Is That a Book of Haiku in Your Pocket?

The Pocket Haiku translated by Sam Hamill is the smallest book on my shelf of haiku books. It’s about the size of a standard pack of playing cards, but a bit thinner. Think: a deck of cards that’s missing the jokers, and a few other random cards, and you’ll have the proportions of this little volume, perfectly.

A small book of small poems.

To be honest The Pocket Haiku is not a favourite book of mine. For one thing it is too small to sit neatly among my other haiku books: something that really shouldn’t annoy me, but it does . . .

. . . and then, the translations in The Pocket Haiku, while fine, are hardly ever my favourite translations of the given haiku. Take this rather nice haiku by Buson:

By flowering pear

and by the lamp of the moon

she reads her letter

Buson (trans. Hamill)

The same haiku is translated by R. H. Blyth as:

A pear-tree in bloom:

In the moonlight,

A woman reading a letter.

Buson (Blyth)

And in Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, it is rendered as:

Pear trees in flower

a woman reads a letter

by moonlight

Buson (Merwin & Lento)

Both the Blyth translation, and the Merwin & Lento translation, are simpler than the Hamill translation, and I think more beautiful for that.

To finish, a haiku of my own:

     It’s rude to wonder
what’s in her bag –
a little book of haiku.

References:

Haiku, R. H. Blyth, The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Pocket Haiku, trans. Sam Hamill, Shambala, 2014.

Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. W. S. Merwin & Takako Lento, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.

Goldfish’s Sigh by Naho Sugita

The Haiku Foundation is a wonderful resource for people interested in English language haiku. Their Digital Library has hundreds (thousands!) of haiku collections that can be access for nix, online, including some works by contemporary Japanese poets in translation.

While browsing the library the other day I came across Goldfish’s Sigh a collection of 150 haiku by the haiku poet Naho Sugita, translated by Yasuhiro Kamimura, and published by the wonderful Red Moon Press.

Here, just to give you a taste, are four of her haiku, one for each of the four seasons:

having pumped up

some spring air

into my bicycle tyres

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

a promise

valid until the next world –

cloud peaks

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

picking up nuts

in this age of

plenty

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

someone in charge of

turning off

the Christmas tree lights

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

The very brief biography of Naho Sugita included in the book tells us that she was born in 1980, and that as well as being a haiku poet, she is also an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Economics at Osaka City University.

Is it rude to sign off with a haiku of my own?

     We could spend
the rest of the afternoon
just counting goldfish … ? 🌵

References:

Goldfish’s Sigh, Naho Sugita (trans. Yasuhiro Kamimura), Red Moon Press, 2021.

Hold My Beer!

Review: Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffman

“Famous last words” is a favourite topic for internet posts, and a quick search reveals dozens … hundreds … maybe hundreds of thousands of pages devoted to things people say shortly before they die. 

Some are noble-sounding utterances ascribed to famous persons, probably intended to inspire us with their wisdom and virtue. 

Others are more akin to the Urban Dictionary definition of famous last words: “things said by a person about to unwittingly cause his own death”. Phrases like: “don’t worry, it isn’t loaded”, “I’ve done this heaps of times before, it’s completely safe”, and yes, “hey, hold my beer”.

Note: caution is advised if you’re thinking of checking my references on the Urban Dictionary website, and you’re easily offended, because about 99% of the phrases defined there are utterly improbable obscenities (most of them read like they’ve were invented by 14 year olds for the sole purpose of listing them on Urban Dictionary). 

Haiku poetry has its own version of famous last words called jisei or “death poems”, and many wonderful examples of these are compiled by Yoel Hoffmann in his book Japanese Death Poems

Some haiku poets are said to have composed these jisei in their last day or so of life, or even in their last few moments. Others apparently prepared their jisei ahead of time, just in case they died suddenly.

Nights grow short:

a dream of fifty years

breaks off before it ends.

