The Essential Haiku

Book Card  -  Volume 33  -  Book Review Number 1  -  Fri, Sep 9, 1994 10:45 AM

TITLE: The Essential Haiku (Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa)
AUTHOR: Robert Hass (Editor)

Robert Hass, who lives in Berkeley, is one of my favorite poets. His translations are of the three great Japanese haiku masters: Basho, who lived in the late 1600's; Buson, a sort of Japanese William Blake, in that he was an very good artist and a great poet, lived in the mid 1700's; and Issa, actually Blake's contemporary, lived in the late 1700's through the early 1800's.

Basho is known in general as an ascetic and seeker (he was a Buddhist monk, sort of the equivalent in his culture and in terms of sensibility and piety to the great 17th Century English poet George Herbert). He wrote verse like this:

the clean lines
of the wild pine.


Harvest moon--
the tide rises
almost to my door

or (this his death poem)

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

Buson, the artist, looks that the world hard, with an artist's eye:

Straw sandal half sunk
in an old pond
in the sleety snow.


Sick man passing
in a palanquin; summer
is the autumn of barley.


the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell.

Issa, perhaps my favorite, is a humanist. His humanity is fetching, like the novels of Dickens or the poetry of James Wright or William Carlos Williams. Like these writers, Issa flirts with sentimentality, at times falling over into it. In his best work, however, there is a sweet joy at being alive that touches the heart. He has many poems devoted to the small and the powerless, in an adult, human world, at least:

Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house


The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.


Deer licking
first frost
from each other's coats.

The trick with haiku is to convey the universal out of the particular, and to do it with compression, accuracy, and clarity. The Buson poem about the sick man and the barley, for instance, to me is a lovely poem about how what at first might seem an untimely death, can also be a natural death, a death in its "time," as well.

In the Shinto and Buddhist traditions from which they originate, haiku is a form of meditation. Like the overpowering details of Renaissance art in the west, the small haiku is meant to be thought about, chewed over, meditated through, so that the connection between the image(s) is(are) fully made meaningful.

Of course, there are tons of cheap, facile, crap haiku, in both the east and the west. Not just any images can work. And in this volume, not all the selections of these great poets work for me at the same level and power. But there is enough here, more than enough, for one to get an impression of how powerful, beautiful, and enduring this art form can be.

Hass' critical apparatus is also extremely helpful. This book is written for the non-specialist, and Hass' lucid writing style, in poetry or prose (helped, no doubt, by his immersion and study of Haiku over the years) is enlightening and pleasureful to read (he helps a western reader understand the sigficance of recurring images like plum blossoms to these poems, for instance).

All in all, I highly recommend this book and give it my highest rating:

Ten Palms