suchness of existence that serves to celebrate each observation. Such a simple yet difficult achievement, in his life and in his haiku, to live right here, right now, moment after moment.

—Michael Dylan Welch

The following obituary appeared in The Olympian on January 2, 2011:

Randal Johnson

Beloved Husband and Father

June 5, 1938 – December 21, 2010

Randal Johnson was born in Hoquiam and received a M.A. degree from the University of Washington. He was a dedicated teacher of English and literature at Wenatchee Valley College. Music was a vital part of Randal’s life. He played in local orchestras and small ensembles, was a concertmaster of the Olympia Chamber Orchestra, and first violinist of the Crusma String Quartet. Randal wrote poetry throughout his life. His poems have been published in poetry journals: Frogpond, Modern Haiku, etc.—and he published three books of poetry: The Slant of Winter Light; Kingfisher, Festooning the Snags; and Blackbird Melodies. Randal was also a fine carpenter and built his home in the Entiat and three music and art studios near his home on the Puget Sound. He was a spiritual seeker and a member of the Olympia Zen Center. He loved to hike on Mount Rainier, garden, and take photographs. He is survived by his wife, Ann Storey, and his sons, Ezra and Knute.