Ambassador of Sweden to Japan, Dr. Lars Vargö, explains the history of Swedish haiku

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) and Miyamori Asatarô (1869-1952) that found their way to Swedish libraries.

Haiku: japansk miniatyrlyrik (Haiku: Japanese miniature lyrics) by Jan Vintilescu, published in 1959, 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 the Second World War. The book somehow opened the door to a world that had been shut for at least two decades. Haiku became a literary form that transcended politics.

In 1959, 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, Tranströmer wrote nine short poems, calling them haiku. They were later published as a book titled Fängelse (Prison). The poems are closer to senryû than to haiku, but they follow the 5-7-5 format. Among them were:

När rymmaren greps
bar han fickorna fulla
med kantareller

When the escapee was caught
his pockets were full
of mushrooms


Felstavade liv –
skönheten kvarlever som

Misspelt lives –
the beauty remains as

There are many Swedish poets who 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, with a small population, and nature has always been present in Swedish poetry, in all its beauty and ferociousness.

Modern Swedish haiku has duality, both the admiration of the beauty and power of nature, and the fascination with the fragility of life. Tomas Tranströmer 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 philosophising, there is 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:

Statsbegravning –
Gående hänvisas
till andra sidan

State funeral –
Pedestrians are asked to cross
over to other side

The Swedish Haiku Society (SHS) was formed in 1999. The society quickly grew. 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.  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 number of Swedish haiku poets has 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 (zô). He emphasises 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

The history of Swedish haiku might not be very long, but there has been a remarkable development during the last two decades. The trend is to move away from the bound format of 5-7-5 syllables, while keeping a kigo, a word or expression indicating what time of the year it is. 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.

Content taken from a speech given at the fourth IAFOR Vladimir Devidé Haiku Awards ceremony as part of The Asian Conference on Literature and Librarianship