Kafu

One thing I like about Hoffmann’s book is that many of the poems are presented with a brief passage of prose that gives some biographical details of the poet who wrote the haiku. The result is that many of sections of the book read a little like haibun (haibun, are haiku that are presented with a short section of prose, intended to be read together as a unit). Here’s an example:

One leaf lets go, and

then another takes

the wind. 

Ransetsu

Hito-ha chiru

totsu hito-ha chiru

kaze no ue

Ransetsu was a pupil of Basho’s. Basho praised Ransetsu’s poetry, but the poet Kyoriku said it was “anaemic”, and compared it to someone “who invites guests to a feast and serves no more than a menu”.

Old sources say that Ransetsu’s first wife was a bathing-house prostitute. She died after giving birth to a son, where-upon Ransetsu took a geisha as his wife. The couple became converts to Zen Buddhism. It is further stated that during a certain period, Ransetsu lived in the poet Kikaku’s house, and that “he had not even a mat to lie on”.

The word totsu is an exclamation that is made by Zen monks when they achieve enlightenment.

This haiku of falling leaves by Ransetsu is one I recognised from other haiku collections. Another haiku that I recognised was this one by Basho:

On a journey, ill:

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields. 

Basho

This is the last poem of one of the greatest haiku poets. Basho had fallen seriously ill on one of his travels. When his pupils hinted that he ought to leave a farewell poem, he replied that any of his poems could be his death poem. Nevertheless, on the eighth day of the tenth month, after gathering his pupils around his bead, he wrote this poem. He died four days later.

Some of the poems in Hoffmann’s collection seem mystical, but many of those I like the most are whimsical, or gently humorous, such as these:

Swear to me, pine,

for many years

to keep on young and green.

Koseki

I cast the brush aside –

from here on I’ll speak to the moon

face to face.

Koha

Give my dream back,

raven! The moon you woke me to

is misted over.

Onitsura

What a lark!

Swinging my arms I set off:

a winter rainstorm.

Osen

I borrow moonlight

for this journey of a

million miles.

Saikaku

Whimsical, and gently humorous … such a different sensibility to our wise and virtuous quotes on one hand, and the coarse black humour of Urban Dictionary on the other. 

Let me end with a shout out to the poet Senkei who died in 1775, who chose a plant close to my heart, the cactus or prickly-pear, as the topic for his jisei.

Somehow or other

even the cactus shows

the fall. 

Haōju no

nantomonashi ni

aki kurenu.

Haōju , “king of plants,” is the name for the prickly-pear cactus. This plant is not common in Japan, and it is not much mentioned in haiku poetry. The cactus is a robust plant which does not change with the seasons as much as other plants.

Post script: as I was completing this post my daughter, Ida, came into the room. I told her what I was writing, and here is what she replied in the form of a haiku:

A funny idea - 
staying alive to write
just three more lines. 🌵

References: 

Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann, Tuttle Publishing, 1986.

Urban Dictionary, urbandictionary.com

Review: Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku

It is early August 2020 in the Inner Western Suburbs of Narrm (Melbourne): days are getting warmer; in Coronet Street, Flemington, quite close to where I live, the plum trees have set pink blossoms a month before the (official) start of Spring; and the lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19 drags on, and on, with no end in sight. 

In between the working-from-home, and home-schooling the kids, and a few desultory efforts at “self-care”, I found time to pick up one of my favourite books of haiku: Cage of Fireflies by Lucien Stryk.

Frozen together

in one dream – 

sea-slugs.

Seisi (trans. Stryk)

There are lots of books available in English of the so called “big four” of Japanese haiku (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), but even books that give English readers access to a wider range of Japanese haiku writers usually end their selections with Shiki who died in 1902. Cage of Fireflies starts with Shiki, so it is one of the very few books available that give English readers an insight into Japanese haiku written in the twentieth century.

Some of the haiku in Cage of Fireflies bring what feels like a recognisable, traditional, haiku sensibility to modern objects like motorbikes, and train-tracks, and pianos:

Bird song – 

a thin dust

on the piano.

Hajime (trans. Stryk)

Others seem stranger, maybe more experimental, almost surreal:

My hair’s falling fast – 

this afternoon

I’m off to Asia Minor. 

