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Monday musings on Australian literature: Japanese poetry in Australia

September 19, 2011
Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Haiku by Suiin Emi, along the Path of Literature in Onimichi, Japan

Papa Gums loves to give me clippings of obituaries that he knows will interest me. Last week, from his hospital bed, he gave me one for an Australian poet I’d never heard of, Janice Bostock. She was, according to the obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, “one of Australia’s leading writers of Japanese poetic forms”, and won awards here and overseas. She particularly loved haiku.

Haiku, I must say, was the only form of Japanese poetry I had heard of until my first trip to Japan in 2006 when, on the railway station of our son’s tiny town of Tsugawa, we met an ex-teacher at his school who was heading off to her annual tanka conference. Tanka? Well, we discovered that tanka is an older Japanese verse form than haiku, and its basic structure is 5-7-5-7-7 “onji” (which we roughly translate to “syllables”). I guess most people reading this blog will know that haiku’s structure is 5-7-5. And here endeth the lesson on Japanese verse forms because the story is far more complicated than I’ve presented here, both in terms of these forms and other forms I haven’t mentioned. You can Google if you want to know more!

Bostock, who is briefly mentioned in the Wikipedia article on haiku in English, described haiku as “one-breath poems”, meaning that each poem “spans the length of one breath”. She also, and this was another new thing to me, practised a variation of haiku called “one line haiku”. Here is one quoted in her obituary:

no money for the busker I try not to listen

The obituary says that Bostock created the market for haiku in Australia by founding a journal called Tweed. She also wrote – and this of course appeals to me – The gum tree conversations. This was a series of articles aimed at showing “the relevance of haiku to the Australian landscape and experience”. Eventually her work led to the foundation of the Australian Haiku Society in 2000, of which she was patron at the time of her death. She was clearly a busy, engaged and passionate woman.

And so, haiku is alive and well in Australia … and it seems appropriately so. John Bird, who co-edited The first Australian Haiku Anthology with Bostock, has described haiku as follows: “a brief poem, built on sensory images from the environment. It evokes an insight into our world and its peoples.” As I understand it, haiku tends to involve the juxtaposition of two ideas or images in a way that a relationship is drawn between them. Australia, with its stark, dramatic environment, its odd vegetation and its strange creatures, must provide excellent subject matter for this sort of writing. Here is an Aussie haiku by E.A. Horne:

Brown paddock
Brown sheep
Blue bloody sky.

You can feel the pain of a farmer facing drought! It’s from an article first published in 2006 in the Australian poetry magazine, Five bells. Reeves, the author, says that “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”. I’m no expert in haiku, but it’s a form that appeals to me – because of this brevity that gives rise to a spareness, an attempt to pare to the essence of a thing. There’s no opportunity in haiku for effusive or loquacious explorations!

Tanka poems show a similar restraint and so, because it’s nicely appropriate, I’ll conclude with one of those:

our front yard gum
grown from a sapling
to a giant –
all those black cockatoos
fair exchange for a lawn

(Michael Thorley, Eucalypt Issue 1, 2006)

Are you familiar with – and do you like – these tiny poetic forms?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 10:35 pm

    More, more! *claps*

    Also, I’ve ascertained that the haiku I told you about a month or so ago was by Issa:

    This dewdrop world,
    Is a dewdrop world,
    And yet.

    (or tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara.)

    And it seems we can get tattooes of it via this website

    • September 19, 2011 11:12 pm

      I like that … the “and yet” ending is inspired.

      • September 19, 2011 11:45 pm

        And so bittersweet, when you know the story behind the poem!

        • September 20, 2011 12:27 am

          I’m guessing it’s about one of his children’s deaths?

        • September 20, 2011 8:23 am

          Oh yes, sorry, I s’pose I shan’t blame you for not entirely remembering when I babbled to you about it last month :P The death of his young daughter, I believe.

  2. September 19, 2011 10:48 pm

    Love the Horne effort – very Aussie :)

  3. September 19, 2011 11:38 pm

    Express a feeling
    In a haiku short and plain,
    Can be most succinct.

  4. September 21, 2011 5:04 pm

    Poetry really isn’t my thing, but I do like an interesting obituary. Indeed I’m in the middle of writing an obituary related post myself. Great synchronicity.

  5. September 22, 2011 9:08 am

    It’s all there to read today! British chemist and author John Glasby (who I hadn’t heard of before)

    http://astrongbeliefinwicker.blogspot.com/2011/09/john-glasby-and-badger-books.html

  6. Anita Patel permalink
    September 22, 2011 8:19 pm

    I love these wonderful distilled forms of poetry and so have most of the students in my English classes. These tiny poems acknowledge the extraordinary in the ordinary and imbue the simplest moment with glorious light. William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheel barrow is a haiku of sorts and possibly the most exciting poem in western literature. It is as if Matsuo Basho passed the baton to the modern American poets who intuitively understand that the moon, the worm and the chestnut are as significant as each other and that “poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits” (Carl Sandburg).

    • September 22, 2011 9:10 pm

      Thanks for this Anita … it’s great hearing an Aussie poet praise the form. I’m not much up on American poets, but have just checked out the William Carlos Williams poem and I can see what you mean. Love that Sandburg quote. Clearly I must get more into the American poets!

  7. September 24, 2011 4:58 am

    I love haiku and find it is a form of poetry that people who claim to be intimidated by poetry can both happily read and write. I “sponsored” a haiku contest for poetry month at a previous employer and while reluctant at first people eventually got into and had great fun. I’ve heard of tanka before and I suspect I have read it but if you had asked me to explain it I wouldn’t be able to. The Australian haiku is marvelous. I think I like the Thorley best because as a gardener I am quite familiar with those fair exchanges.

    • September 24, 2011 8:38 am

      Ha, yes Stefanie. Love your appreciation of fair exchanges in the garden. How great to have sponsored a haiku comp. I think having a form like that which is not too rigid gives people who are nervous a bit of a chance. Have you seen that book of haiku summarizing book plots? I should perhaps do a brief post on it.

      • September 27, 2011 2:37 am

        The book of haiku story plots sounds familiar, I may have come across a blog post somewhere about it once. It is not a really recent book, right?

        • September 27, 2011 5:38 pm

          Right .. can’t put my hands on my copy now but it would have been a few years ago now, maybe early 2000s?

  8. March 27, 2012 7:36 am

    Hi there, my haiku “blue bloody sky” was first published in Famous Reporter, a lit magazine out of Tasmania that strongly supported Australian poets writing haiku. Nice to see it popping up again in your blog (although it has taken me a while to catch up with it!).

    • March 28, 2012 10:57 am

      Oh, how nice to hear from you e a horne. Your poem (haiku) made me smile. Glad you didn’t mind my using it … I’m always a bit nervous about copyright and poems. I don’t usually quote poems in full but that’s a bit hard with haiku!

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