‘On Haiku’: A lifetime’s consideration of the genre, distilled

by Brian Haman

Contributing Writer

Few people have done more to promote haiku poetry in the United States than Japanese translator and poet Hiroaki Sato.

On Haiku, by Hiroaki Sato.
320 pages
NEW DIRECTIONS PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

Over the course of his prolific career, the septuagenarian has translated an impressive range of Japanese classical and modern poets into English, including Princess Shikishi, Mutsuo Takahashi, Kenji Miyazawa, Kotaro Takamura, Matsuo Basho and Yukio Mishima (among many others). From 1979-81 he was elected president of the Haiku Society of America and, in 1982, Sato and American scholar Burton Watson were awarded the PEN Translation Prize for their volume “From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry.”

In his latest book, “On Haiku,” Sato ruminates on the history of the genre and its defining features as well as its remarkable acculturation within American literary life. Assembled from his various speeches and published essays over the years, “On Haiku” evinces an understated coherency, with Sato’s enthusiastic connoisseurship complemented by his wry sense of humor as he considers the form’s religious, philosophical and social backgrounds, as well as its transmission to the West.

With chapter titles such as “Haiku and Zen: Association and Dissociation” and “Renga and Assassination: The Cultured Warlord Akechi Mitsuhide” sharing space with “From Wooden Clogs to the Swimsuit: Women in Haikai and Haiku,” Sato’s erudition and wit are on full display.

Born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, in 1968 Sato moved to New York, where he has lived for the past 50 years. It has also proven to be a formative influence for his professional life and artistic practice. Only a year after arriving there, he began working at the Japan External Trade Organization, and some years later struck up an acquaintanceship with the American poet John Ashbery, who at the time was the poetry editor for the Partisan Review and a fellow resident of the same Manhattan street. Unexpectedly, Ashbery decided to publish Sato’s selected translations of Hosai Ozaki’s haiku — all 150 of them.

As with many things in life, however, Sato came to haiku rather fortuitously. As he relates in his preface, based on the merits of his translations of modern Japanese poetry he was asked to give a talk about the genre by the Haiku Society of America.

However, his speech was surprisingly critical: “My talk was more negative than positive about haiku, as it was a somewhat unflattering assessment of the genre: The form is too short to make it as a poem on its own, its origins suggest it requires a larger context, and so forth. As an English major in Kyoto during the 1960s, I had not had a high regard for the ephemeral thing.” Nevertheless, with greater exposure came greater interest and expertise in the genre.

Even more unorthodox and controversial is his monolinear approach to translating Japanese haiku, which Sato favors over tercets, which typically carry a 5-7-5 syllable count. “Most people in the West don’t accept one line as a poem,” he says. “In adopting the tercet, those who write haiku in English are doing the exact opposite of those who write haiku in Japanese: Practically all Japanese writers use a monolinear form.”

Aside from questions of form, content can often be lost in translation. American writers of haiku, for example, tend to omit the concept of kigo or seasonal words that describe a seasonal change (a fundamental aspect of Japanese haiku). When asked for a working definition of haiku, Sato summons the words of his friend, the American writer and translator Eliot Weinberger: “He (Weinberger) asked, ‘What is poetry?’ and defined it as that which the person writing it thinks is a poem. The same applies to haiku, although within Japan no one would accept this view.”

One of the noteworthy strengths of “On Haiku” is the extent to which Sato skillfully marshals both Japanese and American cultural history, which is especially evident when he highlights the form’s emergence within the literary consciousness of key mid-20th century American writers. J.D. Salinger’s long-winded explications of haiku in his story “Seymour: An Introduction,” for example, provoke a restless impatience in Elizabeth Bishop. However, Jack Kerouac’s immersive interest in Japanese haiku was more sustained. He wrote his own “pops” (Kerouac’s term for haiku), which were published posthumously in his “Book of Haikus.” He also included references to the form in his 1958 novel “The Dharma Bums.”

Despite the impressive list of translations, the highly regarded anthologies and the breadth of knowledge in “On Haiku,” Sato’s work on the subject remains unfinished. Undeterred by poetry’s diminishing readership (particularly in translation) and publishers’ reluctance to underwrite such projects, Sato intends to expand his work on Santoka Taneda and Matsuo Basho. In many ways, a new journey presents itself. Or, as Taneda has written (and Sato has translated): “Autumn wind, whichever way I want to go as far as I can go.”

Hiroaki Sato’s “On Haiku” is out now. Sato wrote the “The View From New York” column for The Japan Times from 2000 to 2017, and continues to contribute on a freelance basis.