Black Swans and Gymea Lilies

This  essay on haiku in Australia was first published in Five Bells: Australian Poetry, Summer 2006, and can now be found online at HaikuOz. It deals with the history of writing haiku in Australia and on the development of an Australian accent in those poems: haiku that capture the spirit of the places we live in.

Black Swans and Gymea Lilies: an Australian haiku?
Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, is becoming increasingly popular in the West. English-language haiku has been described as ‘one of today’s most exciting literary developments.’

To mention haiku is to elicit one of two responses among those who are not current readers or writers of the form. Either they have never heard of it, or they remember it (and may even teach or study it) as a three-line Japanese poem, consisting of seventeen syllables and having something to do with nature. While this description may suit past translations and attempts at writing haiku in English, many changes have taken place, not only in the way we write haiku, but also in our understanding of the genre.

One of the Japanese poets I most enjoy is Yatoro Kobayashi (1763-1827), known by his pen name, Issa, or the ‘Cup of Tea’ poet. This attitude describes what I believe haiku to be – not a grand elevated art form but simple reflections on everyday life, where daily objects or events are made special by our being present to them.

Issa’s notebook

I also think of haiku as a type of nature writing, since it concerns itself with the environment where we spend our days and where everything is interconnected. Haiku express the relationships between things. For some, haiku is a spiritual practice, for some it is a mathematical exercise. For me they are simply a way to try to record and share a moment that is somehow significant in its ordinariness.

Haiku have a long history in Japan. They began as the starting verse of longer poems called haikai-no-renga. These collaborative, chained poems alternated verses of 5/7/5 syllables and 7/7 syllables, forms which themselves have their roots in the earliest Japanese poetry.

In the mid-seventeenth century Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the classical master of the genre, gave great attention to the three-lined starting verse (hokku) and whole schools of poets composed and published collections of hokku. Buson, Issa and Shiki, who along with Basho are the four pillars of haiku, all lent new and different aspects to the form. But it wasn’t until Shiki, in the late nineteenth century, that haiku emerged as a poetic genre completely independent of earlier conceptions of haikai.

Although haiku were written in Japan for hundreds of years, it was early twentieth century before Westerners discovered them. The Symbolists, the Imagists and the Beat Generation were all influenced by Japanese literature, and many poets experimented with writing haiku in English. William Carlos Williams’s famous red wheelbarrow poem is often cited as an example of this influence, along with Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

After the Second World War, translations of haiku by R.H.Blyth, who had studied with a Zen master in Japan, made them accessible to Western readers. Jack Kerouac, in Dharma Bums, has one of his characters reading volumes of haiku and writing his own. Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku also inspired hundreds of American poets to take up the form. He defines haiku as ‘ the expression of a moment of vision into the nature of the world, the world of nature.’

To write haiku in English, it is useful to have some understanding of the characteristics of traditional Japanese haiku, and to read widely the work of the masters.

The general features of classical haiku are that they contain seventeen Japanese sound units, in three lines of approximately 5/7/5. Some aspect of nature is integral to the poem, as well as a ‘season word’ indicating, by association or convention, the time of year in which the haiku is set.

Haiku give us the particular, the specific and the present – this moment, here and now. They use unadorned imagery to recreate an experience. That recreation will evoke similar responses in the reader. Haiku are perfect examples of the dictum, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ By using suggestion rather than explanation, they encapsulate a power of meaning or emotion in few words. This causes the poem to resonate, in a way often described as similar to ripples fanning outward in widening circles when a pebble falls into a lake, or the sound that continues after a bell is struck.

The strict rules relating to haiku have adapted or disappeared in their migration to the West. Japanese sound units don’t approximate to our syllables, and early translations contain extra padding that isn’t in the originals. The kireji, or ‘cutting words’, used in Japanese are verbal punctuation marks. We have no equivalent in English, but use dashes or ellipses, or other punctuation. This immediately reduces the syllable count.

Although most practitioners would say that the 5/7/5 format is no longer acceptable in Western haiku, some haiku poets continue to write in this way, even if only occasionally. If the syllable count isn’t achieved through the use of unnecessary words and repetition, and the other intrinsic qualities of the Japanese haiku are found in the poem, it may result in a haiku. It is how an individual poet meets the challenge of the form to create something fresh and new, rather than strict adherence to ‘rules,’ that creates a living haiku poem.

The Haiku Society of America has come up with the following definition of haiku:

1) ‘An unrhymed Japanese poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which Nature is linked to human nature. It usually consists of seventeen onji (Japanese sound-symbols).

2) A foreign adaptation of (1). It is usually written in three lines of fewer than seventeen syllables.’

The successful haiku will evoke a mood by giving a clearly-drawn picture that triggers associations of thought and feeling. But in just three lines of less than seventeen syllables, only the outline is given, in much the same way as a Japanese ink drawing conjures a whole picture with just a few brush strokes. The white space – that which is omitted – is as important to the reading of the whole as the parts that are visible. It is left to the reader to fill in the gaps.

ebb tide
 willows dip
 to mud                  -

From the few words given the reader can create the whole scene: willow trees growing beside a river where the tide has gone out. There is no reflected image, no bright mirror of water, only mud. It is a poem about cycles of fullness and emptiness that all things pass through.

