. . . . . . . .In the summer heat
of a city breathing out
. . . . . . . .the smell of brickdust
Norman Talbot (1936-2004) was one of the pioneers of modern Australian haiku. His first collection, Where Two Rivers Meet (1980), is one of this country’s first major haiku volumes. Born in the rural hamlet of Suffolk, England, Talbot arrived in Australia in 1963, going on to become an Associate Professor of English at the University of Newcastle until his retirement in 1993. As well as haiku, Talbot was widely published in verse, prose (fantasy) and other stories. In the introduction to a book of his poems, Four Zoas of Australia (1992) fellow poet, Gwen Harwood, lauded Talbot as “the most versatile poet writing in Australia,” but that it was “the haiku he [Talbot] has made his own.” 
Talbot had six haiku appear in the First Australian Haiku Anthology (FAHA) – his wife, Dr. Jean Talbot, a poet and academic herself, also featured. All of Talbot’s haiku are written in the 5-7-5 syllabic format, a style still popular at the time of publication. It is clear that this format was at the centre of his understanding of haiku, although it is not as clear as to whether he was exposed to other styles. Regardless, it is apparent that his haiku, drawing on the poetics of his studies and other writings, were thoughtful, creative and well-crafted and were not merely exercises in syllable counting.
The poem featured here is set in a vividly urban and industrial terrain. It is likely the inspiration was his new stomping ground – Newcastle – the second biggest city in New South Wales. Talbot had been raised in the tiny parish of Gislingham in Suffolk, where he “was the first person from his village to attend a grammar school and go on to university.” The humming and turbulent bedlam of Newcastle, home to many heavy industries including brickworks – one of the main subjects of this haiku – could not have contrasted more with his subdued childhood surroundings. Talbot clearly has many poetic tools at his disposal here. The graphic concrete imagery of a burgeoning metropolis juxtaposed with the blazing and suffocating heat of a summer’s day creates a bleak and oppressive mood. This cheerlessness is underscored by the almost brutal use of anthropomorphism to portray a city choking on its own harvest.
Despite Talbot doggedly sticking to the 5-7-5 syllabic format in this and other poems, it doesn’t feel remotely forced. There is no ‘fat’ in this poem. No syllable is wasted or just there to make up the numbers. Quite an achievement for the time in which it was written. By not deviating from this format and yet producing haiku of great substance, Talbot could lay claim to being Australia’s James Hackett – the well-known American haiku poet whose work he undoubtedly came across. He may have also been influenced by Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho, as his poems seem to come from direct experience, a mantra Basho implored poets to follow. Yet Talbot’s haiku, complex and evocative in equal measure, go beyond just telling us ‘what he saw’.
Finally, in keeping with the spirit of haiku, Talbot’s work is rooted in a deep sense of place. The six poems of his that appear in FAHA reflect the new life he had made for himself in Australia, referencing the heat, spiders, mosquitoes and ceiling fans – things that would have been oddities in his life in Suffolk. These inspirations give his haiku a strong sense of an authentic attachment to his new surroundings – a place he could hardly have imagined growing up. This is the skill of the poet, and the art of haiku: the conscious use of poetic devices to draw for the reader a deeply felt time and place.
- Austlit Website – Norman Talbot Biography notes
- Pollnitz, Christopher. Norman Talbot: In memoriam [online]. Southerly, Vol. 64, No. 1, 2004: 115-118.
Further information on Norman Talbot can be found here.
Photograph of Norman Talbot used with permission of Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia.
Haiku selection and commentary by Rob Scott