LIGHT VERSE FROM THE FLOATING WORLD: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, compiled, translated, and with an introduction by Makoto Ueda. Columbia University Press, 273 pp., 1999.

My employer, a Japanese trade agency, holds an annual New Year senryu contest. One entry back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected U.S. president, went: Arkansas aakansasu jaa aakannzoo, which may be translated, limply: "Arkansas: it won't do to say Ah Kansas."

It was a clever caveat to Japanese who might assume that the obscure state from which the president-elect hailed was pronounced to rhyme with "Kansas." I remembered this when I took up "Light Verse from the Floating World," a selection of some 400 senryu from the Edo Period by the accomplished translator Makoto Ueda. Senryu, a genre of wry, if not entirely satirical, verse, depends for its effect on a clever turn of phrase or an adroit choice of word. Knowledge of specific time and place also helps -- it can, in fact, often be crucial.

Take what Ueda calls "one of the most famous senryu of all time": "the official's little son -- / how fast he's learned to open / and close his fist!" I can't tell just what this translation, which is pretty accurate, makes the reader think of, but the original, "yakunin no ko wa niginigi o yoku oboe," twits the government employee for his propensity to accept -- nay, demand -- bribes, a bad habit even his baby boy quickly learns to copycat.