Symbols of Australia in Haiku Poetry

Haiku …

… are observed details from nature or everyday life. They strive to be specific, individual, unique.

Also haiku …

… include a kigo. Kigo are ‘season words’. They are a form of symbolic communication.

Kigo in Japanese haiku

Many kigo in Japanese haiku are words for plants and animals, or natural phenomena like kinds of weather. Kigo contain shared cultural associations that Japanese haiku readers understand.

A translator’s notes can help English speaking readers understand the meaning of the kigo intellectually, but it is unlikely that casual readers of haiku in translation feel the full cultural significance of Japanese kigo.

Australian kigo?

It is probably not technically correct to use the words kigo in relation to English language haiku.

In Japanese haiku kigo are codified in quite a formal way with each kigo being related to a specific season of the year. Australian haiku writers do not have an equivalent system.

Australian haiku writers do often include a symbolic keyword, frequently an allusion to nature or the time of year, in the place of a kigo.

In the context of Australian haiku we may refer to these keywords as kigo.

‘Haiku Dreaming Australia’

As far as I am aware there has only been one serious attempt to make a list of Australian kigo, Haiku Dreaming Australia. The editor of the website John Bird writes with the Cloudcatchers haiku group in Northern New South Wales.

Symbolic meaning in modern Australia

The Japanese system of kigo evolved in a preindustrial country. At the time Japan had a strong “monoculture” due to more than 200 years of enforced isolationism.

Symbolic meanings in modern day Australia are much more complex and difficult to catalogue:

  • Australia is incredibly diverse and multicultural
  • Digital technology and streaming gives us access to a deluge of overseas cultural influences
  • Australia is a highly urbanised society and most people are less familiar with nature and the seasons now than they were in past centuries
  • Many words and phrases that are distinctly Australian now seem old fashioned and are falling out of use
  • Mainstream Australia barely acknowledges, much less understands or respects, the culture of the traditional owners of Australia
  • Climate change threatens to radically alter the weather and seasons in Australia and many animals and plants that we might use as kigo in Australian haiku face potential extinction.

My aim

Over the next year I will explore the use of symbolic keywords in Australia and make brief notes on this blog where I find examples of symbolic keywords being used, not just in haiku, but in poetry and other kinds of Australian writing, film, song, and other art-forms. 

I will also post brief reviews of haiku books that I read during the year.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku Dreaming Australia, http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku.html

Acknowledgement:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live, and where I write, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.