Haiku – the poetry of nature

At the 2009 Watermark Literary Muster in Kendall NSW, Sharon Dean shared her thoughts on Australian haiku as a form of nature writing. Her presentation was published in Island issue 120 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Sharon is a member of the haiku group, cloudcatchers. She has recently completed a biography of Australian haiku writer Janice M Bostok as part of a PhD in Written Communication at Griffith University. In 2009 she won the Haiku Dreaming Australia Award.

Some thoughts on Australian haiku –  by Sharon Dean

How do Australian nature writers feel about haiku, the one poetic form that concerns itself primarily with nature? The 2009 Watermark Literary Muster – essentially a conference of leading nature writers including academics, conservationists, novelists and poets – offers an opportunity to find out. The theme of the muster is The Nature and Place of Wood, which speakers generally interpret as Trees. My presentation on the evolution of English-language haiku in Australia features tree-inspired haiku written by cloudcatchers, members of a haiku group on the NSW north coast.


trees assembling

at the back fence

John Bird[i]

After tackling a common haiku misconception – namely, that in English a haiku must be written in three lines of 5/7/5 syllables – I invite the audience to focus instead on the notion that an English-language haiku is a short poem that explores the centrality of nature in life, and “crystallises (rather than intellectualises) a keenly observed moment in time”.[ii] I also suggest it’s useful to think of a haiku as a one-breath poem – in other words, a poem that spans the length of one breath.

sick neighbour
the bare branches
of her magnolia

Quendryth Young[iii]

Although the above proposals serve the purposes of my talk, they are in no way reflective of an ultimate (or even working) definition of haiku that would be widely accepted in the Australian haiku community. After all, the Australian Haiku Society (HaikuOz) embarked upon a Haiku Definitions Project more than two years ago and is yet to put forward an official description of the genre.[iv] Therefore, when seeking reactions to English-language haiku from Watermark delegates, I understand one writer’s frustration as he complains about “the difficulty of writing haiku when there is currently no strict definition of the form”.[v]

sudden wind
the lemon-scented gum
tosses out crows

Nathalie Buckland[vi]

Another criticism of the genre relates to its brevity. Sydney poet and PhD candidate, Stuart Cooke, says that although he’s written haiku at various times, he’s rarely thought of it as anything more than training, or a way to force himself to think economically. Stuart’s view is not a comment on how he perceives haiku by others – “I adore haiku by [the Japanese haiku masters] Buson and Basho” – but rather relates to where he positions the form within his own practice. “There isn’t enough space in haiku for me to be musical, or to think about rhythm in any sustained or complex way,” he says.[vii]

waratah in bloom
our postman whistles
the toréador song

Max Ryan[viii]

The seasonal element of English-language haiku – integral to traditional Japanese haiku – also comes under attack. Several nature writers feel the notion of the four seasons to be an exotic concept of little help in understanding life in Australia (a country in which, for example, the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land acknowledge six seasons, while their non-indigenous counterparts identify two).[ix] Thus, Watermark opinion reinforces the idea that season words (or kigo) will never be the focal point of Australian haiku.

after the storm
Southern Cross upside down
in the tree tops

Jacqui Murray[x]

None of these comments surprise me. After all, Australian haiku writers are still experimenting with Japanese haiku aesthetics to see which qualities work best when transplanted into the language and culture associated with our Australian environment. As founder of the Australian Haiku Society and fellow cloudcatcher, John Bird, explains:

The qualities of brevity and objectivity are firmly entrenched. [Others] being ‘trialled’ include a lightness of touch (karumi); veneration of the old as evidenced in the patina of rust, mold, weathering, etc (sabi); the valuing of imperfect, ordinary, even useless things (wabi); and the mystery of incomplete explication, a gap which the reader is drawn to fill (kugen).[xi]

barbed wire
a gum’s silhouette
admits the stars

John Bird[xii]

Tasmanian poet and environmentalist, Pete Hay, is curious about how the genre is evolving in English. Although he’s found the concision of haiku restrictive in the past, he nonetheless values the way each small poem encourages people to be aware of the world around them. Thrilled to hear about gendai haiku (contemporary Japanese haiku), he wants to learn about the way it fuses the nature poetics of traditional haiku with more overt political manoeuvring (often in relation to issues such as climate change, war and species extinction).[xiii] In the weeks following Watermark, Pete begins writing small poems that reflect elements of both styles.

a busyness of blades
forest-frozen time
a shiver that welcomes death

Pete Hay[xiv]

