A Hundred Gourds 4:1 December 2014

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Australian Haiku in the Global Context

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 | page 4 | page 5 | page 6 |

The idea of genres travelling is not new. The sonnet and the elegy became important English forms after long migrations from Renaissance Italy and Ancient Greece respectively. Similarly, the migration of haiku from its Japanese origins brought with it a unique approach and new techniques to writing poetry in the West, as well as a lack of agreement and a degree of misunderstanding about its true principles. And after a long and somewhat arduous journey, Western haiku is now no longer a ‘branch’ of Japanese haiku but is in the process of becoming Western (Bjerg, 2013). This process of transformation will be briefly examined here in the Australian context.

One hundred years into its journey, Australian haiku has neither a definition nor an agreed set of primers. Australian haiku poets, still heavily influenced by the classic Japanese haiku tradition, continue to select from its various techniques, as they are understood, to adapt for their writing. Far from representing a crisis, this is, in part, a function of the inheriting culture and it is entirely reasonable that poets will experiment with what techniques are available to them. But the first one hundred years has also seen the propagation of an international haiku movement, including ELH, which has brought its own set of poetic values and seemingly endless possibilities for the genre.

In addition to finding new modes of expression within the genre, there is evidence of the emergence of distinctive traits of Australian haiku. In his review of the Third Australian Haiku Anthology (2011) Paul Miller states:

If one were to stereotype haiku in Australia, it might be to notice that a great many of the poems seem to be the result of an observation, as from a ginko walk. In addition, they like specificities over generalities, which give the poems a strong sense of place (Miller, 2013, p. 146).

The ‘generalities’ and ‘specificities’ Miller speaks of, refers to the ensconcing of globalised Western haiku in a narrowly defined set of haiku primers, the by-product of which has been a growing trend towards homogenous haiku, indistinguishable from region to region, country to country, and city to city. Australian haiku has not been able to avoid this orientation, but according to Miller, looks to be finding a way out by crafting its own set of haiku values. Miller’s views will be one of the subjects of inquiry here.

The question of the existence of a distinctively Australian focus in haiku composition in the context of the global haiku movement is germane to what now constitutes ‘new haiku’. New haiku is symptomatic of a post-national trend in ELH, in which national borders are dissolved and the haiku written by Australian poets and poets all over the globe is added to a melting pot of ‘world haiku’. In this context, many of the old rules and classifications do not pass muster as haiku undergoes its transformation to a new, definable form of Western poetry.

To get a feel for the ‘values’ inherent in Western haiku, we turn to one of the first attempts in the fifty or so years of ELH to present haiku from different parts of the world in one place. In 2001, frogpond, the official journal of the Haiku Society of America, produced an International Haiku Issue, featuring haiku from poets around the world (approximately 200 poets from 24 countries) including Australia. The unstated purpose of this issue appears to have been an ‘international exchange’ to sample the interest and variety of haiku to be found around the globe. As issue editor, Jim Kacian says, to ‘deepen the conversation’ about haiku. Eight haiku were selected from each country, the Australian haiku selected by Janice Bostok and Lyn Reeves. No submission criteria were provided so it is not clear what editors were looking for other than a sample of the local craft. For the purposes of comparison and to survey the work of Australian haiku poets appearing in this international journal alongside poets from other English-speaking countries, the following is a sample of three haiku each (of the eight appearing per country) from Australian, English and US poets, with discussion to follow:


almost winter
the press of grape leaf upon grape leaf
how red!

space — Ross Coward
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 9).

  thundering possums spill over the dry roof

space — Rosanna Licari
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 8).

    three-quarter moon
the gecko moves
from light to shadow

space — Sue Mill
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 9).


harvest moon
the cat shapes itself
in the empty pot

space — David Rollins
space      (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 21).

  wind-blown rain slotting another stone into the cairn

space — Stuart Quine
space      (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 21).

    thunder at twilight
the rusty tin roof
begins to brighten

space — Claire Bugler Hewitt
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 20).

The United States:


space — Ed Baker
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 48).

  leaves look larger
on the stream’s bottom
autumn deepens

space — Burnell Lippy
space     (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 48).

    almost winter
the golfer putts
through his shadow

space — Yvonne Hardenbrook
space      (frogpond, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, p. 48).

These haiku all represent sharply observed meditations on nature and human nature, and are characterised by the brevity and impartiality typical of the genre. On many levels, though, they mirror each other. There is a very similar look and feel to these poems. With the exception of Baker’s poem, there is a repetition of form, either three- or one-line, the layouts are generally alike, and a similar rhythm is detectable. Of most interest to us, however, for the purposes of this discussion, is the subject matter. The content of these poems is remarkably similar, even interchangeable, and it would be a hard task to determine where each of these poems originated without knowing something of the author’s background. The selection criteria for this international collection of poems clearly did not emphasise cultural references, allusions to local place names or poetry typical of the region. Very little distinguishes them as ‘Australian’, ‘English’ or ‘American’. They point to growing evidence of haiku becoming a transnational genre, crossing borders without a ‘passport’ of origin.