follows the coffin down

Jeffrey Harpeng


A continual reverberation of haiku’s migration outside of Japan has been the wringing of hands about how to adopt and apply the formal techniques of writing haiku in another country and how it is possible to ‘keep faith’ with Japanese bloodlines. As part of our retrospective look at the first twenty years of the Australian Haiku Society, we continue our survey of haiku appearing in the Second Australian Haiku Anthology (SAHA) which appeared in 2006, to shine a light on modern trends in Australian haiku and the impact those trends have had on the practice of writing haiku in this country since. In this article, we will revisit Jeffery Harpeng’s haiku, which appears above.

Australian poets have been doggedly pursuing approximations of Japanese haiku aesthetics for much of its history in this country, as reported by Dean (2011):

Australian haiku writers are still experimenting with Japanese haiku aesthetics to see which qualities work best when transplanted into the language and culture associated with our Australian environment. As founder of the Australian Haiku Society, John Bird, explains:

The qualities of brevity and objectivity are firmly entrenched. [Others] being ‘trialled’ include a lightness of touch (karumi); veneration of the old as evidenced in the patina of rust, mould, weathering, etc (sabi); the valuing of imperfect, ordinary, even useless things (wabi); and the mystery of incomplete explication, a gap which the reader is drawn to fill (yugen).

Despite the widespread acceptance and ongoing experimentation with these and other aspects of the Japanese haiku tradition, there has been a muddying of the waters in this encounter between language and culture as haiku poets continue to embellish the form with techniques of their own. A technique inspired by Japanese haiku and widely used in Western haiku, is the cinematic technique.

The influence of film on poetry dates back to pioneering Soviet Russian film director and theorist, Sergei Eisenstein, who, in his 1932 essay Experimental Cinema, credited haiku for influencing cutting techniques in film. Eisenstein, who spoke Japanese and used haiku as a model for his theories of montage, described haiku as a “concentrated impressionist sketch,” in which minute details are highlighted by using minimal language.[1]

Eisenstein was clearly influenced by the classic Japanese masters of haiku and his incorporation of traditional Japanese aesthetics into his theory of film provided poets with a new interpretation of haiku as a genre. As Alan Burns states, “even though many haiku effects have been around much longer than cinema has, the language of cinema gives us a fresh and revealing way to talk about what happens in a haiku.” An example of this is mise-en-scène (“placing-in-the-scene”) or, the composition of the shot.[2] The theatre production-based origins of mise-en-scène were altered dramatically with the onset of film. As Kala Ramesh explains,

In theatre, the spectator is physically limited to the same viewpoint throughout the performance. Cinema offers a very dynamic process of change in viewpoint at regular intervals to the spectators through editing and movement of the camera.[3]

Harpeng’s haiku, in cinematic terms, is a tracking shot. The reader is the moving camera, following the scene from beginning to end, zooming in on an object (the bee) which reveals the details of another (a coffin). As in cinema, the reader’s close proximity to the action and objects due to the use of this close-up gives them an aura and a larger-than-life appeal. [4]

While the ‘story’ of Harpeng’s haiku is seemingly complete, there is still enough room for the reader to fill in some detail – the cemetery, the mourners, even the weather. And, of course, who died? Despite the ‘finality’ of the scene, Harpeng’s deliberate decision to direct our attention from one thing to another adds a critical layer, providing the reader with a multisensory experience.

It’s arguable that Harpeng could have made more use of the ‘moving camera’ effect perhaps by adding more line breaks – thereby taking the reader further down into the pit, cutting the image into decremental pieces, which may have enhanced the dark theme of the poem. Nevertheless, this haiku, written over 20 years ago, is an example of some of the key factors that were influencing Australian haiku at the turn of the century, and which continue to have an impact on what we consider haiku to be today.

Selection and commentary by Rob Scott.

Haiku previously published: Second Australian Haiku Anthology/ edited by Janice M. Bostok, Katherine Samuelowicz and Vanessa Proctor, Haiku Association of Australia and Paper Wasp, 2006

Other Works Cited:

Dean, S. 2011b, White Heron: The Authorised Biography of Australia’s Pioneering Haiku Writer Janice M Bostok, School of Humanities Arts, Education and Law Griffith University. (Submitted in fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.)




CitizenLit, founded by Jim Warner and Aubrie Cox has Kala Ramesh’s short film on HaikuWALL India which she presented at the Haiku North America 2015 Conference, at Union College, Albany, NY. http://www.citizenlitcast.com/blog/2016/2/22/episode-115-haiku-north-america-scene-report Passionate about taking haiku to everyday spaces, Kala has a 2-hour haiku workshop and an evening of her reading at the Pune International Literary Festival on 2nd September. (cited in http://britishhaikusociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Haiku-BHS-Part-5-Disjunction.pdf)


[1] http://neverendingstoryhaikutanka.blogspot.com/2013/05/to-lighthouse-arranged-marriage-of.html

[2] Burns, Allan, “Haiku and Cinematic Technique,” The Haiku Foundation Digital Library, accessed September 12, 2020,

[3] http://britishhaikusociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Haiku-BHS-Part-5-Disjunction.pdf

[4] http://britishhaikusociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Haiku-BHS-Part-5-Disjunction.pdf

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