The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss

The Art of Haiku: Its History Through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters

Art of Haiku

I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so sorry to finish a book. I may have to read it again, starting today. If you enjoy haiku, then you can’t go wrong with this book. It’s beautiful. Addis gives the reader a necessarily adumbrated tour of Japan’s most influential Haijin (haiku poets). His overview is chronological and begins with the tanka. The tanka was a centuries older form of poetry, also brief, but five lines rather than three. The syllabic pattern (Lee Gurga refers to  the Japanese syllable — an on — as a “sound” rather than syllable) was 5-7-5-7-7. It’s those first three “lines”, or that syllabic pattern,  that was to eventually be transformed into the haiku.

As Addiss’s overview progresses, he offers brief biographies of the various poets along with samples of their best haiku — mostly just a small handful or even two to three. That’s enough, though, to give the Western reader a flavor, perhaps, of the many different poets who contributed to the haiku’s development.

It’s when Addiss gets to Basho, Buson and Issa that he slows and examines. These three poets comprise the lion’s share of the book; and what makes his discussion enjoyable is his attempt to explain their greatness. More often the poets are translated, presented and their greatness is presumed. The Western reader, unfamiliar with the haiku’s history may well be  perplexed. What about a frog jumping into a pond is so special? Addiss tries to explain.

I do have some small gripes. The first is with his translations. Since I can’t read Japanese, I can’t say whether his translations are more or less accurate but I do know good poetry when I see it (and have other translations for comparison). By way of example, here are three different translations of one of Issa’s most famous haiku:

The snow has melted away —
A village-full
Of children.

Translated: Takafumi Sato and William R. Nelson

Snow melting —
the village is full
of children

Translated: Stephen Addiss from Haiku Landscapes: In Sun, Wind, Rain, and Snow

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children

Translated: Robert Hass

snow melts
and the village is flooded
by children

Translated: PDF

Of all the translations, the last is the best. The translations by Addiss, Saito, and Nelson are possibly more faithful to the letter, but Hass’s translation turns the haiku into poetry (and the last translation accomplishes the same with fewer words). Why are the last two better? Because the verb flood, whether or not it was in the original, plays on the idea of the snow melt turning into children. The first two translations don’t even vaguely imply the same. It’s possible that in the original the implication is more strongly felt; but without the word flood, in the English translation, the haiku is reduced to nothing more than a banal observation: When snow melts, children come out to play. Flood turns that observation into poetry. I can’t say whether Addiss’s other translations suffer the same flaw, but it does make me wonder. My own subjective opinion is that literal translations of poetry aren’t always the best translations; and that sometimes the best translators of poetry are themselves poets. They translate the poetry rather than just the words.

My other small complaint is that Addiss’s overview of Issa’s poetry is rather perfunctory in comparison to Basho and Buson. Whereas Basho and Buson’s haiku are discussed in the context of their lives, Issa’s biography is quickly dispensed with. Addiss himself entitles his short biography: A Short Biography. He follows this with several pages of haiku, one grouping after another, with headings like Views of Nature, Issa and People, Animals, Frogs and Snails, Insects etc… That’s all well and fine, I suppose, but I don’t know why Addiss treated Issa differently than Basho or Buson (except, perhaps, that he favours Basho and Buson). One does get a sense of Issa’s originality, but I can’t see how this couldn’t have been accomplished with a richer biography.

My last observation would be that, to my knowledge, there’s no other book like Addiss’s. The only exception, perhaps, would be R.H. Blyth’s two volume A History of Haiku. These two books are much denser, consider far more poets and discuss culture and biography in a way that Addiss, writing a much briefer and arguably more accessible book, does not. Addiss also considers Japanese painting in the context of haiku, something Blyth does not.  If you like haiku, or are interested in learning about them, and want a more general and readable overview of its history, I can’t think of a better book than Addiss’s. If Addiss’s book piques your interest, then move on to Blyth’s two volume set. After that, you will have to learn Japanese.

8 responses

  1. I think your criticism of Addiss’s translation is misplaced. Haiku avoids poetic devices such as metaphor and simile, and thus “flood,” while more “poetic” is not true to the spirit of haiku.


    • Thanks dmayr, I agree and disagree. It’s true that Japanese poets typically eschew the metaphor and simile as they are used and understood by Western poets. However, simply by virtue of the way Japanese is written, a haiku lends itself to metaphorical interpretation. Japanese poets were quite aware of this and exploited it. Consider the following:

      “One of the most controversial criteria often stressed in haiku handbooks is that haiku should be an objective record of things experienced (Arkenberg, 2008). The poet does not use one object or idea to describe another, using A to understand B. In other words, haiku is often defined as a poem which avoids poetic devices, even metaphor (Shirane, 2000: 53).

      However, numerous legendary Japanese haiku masters (Basho, Issa, Busson) are known to have used metaphor in their poetry, for example:

      About to bloom,
      and exhale a rainbow,
      The peony

      (translated by R. Roseliep ) Busson ( On a Rhyming Planet, 20 )

      The peony is pictured both literally and figuratively: every flower blooms at its proper time but the one in the haiku above is endowed with a kind of magical power, for it is capable of breathing out a rainbow when breaking into blossom. An unusual hyperbole based on the conceptual metaphor PLANTS ARE LIVING BEINGS implies rainbow flecks of sun rays – an optical effect emerging quite often in sunny weather.

      Today more and more haiku researchers claim that metaphor is central to haiku as to any other kind of poetry ( see Carriello , 2010 ; Shirane, 2000; Swede, 2000). However, the fundamental difference between the use of metaphor in haiku and that in other poetry is that in haiku it tends to be extremely subtle and indirect, to the point of not being readily apparent (Carriello, 2010 ). The metaphor in good haiku is often hidden or even deeply concealed within a poem. Even the seasonal word in Japanese haiku often tends to be inherently metaphorical, since it conveys very specific literary and cultural associations, but its dominant function remains to be descriptive, leaving the metaphorical dimension implied (Shirane, 2010: 56 ) .

      Metaphor in Japanese haiku has been widely studied by Masaka Hiraga (see Hiraga 1998; 2002; 2005; 2006 ), who claims that metaphor is tightly linked to iconicity which is defined as a mapping between the structure of a text and the meaning or image it conveys. In poetic texts this interplay of metaphor and iconicity is particularly foregrounded (Hiraga 2005: 27). Still, while the Japanese language displays pure iconicity, for the system of its hieroglyphic writing visually signals the meaning, English haiku show iconicity and its interplay with metaphor more subtly, which is the focus of our research. ”

      I’ve linked to the complete essay (see above). What’s important to remember is that metaphor also exists in Japanese poetry but it is handled differently. In short, the way Japanese is written, its “iconicity”, directly lends itself to metaphorical interpretation. This makes the subtler kind of metaphor we see in English (and other written languages) unnecessary or less necessary.

      Here’s how the essayist,Anna Shershnyova, puts it:

      “While the Japanese language displays pure iconicity (for the system of its hieroglyphic writing visually signals the meaning) English haiku show iconicity more subtly, through metaphors.”

      So, I agree that Japanese poets didn’t use metaphor the way we do, but I disagree that my criticism is misplaced. The word “flood” is very true to the spirit of haiku. Unfortunately, in English haiku, we cannot depend on our writing system’s “iconicity” (which is non-existent) to convey the Japanese concept or execution of metaphor, and so we have to translate that feature as a verbal metaphor.


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