An Australian Voice?

Recent discussions with some of HaikuOz’s ‘greats’ – notably patron Janice M Bostok and co-founder John Bird – have revealed a common thread of concern. Namely, that some writing of haiku in Australia has, unfortunately, slipped away into the phenomenon of the pretty postcard. In other words, that the spirit and subtlety, that once placed Australian haiku apart from that so frequently written elsewhere, has been submerged to a more mundane, more prosaic form of writing which, in one of my darker moods, I see as:

three ducks
in perfect formation
across a cloud wall

(or to be more strictly ‘correct’: three autumnal ducks/in quite perfect formation/ across a cloud wall)

This opinion is bound to be greeted by indignation, offence and, perhaps, horror. That I accept. I also apologize. I beg, however, that my discussion be accepted in that spirit. As a starting point for further discussion. What I am advocating, is a rethink, a re-examination, of how we are writing haiku in Australia. A move away from the formulae that accept phrasing such as ‘autumn evening’, ‘winter day’, ‘summer afternoon’. In other words, that we look again at the craft of our writing and the spirit of haiku – particularly as it applies to Australia.

Australia is the world’s largest island. Much of the continent is not subject to four distinct seasons. Thus writing haiku in Australia should, at least sometimes, be expansive and always different. It is a fact that most Australians are city dwellers. It is also a fact that this can, in the words of a Russian artist I was once blessed to know, inhibit our horizons. Australian eyes are more accustomed to adjusting to our vast expanses than they are to simply accepting them. But this should not inhibit our haiku adventures. Given our unique sense of place in the world we have every right to be expansive if the mood so takes us.

Learning from Japan is right and proper for those starting out on haiku journeys. Looking to America can be instructive. The worldwide web has brought everyone else into our field of vision. But, it should not trap us in the derivative. As Basho found, eventually one has to strike out on a journey of one’s own. On a journey of discovery. That this journey will sometimes be difficult and subject to great hardship is a given. Most learning - that is the learning that metamorphoses into one’s own art - does not come easily. But when ‘it’ does come it carries its own immortality. Thus from Basho we also receive this gift:

Think not
of yourself as nothing
The Festival of Souls*

(*O-bon, summer festival of prayer for departed relatives.)

Yes, it requires explanation. Thus, some may argue, this haiku only works within the context of its own culture, that of Japan, or for those familiar with the purpose and significance of the festival. Were that true no haiku could ever draw on cultural context. There is nothing wrong with providing explanations. More fully, in a dictionary of definitions, it might be explained as O-bon, the summer festival for the souls of the dead when those still alive remember those who are gone with prayer enuring no one is ever truly forgotten. Like the Japanese master, Kazuo Sato, who pleaded 20 years ago for more Australian haiku.

Is the quest for international publication inhibiting our usage of Australian context? Are we frightened that the Australian voice will not be understood? Children have no such inhibitions and still manage to achieve international publication. In the 1997 edition of Haiku by Children, Jessica McLaren, then aged 11, wrote of a …

Stampede of black bikes
Roaring toward the pub for
A yarn and a beer

While Jessica Zabawa, also then 11, spelt her vision out.

Aussie barbeque
A big keg and all the drunks
Shouting crazy things

Christina Mann, at age 12, was more subtle.

Noisy lorikeets
Gobbling berries from the trees
A fiery sunset

All three have also managed to convey both freshness and surprise through their observation. Their haiku come as a delight. There is a lightness of touch, a lack of artifice and an embrace of the haiku form without the obvious baggage of precedence. It is also obvious that each of these children was not on a mission to write ‘great’ haiku. They were simply embracing the moment of creation with real enthusiasm, an obvious lack of artifice, and - dare I say it - some measure of joy.

Haiku should not plod. It should not always have one eye fixed on what came before. In a country such as Australia it should have plenty of scope to strike out in fresh directions and continue to surprise.

Jacqui Murray

Historian, broadcaster and haiku poet Jacqui Murray holds a doctorate in Asian Cultural Studies, is a founder of the PaperWasp group, a founding editor of PaperWasp journal, an international haiku judge and has been published throughout the world.