Haiku celebrates overseas offspring, reconnects with nature

by David Burleigh

Can there be another country in the world where poetry is almost as regular a feature in newspapers as the weather forecast? Many — perhaps even most — newspapers in Japan carry columns of poetry on their pages. It is made easier by the fact that Japanese poems are traditionally very short, and that many can be written in a single line.

“The peculiar genius of Japanese poetry,” the poet and critic Makoto Ooka has observed, “lies in brevity.” Ooka himself is one of the most distinguished selectors of poetry for a newspaper. His column, Oriori no Uta, has been carried daily on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun with few breaks for more than 20 years. Despite a recent interruption while the selector was abroad, it was resumed again on May 1.

A selection of the contents of that column is published by Kodansha International in their Bilingual Books series, under the title of the column, and translated into English by Janine Beichman. The text appears throughout with the Japanese and English on facing pages, and there is a short, and usually illuminating, commentary on each poem.

Ooka’s choice is not confined to the traditional forms, like the haiku and the tanka, but takes in extracts from longer modern poems, written under Western influence, as well as rhythmic utterances that predate the traditional forms themselves. So generous is his choice, indeed, that it draws in Western poems translated into Japanese. But the column format means that every piece has to be short.

The authors vary widely, not only in time but, among the modern poets, in their backgrounds too — from a centenarian blind painter to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. The addition of translations expands the range of contents even further, to modern France, medieval China and ancient Greece. In all of this, there is an unspoken message: that the essence of poetry itself is shared, across different cultures and down the ages.

This book is a modified version of an earlier selection from Ooka’s column that was published in America (“A Poet’s Anthology,” Katydid Books, 1993). A further edition will be issued by Kodansha soon. The most significant adjustment is that the contents have been seasonally arranged, with a new subtitle: “Poems for All Seasons” Another recent book on poetry suggests indirectly why this might be so.

“Kokusai Shita Nihon no Tanshi,” by Kazuo Hayakawa, Hatsue Kawakura and Ikuyo Yoshimura, examines the overseas spread and popularity of Japanese traditional poetic forms. The authors deal with senryu, tanka and haiku respectively, but in reverse order. The volume is subtitled “Internationalization of Japanese Poems,” and though written in Japanese, it has been printed horizontally to accommodate the many examples of poems from abroad that are included.

This book, issued by Chugainippohsha, also owes something to serial columns by the three authors that made their previous appearance in a journal, “Chugai Nippoh.” Each relates the history of a particular poem’s contact with other languages and countries through translations beginning in the Meiji Period, and gathering momentum in the postwar era, until the present situation in which a hybrid form has taken hold.

Ikuyo Yoshimura’s section, on the haiku, is longer than the others, and both the other writers acknowledge the primacy of haiku overseas. In Japan, the 31-syllable tanka has a much longer and more illustrious history, but it is the 17-syllable haiku that above all caught the Western imagination. The recent interest in other forms — such as the tanka, the short and humorous senryu, and even linked verses — has grown out of this.

The promotion, perception and continuing appeal of haiku as a “poem of nature” undoubtedly had something to do with the recasting of Ooka’s book in a seasonal arrangement. A glance along the shelves of any bookshop soon reveals the linkage between nature and the haiku, especially in illustrated volumes. But here too there is a growing tension, because increasing numbers of haiku do not refer to nature.

Yoshimura recommends the use of English haiku as a teaching tool, one that can be used for exploring cultural differences, through the varied references to times and seasons. But today almost half of the haiku written overseas have no such references at all. This book shows how the haiku and other forms in Japan have now entered into dialogue with their offspring overseas, and how both sides are being reciprocally affected.

A new manga or illustrated comic for children from Shueisha called “Haiku Kyoshitsu,” compiled by the haiku poet Ban’ya Natsuishi, admirably illustrates the trend. Besides the seasonal verses, there is a small section of “free verses” at the end, and even a few verses by children from overseas, in their own languages. So nothing is excluded. And this book itself is a delightful and easy read in Japanese.