Book Review: Haiku: An Anthology Of Japanese Poems

Haiku:  An Anthology Of Japanese Poems, by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto, and Akira Yamamoto

When reading a book from this publisher, as I have done on several occasions, I have often pondered what the purpose of this particular book is for that publisher.  After all, haiku are small and easy to anthologize and there are a lot of them, even if one only looks for the good ones in the mass of haiku that exist.  Even if one limits oneself to classical Japanese haiku of the old school and those of the masters, there are still a lot to choose from.  Why anthologize haiku as a Buddhist press?  It seems to me, at least, as a reader of this book that the publisher and presumably the editors of this collection are anthologizing the haiku and have brought this book to market as a way of appealing to the general interest in Buddhist thinking that is so common in the contemporary West.  This book does not appear to be written for those whose interest in haiku springs from a general interest in poetry or even those who are interested in general in Japanese culture, but appears to have a very specific religious root at the base of it, and truth be told that is something that I cannot really get on board with.

This particular book is about 200 pages long and it is divided into two general sections, each of which is divided into three sections.  The bulk of the book, as might be expected, contains various haiku in translation from the native Japanese.  These poems are divided into three sections based on their subject matter.  The first section of poems, taking up about half of the book’s contents as a whole, consist of haiku about various aspects of creation, pointing out various seasonal markers and providing reflections on scenes or moods that result from a timely observation of that which is immediately around the writer.  After that the second section contains haiku which reflect human voices, and the aspects of loneliness and relationships and human behavior that struck some poets, especially Issa, as being important.  This section closes with a bit more than 30 pages of haiku that feature themes of resonance and reverberation, that characteristic paradox or irony of life.  The second part of the book is much shorter, and it contains information about the poets, artists, and illustrations contained in this volume.

That said, the contents of this book are not offensive if one is looking for good poetry or even wanting to know what sort of material makes for compelling haiku.  Whether or not one considers the religious aspect of Buddhism that is involved in the Japanese poems to be compelling or not, there are obvious and not very difficult to defend reasons to think of the reaction to the glories of creation or the vicissitudes of human experience as being worthy of poetic explanation.  For those readers who are familiar with the biblical books of Proverbs and Psalms, and various poetic fragments elsewhere, this material will strike the reader as being generally similar in being brief and to the point and elegantly pointed, and that is sufficient to appreciate them.  That said, the publisher is obviously aiming this book at a different audience rather than one who comes to poetry with a biblical context in mind.  Specifically, this book is among many books written about elements of Japanese culture that strongly deal with the Buddhist aspect of Japanese culture that has become widely popular in the West over the past few decades, and it is not by coincidence that so many haiku writer were either Buddhist nuns or monks.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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