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 |

This degree of sharing across cultures is entirely consistent with the development of a travelling genre. Australian haiku is only one of haiku’s new homelands, and, like other countries, the haiku it writes will largely be the result of what the poets bring to it themselves. But there is also a global haiku community forming. As the number of ‘member nations’ grows so too does a global, communal poetic body and the range of views about what constitutes haiku. Certainly, poets acquainted with haiku becoming aware of each other across different cultures and languages promises much for the expansion and cultivation of the genre. But there are clear implications for the local scene, raising the question of how possible it is for both ‘world haiku’ and ‘Australian haiku’ to prosper, and even, whether or not they can in fact exist as separate entities.

The growth of the world haiku movement has occurred on such a scale, producing such an array of styles that, as Kacian (2007a) noted, it is no longer appropriate merely to ask ‘Is it a good haiku?’ but ‘What type of haiku is it?’ Haiku can now be written about nature, or not. It can include kigo, or not. Haiku can be a one-image sketch or a contrast between two or more. Haiku can be about something real or imagined. Haiku can be a combination of any of these things and more. It can even be Australian haiku. Or can it?

Encouraged by the level of innovation and diversity of North American haiku in the late 20th century, Shirane (2000) nonetheless observed some areas of concern for the world haiku movement. Due to a perceived lack of kigo and meisho in haiku outside of Japan, Shirane believed one of the challenges of ELH was to find some way of anchoring haiku “not only in some aspect of nature, but in the vertical axis, in a larger body of poetic and cultural associations”.

This communal body, the vertical axis, however, is in constant need of infusion, of new life. The haikai poet needs the horizontal axis to seek out the new experience, new language, new topics, new poetic partners (Shirane, 2000).

What Shirane may not have foreseen is the extent of the globalisation of haiku, its transformation into a transnational genre, and the speed at which transnational genres, assisted by global electronic communication, can lose their connection to local cultural bonds in favour of universal engagement. If poets are not connecting their poems to their local culture, Shirane’s vertical axis is at risk of crumbling, forced to rely for its sustenance on the exchange of universal truisms.

One of the products of the global haiku movement has been the creation of international haiku anthologies, showcasing haiku by poets from around the world. Prominent among these is The Red Moon Anthology of English Language Haiku (RMA). Running since 1996, the RMA is an annual selection of the ‘finest haiku and related forms published around the world’, as selected by a group of editors from a number of international journals, ‘without bias towards a particular school or poetic’ (Kacian 2004). While originating in North America and sourcing most of its material from there, there is a growing presence of international haijin, with Australian poets among those most prominent. Writing in the foreword to the 2003 edition, Kacian writes:

Previously, haiku poets writing outside North America represented a relatively small percentage of poets whose work was voted to inclusion. This year, we have our highest percentage of non-American poets ever . . . Interest in haiku in all its forms . . . appears to be at an all-time high around the world. More haiku is being published in print than ever before, and the amount of internet activity is astounding.

What hasn’t changed is the central focus: haiku itself. Some of the definitions are getting a bit hoary, some of the “rules” are being tested, but the limning of significant moments with beauty and economy remains the basis of our art. If people are finding new means by which to accomplish this goal, the better for haiku (Kacian ed. 2004, p. 4).

The sample below of haiku by Australian poets selected for The Red Moon Anthologies (RMA) since 2001, illustrates the full range of voices, and also the presence (or absence) of ‘Australian-ness’, which may assist us further in making some observations about the importance of the Australian connection to world haiku.

still no word
the moon
through another window

space — Rob Scott
space      (The Loose Thread, RMA, 2001, p. 60).

the cool silence
between chants

space — Sue Mill
space      (Pegging the wind, 2002, p. 54).

    dry riverbed
a pool in the tarp
of the old boat

space — Vanessa Proctor
space      (Edge of Light, 2003, p. 72).

lengthening shadow –
above her eggs the hen’s heart
beats against my arm

space — Beverley George
space     (Tug of the Current, 2004, p. 31).

  country town
a railway station
without tracks

space — Myron Lysenko
space      (Big Sky, RMA, 2006, p. 51).

    salt spray
the taste of peat
in my whisky

space — Quendryth Young
space      (Big Sky, 2006, p. 89).

snake country the length of the shortcut

space — Lorin Ford
space     (Evolution, RMA, 2010, p. 29).

  on a bare twig rain beads what light there is

space — Lorin Ford
space     (Carving Darkness, RMA, 2011, p. 28).

    war veteran . . .
lobbing grain
at his hens

space — Cynthia Rowe
space      (Carving Darkness, 2011, p. 63).

  southern humpback –
miles of ocean
pushing back

space — Scott Terrill
space     (Nothing in the Window, 2012, p. 69).


Again, like the poems selected for frogpond’s International Issue in 2001, there is little distinctively ‘Australian’ about them. There isn’t, for example, a single reference to a specific Australian place name. Excluding the senryu (which accounts for about a third of the poems) nature is the locus of most of the poems, reflecting a largely orthodox approach, with season words liberally used, though, once again, few of them identifiably Australian ‘in nature’. Proctor’s ‘dry riverbed’ is the most obvious exception, drawing a painfully familiar scene of Australia’s recent and widespread experience of drought. Lysenko’s ‘country town’ is also informed by an Australian sensibility without being uniquely Australian, and the same could be said of Young’s ‘salt spray’ and Ford’s ‘snake country’. But, in the main, despite nature and seasonal references taking centre stage in many of the haiku, and the presence of some familiar cultural themes, uniquely Australian nature is almost completely absent.1 Instead, there is an emphasis on more generic natural settings, as well as urban themes and other matters such as personal relationships.

Haiku poets are entitled to locate their writing wherever and in whatever reality they choose. Given the success of these and other poems, it seems of little relevance to international editors that haiku written by Australian poets need to be located in an identifiably Australian setting, bush or otherwise. These haiku are obviously meeting other standards deemed constitutive in the composition of haiku regardless of their country of origin, which suggests that haiku with an Australian sensibility is, for the most part, irrelevant or perhaps even undesirable, as far as international editors are concerned.

1. A more detailed discussion on cultural references in haiku, and in particular, the existence of peculiarly Australian themes, is taken up within a discussion of kigo and keywords in an earlier chapter of the thesis, and, although of considerable importance, is not the central concern of this article.