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Opening your mind to open your heart

by David Burleigh

21-SEIKI HAIKU NO JIKUU / THE HAIKU UNIVERSE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY: Japanese Haiku 2008, edited by Modern Haiku Association. Nagata-shobo, 2008, 216 pp., ¥2,500 (paper)

HAIKU MIND: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, by Patricia Donegan. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2008, 231 pp., $18 (cloth)

The American poet Patricia Donegan (b. 1945) is quite well known in haiku circles, both for her own poems, and for her writings about haiku. Besides her own collections, she has issued one guide on creating haiku for children (or even interested adults). She has also studied meditation in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, which colors much of her thought in the present volume.

“Haiku Mind,” consequently, sees itself as much more than a guide to the brief poetic form originating in Japan, and taken up widely overseas. In presenting 108 short verses, the author seeks to explore haiku as a spiritual path, a “profound way of seeing our everyday world” and of “living our lives with the awareness of the moment expressed in haiku.” This is in keeping with the remit of the publisher, which issues a number of such consolatory guides and is sympathetic to Eastern thought.

The 108 haiku (the number has a spiritual meaning) cover a variety of topics, and each is followed by a prose commentary. Each short chapter also has a title, but I soon found myself ignoring these, to concentrate on the poems, and what the author has to say about them.

The selection, though limited, is an excellently chosen one, offering some very good short verses by both Japanese poets and those writing overseas. Much of what Donegan has to say about them can be encapsulated in the recurrent term “pause,” meaning we should stop and look, while “primordial” is another favorite word.

Donegan introduces us, at the outset, to one of her own important haiku moments, a vision of a pear after a bout of meditation. But she also relates how, when she came to Japan and met an acknowledged haiku master, he discounted her ideas about Zen and the “haiku moment” (at best a hazy notion) and told her that haiku was about the “ordinary”:

for everyday clothes

an everyday mind —

peach blossoms

Ayako Hosomi (1907-1997)

Donegan includes among her choices a number of neglected female poets from an early period, a useful act of recovery. But it is a pity that she does not offer any “living poets” from Japan, saying that she is not familiar with their work.

Some of her commentary offers clues to the circumstances of the poem’s composition, which helps to illuminate its meaning, though often she expands her remarks to observations about the spiritual well-being of mankind, and is occasionally sententious.

For example, the author uses Basho’s best-known poem, about the frog jumping into a pond and the “sound of water,” to make a statement about water resources in the world. This is a valid point: “We need to remember we are water drops in one pond; otherwise, Basho’s famous frog will have no pond to jump into and there will be no sound of water.” Yet it is also a rather loaded commentary.

Though not widely circulated, a new anthology of over 500 haiku in Japanese and English translation has been issued recently by the Modern Haiku Association (Gendai Haiku Kyokai) in Japan. It contains work, mostly without commentary, by over 250 different poets. The selection was made by a committee and the translations done by different hands. It was then read through by myself before final publication, though I had no part in choosing the poems.

There are intriguing modern verses in this anthology that might be appended to Donegan’s selection:

When I smooth

the wrinkles of old age, are they waves?

I am the sea

Toshio Mitsuhashi (1920-2001)

Inclining the water

within my body, I cut

a piece of glass

Toru Sudo (b. 1946)

The sense of the body revealed in these two verses certainly connects us to the wider world of which Patricia Donegan wishes us to become aware that we are an intrinsic part.

“21-seiki haiku no jikuu” can be found in bookstores, or by contacting Gendai Haiku Kyokai, Tel: 03-3839-8190/fax 03-3839-8191 (preferably in Japanese).