Again, in Buson’s poem:

plum tree on the fence 
throwing its petals equally
 on either side

we are given a clear visual image of a plum tree growing on the fenceline between two properties. It shows, without stating, that nature can’t be fenced in by artificial structures, and is available to everyone, distributing beauty and bounty to all.


Although each reader will bring differing interpretations, it is this inherent quality of resonance, or ‘growth’, that makes it haiku.

Haiku with an Australian accent?

A friend sent me an article with this title when I began editing the haiku section for Famous Reporter. It has helped to shape my development of the magazine’s haiku pages over the last twelve years. It begins:
‘Although Australian poets are increasingly becoming interested in reading and writing haiku, there is not, as yet, a theory of haiku appropriate to this hemisphere and this climate.’ [Ross Clark, The Guide, December 1993].
It is interesting to reflect now on how haiku in this country has developed, what are the forces shaping its evolution, and whether current haiku practice expresses a uniquely Australian flavour.

My own journey with haiku began in the seventies when I read the translations by Harold Stewart, A Chime of Wind Bells and A Net of Fireflies. This coincided with a move to the countryside of northern New South Wales where I discovered a world alien to my city upbringing. I remember my first encounters with cows, leeches, and knee-deep mud as terrifying, but also days filled with sounds of birds and cicadas, night skies teeming with stars. Living without piped water and electricity, growing vegetables and keeping goats, I found a connection with these little poems of ancient Japan and their resonance with the natural world. Though the haiku’s structure may have been lost in the translation, the spirit of these tiny poems remained powerful. The rhyming couplets, the form in which these interpretations were rendered, were easy to memorise and some still stay with me all these years further on.

Since there’s no rice for poets on the dole,

Let’s do a flower arrangement in the bowl!

Basho – translated by Harold Stewart

Since those early days my appreciation of haiku has deepened, but its essence has remained for me as a moment of awareness recreated with clarity and simplicity. I think this is what enables it to cross borders of time and cultures so easily.

Many years later I was given a beautiful little book, Cherry Blossoms, from Peter Pauper Press, which again ignited my love for these concise poems and I began trying my hand at writing them. I had some success in the New Zealand Poetry Society’s annual competitions, with work included in their anthologies, and also with Mainichi Daily News and Poppy Seeds and Laurel Tree, the only haiku outlets I knew of at that time. On the strength of this, I was invited to give a workshop to the Fellowship of Australian Writers in Hobart. In preparation, I’d serendipitously stumbled across The Haiku Handbook, and widened my scant knowledge on the subject. Ralph Wessman then asked me to begin the haiku section for Famous Reporter. It was a steep learning curve, helped along by more experienced haijin who made themselves known to me when the haiku pages appeared in May1994. They generously shared their insights, expanding my knowledge of English-language haiku. Ironically, one of them, Janice Bostok, had lived across the hills from me when I first encountered Japanese poetry, and was publishing the first-ever haiku journal in Australia, Tweed. But I wasn’t to meet her until many years later.

Shortly after Famous Reporter’s haiku section appeared the Brisbane-based haiku group, Paper Wasp, opened its doors to wider membership and produced a quarterly haiku journal. Dane Thwaites’s Hobo, began including haiku and short lessons from Australia’s most experienced haijin, Janice Bostok, entitled ‘The Gum Tree Conversations’. Hobo also ran international haiku competitions, an event later taken up by the magazine, Yellow Moon.

Through the peer assessment and acceptance afforded by outlets such as these our haiku literature is shaped. Harold G. Henderson, one of the first translators to popularise haiku in the West, says that English language haiku will become what the poets themselves decide it will be. He surmises: ‘the first audience for any writer of haiku in English will be his fellow-poets…whatever conventions they accept will probably eventually be accepted by the general reader.’ A scan of work published in Australian outlets over the last ten years shows a trend towards simpler, more concise expression, with more emphasis on the spirit or mood behind the poem, rather than on strict rules and syllable counts.

The use of season words in Japanese haiku is another convention that doesn’t translate very well into English language haiku, and for a long time this was a major hurdle in Japanese acceptance of the foreign form. However, after much dialogue, the Shiki Salon of Matsumaya University decreed that non-Japanese haiku didn’t have to use a season word.
To flavour Australian haiku with the feel of our hemisphere and climate we draw not on the dictionaries of season words compiled by Japanese poets to indicate the time of year they are writing about, but on imagery familiar to Australian readers and which evokes the particular feel of our surroundings.

Jacarandas, for example, flower in November in Sydney and further north, signalling the start of the exam period for uni students for many generations; whales migrate north along the eastern seaboard during winter. Here in Hobart the southern aurora is visible in the winter night sky; in spring, migratory birds arrive from Siberia to feed in the rich mudflats; possums raid the stone fruit trees in late summer. The Top End has its dry and wet seasons with accompanying meteorological and physical manifestations. The way we celebrate our rituals and cultural traditions, with their own paraphernalia of images, denotes for us the time of year and sometimes the place where the haiku is set.

