Books

‘The Penguin Book of Haiku’: Morsels of poetry from the mountaintop to the gutter

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

‘The Penguin Book of Haiku” will challenge your view of the revered poetic form, and that’s exactly the aim of editor and translator, Adam L. Kern. A Harvard-trained professor of Japanese literature and visual culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kern wants to debunk the modern “grand narrative” of haiku.

The Penguin Book of Haiku, by Adam L. Kern.
544 pages
PENGUIN CLASSICS, Poetry.

As Kern tells The Japan Times: “There’s this pervasive myth that haiku is only nature poetry, that it is always serious and connected to Zen, that there are hardly any women haiku poets. Yet there’s a discrepancy between this myth and the haiku one actually encounters. Haiku covers far greater ground.”

For Kern, haiku is reflective of wider Japanese society, covering the emotional spectrum of human experience from the playful to the serious.

“A large part of Japanese cultural history is essentially a pattern of challenge plus response, a written exchange between people or poets,” explains Kern. “It courses through poetry, prose, visual images; there’s a constant literary replication of a collaborative social environment or dialogue.” By emphasizing this exchange, Kern hopes to expand the popular image of haiku beyond verse written by a “lone poet, sitting isolated atop some mountain.”

The collection is thus organized in continuous exchanges, with Kern preserving true patterns when he found them or deliberately linking unrelated haiku to simulate the original structures. In total, he translated nearly 10,000 haiku, and admits the sheer scope of the project was daunting: “Whittling these down to the best 1,000 in a way that could be arranged to suggest poetic exchange and to represent the diversity of haiku, that was the biggest challenge.”

Although Kern is an Edo Period (1603-1868) specialist, he credits his graduate work at Harvard with preparing him for this task: “My training was with Ed Cranston, who inspired me to aim for translations that read as poetry in English.” Cranston was honored with the Order of the Rising Sun in 2009 for his translations.

But Kern’s expertise in Edo Period literature also gave him insights into the true breadth of haiku. “I studied the popular, comic literature collectively known as gesaku, and I’ve always thought of haiku as being a part of this playful realm,” says Kern. “Japanese life and culture strikes this interrelated balance between stylized, formal sequences juxtaposed by casual, crazy moments of losing inhibitions. Haiku is like that, too. It’s part of this much wider tradition of playfulness.”

The collection spans the ribald to the ruminative, side-splitting to astute. The masters are represented — Basho, Issa, Buson and Shiki — but Kern also includes many whose names are now lost to time.

A highlight of the volume is its contemporaneous illustrations, also a mix between the elegant and bawdy. As Kern explains, “Japanese literature was always visual-verbal, an axis between words and images. One obvious example is “The Tale of Genji.” English translations have treated it as a novel, yet all original manuscripts prior to the 20th century were illustrated.” Kern emphasizes this visual tradition not only by including illustrations but also by choosing haiku that pun on the visuals suggested by the kanji, or that actually use an image within the text.

A final way in which Kern sought to rewrite the current “grand narrative” of haiku involves rhyme. “Haiku is typically presented as a visual snapshot, a few words capturing a single Zen moment in time. Haiku is also often sound poetry,” Kern asserts. “Although translators have typically eschewed end rhyme, haiku not infrequently mobilizes other kinds of rhyme, such as alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme.” He continues: “If you think about it, arguably the most famous haiku is about the sound of a frog plopping into water. So we really need to broaden our ideas of haiku on a multiple of levels.”

The collection will appeal to the general reader as well as the academic. Kern’s impressive research and copious annotations will give the scholar plenty to digest, but the lay reader can equally delight in a collection that truly revolutionizes the schoolbook image of haiku.

“I want to open up the conversation,” says Kern. “What is real haiku? In the West this might sound revolutionary, but the research is actually backed by a long line of solid scholarship in Japan. I simply had to reintroduce this lesser scholarship that has been buried by the haiku industry and by popular perception.”

With this new collection, haiku stands poised and ready for its reintroduction to the world of literature.

Poems from ‘The Penguin Book of Haiku’

Yuki no Hana

Tumbling down

we have known such delight!

This snowy night.

(Author unnamed)

First snowfall …

scarcely enough to cover

the dogs—-

(Issa)

Even Hollanders

have come for the blossoms!

Quick, saddle up!

(Basho)