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.