Favourite Haiku by Karen Peterson Butterworth

When I joined the NZ Poetry Society in the 1990s, I came to haiku as a newcomer, and was not at first impressed by the genre. Then I bought a copy of the society’s 1996 anthology Catching the Rainbow, and read this prize-winning haiku:

Catching the rainbow
On a floating thread. . .
A new born spider.

– Ruth Dallas (NZ, 1919-2008)

Of course you can’t catch a rainbow, that’s the point. Dallas introduced me to the haiku world of illusions and contradictions, and caught me as well on her floating thread. I began to borrow books on haiku. In one of them I found and copied the haiku I later quoted in the brochure for Haiku Aotearoa 2005:

little snail
climb Mt Fuji
inch by inch

– Kobayashi Issa (Japan, 1763-1827)

This haiku’s images resonated with my own life struggles, and the uncertainty (and frequent irrelevance) of reaching a destination. To my regret I did not record the name of the translator. Later I read Robert Hass’s translation, ‘Climb Mt Fuji/ O snail/ But slowly, slowly’, which, however accurate, reminded me most of a parent chiding an impatient child. After I had read more of Issa, I confirmed that the first translation best conveys his customary tenderness towards small, humble life forms.

In 1997 I attended a haiku workshop tutored by Jan Bostok. I think it was there that I first heard her famous haiku (a favourite also of Catherine Mair in this series):

pregnant again
the fluttering of moths
against the window

– Janice M Bostok (Australia, 1942-2011)

I don’t know what this haiku conveys to someone who hasn’t borne a baby, but it spoke clearly to me. The signs of pregnancy have been mounting for months, yet the presence of a new person still seems theoretical until suddenly you feel movement inside you: almost imperceptible, but undeniable! That took me 32 words to tell you, and Jan did it with nine. She also hinted at the baby’s impatience to reach the light. That’s what a master haiku poet, or haijin, can do.

Visual illusions are often stretched and laboured in modern haiku (especially those featuring ponds and moons), so my next choice stands out for its depth of meaning. In this poem, human relationships are rendered as wide and deep as the universe:

low tide –
I walk to you 
across the sky

– Jeanette Stace (NZ, 1917-2006)

Early in my haiku learning, when I was still strictly observing haiku ‘rules’, my next choice showed me how knowledge of the past can be brought gracefully into a haiku moment:

summer grasses
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams

– Matsuo Basho (Japan, 1644-1694) (trans Lucien Stryck)

Basho looks back to the vanity of hopes and actions long past. Even the sword-shaped grasses, now basking in warmth and sun, are past their spring freshness and on their way out. This poem embodies the essence of wabi-sabi – Google that if you have yet to encounter these linked philosophies, well expressed in many of the best haiku.

I hardly knew which to choose of Cyril Childs’ many haiku that I admire. Here is one of his that superbly employs a New Zealand kigo, with economy of words and a catch in the breath indicated by judicious spacing:

another bitter morning
and then –
               the first kowhai

– Cyril Childs (NZ)

Some critics regard haiku focused on human nature (senryu) as a lightweight poetic form. I disagree. In the Windrift Haiku Group’s anthology the taste of nashi, published in 2008, which I co-edited with Nola Borrell, we named the final, human-themed section ‘blackberry juice’ after the following haiku:

blackberry juice
all over his hands
and smile

– Linzy Forbes (NZ)

Every time I read this haiku I taste, smell and see the juice, feel the late summer sun on scratched arms, and warm to the affection between man and child.

Nola herself writes both senryu and mainstream haiku with acute observation, and often irony. In my next choice she has turned nature and human nature delightfully on their heads:

the tuatara stares
at the class

– Nola Borrell (NZ)

Humankind’s inhumanity towards itself is everywhere, and this subtle haiku brings it right home to our apparently peaceful kitchen table through our most evocative sense, smell:

opening a letter
from Croatia:
smell of smoke

– Tony Chad (NZ)

My next example brings us face to face with the grief that is the obverse side of love, with nice precision of language and adroit spacing:

leaving the hospital
the word

– Greeba Brydges-Jones (NZ)

Now back to nature. These speak for themselves:

night sky –
    that part with no stars
           the mountain

– Veronica Haughey (NZ, d 2008)

dusk –
up to my ears
in birdsong

for Jim Kacian

– John O’Connor (NZ)

It’s no accident that most of my favourite haiku are by New Zealanders. These haiku evoke my own surroundings and culture best. I can only imagine how a firefly looks or a curlew sounds: but I know well the sudden spring colour of the kowhai and the tuatara’s ancient stare. Also, I know (or knew) the faces and voices of most of the poets. For the record, many Australians, Britons, Americans, Canadians, East Europeans, Japanese, and others have also provided warm and enlightening company on my haiku journey.

Editor’s note: Karen Peterson Butterworth is co-organiser of the Windrift haiku group in Wellington. To see some of Karen’s own work go to her Showcase page.