Waterscapes & Evanescent Seasons:
Aspects of Swedish Haiku
By Helga Härle
Recently, the Swedish Haiku Society published its first all-swedish anthology of haiku, "Haiku.Förvandlingar"
In well over 300 of the 339 poems included, one finds observations of phenomena taking place in nature or some other kind of seasonal reference. In quite a few though, seasonal references are treated in a way that might seem a bit odd and could represent a trait that is typical for some Nordic countries. The recurring scenery of a summer house in winter, or the word "winter-spring" (vårvinter) that is used in several different writers´ poems, are some obvious examples of how one and the same Swedish haiku can refer to several seasons.
Consequently, when Moritake's famous haiku shows a falling blossom that turns out to be a butterfly - in a corresponding Swedish spring-haiku, what first seems to be an autumn leaf, reawakens as a butterfly…
In this context one might also note: the predecessor of "Haiku.Förvandlingar", a bilingual Swedish-Japanese anthology (presenting 100 contemporary Swedish and Japanese haiku) was named "Aprilsnö" (Snow in April).
In his cultural history "The Golden Bough" James G Frazer noted that most of the Swedish myths and many traditions center around the shift of seasons and did indeed mention the fight between summer and winter as a central theme. Though of diminishing impact, even today the most important Swedish holidays and rituals are still those that dramatize the changes of seasons. Not only Christmas, also holidays like Midsummer and Valpurgis, are pivotal. During our technologically advanced, so called postindustrial age, even new customs evolve - like the Nordic libraries recent tradition to celebrate "kura skymning" in November, when days get darker, as twilight falls already during the afternoon. ("Kura skymning" - literally "crouch dusk" - in the old peasant society denoted a custom that was not quite as seasonal. At dusk one simply sat down for a while in silence, doing nothing. In contrast, the new tradition means a day full of special events in the public libraries, mainly one or another kind of storytelling.)
Nowadays, in our modern information society, the varying length of days and nights is monitored by the television news and newspapers in connection with the weather report. The consciousness of these shifts is also reflected in some of the more common conversational topics. Around Midsummer the saying goes: now it´s turning, (now it´s getting darker), it will soon be Christmas again…Correspondingly, already some days before Christmas, the saying goes: soon it will turn, it will get lighter…
A special way of experiencing the shift of seasons is not the only characteristic trait that many of the 103 poets represented in this anthology do have in common. In 56 of the 339 poems included, one can find some aspect of waterscapes: lakes, shores, jetties, islands, fishing, boats, rivers, and so on…
(By comparison, mountains as a subject are rather rare and several of the few mountain haiku included take place in foreign settings. In a way, this might reflect Sweden´s geography and the distribution of the population. Nearly everyone lives in or nearby a waterscape of some kind - but not necessarily in the vicinity of mountains).
Shiki suggested, that once a basic saijiki, a catalogue of seasonal topics, has been established, it might become a backdrop against which varying ways of treating common phenomena could develop. Each poet´s individual sensitivity, makoto, might be adding a varying focus to reoccuring situations and events. Indeed, a quick a look at such a rich anthology as Haiku.Förvandlingar seems to confirm Shiki´s notion.
Among the waterscape-haiku there are five that deal with a rowboat, each by a different author. Three of them focus on oars - and in each of those three one experiences a different kind of silence…
In Sixten Eriksson's version, all that one hears is the motion of the oars in the water and the call of the curlew. Roland Persson focuses on one single sequence of the motion of the oars - or perhaps they are just kept still for a moment, as we observe the drops of water that fall from the oars, one by one. Finally in Stig Wetterstrand's almost mystic haiku, the oars are silent (resting? since how long? or are their movements completely soundless?) and it is "not night, but dark" (afternoon, late autumn? early winter?) Each line in his poem conveys a sort of attentive absence - central and ambigous the middle line: "the snake has left its stone".
Some weeks after the anthology "Haiku.Förvandlingar" was published, while I already had this essay in mind, the following haiku by Johan Bergstad won the Swedish Haiku Society's monthly kukaji:
inte ett ljud hörs -
den nytjärade ekan
slukas av natten
Without a sound
the fresh-tarred rowing-boat
slips into the dark
(my english translation)
Just as in several of the other haiku mentioned, it evokes a quality of yugen: the mystic, deep. It seems to come naturally with the choice of the theme. Perhaps a reason why many swedish haijin seem to prefer a rowboat to more mundane vehicles - at least in their poetry.
Besides displaying each poet´s individual sensitivity, when looking at the mentioned poems, it becomes obvious that the slightly different focus added by each also does enrich the theme, making it even more intriguing. Compare for example the following haiku by William Males (also included in the anthology) with the one quoted above:
I mörkret drar ekan
med sig en spets
In the dark a rowboat
pulling at a point
Something is still there in the dark -
a presence in the absence.