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Spring, summer, fall and winter haiku

by David Burleigh

HAIKU: A POET’S GUIDE by Lee Gurga, Illinois: Modern Haiku Press, 2003, 170 pp., $20 (paper).
HAIKU: The Poetic Key to Japan, selected & introduced by Mutsuo Takahashi, photographs by Hakudo Inoue, design by Kazuya Takaoka, translated by Emiko Miyashita & Lee Gurga. Tokyo: P.I.E., 2003, 400 pp. (approx.), 3,800 yen (paper).

These two new books on haiku are complementary. One is a guide to haiku practice, mainly as it has developed in the United States, and written by one of its major practitioners. The other is a selection of 100 haiku in Japanese, chosen by one of Japan’s most important modern poets, lavishly illustrated and with English translations. Though the two books approach the subject from opposite directions, the author of the first book has a hand in the second too.

Lee Gurga is one of the leading exponents of American haiku today. Having, as he explains, read the writings of the haiku scholar R.H. Blyth when he was a high school student, he returned to this form of poetry once his professional and family life had been established. He emerged as a strong voice in the American haiku movement in the 1980s, and served as president of the Haiku Society of America, the oldest haiku society outside Japan.

More recently, Gurga took over the editorship of Modern Haiku, which is almost certainly the oldest haiku journal overseas. “His Haiku: A Poet’s Guide,” directed at the general reader, also serves to acquaint the readers and contributors to Modern Haiku, with its new editor’s general outlook and aesthetic. He is the journal’s third editor, following the death of his distinguished predecessor, Robert Spiess.

“Season is the soul of haiku,” says Gurga early in the book. “One can write fine short poems that do not have a seasonal element, but they will not offer the same gift that seasonal haiku do.” This view reaffirms what readers of Blyth already know, and provides a continuity with the work of Spiess, whose various “Reflections” form the epigraphs for every chapter. But it is the word “gift,” rather than the word “season,” that offers the key.

Reversing an observation about modern literature by the critic Lionel Trilling, Gurga maintains that the essence of haiku is “discovery,” rather than “invention.” He describes and gives excellent examples of the illuminating haiku “moment,” as it is now understood among the better practitioners in English. Haiku, the author tells us, is not a “form” — meaning a verse of a certain formal structure — but a “genre,” defined by its approach and content. A certain mental attitude is thus required, as well as verbal skill.

After the general introduction to the haiku’s origin in Japan, and its history in English, the book’s longest chapters deal with “The Art of Haiku” and “The Craft of Haiku.” Here we get down to the instructive nitty-gritty, to the differences between a well-observed and well-recorded moment, and one which has been rendered poorly. Gurga includes both good and bad examples to show how success may be achieved.

He gives solid advice to new beginners: “Nouns are the meat of haiku. . . . Haiku poets should avoid language that attracts attention to itself and thereby detracts from the images of the poem.” He reviews a full range of formal possibilities, and is particularly good on punctuation. He is somewhat distrustful (the implied aesthetic of his comments) of what he calls “Western poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, synesthesia, personification” and so on. This is a more perplexing assertion.

It is not perplexing within what is called the “haiku movement,” where a prevailing orthodoxy has emerged that more or less rejects such “poetic devices.” But it is a little more troubling to literary scholarship, since it is quite clear that the greatest haiku master, Matsuo Basho (1644-94), on occasion used all of these devices. The point, perhaps, of Gurga’s assertion is one that underlies his whole commentary about observation rather than invention (though this too is not without its problems).

It is a point, however, that nicely connects with a haiku anthology from the other side of the Pacific. “Haiku: The Poetic Key to Japan” consists of 100 verses chosen by the poet Mutsuo Takahashi (who has himself written haiku, but generally uses other forms). It is a bilingual volume, profusely illustrated. With 400 unnumbered pages, in a thick magazine format, the book weighs the best part of a kilo.

The beautiful photographic illustrations do not simply provide pictures of the images in the poems, but often related images that can be used to expand the verse imaginatively. The illustrations are also on different pages from the poems, which are allowed to resonate on an expanse of white paper, with brief comments underneath. Japanese and English are on facing pages, and the verses are seasonally arranged.

It is in his discussion of the seasonal element of haiku that Takahashi connects most usefully with Gurga’s general approach. As he explains, in haiku the poet himself (or herself) is usually absent, bringing the “nouns” (of Gurga’s definition) into the foreground. Takahashi says: “I think the way of haiku, which brings the life of a thing to the forefront and relegates the human being to a place behind it, has much to offer as a model.”

The model, with which Gurga would surely agree, is one on which the “discovery” of the world around us, does not involve taking control of or interfering with it. This is important advice in an age like ours when so much of the environment is already seriously endangered.

Gurga and his partner Emiko Miyashita have already done a good deal of collaborative translation, and there is much to relish in their versions here:

one plum blossom
a single blossom’s worth
of warmth (Ransetsu)
at the waterfall’s head
water appears
and falls (Yahan)

Takahashi makes apt, sometimes intriguing, choices in his brief selection:

Star Festival:

with my hair still wet
I meet someone (Takako)
I cultivate leeks
in this world of dreams
such loneliness! (Koi)

Though the poets are listed only by their haigo, or poetic names, without reference to the age they lived in, a full range of haiku, classical and modern, has been included. A sense of continuity emerges.

It is that continuity, and the attitude that informs it, that Lee Gurga describes and illustrates for the English reader, in his own guide, and by extension in the translated volume.