Review: On Love and Barley – Haiku of Bashō

Just a few weeks after I’d bought my first book of haiku translated by Lucien Stryk, his obituary appeared in The Age.

No … wait … that can’t be right … the internet tells me that Stryk died in January 2013 and I didn’t pay any attention to haiku until the last few weeks of 2014 …

… well, anyway, let’s not let facts stand in the way of my story. I bought a book of Stryk’s translations, and loved them, and then almost immediately read that he had died, and I was thwarted in my intention to write him a fan letter.

It is certainly true I felt an instant affinity with the way Stryk translates haiku. In On Love and Barley Stryk translates the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the best known of all Japanese haiku poets. No one else that I am aware of makes haiku translations as terse as Stryk does – sometimes he only uses five or six words to render a whole haiku:

Where cuckoo

vanishes –

an island.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

This brevity is in keeping with my own feelings of what works best when writing a haiku in English – using simple language and omitting any words that seem unnecessary.

In his introduction Stryk explains some key terms related to haiku such as wabi and sabi. These terms are difficult to translate and different translators give somewhat different explanations of them. Stryk was a noted scholar of Zen Buddhism and he gives quite ‘zen’ interpretations of these terms. With sabi Stryk puts the emphasis on solitariness and detachment.

Not one traveller

braves this road –

autumn night.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Wabi Stryk explains as an appreciation of the commonplace.

Search carefully –

In the hedge,

A shepherd’s purse.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Note: Shepherd’s purse is small weed.

As the introduction goes on Stryk starts to dive very deep into zen theory and I must confess I lost the thread of what he was talking about. Still, this does nothing to detract from the key strength of On Love and Barley – Stryk’s tough, economical translations:

Darkening waves –

cry of wild ducks,

faintly white.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There is one other curious aspect to On Love and Barley. The shepherd’s purse haiku quoted above is listed in the book as haiku 48. When I got to haiku 72, I read:

When I bend low

enough, purseweed

beneath my fence.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

It is so similar that they could both be translations of the same haiku. Then I came across haiku 55:

Yellow rose petals

thunder –

a waterfall.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

And haiku 186:

Sound of rapids –

silent yellow petals

of the mountain rose.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Now compare haiku 61:

Faceless – bones

scattered in the field,

wind cuts my flesh.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

With haiku 202:

A weathered

skeleton –

how cold the wind.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There are other examples. Was Stryk inserting a little test into his book to see how carefully it was being read? Or could he not make up his mind which of his own translations he preferred?

Now its too late to write and ask.

References:

On Love and Barley, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Penguin Books, 1985.