Who says there’s no poetry in a game?


BASEBALL HAIKU: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball, edited with translations by Cor van den Heuvel & Nanae Tamura. W.W. Norton, 2007, 214 pp., $19.95 (cloth)

In Ueno Park in Tokyo, among the museums and other attractions, there is a baseball ground. It is not large, and its name is not translated on the map available to visitors, but it is notable in one way. Called the Masaoka Shiki-kinen-kyujo in Japanese, it commemorates a haiku poet who died more than a hundred years ago.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) achieved a great deal in his short life, especially in the field of literature. He is known as the man who, almost single-handedly, reformed the centuries-old poetic forms of haiku and tanka. Indeed he gave the “haiku” its modern name, and was also the first person to translate the haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) into English, an innovational step in the internationalization of this short poem. But how does that connect with baseball?

As a Meiji modernizing force, Shiki (as we call him) had a great enthusiasm for all things new, including baseball. Though he lived quite near to Ueno (close enough to hear the animals in the zoo), he came from Matsuyama in Shikoku, and he is credited with introducing the game to the island and his hometown.

Baseball had already been introduced to Japan by an American teacher in Tokyo, but had not spread significantly throughout the country, so Shiki’s efforts were important, and they are still remembered at the museum dedicated to him in Matsuyama. Cor van den Heuvel, an American enthusiast of both haiku and baseball, has had the very good idea of celebrating this connection in an anthology of baseball poems from both sides of the Pacific.

As van den Heuvel observes in his opening remarks, “baseball is played on a field under an open sky; and as haiku happen in a timeless now, so does baseball.” The Beat writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) celebrated the proximity of nature in an early verse:

Empty baseball field

— A robin,

Hops along the bench But a contemporary poet like Lee Gurga (b. 1949) makes more sophisticated use of the seasonal reference:

rumble of thunder

the boy still looking for the ball

in the tall grass Each of the 30 American poets is given a full one-page introduction.

The same format is used later in the book, to present the work of 15 Japanese poets, beginning with Shiki:

spring breeze

this grassy field makes me

want to play catch Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994) offers this:

a black ballplayer

the night game only just

lights him up

Here the poems, given in Japanese as well, have been translated with the help of Nanae Tamura, and the comprehensive notes explain how the local neologism, “naita,” for a night-game, became a season word for summer. The reader can observe a slightly different flavor to the poems from opposite sides of the Pacific, as well as interaction.

There are several quite distinguished names among the poets. Imai Sei (b. 1950), who is a teacher in Yokohama, has nine haiku that deal with baseball, including this widely admired verse:

the baseball stadium’s

ten-thousand empty seats

the first swallow Some of the terms of the game may be unfamiliar to readers who, like myself, are not from either country.

Michael Dylan Welch (b. 1962), raised in Britain but prominent in American haiku, notes the resemblance between baseball and a game called “rounders,” played for centuries by children in Britain, and which may be connected with the origins of the sport. That question is one of very few topics (the Ueno memorial ground is another) not dealt with in the explanatory notes.

Some of the theme-based anthologies of haiku available nowadays are very silly, but this one is a gem.