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New twists on a venerable tradition

by David Burleigh

EINSTEIN’S CENTURY: Akito Arima’s Haiku, translated by Emiko Miyashita & Lee Gurga. Brooks Books, 2001, 128 pp., $16/2,000 yen (paper)
GENDAI HAIKU 2001/JAPANESE HAIKU 2001, edited by Modern Haiku Association. YOU-Shorin Press, 2000, 297 pp., 3 yen,000/$30 (paper)
A FUTURE WATERFALL, by Ban’ya Natsuishi, translated by Stephen Henry Gill, et al. Red Moon Press, 1999, 59 pp. $12 (paper)

It is natural enough, in haiku as in other things, to take a look forward or backward at the beginning of a new century. That the three volumes under review do so according to the Western calendar, and not the traditional Japanese one set by the emperor’s reign, is indicative of the interaction between the two cultures and the influence this has had on haiku.

Akito Arima (b. 1930) has enjoyed a distinguished career as a physicist. He has also been honored as a poet, an encouraging sign to those who have observed a separation, amounting almost to an opposition, between science and the arts in Western countries. But in the case of Arima, whose work culminated with a term as education minister, unity, rather than division, is to be found.

It is as a practicing scientist that he bids farewell to the century just ended in the haiku that gives this collection of his verse its title:

the Dog Star:
Einstein’s century
comes to an end

Translated skillfully and concisely by Emiko Miyashita and Lee Gurga, Arima’s haiku are arranged here in reverse chronological order, like a contemporary resume. So we start from the much-traveled researcher and politician’s present, and move backward to his early years as a scholar. In Chicago, he recalls:

holding my child –
the thawing lake
begins to sparkle

For such an internationally renowned figure, it is not surprising that there are verses set in, and prompted by, many different locations. Apart from moments of isolation, there is a mellow, at times almost romantic, evocation of such places as Italy, Israel, China and Brazil. There are a number of references to the Bible, and even one to the Koran. Arima displays a sure sense of the customary telling detail:

winter’s end –
the envelope’s interior
is sky blue

Joining “Einstein’s Century” as one of the small but growing number of collections of modern haiku that provide an up-to-date picture of the art form is “Japanese Haiku 2001,” a large retrospective bilingual anthology from the Modern Haiku Association in Japan. This volume, though not without its problems, contains work by more modern poets than have ever previously been translated. While Makoto Ueda introduced 20 poets in his excellent 1976 anthology “Modern Japanese Haiku,” and Donald Keene examined roughly the same number in his 1984 study “Dawn to the West,” “Japanese Haiku 2001″ offers almost 10 times this number.

The volume opens with an account of the beginnings of modern haiku, after it was reformed at the end of the 19th century by Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), who coined the word that we use today for this form of poetry. The mantle was then taken up by two of his disciples, of whom the more conservative, Kyoshi Takahama (1874-1959), became widely influential. The experimental line of Hekigoto Kawahigashi (1873-1937), while it produced some remarkable poets, eventually petered out. All this, including the development of standardized references to the seasons, and the proliferation of groups and magazines, is succinctly explained.

It is useful to be reminded of the hardships endured by the haiku poets who were arrested as unpatriotic in the years leading up to World War II, as well as of the significant disputes over form and content, seasonal and otherwise. The main body of this anthology consists of work by 97 poets. Each is represented by four poems. What is most notable about this section is that only one of the poets, Ban’ya Natsuishi, was born after the war. In the later part of the volume, however, Natsuishi himself introduces more contemporary work.

Though both the translations and the proofreading are a little ragged, the discussions of form and rhythm in Japanese, the type of vocabulary used, and above all the break (“kire”) that is possibly the defining element of haiku are instructive and concise. The final section gives single verses by 86 additional poets, but of these only 10 are under 60 years of age. This suggests that the world of haiku is gerontocratic, and that poets must put in very long service in order to gain recognition.

One of the forewords to the book speaks ominously of “a critical time in the history of haiku.” This is not to say that popularity of the form has declined. Hobby-haikuists, who form the majority of practitioners, are widespread, and predominantly female. Retired people are also much in evidence, but younger working people, particularly males, are inevitably much fewer. While the distinguished poets of the past were mostly men, those of the present divide more comfortably between the sexes, according to the contents of this volume. Yet one feels that an equivalent anthology of Western poetry would give much more space to younger poets.

The central section, which includes biographical notes, with the Japanese text throughout on facing pages, contains many interesting things. Some of the verses are quite easy to appreciate, such as this by Shoshi Fujita (b. 1926):

Feeling unloved
I swim away
toward the open sea

But what will readers make of this, by Sayu Togo?

Japan’s cold without leaves

The original, given opposite, is a full sentence, somewhat ampler than the terse translation. The editorial accreditation in this volume is extensive, and perhaps explains some unevenness in the quality of the English versions. But, thinking of the spring, let us consider these:

Pushing and shoving
voices of the cherry blossom
cross the ocean

Tenko Kawasaki (b. 1927) catches the spirit of the escaping petals, while Nenten Tsubouchi (b. 1944) more frivolously evokes the feeling they induce when they appear:

Cherry blossoms are falling –
you also must become
a hippopotamus

The most troubling issue among haiku writers now is the question of whether haiku can be written without reference to the seasons. While the range of season-words in almanacs has been steadily expanded over the last century, the conventions that surround their use have become exceedingly ingrained. Ban’ya Natsuishi, the last and youngest poet in the central portion, introduces some remarkable verses later in the book that do not belong to the seasonal tradition. One, written by Takatoshi Goto (b. 1968), gives an indication of the type of poems that may be written in the future:

Lower half of my body
surrounded by ocean fishes –

The title of Natsuishi’s own book, “A Future Waterfall,” comes from this verse:

From the future
a wind arrives
that blows the waterfall apart

The volume contains English versions of 100 verses chosen from his several collections in Japanese, and the poems are supplemented by some illuminating prose remarks. One suspects, from the vaguely surreal world of boulders and dragons that makes up many of his poems, that the author has been influenced by his study of French literature, especially by the brilliant teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud. Some of the verses seem close in manner to Rimbaud’s “Illuminations.”

A number of Natsuishi’s haiku exceed the prescribed form in length, besides being unusual in content, though he can write more ordinary verses too:

Wreaking havoc in the house a swallow’s wet wings

Perhaps we can draw reassurance from Natsuishi’s remarkable success. Having seen his first verse in print at the age of 14, he has gone on to become a leading light of the contemporary haiku world. This volume usefully introduces his work to readers overseas.