Has New Zealand Haiku Come of Age?

By Karen Peterson Butterworth

A year ago the Haiku Festival Aotearoa was held at Stella Maris Conference Centre in Seatoun, Wellington. Some have suggested that New Zealand haiku came of age then. If so, let’s remember that coming-of-age ceremonies are a launch pad into adult life and not its destination. Back-patting will only distract haijin from their pens and haiku moments.

Influences that have brought New Zealand haiku to maturity include, inter alia, the New Zealand Poetry Society, some prominent haijin, the Windrift and Small White Teapot haiku groups, a few haiku-friendly poetry groups, the Katikati Haiku Pathway, the editor of this page and Spin/Kokako, Bravado and Valley Micropress.

But I want to focus on where our genre might go in future. All writers need an audience. To date, our audience has been mainly ourselves and other poets. Do we want to keep it that way?

In Japan, the birthplace of haiku, I’m told the genre forms a part of popular culture. Haiku is accessible poetry for the Japanese. Accessible poetry appears rare in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I believe there is a hunger for it not fully met by the publishers and funders of poetry.

Many keen readers are turned off contemporary poetry by its apparent inscrutability. Haiku are sometimes mysterious, but seldom inscrutable. Through their simplicity and brevity they allow ample space for the reader’s experience to resonate with the author’s and thus render the poem their joint creation.

Haiku won’t become popular unless they appear in places where they can be seen. I challenge New Zealand haijin to put their poetry out there for the seeing. We seldom get paid anyway, so let’s flood our newspapers and popular magazines with haiku. Get used to rejection! All writers must. Place some on library notice boards, laminate them and sell them at coffee bars and galleries.

Haiku won’t take off immediately, because of their unfamiliarity. So you could write an article about them for your local paper, with examples, or offer your expertise to your local schools. To reach adults, more haiku groups are needed. Auckland, for example, seems not to have one, offering an opportunity to a keen organiser. Only appreciation is needed. This and other webpages can supply the necessary articles, booklists and contacts.

And why not storm the official bastions of poetry too? We still have a distance to go to have haiku accepted as “real” poetry rather than an intriguing specialist hobby. Haiku can be as expressive of deeply felt human experience as any poetry. So let’s send our best haiku to the top literary journals and our collections to publishers of mainstream poetry. They will say we are not commercial. So ask them, “What poetry is?” and suggest they apply for funding for our books.

All this requires a strong confidence in our work, which is only fitting for a mature craft.

bird bath
goldfinch defends its territory
against a blackbird

– Karen Peterson Butterworth


Editor’s note: Karen Peterson Butterworth has written this article especially for the webpage. As well as being a widely published haijin, she was also one of the prime organisers of last year’s Haiku Festival Aotearoa, the first such national gathering in New Zealand. Karen lives on the Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington.

Read her Showcase page, which includes poems.