John WillsJohn Wills

(4 July 1921 – 24 September 1993)

John Howard Wills was born on 4 July 1921 in Los Angeles, California. He received an MA degree from the University of Chicago in 1951, and a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 1961. For more than two decades John taught American and English literature at universities in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee and during that time, he published critical essays on T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and other writers. After the death of his first wife, he married artist and poet Marlene Morelock (now known as Marlene Mountain). They worked together on several haiku projects with him writing the poem and her creating the artwork behind the poem – drawings and photographs.

John’s earliest attempts at writing haiku were made in 1965 after Marlene showed him 'The Way of Zen' by Alan Watts. Actually his earliest haiku writing was influenced by his children's poems.  Later in 1968, a colleague gave John and Marlene some back copies of ‘American Haiku’ (which had published its last issue that May). John’s serious interest in haiku began after getting acquainted with the work of Nicholas Virgilio. As he wrote more and more haiku, his skills quickly improved and some early work appeared in 1969 in Haiku West, SCTH, Haiku (Canada), and Haiku Spotlight (Japan). Within that same year, John published his first two books - Weathervanes and Back Country. If one considers the poets publishing in early ‘American haiku’ as the first wave, John was among the second wave of  contemporary writers of English-language haiku and some of his earliest work did not follow the traditional rules. He had a very unique style of writing and according to some haiku experts there was a certain iambic meter to his style, almost like a musical flow in his haiku. Encouraged by his wife Marlene Mountain who was one of the first English-language haiku poets to write haiku regularly in a single horizontal line, John wrote some 'one-line' haiku which were later published.

In 1970, John spent the summer studying haiku in Matsuyama, Japan, under a research grant from Georgia Southern College, and in 1971, he moved with his family to Tennessee. They lived on 100 acres in the mountains of Tennessee and named their land "Sweetwater." Much of his best work was written there and he would be called by some the greatest nature poet writing haiku.

By the end of his life, John Wills had published more than 800 haiku and nine books. His haiku were published in journals and anthologies and his work still appears in articles and essays written by a new generation of haiku poets, as well as by his contemporaries who continue to cherish and admire his work. John Wills died on 24 September 1993.

Books Published:

  • Weathervanes, published by Rhoda de Long Jewell ; (Sangre de Cristo Press, 1969);
  • Back Country, photographs by Marlene M. Wills. Partial funding: Georgia Southern College (1969);
  • river, drawings by Marlene M. Wills for Georgia Southern College (1970), 2nd ed. Elizabethton, Tenn. (1976); 
  • The Young Leaves: Haiku of Spring and Summer, drawings by Marlene M. Wills. Statesboro, Ga.: Georgia Southern College (1970);
  • Cornstubble: Haiku of Fall and Winter, Photographs by Marlene M. Wills. Statesboro, Ga.: Georgia Southern College  (1971);
  • 21 haiku greeting cards, haiku by John Wills, drawings/design by Marlene Wills, 1977, self-published, TN;
  • Up a Distant Ridge, Manchester, N.H.: First Haiku Press (1980);
  • Reed Shadows, Sherbrooke, Que./Windsor, Ont.: Burnt Lake Press/Black Moss Press (1987);
  • mountain, S.E. Publishing (1993).


Awards and other Honours:

  • Appointed to the first Haiku Society Awards Committee (the Society accepted the committee's recommendations and added awards for Wills' books Back Country and river);
  •  Served on the first selections panel for Frogpond magazine;
  • First Honourable Mention, HSA Merit Book Awards for Reed Shadows;
  • John had 21 haiku selected for the 1974 edition of The Haiku Anthology, 36 haiku for the 1986 edition, and 40 for the 1999 edition.


Selected works:

The hills
    release the summer clouds
         one . . . by one . . . by one

(Back Country, Wills J., (1969)


the old field
throbs with insects ...
summer moon

(Frogpond 8:3 (1985)


autumn wind
the rise and fall
of sparrows

(Modern Haiku 18:1 (winter-spring 1987)


the river
leans upon the snag
a moment

(Reed Shadows, Wills, J.,Sherbrooke, QC.: Burnt Lake Press, 1987)


dusk from rock to rock a waterthrush

(Up a Distant Ridge (1980); The Haiku Anthology, Van Den Heuvel, Cor, ed. , New York: Norton, 2000, p.301)

in an upstairs room
of the abandoned house
a doll moongazing

(The Haiku Anthology, Van Den Heuvel, Cor, ed. , New York: Norton, 2000, p.304)


i catch
the maple leaf        then let
it go

(from Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart by Patricia Donegan, Shambhala Publications Inc, 2008)


More of John’s early haiku at:


Some articles, essays and interviews with John Wills:

  • Wills, John, "Depth in Haiku," unpublished essay (1974);
  •  van den Heuvel, Cor, ed., The Haiku Anthology, New York: Anchor Books (1974);
  •  McClintock, Michael, "A Conversation With John Wills," Modern Haiku 7:2 (1976), 6-8;
  • van den Heuvel, Cor, "John Wills and One-Line Haiku - I: A Troutswirl Simplicity", Frogpond 4:4 (1981), 30–33;
  • van den Heuvel, Cor, "John Wills and One-Line Haiku – II: One-Liners", Frogpond 5:1 (1982), 38–45;
  • van den Heuvel, Cor, "John Wills and One-Line Haiku – III: Three in One or One in Three", Frogpond 5:3 (1982), 38–46 [Correction in Frogpond VI;1 (1983), 45-46;
  • St. Jacques, Elizabeth, "The Importance of Rhythm in Haiku," Woodnotes 15 (1992);
  • Estevez, Efren, "Images of John Wills," Frogpond XXVII:1 (2004), 55-57;
  • Estevez, Efren, "Troutswirl: Art in the Nature Poems of John Wills," The Haiku Society of America Newsletter XXI:4 (2006), 12-13.




This profile was created in collaboration with John Wills’ wife the poet and artist Marlene Mountain. We appreciate her help in updating the available information on John’s biography and publications!