Archive for the ‘Gift Books’ Category

Subtitle: Poems and Meditations on Nature and Beauty.

London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006.

Full color illus. throughout, approx 7×7″ (175×175 mm), 160 pp., US$12.95, CDN$16.95.

With thanks to Michael Lustbader.

Now this is exactly the kind of book that rankles me. An overcooked gifty book trading on a kind of effete understanding of Japanese sensibility, with a dozen different kinds of phenomena all smushed together, and haiku tossed in as a hook to get someone to buy this thing, probably at a museum gift shop or the like. It is pretty to look at, and the illustrations show up well on the low-gloss pages–until you look at them closely. But half the book is in fact written by “Dr.” James, with “more than 50 new translations of haiku poems” and two of the five chapters written by Lowenstein, who also supplies the introduction.

The typical “chapter” is a series of disconnected, extremely brief overviews of rather complex matters. These read more like popularized one-volume encyclopedia entries than like any sort of useful explanations of their topics, and are so sketchy as to leave out essential elements of their stories. For example, the chapter “Society and Court Life” contains mini-essays on such things as “The Heian Period” (fewer than 300 words, on two pages, no end-date given), “Emperors” (around 400 words; names three “capitals” of Japan: Nara, Heian-kyô/Kyoto, and Kamakura–but Kamakura was a shogun’s capital, not the emperor’s; though the Meiji Restoration of direct imperial rule is mentioned, Tokyo–the then and present capital–is unmentioned until a later essay), “Life at Court” (ca. 200 words), “Go” (the board game; ca. 400 words), and so on, ending with “Kimonos” (ca. 350 words). In amongst these mini-essays are quite attractive two-page spreads with translations of haiku. For one of the three haiku on each spread, there is also a nicely-done calligraphy of the original Japanese, though no printed or romanized text appears for the haiku otherwise.

The haiku are almost all very familiar to any reader of Japanese haiku in translation. Among the dozen haiku presented between the essays of the first chapter, fully two-thirds can quickly and easily be found in R. H. Blyth’s great four-volume Haiku–a resource not listed among the dozen or so books in the list offered for “Further Reading” at the end of Haiku Inspirations. The haiku scattered through the book also appear to have no connection with the particular prose texts that surround them, nor does there seem to be any special reason for the groups of three, either within the groups or moving from one to another.

In other words, Haiku Inspirations is a helter-skelter assembly of mini-essays and haiku, mostly unrelated except by the happenstance that they all refer, one way or another, to the culture of Japan. Apparently, a book of haiku was wanted, and some prose to give it window-dressing for much the same reason that there are illustrations scattered throughout, though at least these seem mostly relevant to the particular essays they sit among.

To give the translator his due, his own prose contributions to Haiku Inspirations seem fairly sensible, though his initial take on haiku as written “with the uncluttered sensitivity of children” seems pretty far from the mark. Fortunately, he quickly goes on: “The art of haiku is not, of course, child’s play” and gives a reasonable beginner’s account of the features of haiku as written in Japanese. But, as is usual in such short compass, errors creep in among the shorthand. Following this description of haiku’s features, we have “Some haiku writers, such as the early 19th-century poet Issa, took pleasure in violating these rules, and indeed the late 19th-century poet Shiki specifically advised beginners to forget the old rules of grammar.” In the first place, “the old rules of grammar” would have nothing to do with any of the preceding rules, which have to do with poetic form and structure. In the second place, I’ve been reading about haiku in both English and Japanese for over 40 years, and never came across such advice from Shiki, though it’s quite possible he offered such advice. If he did, he was advising new poets to not get tied up in the classical literary grammar that to this day pervades mainstream haiku, but to pay most attention to the basics–the aforementioned “rules” pertaining to form or structure. (Note that this classical literary grammar puzzles everyday Japanese folks much the way some passages of Shakespeare puzzle present-day Americans. Its effect is virtually untranslatable, and creates some of the tension over how haiku get translated. If a translation of a classic haiku sounds very colloquial, it’s probably not communicating the tone of the original very well.)

The introduction goes on into the history of haiku, taken up as if mysterious:

Haiku almost certainly evolved from tanka (short poems), also called waka (Japanese poems).

I have no idea why there should be any mystery about haiku’s “evolution”. From waka to renga (classical linked poems) and haikai no renga (linked poems by Bashô and others of his era), to the hokku (starting verses of these linked poems), to the modern haiku. There is nothing “almost” about this history, which is plainly written about in many places, including some of the “Further Reading” resources given in Haiku Inspirations. Why anyone would attempt to make the jump directly from tanka to haiku, without mentioning the intervening genres, eludes me. But then, I’m a specialist.

Lowenstein’s translations make fairly pleasant reading, unfettered by syllable counts and the like. Taking one where the original is given in calligraphy for example, we have in Japanese and his English translation (romaji supplied by me):

asagiri ya e ni kaku yume no hito-dôri

Hazy morning:
as in a painting of a dream,
the people passing.

Casual readers might not understand that a foggy mist is meant, and that the poem refers to an autumnal phenomenon. But the basic image, of people moving through a dream-landscape painting, comes through.

As a book of some fifty haiku in translation, with pretty illustrations more relevant to non-haiku aspects of Japanese culture, Haiku Inspirations makes a nice and relatively cheap gift book from one who knows nothing about haiku to another in the same boat. I’d hope those on both ends of the transaction would read further, soon.


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