Shinkichi (trans. Stryk)

Of course, we may be missing something in translation here, but I find Shinkichi’s haiku as translated by Stryk evocative, nonetheless. 

It could be that lockdown, and day after day of gloomy news, is starting to get to me, because the haiku that stood out to me, on this reading through of Cage of Fireflies, were the ones which seemed to touch on loneliness, futility, ill-health, and death:  

My voice

blown back to me

on autumn wind.

Meisetsu (trans. Stryk)

Cricket chirp – 

now

my life is clear.

Hakuu (trans. Stryk)

Death at last – 

little by little

fading of medicine odors.

Dakotsu (trans. Stryk)

Into the cage of

fireflies, mostly dead,

I send a breath.

Kasho (trans. Stryk)

References:

Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Swallow Press, 1993.

The Drunken Master

The Haiku of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940)

Rules, rules, rules.

Of all the forms of poetry in the world are there any with more rules than haiku?

  • exactly 17 syllables!
  • include a season word (a kigo)!
  • no metaphors!
  • remove all unnecessary words!
  • no rhymes!
  • describe a single moment, in the present tense!
  • etc. etc. etc. 

Maybe this is why I love haiku so much? Because it has so many rules to break? Of course different authorities on haiku have different ideas of what the essential rules of haiku are, and many of the rules which you read seem to contradict rules that you have read elsewhere: “exactly 17 syllables”, “remove all unnecessary words”.

So what would happen if a haiku poet threw out, pretty much, all the rules? We know one possible result from the life and work of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940).

The short biographies I have read of Santōka tell of: an unhappy childhood with his mother committing suicide when he was ten years old; failed careers and a failed marriage; alcoholism; a suicide attempt of his own in his forties; and spending most of the the rest of his life homeless as a wandering beggar.

Like his life, his haiku were unconventional:

Wet with morning dew,

I go in the direction I want.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

He had little regard for the normal 17 sound symbol pattern of traditional Japanese haiku. One of the translations of Santōka that I own, For All My Walking translated by Burton Watson, refers to his haiku as “free-verse haiku”:

slipped

and fell down

mountains are silent.

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Both the translations of Santōka that I own (the other is Mountain Tasting translated by John Stevens) often render his haiku in two lines, as opposed to three, or in three lines of very uneven length, giving a feel for Santōka’s unconventionality: 

The few flies that remain

Seem to remember me.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

There are differences between the way the two books render Santōka’s haiku. It feels like Stevens tends to give the words “as written” leaving the reader a little more work to do in finding the meaning:

From the back,

Walking away soaking wet?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Where as Watson maybe adds a little more interpretation into his translation to help the reader. Watson renders the same haiku from Santōka as:

how must I look

from behind

going off in the drizzling rain

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Many of Santōka’s haiku are child-like, almost comical, in their simplicity:

The rain from that cloud

Made me wet.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

The mundane details of everyday existence, including the scatalogical, have long been considered acceptable topics for haiku, but it is hard to imagine any of the other famous haiku writers being quite as blunt as this:

Making my way through the fallen leaves,

I have a good shit in the fields.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

And this, decades before Piero Manzoni or Gilbert and George. Well played Santōka, well played.

Some of Santōka’s haiku could be seen as quite political, taking up anti-war themes:

The moon’s brightness –

     Does it know

Where the bombing will be?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Other are almost cynical:

nice road

going to a nice building

crematorium

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

The short biographies I have read of Santōka do not gloss over his heavy drinking and many of his haiku deal with drinking in one way or another. This one I particularly like: 

Slightly tipsy;

     The leaves fall

One by one.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Well, I like a teacup full of saki myself, from time to time. 

Now, everybody knows that there are four famous haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki … but every time I try to count them up  …  every time I try to count them up (maybe I am tipsy?) it always comes to five.  

References:

For All My Walking, Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 2003.

Mountain Tasting, Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda, John Stevens (Trans.), John Weatherhill Inc., 1980.

Review: Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems

Matsuō Bashō? What a hack.

