Haiku diplomacy

I have just returned from a trip to Brussels, where an international haiku seminar arranged by the Haiku International Association was held at the Permanent Swedish Delegation on Friday, 24 January. The President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, was among the participants and delivered a much appreciated speech on haiku, seen from the perspective of a European haiku poet. The one-day seminar went under the title “Haiku in Europe and Japan Today”, and included speeches on haiku in Germany, UK, Netherlands, France, Croatia, Sweden and, of course, Japan.

In his speech Van Rompuy said he was a ‘politician who had become a haiku poet, not a haiku poet who had become a politician’. He said he discovered haiku poetry in 2004 and has composed haiku ever since. It suited his personality, he said. being a poetry of simplicity and harmony. He then more or less coined the phrase ‘haiku diplomacy’, meaning that reading and writing haiku could be a useful tool for international decision makers to get another perspective on things.

As for my own speech, I attach it below in case someone is interested:

“Haiku in Sweden

As was the case in many other European countries, the interest for haiku in Sweden was greatly stimulated by the books of Reginald Horace Blyth (1898-1964). His translations and interpretations are easily recognizable in some of the first Swedish books on haiku poetry. Another source of importance was Miyamori Asatarô (1869-1952), whose Masterpieces of Japanese Poetry, ancient and modern (1936) and An anthology of haiku, ancient and modern (1936) found their way to Swedish libraries. Yet another source was the books by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), where you could also find several haiku in English translation.


Swedish archeologists and explorers had for many years had a focus on China, leading to the establishment in 1926 of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm. Through the research by sinologists and linguists like Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978), poetry from East Asia initially came to be interpreted as Chinese poetry. Tang poetry became greatly appreciated and the short poems by poets Li Bai (Li Po, 701-62) and Du Fu (712-70) had a far greater influence on Swedish readers and poets than Matsuo Bashô (1644-94) and Yosa Buson (1716-83), who were yet to be fully discovered in the early 20th century.


This all changed with the publication of the book Haiku: japansk miniatyrlyrik (Haiku: Japanese miniature lyrics) by Jan Vintilescu (1923- ) in 1959. The book only contained a limited collection of the most representative Japanese haiku poets in Swedish translation, but it was published at the right time, when interest in traditional Japanese culture again was on the rise and no longer overshadowed by what had happened during the second world war. The book somehow opened the door to a world that had been shut for at least two decades. Combined with the growing interest for zen and Japanese poetry elsewhere in the West, stimulated not least by the publication in the same year of the book Zen and Japanese Culture by Suzuki Daisetsu (1870-1966), the early 1960s became a period when things Japanese gained more and more attention. And when the Tokyo Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964, not only athletes and their coaches went to Japan, also journalists and writers.


However, the growing interest for Japanese poetry was not limited to haiku. Tanka gained as much attention, if not more, mostly thanks to the many translations from English by the writer, poet and translator Per Erik Wahlund (1923-2009).  He published several books, always keeping the syllable counts of 5-7-5 or 5-7-5-7-7. He was a skilful master of poetry and his skill in finding poetic expressions while also keeping the syllable count perhaps even made other poets loose some of their interest in trying to compose haiku and tanka themselves. Japanese poetry somehow first became the exclusive art for the select few, much in the same way that zen tended to be seen as the esoteric form of buddhism it was not.


Parallell to this development was the radical political movements that spread through the West in the late sixties, mainly in opposition to the Vietnam war, but also as a kind of radicalism that turned against the established norms in our societies, also in poetry. Everything was questioned, including the established forms of poetry. However, haiku became a literary form that trascended politics. It was admired both by representatives of highbrow culture and the radical students.


An intersting fact is that in 1959, the very year Vintilescus book came out, the 2012 Nobel laureate in literature, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer visited his friend, the poet and psychologist Åke Nordin, who was then the director of  a juvenile prison. In a letter of appreciation, which was sent in the form of new year’s greeting, Tranströmer wrote nine short poems, calling them haiku. They were later published as a small book in 2001, titled Fängelse (Prison). The poems are closer to senryû than to haiku, but they follow the 5-7-5 format. Among them were for instance


När rymmaren greps

bar han fickorna fulla

med kantareller

When the escapee was cought

his pockets were full

of chanterelles




Felstavade liv -

skönheten  kvarlever som


Misspelt lives –

the beauty remains as



Later, Tranströmer published several other haiku, although his main production has always been free verse. Of the more recent ones, there are a few that include expressions which can be classified as kigo, for instance



spända i köldens rike

norr om all musik

The power lines

tightened in the realm of cold

north of all music




Och blåeld, blåeld

reser sig ur asfalten

som en tiggare

And blueweed, blueweed

rising out of the asphalt

like a beggar


There are many Swedish poets who write and have written poetry that could be said to follow the haiku idea, be it in free verse or some kind of bound verse. Sweden is a relatively large country, geographically, with a small population of only some nine and half million people and nature has always been present in Swedish poetry, in all its beauty and ferociousness. But most of all, poetry has always been an essential part of our culture. Nordic mythology is full of poetry. You see it in the early poetic Edda and you are struck by it in the poetry of the Finnish epic Kalevala, which, by the way, contains several episodes reminiscent of Japanese mythological stories.


The soul of Scandinavian poets has been described in an intriguing way by the Swedish poet Werner Aspenstöm (1918-97). In his poem Själen i Norden (The Nordic Soul) he writes


O dessa mörka skogar inom oss

där jättarna slumra.

