Saturday, February 02, 2019

On the Penguin Book of Haiku

The most famous tiger in world poetry lopes in William Blake’s “The Tyger”; the most melodious nightingale trills in the pages of Keats. But the greatest poetic frog of all – one who remains alive through the centuries, and is actually set in motion anew by the reading eye – appears in a poem by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. In the original, it goes:

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

In Landis Barnhill’s fine translation from 2004, this is rendered as:

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
Water’s sound.

And surely most readers, when they see this poem, will recognise not just the frog but also the form. Japan’s greatest export to the world is probably neither bonsai nor origami, not noh theatre nor manga comics, not Asahi beer or Mitsubishi cars, not Kurosawa or Murakami, but haiku. This short three-line verse form, usually following a 5-7-5 syllable structure and capturing some flash of sensory experience, some concrete but transient detail of the natural world, has been around for nearly four centuries.

To most non-Japanese readers, haiku seems an expression of Japanese aesthetics in its most concentrated form, a nugget of gnomic wisdom distilled into a few spare details. And it is one of the most cheerful travellers among poetic forms. Alongside the sonnet and the ghazal, haiku is today an indispensable part of the education of any young poet working in English. Just the haiku composed in a single year in American MFA programmes would be enough to silt up Basho’s frog-pond.

So The Penguin Book of Haiku, a substantial new anthology of over 1000 translations made by Adam Kern, a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, will surely be one of the bestselling poetry books of the year. All new haiku translators are judged by what they do with Basho’s frog. Kern’s amphibian, perhaps feeling the heat of the competition, is a touch disappointing (“old pond! / a frog plunges into / watersound”).

Kern also breaks with tradition in organizing his selection not in chronological order, or by poet. His book a single linked sequence of haiku revolving around keywords. Poems about frogs shade into poems about cats and thereon to mistresses, who themselves give way to downpours and and parasols – from which section there is this gem from an unnamed poet:

rain lets up
and the price of umbrellas
comes back down!

Some readers might find this approach a bit laboured (how many poems about umbrellas can one read in a row?) and probably more arbitrary than a chronological selection. But Kern’s method does have the virtue of restoring to our understanding of haiku a sense of its distant origins as a form of light verse composed in long sequences by multiple hands, each poem serving as a stimulus for an impromptu “reply” by another poet. A cat haiku generated another, and another.

In such circumstances, the haiku poet did not work alone in a garret, but in playful and inventive dialogue with a milieu. “Spontaneity, the ability to think on one’s feet,
wit – these were the cardinal virtues,” Kern writes in his introduction. “Haiku was the collaborative art of instantaneous and contingent refiguring, not unlike a jam session in improvisational jazz.”

But once this emphasis on the comic and improvisatory aspects of haiku is taken on board, a 21st-century haiku anthology such as this one can bear only so much recasting of the tradition (just as it would not help a book on democracy to insist on the normative nature of early forms of democracy in Greek city-states, that denied the vote to women and slaves).

Every culture, after all, has a tradition of light verse and wordplay. To this writer, at any rate, haiku rose up to its Olympian status in the world of poetry when it transcended its origins in light verse and began to generate glimpses into the deepest truths of life – all in the amount of time it takes to light a cigarette.

Partly it did so with wonderful “jump-cuts” in language to defamiliarize quotidian experience and shake up the reader, such as this haiku by Ryoto:

Violets –
the geisha will want
to view the fields

And partly it was because haiku grew more poetic muscles and became more aesthetically and philosophically ambitious, producing an unforgettable vision of human life that was rueful, mysterious, elliptical, profound. A poem like Basho’s, or Buson’s haiku (taken from Kern’s anthology)

perched asleep
on the massive temple bell:
a butterfly!

gives us new eyes for the tremors and stillness of the world’s varied life-forms and allows us, however briefly, to slough off the kind of self-interested perception generated by the ego. Quite deliberately shorn of the language of emotions, haiku nevertheless gives us powerful snapshots of feeling rooted in human relationships (as with Ryoto’s haiku about the geisha above) and situations.

Kern’s anthology, then, links haiku across the centuries into a giant tapestry quite inventively. But his highly Americanized and sometimes incongruous diction, sometimes unconvincing focus on the comic and grotesque notes of the form, and overuse of exclamation marks make this book less of a pleasure to read than some of the extant translations of the great haiku masters like Basho, Issa, Buson or Masaoka Shiki.

The range of moods and notes in the haiku tradition is, one feels, too vast and subtle to allow for realization by a single translator. A better way for Kern have done it might have been to make The Penguin Book of Haiku an anthology bringing together a host of translators including himself, which would have granted to it the sociality and give-and-take between different poets that he himself insists is fundamental to the form.