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A double dose of haiku

by David Burleigh

Of the many cultural exports from Japan, the haiku has been one of the most successful, if recognizability is anything to go by.

THE HAIKU HANDBOOK: How to Write, Teach and Appreciate Haiku, by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter. 25th Anniversary Edition. Kodansha International, 2010, 331 pp., ¥1,800 (paper)
HAIKU: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto. Shambhala, 2009, 186 pp., $18.95 (hardcover)

The name of the diminutive poetic form is widely familiar to both children and adults overseas, and regularly pops up in fiction, essays and media of every kind. How deeply it is understood is more questionable, but its success has been charmed and effortless, it seems. Of all the guides to writing and composing haiku, “The Haiku Handbook” by Higginson and his wife Penny Harter, recently reissued in a handsome new edition to mark the 25th anniversary of its first publication, is undoubtedly the best.

My copy of the book, pencil-marked from reading, was stolen in Tokyo by a visiting Irish poet, and so I was very glad to have this opportunity to look at it again.

Higginson sadly passed away before this book appeared, but it still stands as a worthy tribute to his dedication to the haiku form, and his efforts to promote a deeper understanding of it. After a brief review of its current popularity, he traces its emergence from an “aesthetics of austerity” to a modern and experimental form, imitated widely overseas, and not only in the English-speaking world. There is much useful advice in this volume, such as this, from the 17th-century poet Basho, who essentially created the poem as we now know it: “In writing do not let a hair’s breadth separate your self from the subject. Speak your mind directly; go to it without wandering thoughts.”

Other poets followed, until the worship of Basho, and undue elevation led to reform in the late 19th century. The reform was carried out by the short-lived Masaoka Shiki, and then consolidated by his disciples, particularly Takahama Kyoshi, in the early 20th Century. Kyoshi was a domineering personality, whose influence is still felt today. “Yet, for all his power,” the author astutely observes, “the haiku of Kyoshi are very mild in tone, and tend to speak of specifically Japanese subjects in a very traditional way.”

Haiku practice in Japan remains predominantly conservative in manner, but by no means entirely so. One of the most satisfying things about this book is its close reading of individual poems, in Japanese and English, as well as other languages. Higginson’s comments are always apt, illuminating and persuasive, and he develops his points fully. Even before he begins to analyze details of technique, the reader has already been led to some understanding by example. Higginson and Harter both provide accounts of classroom experience, and lesson plans for the prospective teacher. They also look at other kinds of writing.

Surrounding the haiku tradition are a number of forms with which it has either interacted or emerged from. These include renga, or linked verse, haibun, or prose with haiku, and haiga, or haiku with illustration. All the haiku masters have partaken of these forms, and good accounts of them are given here. Because of these multifarious connections, the book concludes, “haiku offers one of the best places to begin studying Japanese literature.”

For the reader who wishes to begin reading haiku, the anthology “Haiku,” selected by Stephen Addiss and his co-translators, is a good place to begin. Indeed the book is similar in appearance in some ways, as if it were intended as a companion volume. Where the handbook has a russet cover, with a striking picture in the middle of a bullfinch and some abstract cherry blossoms, the anthology has a brown surround to a lovely picture of a crow sitting on a branch of persimmon fruits. The picture by a modern artist that adorns the handbook can be seen at a small gallery in Tokyo devoted to the painter’s work, and indeed that is where I saw it. The illustration on the anthology, however, is by a well-known artist of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Sakai Hoitsu, who was also, as I learned from the book, a haiku poet:

Flower petals

set the mountain in motion

cherry blossoms

Most of the contents are drawn from this period, the golden age of haiku, but by no means all. The book is arranged in three sections, the first of which, “The Pulse of Nature,” has this verse, and two others, by the influential Kyoshi:

The snake flees

but the eyes that peered at me

remain in the weeds

The selection of poets covers four centuries, and the intermingling gives an excellent idea of the tradition. There are notes on all the poets, and the illustrations. It is a delightful volume, both useful and attractive. Anyone wanting to explore the world of haiku, or refresh their knowledge of it, could hardly do better than acquiring these books and reading them together.