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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2


Showcase ~ Winterspring and Other Transformations:
Aspects of Swedish Haiku
by Helga Härle

Spring rain
over the graves of snow
a chauffinch’s "huitt"

Vårregnet sköljer
ö ver snöns mjuka gravar
en bofinks "huitt"

                —Solveig Ström

In April 2000 a bilingual anthology of haiku was published simultaneously in Sweden and Japan (by Podium in Sweden and Dai Nippon Printing in Japan). The title, Aprilsnö. Hundra svenska och hundra japanska haiku/4-gatsu no yuki. Suweden no haiku hyakku Nihon no haiku hyakku, would translate into English as: Snow in April: A Hundred Swedish and A Hundred Japanese Haiku.

Four years later, the Swedish Haiku Society published its first all-Swedish anthology, Haiku.Förvandlingar, with 339 poems by 103 contemporary Swedish haijin. The subtitle, Förvandlingar, meaning "Transformations," goes just as well with the initially quoted poem by Solveig Ström as "Snow in April." The same holds true for the following haiku by Margareta Palmquist (also from Haiku.Förvandlingar), though the way seasons are interwoven is not quite as complex:

  Among wintertorn grasses
incredibly blue -
the first hepatica!
I vinterslitet gräs
overkligt blå -
den första sippan!
These are only two of the many examples from Haiku.Förvandlingar. In Snow in April one can observe the same phenomenon, just as frequently—though only among poems by Swedish writers. For example:
The owl shadowing
the blue snowpatch
in front of the summerhouse

Uven skuggar den
blå snöfläcken när vi står
vid sommarhuset
                —Ola Sigvardsson

The frequent presence of two or more different seasons in one and the same haiku might be a typical Swedish (perhaps Nordic) trait. It shows in, e.g., the recurring use of words like "vårvinter" ("winterspring") and the recurring scenery of a summerhouse in winter or in a yet unsafe spring…

James G. Frazer noted in his cultural history The Golden Bough that many of the most central Swedish myths and many traditions deal with the shift of seasons, the fight between summer and winter often being the main 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, but also holidays like Midsummer and Valpurgis, are pivotal. 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. Shifts that also are a common conversational topic. The phrase "now it’s turning (now it’s getting darker); it will soon be Christmas again" is popular around Midsummer. Correspondingly, a few days before Christmas: "soon it will turn ( it will get lighter)…"

Both extremes - the shortest day as well as the shortest night - have their bearings for the perception of one’s surroundings. The winner of the Swedish Haiku Society's contest 2002 wrote:


Darkness over snow -
without the foam of waves
the sea would be invisible

Mörker över snön -
endast vågskummet
gör havet synligt
                —Tore Sverredal

Also in the anthology Haiku.Förvandlingar, one finds Sixten Eriksson ’s:
  Night never came.
The songthrush starts all over
at sunrise
Natten kom aldrig.
Taltrasten börjar om
i soluppgången

It's not the short night, it is the night that never came—the only implicit pause between two phrases…

Simply perceiving one’s surroundings - with those characteristic conditions that one could hardly avoid to be affected by - might account as much for the wide-spread interest in seasons as Swedish cultural history. An interest that could show up in the most different contexts, is a special sensitivity for light and darkness. What one regards as deficient knowledge concerning light conditions is, e.g., the reason why some foreign architect educations are not recognized. On the other hand, the Japanese idea of kigo seems quite akin to the Swedes' awareness of seasons - the registering of sometimes quite minute changes in the nature phenomenons one is surrounded by. For example, in waterscapes…

In Sweden nearly everyone lives in or near a waterscape of some kind—but not necessarily in the vicinity of mountains. So mountains are rather rare as a subject in the mentioned anthologies, whereas many of the haiku included deal with some aspect of waterscapes: lakes, shores, jetties, islands, fishing, boats, rivers, and not to forget, ice. Many different aspects are covered, from "Nyis," new ice or water just about to freeze, to the ice-melt and particularly the very last ice…Often it is the varying sounds of ice that call upon the poet's attention. Mona Wirkander describes the rattling sound of reeds, when there is just a very thin layer of new ice around them. Rolf Sundin perceives the jingling sound of the last small pieces of ice in the slow waves of an almost ice-free lake. Lars Vargö notices "köldknallar," literally the "bangs of cold," that may be produced by more compact ice. Stable as it might be, even when soundless, the ice is never as still as one would think—or, one never knows…

