alone again:
tea leaves pattern
my empty cup.

Joy Hutton

a bowl of roses
reflected on the marble
tea growing cold

Pauline Cummings


Haiku and tea go well together. Both soothe and stimulate; both provoke daydreaming and invite repetition. In the First Australian Haiku Anthology two haiku featuring tea take such different approaches to voice and the role of the reader that I feel they are worth contrasting.

The haiku by Joy Hutton is not shy about its dominant mood of personal desolation. The first word is “alone” and the second last “empty”, minimising the likelihood that “alone” would conjure up a moment of treasured solitude or independence. The voice of the poem strikes me as the voice of a woman after a relationship breakup. I imagine her sitting there, her empty cup in her otherwise empty hands, the tea leaves so recently bathed in hot water stranded on its bottom and sides, depleted. They will not make strong tea again and this mood of depletion and foreclosure can be read to extend to the woman herself. She may be looking idly at the pattern they make, trying to lose herself and her overwhelming feelings in close observation of the moment. She may be speculating about a pattern in her fate and what the future may hold. Nothing very hopeful, the full stop (unusual in a haiku) seems to say.

The word “pattern” used as a verb is powerful here, but it could be a noun if we pause long enough at the end of the second line. Both interpretations add to the harmonics of the haiku, bringing more complexity to a very well-crafted – the haiku is beautifully concise – and direct emotional statement. To be able to dramatise all this suggests an offstage wryness. The woman may be caught in despair, but the writer is aware and in control. Nevertheless, everything is brought to a keenly integrated effect.

The second haiku, by Pauline Cummings, is more diffuse, and I have chosen it for the fruitful ambiguity of its voice:

Superficially, it could be an ekphrastic poem – a descriptive response to a still life from a bourgeois interior. What first strikes me is its contrasting materials. From the smooth marble surface with its reflections, through the soft petals of the acutely present roses to the subtle and diminishing spiralling of steam from the tea, the textures are rich and varied. The tea suggests an aroma, and the roses a perfume. Sight, touch, smell.

In contrast to Joy Hutton’s poem, there is no obvious pointer to the emotions that the reader might be expected to take from the haiku. True, the tea is growing cold. But is that because something in the observer is also growing cold? Or is it because “the writer” is caught up in wonder looking at the reflections of the roses? Has the scene caught her attention because the marble, too, presents a cold hard surface? Or does the conjunction of roses, marble and tea present an emblem of summer? A refuge from summer heat? Or a presentiment of summer’s cooling?

One could go as far as reading this haiku as a product of a similar moment of loneliness as Joy Hutton’s. There a woman sits after a final parting, preternaturally aware of what is before her eyes as she numbs herself to her emotions. It is equally possible to read it as the observation of an old woman accustomed to, but suddenly seeing afresh, her privileged circumstances. Or yet again, a poor-relation teenager all-eyes to take in a rare, luxurious treat.

The key word for me in this haiku is “reflected”. It provokes in me an acute consciousness of the multilayered and mysterious nature of our mental (and our communicative) life.

Either of these two poems could be written and published in 2020. They reflect how the world of English-Language haiku has long understood two different Japanese genres: haiku and senryu.  In a parlance still used today, many people would call Hutton’s poem a “senryu,” or as the American Haiku Association defined it in 1973, a poem “with the same form as haiku but concerned with human nature and human relationships.” Within the same framework, Cummings’ poem would undoubtedly be considered a haiku proper. A less well-publicised attribute of (most) Japanese haiku, lacking in Japanese senryu, is the presence of a kigo or conventionally established, frequently used and highly resonant season word. The distinction between these two genres is not, I believe, translatable because neither readers nor writers of English-Language haiku can access the intertextuality that make kigo kigo. However, the direct presentation of a person in Hutton’s poem does contrast markedly with the more painterly and seasonally focused poem by Pauline Cummings and perhaps that validates a short-hand use of these terms when discussing poems written in languages other than Japanese. Personally, I am very glad the editors of the First Australian Haiku Anthology included Hutton’s poem in their selection.

Haiku selection and commentary by Alice Wanderer

  1. p. 357, The Haiku Anthology Revised Edition, edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel and published by Touchstone 1986
%d bloggers like this: