Review: The Classic Tradition of Haiku

Bewildering.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers is the cheapest and most widely available haiku book that is currently in print. It was the first book of haiku I ever owned and when I first read it I had no idea what to make of it.  

The Classic Tradition of Haiku is unique among the books of Japanese haiku translated into English that I own because the haiku are not translated by a single translator in a consistent style. Instead The Classic Tradition of Haiku gives us the work of 42 different translators, in a range of different styles. Anyone buying this book and expecting to read haiku in the standard three lines of 5-7-5 syllables is in for a shock …

Some haiku are rendered in three lines without concern for the number of syllables in each line:

A fallen blossom

returning to the bough, I though – 

But no, a butterfly. 

Moritake (trans. Steven D. Carter)

Others as a couplet:

“Oh my thinness is caused by the summer heat”

I answered and burst into tears. 

Kigin (trans. Asatarō Miyamori)

Some with staggered indentation (note WordPress does not currently render the indentation of this haiku – in the book it has the first line justified to the left margin, the second line indented by one “tab” and the third line indented by two “tabs” – I will amend this post when WordPress update their software):

On the plum tree

one blossom, one blossomworth

of warmth.

Ransetsu (trans. Harold Gould Henderson) 

Others with no indentation:

Saying nothing:

Guest and host

and white chrysanthemum

Ryōta (trans. Faubion Bowers)

Still other haiku are rendered in a single line:

Bush warbler: I rest my hands in the kitchen sink.          

Chigetsu (trans. Hiroaki Sato)

There are even a few older examples of haiku being turned into English rhyming verse, which … does not work well, to put it kindly.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku has extensive footnotes that explain much of the context and nuance of the haiku. It also gives the Japanese versions of the haiku so English readers can get some sense of what the haiku may sound like in the original. Someone new to haiku may find all of this overwhelming. But for a reader who is already familiar with haiku there is depth of detail here that make The Classic Tradition of Haiku worth returning to again and again. 

Few other books, and none that are as short as this one, present as many possible models for English language haiku. 

References:

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996.