Pontus Tunander writes:

  Small waterfall
its movement lives on
frozen within the ice
Litet vattenfall
dess rörelse fortlever
infruset i is
The double entendre of this poem is hard to translate and might be easier to visualize if compared to an almost similar one by the American haijin Jeanne Emrich, that is found among the honorable mentions of the HSA’s Harold G. Henderson Memorial Collection in 1995:
  beneath the ice
the waterfall
        still falling

Whereas Emrich’s poem conveys the scenery of a waterfall beneath ice, Tunander´s poem might do so - but could also suggest something quite different. The Swedish "infruset," "frozen into," could mean that the movement has been transformed into ice, lives on as ice… It is the paradox of a frozen movement—comprising a movement within the frozen; the movement that lives on, because it is frozen…

Though seasons and shifts of light play an important role in the vast majority of contemporary Swedish haiku, this is not always the case. At least not since Tomas Tranströmer’s experiment in 1959, first published in 2001 under the title "Fängelse" ("Prison"). Among the eleven three-liners that were written when the author visited a colleague, who at the time was working as a psychologist in a prison, one finds several senryu. Sometimes though, it is not so easy to tell senryu from haiku. For instance, Tranströmer writes about the escapee, who when caught has "his pockets filled/with chantarelles" —or he observes the surprising turn of a soccer game, when the ball flies away—over the wall…

Coloured by his poetic diction, rich in metaphors, sometimes also reclining on an abstraction, the section called "Haiku-dikter" in Tranströmer’s recent collection includes quite a few poems that— strictly speaking—hardly could be called haiku or senryu.Yet his daring experiments can also be very concrete. Both in those that have resulted in what by all means could be called haiku and senryu, as well as in his other poems, there often are sharp yet subtle contrasts and paradoxes, that makes them stand out. A koan-like, yet worldly quality—like when the hanging gardens of a lama convent are juxtaposed with paintings of battles.

Among the poets represented in the before-mentioned anthology Haiku. Förvandlingar, most have concentrated on haiku, so there are just a few senryu included. Jörgen Johansson has written some of the most interesting, for example:

  The lost son
visiting his father
with his son
Den förlorade sonen
besöker sin far
med sin son

So I was not surprised, that while I was writing this article, Jörgen sent notice that Alan Pizzarelli's new Senryu Magazine had accepted some of his poems (for the first issue planned to be released in May 2005).

Before finishing this essay, I would just like to emphasize that the pick of poems and poets is coloured by the themes I have been focusing on. If a haiku was illustrative in this context and if the Swedish original had a certain degree of translatability (in more than one sense of the word), this was more or less decisive for the selection made. This means that some of the authors quoted only have published a few haiku, whereas other poets of greater importance were left unmentioned. However many of the latter do—just as Jörgen Johansson—write both in English and Swedish. Interested readers could find some haiku by, e.g., Paul Wigelius, Florence Vilén and Kaj Falkman in different web-publications.


Aprilsnö. Hundra svenska och hundra japanska haiku/4-gatsu no yuki. Suweden no haiku hyakku Nihon no haiku hyakku    ISBN 91 89196 19 8

Haiku. Förvandlingar, Stockholm 2004. (    ISBN 91-975268-0-0

Helga Härle is a Swedish creative writing teacher, poet and translator. She has published haiku in The Heron's Nest, Acorn, Paperwasp, Tiny Words and in the Swedish anthology Haiku.Förvandlingar. In Swedish she also writes articles for the Magazine of the Swedish Haiku Society.

Her website Haikurymden ( is spreading knowledge about haiku in Swedish, but also has a small section in English with Nordic haiku. She is a member of the board of the Swedish Haiku Society.

Click here to read Helga Härle's poems in this issue of Simply Haiku.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku