Haiku in the Netherlands and in Flanders
The Dutch-speaking area comprises the Netherlands and the northern part of Belgium known as Flanders, where the version of the language spoken there is called Flemish. There are two languages spoken in the Netherlands: Dutch and Frisian. Most of the Frisians who live in the northern province of Friesland are bilingual and speak both Frisian and Dutch. Haiku are known in the Netherlands since about 1980, and they are being written in both Dutch and Frisian.
The first Dutchman, and, as far as we know, the first Westerner, who has written haiku, was Hendrik Doeff (1777-1835). From 1798 till 1817 he stayed on Deshima, a small artificial island in the harbour of Nagasaki in Japan, which housed a Dutch trading post. At that time this settlement was the only connection point between the thoroughly closed Japanese society and the outside world. Apart from the fact that the chief of that colony visited the shogun in the capital city of Edo yearly or once in two years, the Dutch people were seldom allowed to set foot on Japanese soil; hence the artificial island. But this fact did not prevent Dutch and Japanese people from communicating. In the resulting cultural exchange, haiku were mentioned and discussed. Doeff, for several years chief of the settlement, was interested in the Japanese language, and published his Dutch-Japanese dictionary. Moreover, two haiku composed by him can be found in Japanese publications that appeared in the course of his stay in Japan. But there is no proof that Doeff was still interested in haiku after his return to the Netherlands. And he played no role in spreading haiku outside of its country of origin. This actually never happened before the 20th century.
Although haiku were only accepted as a form of Dutch-language poetry around 1980, they incidentally attracted some attention of Dutch poets before that. The good example of that is the work of the Dutch poet J.C. van Schagen (1891 - 1985). Having made a name for himself by writing mainstream poetry, he later got used to writing 5-7-5 poems. He preferred not to call these texts haiku, though; probably because he wrote his miniatures in a very personal way and so wanted to avoid discussions if they were haiku or not. He sometimes called those small poems “reflexes”, but he acknowledged the Japanese influence on himself when he commented on them.
In Flanders, Bart Mesotten started writing and promoting haiku in the early 1970s. In 1976 he joined forces with a few other writers interested in this type of poetry and founded the Haikoe-centrum Vlaanderen (Haiku Centre Flanders). In 2000 he was awarded for his efforts in promoting haiku with the Shiki Masaoka International Haiku Grand Prize in Matsuyama, Japan.
A highly important anthology titled Een nieuwe maan (“A new moon”), was edited by J. van Tooren (1900 - 1991) and published in 1973. The editor was already in her fifties when she got acquainted with haiku after reading the works of R.H. Blythe. She started to learn Japanese when she was sixty, and after some time was able to read classical haiku in the language they were written in. She went on to translate many Japanese haiku into Dutch. The anthology she compiled had an introduction dedicated to the origin and the history of haiku, as well as to haiku rules. The book sparked a rather broad interest among the readers, and inspired many people to try their hand at writing haiku. In 1980 eight of such haiku admirers established the Haiku Kring Nederland (Haiku Circle Netherlands).
The way haiku developed in the Netherlands and Flanders can probably characterise the path the other European countries followed, or maybe not just European but all the non-Japanese nations. Initially most efforts in haiku writing imitated classical Japanese haiku, especially those presented in the books by R.H. Blythe and Van Toorn. Later, poets started looking for their own way and trying to write poems being 'in the culture' and 'in the language', by which I mean the Dutch language and culture. Probably the most prominent haiku poet among them was W.J. van der Molen (1923-2002), who made himself a name as a poet in the 1950s, and then, in the 1980s, took a special interest in haiku. Like Van Schagen before him, he wrote haiku in an unusual way, preferring this to imitating classical Japanese poetry.
Generally, there were two stages in the development of Dutch-language haiku: the first stage was about haiku being adopted, and the second, about finding the original way of writing them in our language. We can say that since the late 1990s all the parts of the Dutch-speaking area reached the second stage of haiku development. As a result, we now see more and more free-form haiku appearing in the Dutch-language publications, in addition to plenty of classical haiku. Of course, poets like Van Schagen and Van der Molen seem to have skipped the imitative stage completely.
Both the Haiku Centre of Flanders (HCF), which has about 80 members, and the Haiku Circle of Netherlands (HCN), having about 200 members, are associations catering for all of Flanders and all of the Netherlands respectively. Their goals are to promote haiku and stimulate haiku writing in Dutch. They organise haiku meetings, discussions and workshops.
A few years ago the HCN started organising ginko, i.e. haiku excursions with the discussions of haiku written in the course of the ginko.
There are also small regional groups, members of which are not necessarily also members of the HCF or the HCN. However, all such groups are headed or otherwise co-ordinated by a member of the national haiku association. The Frisian group of haiku poets preferred to name itself Froaskedobbe, which is Frisian for frog-pond, thus acknowledging one of the Basho's haiku. The Haiku Society of America, as we all know, chose the same name for its magazine.
The HCF and the HCN co-publish the quarterly titled Vuursteen (“Flint”). This magazine founded in 1981 is dedicated to haiku, senryu, tanka and related forms of poetry. It publishes newly-written Dutch-language and occasionally Frisian-language haiku and provides relevant information about haiku activities in the low countries. The articles published in Vuursteen over the last quarter of the century dealt with the origins and the development of haiku, specifically in Japan, and analysed various techniques used in haiku writing. Essays on haiku movements in other parts of the world also appeared in Vuursteen, as well as book reviews. It is the oldest still existing haiku magazine in Europe. It also publishes, quite regularly, haiku in the South African language, which originates in the 17th century Dutch, and is one of the official languages of South Africa, formerly a Dutch colony.
In 1991 W.J. van der Molen started a magazine that he called Kortheidshalve (“for brevity's sake”). It appeared three times a year, and was dedicated to short poetry in general, with an emphasis on haiku. Van der Molen was one of the editors of Vuursteen, but became dissatisfied with the other editors' rather traditional approach to the genre. So the haiku poets who preferred to write free-form haiku and to experiment found a tribune in another magazine called Kortheidshalve. The last issue of it was brought out in 2002 by Van der Molen’s friends after his death.
Another magazine published in the Netherlands (even in Friesland!) was Woodpecker, an international journal dedicated to haiku from all over the world. They appeared in the original languages; non-English-language haiku were supplied with English translations. Between 1995 and 2002 issues of Woodpecker appeared twice a year.
In 2000 the HCN was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and on that occasion it published a volume of haiku and tanka written by its members; it was entitled aan het woord (“speaking”). This book was critically acclaimed, and lead the HCN and the HCF to jointly produce such a collection every two years. In 2008 the fifth anthology of this kind hit the shelves of book-shops.
We have to mention that bigger publishing houses have always shown little or no interest in Dutch haiku whatsoever. Works by Dutch haiku writers have traditionally been published by small presses, sometimes subsidised by the author. There were many self-published haiku collections, as well. The lack of quality never seemed to be an obstacle for such publications. This was the way a lot of substandard haiku found their way onto book pages, which harmed the reputation of the Dutch haiku movement. Anyway, in the Dutch literary world haiku hardly have any standing. With a few exceptions neither publishing houses nor reviewers of poetry show much interest in haiku. My opinion is, we should strive not for the acceptance of haiku in the literary world, but mostly for perfection in haiku writing. This may help us to gain such acceptance, after all.
(Max Verhart is the editor of Vuursteen and a former President of the Haiku Circle of Netherlands)
The author's self-translation of this essay was edited by Anatoly Kudryavitsky