For some writers, Watermark affords their first significant contact with haiku. Byron Bay novelist Jesse Blackadder explains that until the conference she “hadn’t really understood haiku’s connection with nature”. “If you’d asked me I would have thought a haiku was defined by its length and number of syllables,” she says. Describing her reaction to cloudcatcher haiku, Jesse says she “felt intrigued and then very moved by the poems … Many made me give a satisfied sigh – a feeling of recognition.”[xv]

nude swim
lakeside paperbarks flushed
with sunlight

Sharon Dean[xvi]

Wamba Wamba man and Co-ordinator of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, Steven Ross, is also enthusiastic about his first meaningful contact with haiku. “I was blown away by its seeming simplicity and its power,” Steven says. “As an indigenous man the sense of time, place and of nature resonated deeply with me. I’m keen to give it a go and to learn more about other English-language haiku. I’m very attracted to its form and rhythm – its compactness but yet its expansiveness. I really don’t know how to describe it but I know I love it.”[xvii]

wind through trees moonlight comes flashing

Janice M Bostok[xviii]

Sometimes, when asked why I write haiku, I cite Rachel Carson’s advice that “the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction”.[xix] I believe the above cloudcatcher haiku embody that message, and hope they offer nature writers across a range of genres a glimmer of something worth emulating.

billabong …
a tremulous light
on the gums

Quendryth Young[xx]


[i] Bird, John, “moonrise” taken from an unpublished haiku sequence, Moonrise through trees, 2009(a). (Note: The haiku in the sequence are based on experiences Bird recalled while reading Roger McDonald’s, The Tree in Changing Light, Random House, Sydney, 2001.)

[ii] Scott, Rob cited in Verhart, Max, “The Essence of Haiku as Perceived by Western Haijin”, Modern Haiku, 38:2, Summer, 2007, available at http://www.modernhaiku.org/essays/VerhartEssentialHaiku.html.

[iii] Young, Quendryth, “sick neighbour”, in Stylus Poetry Journal, September, 2006, and also in Wollumbin Haiku Workshop, issue 3, 2007. This haiku won second place in an international haiku competition held in Romania in 2008.

[iv] For an enlightening commentary on the project, see Bird, John, “What is Haiku? – personal reflections on the exercise”, April 6, 2009, available at http://www.haikuoz.org/2009/04/what_is_haiku_personal_reflect.html#more

[v] Writer of literary fiction who did not wish to be identified, Watermark Literary Muster, Kendall, NSW, June 22, 2009.

[vi] Buckland, Nathalie, “sudden wind”, Wollumbin Haiku Workshop, issue 1, 2006, available at http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/Wksp/W-1-2006.html

[vii] Cooke, Stuart, private email to the author, July 9, 2009.

[viii] Ryan, Max, “waratah in bloom”, Haiku Dreaming Australia, available at http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku-F-flora.html#FIVE

[ix] Wikipedia, Indigenous Australian Seasons, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_Australian_seasons

[x] Murray, Jacqui, “after the storm”, paper wasp, 13:1, Summer, 2007, 1.

[xi] Bird, John, private email to the author, June 28, 2009(b).

[xii] Bird, John, “barbed wire”, op cit, 2009(a).

[xiii] For a brief history of gendai haiku with translated examples of the form see Gilbert, Richard and Yuki, Ito, “Gendai Haiku Translations”, Roadrunner Haiku Journal, VII:2, May, 2007, available at http://www.roadrunnerjournal.net/pages72/translation72.htm.

[xiv] Hay, Pete, “a busyness of blades”, unpublished haiku in private email to the author, July 1, 2009.

[xv] Blackadder, Jesse, private email to the author, July 9, 2009.

[xvi] Dean, Sharon, “nude swim, FreeXpresSion, XIV:4, April, 2007, p.15.

[xvii] Ross, Steven, private email to the author, July 7, 2009.

[xviii] Bostok, Janice, “wind through trees”, Amongst the Graffiti, Post Pressed, Teneriffe, Brisbane, 2003, p.84.

[xix] Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Mariner Books, New York, 2002, p. xix.

[xx] Young, Quendryth, “billabong …”, Haiku Dreaming Australia, available at http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku-F-flora.html#TWO.

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3 Responses to Haiku – the poetry of nature

  1. Lyn says:

    Mark Tredinnick, who has a number of reference to Basho on his website, sent me this email response, which I will also include in the quotes section.
    ‘Above all, Haiku practises a fierce and tender attention to the natural world and the place of the human heart and mind within it. “If you would learn the pine, go to the pine,” Basho wrote somewhere.

  2. Mary Mageau says:

    Haiku is one of several Japanese verse forms so beautifully suited to nature writing. The five line tanka poem and the prose/poetry form of haibun should also qualify. We can thank Basho for the latter as so many of his travel diary writings are expressed in this form.

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