Breaking the Haiku Mould, or Breeding to a Bloodline

The article below by Janice M. Bostok first appeared on It relates her experiences with discovering and developing haiku as a pioneer of the form in Australia. (Lyn Reeves)

In the latter half of the 60s I was newly married and had begun to have my family. I was isolated, living in the north-eastern corner of Gippsland, in Victoria. I had always been interested in writing, so decided that now would be a good time to begin by writing readers stories for the Australian Womens Weekly.

I was quite successful and because I contributed a number of stories on a regular basis I actually developed some fans who wrote to me each time I was published. One of my fans thought she was doing me a favour by placing my name in an American pen friend magazine. Well, you can imagine! In one week I received over five hundred letters. I sorted them out by choosing those who said they were also trying to become writers. That left about twenty women whom I began to write to regularly.

After a time one woman said she thought I should be able to write haiku, because of the way I described my home in the bush. By this time my husband and I had moved to the northern rivers area of New South Wales (where I was born and where I felt more at home). I had to sheepishly write and ask the women what haiku was. As way of explanation she sent me the small Peter Pauper book of classic translations in English. I fell in love with haiku. I had never read poetry quite like it. There was no posturing, no pretence, no ego waving! This was real life. This I could relate to. For example Bashō's

midday nap / 
placing my feet against the wall 
/ how cool it is

But no one I knew had heard of haiku. Not even the local school teacher at the one teacher school where my children attended. So I began to read and study by buying books from America, where they seemed to know something about it. A couple of the women I wrote to had actually had haiku published. I was sure I could do that, too! The first haiku I wrote was accepted for publication in the USA by a small magazine.

In 1971 I was being published overseas. Still no one that I knew had heard of haiku. I remember attending a mothers club meeting at the local school. To break the ice we were asked what our hobbies were. When it came my turn I thought that there was no point in saying haiku, so I said poetry instead. Simple enough, I thought. There was dead silence. Then a voice from up the back of the room said: That's breeding chooks, isnt it?

At the time I was breeding corgi dogs for show. So I understood bloodlines. And, I knew that POULTRY was the breeding of chooks. However, it did give me an idea. If I looked at the writing of haiku like breeding animals, I could have my own bloodline.

So what is my bloodline? Beginning with Bashō- (the greatest Japanese stud), then Shiki, the modern haiku poet who rejuvenated and saved the Japanese haiku from extinction, then I follow with Hekigodo and Ippekiro (two of Shiki's followers). Next I bring in the English language haiku poets. My first and greatest influence came from the American writers Michael McClintock and Marlene Mountain. Marlene Mountain leading me to the one lined haiku.

In breeding terms this showed me how to breed a shorter, sharper, smarter type of haiku.

insects rattling in dry grass

At that time in Australia I began reading Robert Gray's work. His short poems, if not always haiku, were definitely haiku-like and seemingly influenced by the Japanese form. I was fortunate to meet Robert Gray in Sydney in 1976. His work has also made a lasting impression on me.

Later I learned that a number of writers in Australia were interested in haiku: Norman Talbot, who was born in England; Norman Stokes, an Australian who travelled to Japan on business trips; the American Bob Jones; and from Perth, John Turner, who was also born in England. More recently I have had contact with Adelaide Shaw who was being published in Modern Haiku in the USA, as I was, in the 80s. And, of course, we have Andrew Landsdown. But few of these poets have been known as haiku writers. Very few of them have been published in specialist haiku magazines. I set out from the beginning to become a haiku writer.

In 1972, knowing nothing about editing and publishing, I decided to edit and publish a haiku magazine from my home in Dungay, northern New South Wales. I called it TWEED and advertised for haiku poems. I received lots of haiku submissions from America, and England, but no haiku from Australia. What interest there was, was sadly bad haiku-like verse, or mainstream poems from those who had hoped TWEED would become another general poetry market. A bad example!

natures teardrops fall / 
watering flowers with love / 
raindrops from above

Most of the so called haiku were in strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern and rhymed. They were top-heavy with simile and metaphor and personification. This was not what I had been learning from the then modern pioneering haiku writers overseas.

The Victorian influence still clung to haiku in the 1970s. Every second haiku (sic) I received had one line which said: Harbinger of Spring! It began to drive me crazy. If I could have found that harbinger of spring I would have shot the little begger!

It may surprise some to learn that TWEED published the work of many well-known poets: Dorothy Porter, Robert Gray, Larry Buttrose, Andrew Taylor, Les Wicks, Lyndon Walker, Rae Desmond Jones, Dane Thwaites, Chris Mansell, and many more.

Because haiku had been discovered by diplomats and merchants, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the English language translations were naturally influenced by the poetry style of the day. It is thought that William N. Porter gave us the three lined haiku in rigid 5-7-5 English language syllables when he first translated haiku into English. It was thought that occidentals needed to have a translation which closely resembled their own style of poetry, which at that time was Victorian rhyming verse.

The Japanese haiku is written in one line, down the page. There are three sections which can be seen in 5-7-5 Japanese sound symbols. But these sections or phrases are not written in lines as we write poetry in lines. They were placed in lines so we, the foreigners could more easily understand that such a short line was a poem!

