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No quick, easy path to haiku enlightenment

by Michael Hoffman

100 SELECTED HAIKU OF KATO IKUYA, translated with a study by Ito Isao. Chuseki-sha, 2011, 104 pp., ¥3,500 (paperback)

Ikuya Kato (born 1929) is a modern haiku poet of the “free verse” school. Haiku itself is probably the shortest form of literature there is. Its classical structure is a cluster of 17 syllables, 5-7-5, constructed around a seasonal image. Free verse haiku seems to dispense with all rules and conventions except one — extreme brevity.

Kato, translator Isao Ito informs us, is “one of the comparatively few artists who have secured the continuity of the long-held tradition of Japan and its beauty.”

Why just a few? “It is because the occupation army of the Allies tried to sweep away Japanese tradition with the only exception of the continuation of the emperor system, as one part of the occupation policy, after Japan lost in the Second World War in August, 1945.”

I quote Ito at some length not only for the information he provides but that the reader may notice the quality of his English, which may not be up to the demands of his very delicate task.

Kato, Ito explains, draws cultural nourishment from the Edo Period (1603-1868), specifically a cherished quality of the time known as furyu, which Ito defines as “being always loyal to one’s own nature beyond advantages and disadvantages and seeing oneself and reality so objectively, staying aloof, on any occasion, even if one is in the state of the greatest excitement, or faced with one’s death as to admire beauty of life and nature, rising above the world.”

Traditionalist though he is, Kato is held to be at the same time an “innovative modernist,” comparable in that regard to James Joyce.

Haiku in translation is problematic at best. The British authority R.H. Blyth said, “A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things.” That’s a great deal to ask of 17 syllables — less, usually, in free verse haiku. Can even the best translator help garbling a nuance or two, given the vast differences between Japanese and English?

Kato’s poetry is given here in kanji, romaji and English, so the reader who knows Japanese has a deeper insight into the problem — though Kato’s language, heavily inflected with Edo dialect, poses a steep challenge.

To turn now to the poems. They are so short that several can be quoted in their entirety. A random selection:

“spring drizzle — there will be only less than ten poets”

“the air coolly conditioned, warm is her hand I remain holding”

“to Wife standing in a delicate poise a voice of autumn handed”

“a firework while tilting a sake bottle”

“with no hesitation disposing of old books — cirrocumulus”

“the first winter shower; Edo is, at any rate, extensive”

One would have to be far better schooled than I am in the subtleties of haiku to presume to criticize the poetry, but it is fair to say a word about Ito’s English. It is neither precise nor pleasing. (“The air coolly conditioned”? “A voice of autumn handed”?) And while Kato’s Edo-inflected language is often beyond me, the last verse quoted is among the accessible ones, and has a charm the translation utterly lacks:

hatsushigure Edo wa tonikaku hiroi ya ne

Ito’s commentary, interspersed among the poems, is sometimes clarifying, sometimes muddying, often labored.

Of the poem “in the Okawa, the start of the equinoctial week, a descending boat,” he explains: “Whenever [Kato] sees a boat going down in the Okawa [the Sumida River in Tokyo] on the first day of Higan week, or the week of Buddhist memorial services centering on the spring or autumn equinox, he feels as if he passes into Nirvana.”

If he feels that way, so much the better, but this reviewer must admit he simply doesn’t get it. Enlightenment seems as remote and distant as ever.