Wattle Winds: an Australian haiku sequence was the first publication from paper wasp in 1994. This sixteen- page chapbook was an exciting development in Australian haiku, bringing the sounds, scent and colour of our own landscape to the haiku form.

wattle winds 
combing jacaranda leaves 
into the pool
          – Jacqui Murray

veranda bed
  corrugated sky   & 
nailhole stars              
- Ross Clark

When selecting for the pages of Famous Reporter I am always on the look out for haiku that best give me a sense of the Australian climate and culture. For me, these are the poems that come from a direct and concrete engagement with the poet’s surroundings, rather than a derived or abstract experience. For example, in E.A.Horne’s poem:

Brown paddock/
Brown sheep/
Blue bloody sky.

we can sense, not only the dust and heat of drought, but the farmer’s heartache and frustration with the absence of rain, and not a cloud in sight.

A workshop with new haiku poets in Darwin in 2004 produced poems that aptly captured their unique environment, not only in terms of landscape, but also the spirit of the region. (These poems can be found on the HaikuOz website). The smell of cane fields and subtropical rainforest is evident in Bostok’s haiku, while many other haijin bring alive this country’s beach lifestyle. In the colder climate of Tasmania, haiku poets celebrate the unique wilder landscapes of their island as well as the English-style gardens that flourish there.

In December 2000, Australian haiku writers formed HaikuOz, the Australian Haiku Society, which produced the First Australian Haiku Anthology, initially as an online resource and later as a print version.

HaikuOz aimed to be a point of contact between haijin in Australia, connecting them with the world haiku community through its website, and sharing knowledge between members to develop their craft.

Haiku is still increasing in popularity with Australian poets. I recently heard of a regular ‘roo-ku’ gathering in Melbourne where haiku and haiku-like poems are read. Poam, the newsletter of the Melbourne Poets’ Union has a monthly haiku page sponsored by Blue Giraffe Press. John Knight’s Post Pressed continues to support the publishing of haiku poetry.Pardalote Press has just released three new haiku titles: Watersmeet: haiku is an anthology by the Hobart haiku group, responding to the diverse Tasmanian landscape; Measuring the Depth, haiku and haibun by Graham Nunn, captures the Brisbane and south east Queensland landscapes; and Oil Slick Sun by Peter Macrow – tender and incisive poems, mostly from an urban setting.

over the woman’s back
 /my first ever smile
/ from a baby          – Peter Macrow

Another development is the increasing number of internet sites publishing haiku and other forms of Japanese-influenced literature in English. These bring the poems to an international audience but, since they are mediated by editors from other countries, some particularly Australian aspects may not get a chance to feature in their choices. The popularity of linked and collaborative haiku sequences and renga, co-authored by poets from diverse and distant geographical regions, do promote the universality of haiku themes and responses, but sometimes results in a homogenisation of imagery. There is a danger that our distinctive voice may shape-shift into imagery as globally recognisable as international airport lounges and McDonalds restaurants, and the gains that have been made in forging our own haiku identity may be lost.

Today, haiku are written by people all around the world. Networks of friendship have developed between people who read, write, publish and share haiku. When well executed, haiku can embody truths as relevant to 21st century high-rise city-dwelllers as to nomadic Zen monks of 17th century Japan.

Contemporary haiku rarely consist of 17 syllables, may be written in one to four lines, and don’t have to be about the seasons. What they seek to retain is the brevity, clarity, immediacy and resonance of Japanese haiku and to record and share a moment of seeing.

old dinghy /
sinks under waves/ 
of dune grass                             – Lyn Reeves

Lyn Reeves is the haiku editor for the literary biannual, Famous Reporter. She has edited several haiku books and anthologies and judged international haiku competitions, and is a former secretary for HaikuOz and national editor for The World Haiku Association. Her haiku collection, Walking the Tideline is now out of print but available as a free pdf download from The Haiku Foundation Digital Library

Bird, J & Bostok, J (eds.) 2003, First Australian haiku anthology, Paper Wasp, Brisbane

Clark, R ‘Haiku with an Australian accent? : towards an Australian haiku’, The Guide, December 1993

Haiku Society of America Inc 1994, A Haiku Path, USA

Hass. R (ed.) 1994, The Essential Haiku: versions of Basho, Buson and Issa, The Ecco Press, USA

Henderson, HG 1967, Haiku in English, Charles E. Tuttle, Tokyo

Higginson, WJ and Harter, P 1985, The Haiku Handbook: how to write, share and teach haiku, Kodansha International, Tokyo

Murray, J et al 1994, Wattle Winds: an Australian haiku sequence, Paper Wasp, Brisbane 
Reeves, L 2001, Walking the Tideline, Pardalote Press, Hobart

Reeves, L 2001, ‘Haiku in Australia’ The Mie Times, vol.50, Group T.M.T., Japan

Reichhold, J 2002, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a hands-on guide, Kodansha International, Tokyo

Stewart, H (trans.) 1960, A Net of Fireflies: Japanese haiku and haiku paintings, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont

Stryk, L (trans.) 1991, The Dumpling Field: haiku of Issa, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, Athens

This entry was posted in All posts, Lyn's writing, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s