/

For the love of haiku

by Hiroaki Sato

Special To The Japan Times

“Haiku,” edited by haiku practitioner David Cobb, and “Haiku Love,” edited by Japanese language scholar Alan Cummings, are both fun books. Originally published by the British Museum, they are sumptuously illustrated with nihonga (Japanese-style painting) and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) from the museum’s collections, each haiku presented with the original given in an elegant Japanese calligraphic font. The format makes both publications look like picture books with captions in verse.

Haiku. Edited by David Cobb, THE OVERLOOK PRESS
Haiku Love. Edited by Alan Cummings, THE OVERLOOK PRESS
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns, W. W. NORTON

Take these two pieces in “Haiku”:

the paper-weights
on the picture books in the shop —
the spring wind

— Kito

the spring wind —
the skirts of the thatcher
are blown about

— Issa

These are paired with a print from Hokusai’s ukiyo-e series, “The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” A snapshot of Ejiri, Suruga (today’s Shizuoka), it depicts, against a ghostly white Mount Fuji, seven travelers on the road in a large field struggling with wind gusts, with a smattering of birds suspended in the sky.

The brilliant stroke of this ukiyo-e lies not just with one of the male figures looking startled, his traveling hat blown away in the wind. There is, on the left edge, foreground, a hooded female figure who is losing many sheets of paper in the wind. One can only guess why she was carrying them.

The haiku of Takai Kito (1741-89) may require a bit of explanation, as most haiku do. The books made during the Edo Period (1603-1867) were not really meant to stand vertically but to be stacked horizontally. The book dealer here was displaying some of his illustrated books stacked in this way at the breezy storefront, hence the need for the weights.

As to the other haiku, Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), in his original, says shiri, “ass” or “buttocks,” not whatever may be suggested by “skirts.” Why editor Cobb decided to be so “polite” is not clear.

Sometimes the paintings chosen do not match the accompanying haiku. The next two haiku by women in “Haiku Love” are well-known.

sleeping, waking
the emptiness
of my mosquito net
— Chiyo

in bed alone
I hear a male mosquito
buzzing sadly

— Chigetsu

Selected to go with these wistful pieces is a hanging scroll, from the early 20th century, of a female ghost with a disfigured face tying up a mosquito net. The painting is typical of the illustrations and stage sets of horror stories (kwaidan) popular from the 18th century to well into the 1900s. But one may need a good sense of humor to conjure the spirit of a mistreated woman from the haiku about missing male companions.

Unlike the two books mentioned above, “Haiku in English” contains no images. Instead, it is a large, revealing anthology of haiku written in English compiled by Jim Kacian and two other poets.

It is generally accepted that the French were the first to take up haiku, no doubt one result of the Japonisme that was all the rage in Paris for the last three decades of the 19th century. But English poets were not far behind, as Kacian makes clear in his historical overview.

Kacian, who established The Haiku Foundation, cites the usual suspects among the early English and American poets influenced by haiku: Ezra Pound (“In a Station of the Metro”), Wallace Stevens (“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell, and so on.

But I was delighted to see him mention Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944) and Yvor Winters (1900-68). For the widely admired man of versatility crowned the King of Bohemia in 1915, Hartmann wrote a surprisingly traditional form of 5-7-5 syllables:

White petals afloat
On a winding woodland stream —
What else is life’s dream!

Winters wrote “The Magpie’s Shadow,” a series of compressed one-line poems (except one), each with a title, divided into winter, spring and summer/autumn sections. Here’s one from Section III.

Sunrise
Pale bees! Oh, whither now?

Among the more recent American poets who are not known as haiku writers, Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) wrote “American Sentences 1995-97,” all in one line, each with 17 syllables (“Death & Fame: Last Poems”), and John Ashbery (b. 1927) wrote “37 Haiku,” again all in one line, but with no set syllabic count (“A Wave”).

If these poets took up haiku as just another form to try, most of the nearly 240 poets assembled in “Haiku in English” are dedicated haiku writers. And their approaches to the haiku form are as varied as they come. There are concrete haiku, vertical haiku (a la E. E. Cummings’ “loneliness/a leaf falls”), even haiku with just one word.

The haiku has taken deep roots outside Japan. It is good to know, for example, that Richard Wright (1908-60), of “Black Boy” fame, spent the last years of his exiled days in Paris counting syllables (“Haiku: This Other World”) and Jack Kerouac, the King of the Beats, regarded haiku as an avatar of Zen and kept writing it to his drunken end (“Book of Haikus”).

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white.

— Wright

Thunder in the mountains —
the iron
of my mother’s love

— Kerouac

And some haiku writers, it seems, will take their love of the form to the grave: Cor van den Heuvel (b. 1931), the greatest anthologist in the United States of the poets focused on writing haiku, has recently told me that he is having his one-line haiku carved on his tombstone in Wells, Maine:

a stick goes over the falls at sunset