This tradition was then carried on by other translators such as Kenneth Yasuda, Harold G. Henderson, R.H. Blyth and Harold Stewart. The Australian Harold Stewart actually translated many traditional Japanese haiku into rhyming couplets. Was our haiku-translating Harold Stewart really Ern Malley?

Bashō's old pond poem:

Old pond 
/ A frog jumps in
 / Water sound

He translated as:

The old green pond is silent, here the hop / Of a frog plumbs the evening stillness: plop!

I personally resent the idea that I would not understand a simple image in one line. In other words, these translators thought we westerners were too stupid to understand a succinct image. I think it a cheek that someone made that decision for me, years before I was born!

For breeding to a standard this form would probably be put-down at birth and not let breed on!

The Japanese translator, Kenneth Ikeda believed that translations of Japanese haiku should merely be rendered in free verse, of no more than four lines. This method would certainly give a closer, more faithful translation of the original. But it would not, however, provide the basic structure for the haiku to develop into a regular form in the English language.

In breeding terms this one would probably have turned out to be the heinz variety of mongrel.

Shiki, one of the pillars of Japanese Haiku Literature is believed to have saved haiku from extinction. At that time in history the western free verse poem was so popular in Japan that haiku was in fear of becoming extinct. By modernising it and freeing it from traditional conventions, Shiki saved it, to let it live for many more years. His idea was to write as the impressionist painters painted. To go out and write haiku in a sketching method. This captured the moment as it was happening.

Another writer, Seisensui, believed because haiku has the one pause within it, a haiku should be written in two lines. Ippekiro brought free-metre haiku to its pinnacle. This meant that free-metre haiku did not have to strictly adhere to the 5-7-5 pattern. Gyomindo, who was the haiku editor for the magazine Shikai believed that haiku should simply be a one lined poem. And, more recently Nakagawa who founded Poetry Nippon, also believed that haiku should be a one lined poem in English.

An example of a modern Japanese poem written by Hosai 1885-1926:

coughing, even: alone

Marlene Mountain is an American minimalist artist. She was married to John Wills, a very well-known haiku poet. She became interested in haiku and the rest is history, as they say. I met her on a trip to the US and stayed with her in the mountains of Tennessee. Her ideas, and her work, have influenced me greatly.

Most modern writers, of English language haiku agree that the English syllables are longer than the Japanese onji or sound symbols. Most Japanese sound symbols consist of one or two letters. An English syllable such as through is very long. Therefore, to get the immediacy and impact of haiku imagery in English it was soon realised that haiku should be shorter in English. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that haiku in English should consist of seventeen syllables or less. The stress being placed on less.

A number of successful writers now write in one line. Marlene Mountain decided to do so very early on in her career. I believe, whether one likes or hates Marlene Mountains work, (because she is a well-known feminist and her work is often political) she is the only English language haiku poet who has developed the mirrored, or classic translation of Japanese haiku in English, on further. Most English language haiku writers are still writing mirrored reflections of Japanese haiku as we have been given them in translation.

For example a very early one of Marlenes:

the old man mends the fence his father strung

When some event or cultural tradition is adopted into another nations psyche, it is necessary to internalise the original tradition and make it ones own. This takes time, and change. It has to adapt to current local conditions, be able to be assimilated into previous traditions, with some credibility and sincerity, and be accepted by new generations in any ongoing conditioning.

The persistence in continuing to mirror Japanese haiku can be clearly seen when writers stubbornly use cherry blossoms and Buddhist temples in their Australian haiku. We live in the best country on earth. We have wonderful imagery everywhere. The English language is a beautiful language. We should be using it in exciting and modern ways. We write haiku about kookaburras, kangaroos, rotary clothes hoists, holdens, akubras, and the mountains and terrain of our own country.

We do not claim to write Japanese haiku.

For those who think that the western writer has tainted the Japanese haiku and spoilt it. Let me tell you about a young Japanese woman, Madoka Mayuzumi, who reads her haiku on Japanese tv, to the backdrop of surreal video images. She writes in one line: fair enough, but to be different she writes her one line HORIZONTALLY as we do in the west. Her work is considered so radical it was thought that she would be expelled from a conventional Japanese Haiku Club. So dont let anyone tell you that we in the west have muddied the waters for Japanese haiku. There have been many developments since the nineteenth century in haiku, in Japan.

The classic, traditional three lined haiku poem which we see translated into English was taken from the seventeen century in Japan, and dropped into the twentieth century in the west. We owe it to our own culture and literature to develop this wonderful poem into an English language poem, with the spirit of the ancient Japanese haiku. We have come a long way from the 5-7-5 mould.

In the right royal fashion I say:


This article is the record of a talk given at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2002. It was picked up by Billy Marshall Stoneking and posted to his website in 2003.

The Four Seasons, Japanese Haiku translations by Peter Beilenson. The Peter pauper Press: New York, 1958.
Article on Madoka Mayuzumi: The Australian newspaper Magazine, May 25-26 1997. By Robert Garran.
Editor, Hiroaki Sato, ONE HUNDRED FROGS. A Collection of translation of Bashō "old pond" haiku.
Thistle Brilliant Morning, translation from the Japanese by William J. Higginson. Byways Publications, England.
The Old Tin Roof, Marlene Mountain. Haiku, Senryu and Dadaku, 1976.