#160. A BIRD THAT SINGS WITH BLOODIED THROAT. Fully as much as the great Japanese sumi-e paintings, in which a scene, an animal, a flower may be revealed in essence by a few brush-strokes of ink on paper, the Japanese poetic form of the haiku is formed by and expresses the Buddhist truth of transience, of impermanence. Many western readers know of these “one-breath poems” being composed (usually) in lines of five, seven and five syllables; some may know of the elaborate system of seasonal words, the time of year being notated by reference to certain flowers, trees, or animals; but behind these formalities lie a long philosophic insistence on the brevity, the momentary quality of all experiences. The way of haiku was and is not just a genre of poetic composition but a way of life, an approach to experience, often pursued with the seriousness of a religious vocation by many people whose practice will leave them as anonymous as the men and women in the Buddhist monasteries that dot the landscape of Japan.
There are four traditionally recognized masters of the haiku form; very few of the other disciples of the form have received lengthy translation into English except in the varied chapters of R.H. Blyth’s six volumes on the subject. Intimately associated with the haiku is the haibun form, which consists of a mixture of prose and verse: diaries, quite often, and travel journals. Basho, always hailed as the greatest of the haiku poets, spent an extraordinary portion of his life afoot, seeing the distant corners of Japan’s main island; it was his way of keeping his sense of the transient to the fore, of pursuing that sense of awakening that is the goal of Buddhist practice, and his travel journals are considered the masterpieces of the form. The title of his best-known journal, Oku no Hosomichi, often translated as “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” has been rendered ingeniously by Sam Hamill as “The Narrow Road to the Interior,” as if to remind us of the dual sense of Basho’s journeying. Issa, a later master, spent ten years of his life wandering during a long legal wrangle over a land inheritance; once it was settled, he returned to his home town, only to be pursued by tragedy: the deaths of his three children, his wife, and the loss of his home to fire. The orphan’s pathos in his poems is mixed with a wry good humor—he has always been to me one of the most appealing characters ever to write verse—and his poems are full of an amused intimacy with the tiniest habitants of creation: fleas, flies, snails, frogs, cicadas, fireflies. His haiku are the most distinctive and recognizable of all the great practitioners.
Shiki, the last chronologically of the masters (1867-1902) had no need to travel in search of transience or pathos. Born into a poor samurai family, he lost his father at five; was an indifferent student and failed at university; contracted spinal tuberculosis and, after a stint as a war journalist in China, came home and faced years of daily, intense chronic pain. He was completely bedridden with spinal caries by the age of thirty. Yet he led a passionate and productive literary life and was behind the revivification of not only the haiku form but the tanka, both of which were at a point of exhaustion when he took them up; he was at the center of literary societies, edited magazines, and wrote criticism and diaries as well as verse. He composed some 20,000 haiku (as did Issa) as opposed to Basho’s mere one thousand (!). As with Buson (the second chronologically of the masters), there is too much emotional variety in his work to be easily characterized: with Shiki I always note an interesting blend of the matter-of-fact with the vividly visual, and he brought into the form the details of Meiji period life (he wrote haiku about baseball, and is memorialized in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame).
One cannot help thinking of Keats, who at twenty-four coughed up what he recognized as arterial blood and said, “That blood is my death warrant. I must die.” Masaoka Noboru, early in his career but after the tuberculosis had made itself known, took the poetic name Shiki, which is a variant for the name of the hototogisu, the Japanese cuckoo so common in that literature’s verse; it heralds the arrival of summer, but in one tale is associated with the longing of the dead to return to the company of the living. Shiki took the bird’s name because, just as in English tradition the swan sings at its death, the hototogisu coughs up blood when it sings. Maybe the note we hear behind his work is hope as well as courage, a facing-down of the inevitable. One of his last tanka reads: “I don’t know when / I’ll get well again /but I’m having seeds / for fall flowers / planted in the garden.”
There are at least two splendid collections of Shiki’s verse in English: A House by Itself, translated by John Brandi and Noriko Kawasaki Martinez (White Pine Press, 2017) and Masaoka Shiki: Selected Poems, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia, 1997). Songs from a Bamboo Village, translated by Sandford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda (Tuttle, 1998) is an intelligent and well-annotated selection of Shiki’s tanka; the translations, though, I found disappointing. Almost none of the prose works have been translated. Donald Keene’s The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki (Columbia) is compact, moving and informative.
For Basho’s haibun as well as his haiku, Sam Hamill’s Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings (Shambhala, 1998) contains four of the journals and 250 haiku, and the translation is superb. David Young’s Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times (Knopf, 2013) and Lucien Stryk’s Of Love and Barley (Penguin, 1986) are both excellent selections of Basho’s haiku. Basho: The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Kodansha, 2013) is gorgeously produced but I didn’t care for the translation. A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen, by Robert Aitken (Counterpoint, 2003) is an excellent presentation of the relation of the haiku form to Zen.
Sam Hamill’s book The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku (Shambhala, 1997) is a wonderful translation of Issa’s most famous prose work and some 160 additional haiku—very much the best Issa I’ve run across. The other prose works seem to have escaped translation—someone should get on this. David G. Lanoue’s excellent study Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa (HaikuGuy, 2016) pokes a hole in our notion that haiku were purely Zen territory.
There are several superb general anthologies of haiku, including The Essential Haiku, by Robert Hass (Ecco, 1995), versions of Basho, Buson and Issa; and Haiku, edited by Peter Washington, in the very attractive Everyman Library’s Pocket Poets Series (2003). For more extensive reading, of course, there are R. H. Blyth’s superb and idiosyncratic Haiku in four volumes and his two-volume History of Haiku, published by Hokuseido Press, which are some of the best and most amusing writing on this subject in English. They are, because we live in barbarous times, impossible to come by cheaply.