… said, pretty much no-one, ever. In fact, Masaoka Shiki (1967 -1902) is the only person I can think of, who is known for having criticised Bashō’s haiku.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I’m keen on Shiki? It’s not that I’m anti-Bashō (I’m not!) but I do have a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak in me and I’ve always been interested in writers and thinkers who go against the consensus.

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems translated by Burton Watson is a beautiful book containing 144 of Shiki’s haiku translated into plain, economical English.

Slipping out

the back way,

cooling off by the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Cool summer darkness –

laughing voices

on the far side of the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

I don’t think there’s a single word in all of the translations that feels unnecessary, or a single phrase that draws undue attention to itself.

For me, who go,

for you who stay behind –

two autumns

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Another reason that Shiki is interesting is that he was writing at a time when there was a large amount of cross-pollination between Western culture and the art and poetry of Japan. In the introduction to Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems Watson writes:

Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western painting, he (Shiki) adopted the term shasei, or “sketch from life,” to describe the technique that underlies much of his own poetry and prose. The writer was to carry out minute observation of the scenes around him and to compose works based on what he saw there, conjuring up the mood or emotional tenor he desired through apt manipulation of the images found in real life.

Lonely sound –

simmering in the firepit,

wood chips with snow on them

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

From the rear window

in the falling snow

a woman’s face looks out

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Shiki was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a very young age and spent the last few years of his short life bedridden. In life, Shiki was said to be irascible, at least once his illness really took hold, but his haiku are a model of restraint and objectivity.

Through the glass door

the winter sun shines in –

sickroom

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

References:

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 1997.

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.

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. 

Symbols of Australia in Haiku Poetry

Haiku …

… are observed details from nature or everyday life. They strive to be specific, individual, unique.

Also haiku …

… include a kigo. Kigo are ‘season words’. They are a form of symbolic communication.

Kigo in Japanese haiku

Many kigo in Japanese haiku are words for plants and animals, or natural phenomena like kinds of weather. Kigo contain shared cultural associations that Japanese haiku readers understand.

A translator’s notes can help English speaking readers understand the meaning of the kigo intellectually, but it is unlikely that casual readers of haiku in translation feel the full cultural significance of Japanese kigo.

Australian kigo?

It is probably not technically correct to use the words kigo in relation to English language haiku.

In Japanese haiku kigo are codified in quite a formal way with each kigo being related to a specific season of the year. Australian haiku writers do not have an equivalent system.

Australian haiku writers do often include a symbolic keyword, frequently an allusion to nature or the time of year, in the place of a kigo.

In the context of Australian haiku we may refer to these keywords as kigo.

‘Haiku Dreaming Australia’

As far as I am aware there has only been one serious attempt to make a list of Australian kigo, Haiku Dreaming Australia. The editor of the website John Bird writes with the Cloudcatchers haiku group in Northern New South Wales.

Symbolic meaning in modern Australia

The Japanese system of kigo evolved in a preindustrial country. At the time Japan had a strong “monoculture” due to more than 200 years of enforced isolationism.

Symbolic meanings in modern day Australia are much more complex and difficult to catalogue:

  • Australia is incredibly diverse and multicultural
  • Digital technology and streaming gives us access to a deluge of overseas cultural influences
  • Australia is a highly urbanised society and most people are less familiar with nature and the seasons now than they were in past centuries
  • Many words and phrases that are distinctly Australian now seem old fashioned and are falling out of use
  • Mainstream Australia barely acknowledges, much less understands or respects, the culture of the traditional owners of Australia
  • Climate change threatens to radically alter the weather and seasons in Australia and many animals and plants that we might use as kigo in Australian haiku face potential extinction.

My aim

Over the next year I will explore the use of symbolic keywords in Australia and make brief notes on this blog where I find examples of symbolic keywords being used, not just in haiku, but in poetry and other kinds of Australian writing, film, song, and other art-forms. 

I will also post brief reviews of haiku books that I read during the year.

Haiku Dreaming Australia, http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku.html

References:

Acknowledgement

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live, and where I write, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.