The Essential Haiku
I recently picked up The Essential Haiku edited and predominantly translated by Robert Hass. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not another limp-wristed paean to all things Asian by another limp-wristed pseudo Zen master. In his introduction Hass has this to say on the subject of Zen, “So much has been written by western commentators about the connection between haiku and Zen that I’m not inclined to say much about it here. A short version would be to say that Zen provided people training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices.”
Bravo for the short version.So many editors of haiku collections give the impression that they intend to indoctrinate their readers into a new religion rather than provide a literary experience that the mere mention of Zen or Buddha tends to put my teeth on edge.
It is obvious that Hass has a deep respect for the traditions that the translated haiku derive from, but it is a more personal glimpse of the poets that we are given here than the usual noble savage stereotype I’ve come to expect.
The book is divided into three sections one each for Basho, Buson, and Issa. The poets are each represented by about one hundred haiku and some short prose pieces that shed some light on their personalities. Each section opens with a brief biographical essay about the poet and in very little space Hass provides a human background to the poetry of the acknowledged giants of the haiku. In his essay on Issa for example Hass provides us with an account of the problem of dividing his father’s property after his death, “His stepmother and stepbrother refused to recognize the will, and the villagers, who had been their neighbors for years, supported them. …Finally, the wrangling over his father’s house was settled. Preposterously enough, Issa and his stepfamily decided to divide the house down the middle and live side by side.” Following the haiku of Issa is an excerpt from Journal of My Father’s Last Days which Hass compares aptly enough to a chapter from a novel by Balzac. The material in the biographical essay is complementary to the excerpt from Issa rather than being merely repetitive.
Most American haiku has been written in thrall to the critical standards of the Beat poets, which is to say that the emphasis is on spontaneity and minimal revision. Needless to say, a great deal of American haiku is absolute garbage. Although the haiku in this collection are at best approximations of the originals there is still a vast difference between these gems and the faux pearls of the Beats. For one thing, the average American haiku is mostly a matter of counting out seventeen boring syllables with very little emphasis given to the beauty of the words, but the haiku in these translations are translated for sense rather than a note-for-note didacticism. They are far more alive than the self-referential indulgences we have become accustomed to in American poetry. Most of us, no doubt, learned in school that haiku are three line poems in the form of five syllables followed by seven syllables followed by five syllables. It is common enough now to see haiku defined as a three line poem of no more than seventeen syllables in a short line/long line/short line arrangement, but even that restriction is not held to by Hass. There are any number of haiku in this collection that have lines of only one syllable, but there is no lack of the clarifying juxtaposition or of the complementary parallel that are at the heart of haiku in these translations. There is something about the western experience of haiku that makes us regard it as almost exclusively a matter of still life or of life seen in miniature. To be sure, still life and miniatures are important components of the tradition of haiku, but they are not its only components. As Hass notes in his introduction, “They have a quality of actuality, of the moment seized on and rendered purely, and because of this they seem to elude being either traditional images of nature or ideas about it. The formal reason for this mysteriousness is that they don’t usually generalize their images. ...what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves.”
There is some justifiable criticism of haiku that can be summed up as, “so what?” It is hard to respond to the criticism of “so what” when so many haiku are utterly mundane. Even many of the haiku in this collection can be dismissed out of hand when taken individually, but when they are read in the context of each other a larger picture evolves. It has always seemed to me that the majority of haiku had an anonymous quality to them, as indeed most are not distinguished by anything other than their ineptitude and a mere grasping after facts, but the three poets represented in The Essential Haiku possess distinctive individual voices. What Hass refers to as “…Basho’s profound loneliness and sense of suffering, Buson’s evenness of temper, his love for the materials of art and for the color and shape of things, Issa’s pathos and comedy and anger,” comes through despite the gulf of language and antiquity they must pass.
Hass also includes notes on the individual poems, although, and this is my one major gripe about the book, they are not annotated in the text itself. As you read the book you will not be referred to the notes at the back of the book. It seems odd to go to the trouble of annotating the text only to make the results almost impossible to use. The notes themselves are excellent and generally cast much appreciated light on the meaning the original readers would have assumed. There is also a brief section of notes on the translation which is as good a general introduction to the form as you are likely to find.
The book itself is a fairly well made paperback that seems to hold up well to rereading. The typeface is Stempel Garamond, a nice middle-of-the-road typeface that is easy on the eyes. I’m reaching that stage of life when I’m going to have to seriously consider bifocals when I buy my next pair of glasses and I found the type more than large enough to be comfortable.
I’m not a five star reviewer so I won’t score the book on that scale, but I recommend this book to anyone that already has some interest in haiku or traditional Japanese culture.