Det som vi kallar själen

är bara en vandrande solfläck

under träden, en uthuggning

dit det snedställda ljuset når.

Oh, the dark forests within us

where the giants slumber.

What we call the soul

is just a wandering sun spot

below the trees, a clearing

reached by the slanted light


It is an expression of fascination with both the beauty and the fearfulness of nature. This duality can also be found in movies by the famous director Ingemar Bergman (1918-2007) and you find it in the poetry of troubadours like Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795), who drank himself to death from love of life as much as fear and fascination of everything reminiscent of nature. You also find it in the famous lines of the tragic poet Stig Dagerman (1923-1954), who before killing himself wrote that “to die is to travel a bit, from the branch to the solid ground”.


Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that modern Swedish haiku also keeps this duality, both the admiration of the beauty and power of nature, and the fascination with the fragility of life. In Ingemar Bergman’s movie The Seven Seals, the main actor plays chess with the devil. Tomas Tranströmer followed a similar path when he wrote


Döden lutar sig

över mig, ett schackproblem

Och har lösningen

Death leans

over me, a chess problem

And has the solution


Somewhere in the Swedish drama and heavy philosophizing there is, however, also humour, perhaps not as light as in the poetry of the early 15th century Japanese haikai poets, but in the same way it takes life and death, from the lighter side. Lars Granström (1953- ), a skilful haiku poet, wrote the following poem after seeing a funeral procession passing a very specific road sign:


Statsbegravning -

Gående hänvisas

till andra sidan

State funeral -

Pedestrians are asked to cross

to the other side


The Swedish Haiku Society (SHS) was formed in 1999. From the start a very limited number of members participated, but the society quickly grew and now has at least a few hundred members. It regularly publishes a magazine called Haiku. The chairman of the society is Kaj Falkman (1934- ), who has written several books on various topics. In one of them he introduced the haiku of the second Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-61). Hammarskjöld was tragically killed in a plane crash in Africa in 1961, but after his death it was discovered that he had written a number of haiku, posthumously published as Vägmärken (Markings).


The year after its formation the SHS published the bilingual Swedish-Japanese anthology Aprilsnö (April snow, Shigatsu no yuki), a collection of 100 poems by  Swedish haiku poets and 100 by Japanese haiku poets. This was followed up in 2004 by the anthology Haiku Förvandlingar (Haiku Transformations), where 103 Swedish haiku poets published 1 to 15 haiku each. The anthology Ljudlöst stiger gryningen (Dawn rises without a sound) published in 2008, contained 50 haiku each by ten poets, and was followed by the anthology Snödroppar (Snowdrops) in 2009, by eleven poets with ten haiku each.


As a reaction to the strict 5-7-5 syllable form of Western haiku, another society, called the Fri Haiku (Free Haiku), was formed in 2008; not necessarily in opposition to the activities of the SHS, but rather as a complement. The idea behind Fri Haiku was that if poets follow the syllable count too strictly, the poetry is easily lost. It is better to concentrate on the poetic idea and just keep the haiku as short as possible. The activities of Fri Haiku was essentially limited to a journal for the internet, but the contents have also been published in regular yearbooks.


With the availability of journals and anthologies the number of Swedish haiku poets have continuously increased. So has the number of kushû, collections of haiku composed by single poets. A striking example is a poet called Ola Lindberg. His Hundraåriga skuggor (Hundred-year-old shadows) is arranged in five sections, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Miscellaneous (). He does not follow the syllable count, always uses lower-case letters, but mostly writes in three lines. He emphasizes brevity and thereby comes closer to Japanese haiku, which are composed in one line and follow 5-7-5 onji, character sounds. Some examples:



på vårisen


the deer

on the spring ice




kanotisten stannar

under bron

summer shower

the canoeist stops

under the bridge


det är höst

min hund luktar


it is autumn

my dog smells of



Recently a special edition of the journal Haiku was published. In it one can find a collection of Swedish haiku from the last decade. Some of them follow the traditional 5-7-5 syllable pattern, starting also with a capital letter, but very few have exclamation marks, full stops or commas, etc. For instance this one by a poet called Ulf Åberg


Cyklisten dras in

i en virvel av skogsdoft

från timmerbilen

The cyclist is drawn into

a whirl of forest scent

from the timber truck


But again, there are several others that free themselves from that pattern, for instance this one by a poet who calls himself th. vandergrau


kranen droppar -

rörmokaren sager

det är hösten

the faucet drips –

the plumber says

it is the autumn


The history of Swedish haiku might not be very long, but there has been a remarkable development during the last two decades. Not only has the number of haiku poets grown quickly, but there has also been a surge in publications. The trend is to move away from the bound format of 5-7-5 syllables, while kepping a kigo, a word or expression indicating what time of the year it is. This is not surprising, since for centuries Swedish poets have been very fond of contrasting the forces of nature with the peculiarities of human society. The Swedish forests are deep and extensive, the lakes beautiful and mysterious, the wild animals a natural part of our mythology and our stories, and our towns and cities both old and well developed. This is a good basis for creating haiku.”












01 comments Send comment

  1. 01

    Fascinating to note the history and development of The Swedish Haiku Society (SHS).

    It would be interesting to know more on contacts of SHS with the Japanese poets recently. It must be much stimulating for the Japanese poets.

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