The Essential Haiku: Versions Of Bashð, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Haas
It takes a significant amount of cheek to create a book like this one, on several levels simultaneously. For one, it takes a considerable amount of pride in one’s own capacity to judge poetry to decide that a single volume book of poetry makes up the essential haiku. Haiku have been written for many centuries, and this book focuses on only three poets out of all of the many poets who have written that type of poem. To give some idea of the narrowness of the scope of this book, it would be like making a single-disk best of collection of the music of the 60’s British invasion by only including selections from the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Hollies, and leaving out everyone else and a great many of the songs of the artists themselves that many would argue would be essential. On a different level, this book is particularly cheeky because it contains translations by the editor, who is by no means either a fluent or a native Japanese speaker and writer. That is not to say that these poems are translated badly, only that it would have been considerably easier to justify this book as an essential volume had it been translated by someone whose understanding of both the target and source language was better.
This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and it is divided into four parts and numerous smaller selections. After an introduction, the first part of the book contains about 70 pages of material from the noted Japanese poet Bashð, including a brief biography of his life, a sizable collection of poems, “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling,” and selections from the Saga Diary in prose translation. After that the second part of the book consists of works by Buson, including a brief biography of the poet, a small selection of sort poems, more longer poems, and selections from New Flower Picking. The third part of the book consists of material from the Japanese poet Issa, including a short biography of this complex man, a sizable collection of poems from him, excerpts from his “Journal Of My Father’s Last Days,” which the editor correctly notes reads like a chapter from Balzac, and a prose translation of excerpts from A Year Of My Life. The book then ends with a section from Bashð on poetry from the Pine as well as from another writer’s conversations with him. The other 80 pages of this book or so are taken up by general notes, which are well worth reading, a note on the distinction between haikai, hokku, and haiku, a note on translation, suggestions for further reading, acknowledgements, copyright acknowledgements, and some information about the editor.
Although this book is by no means a complete look at haiku, even those haiku that fans of the genre would appreciate, this is certainly a book that is easy to enjoy. The editor includes not only haiku but also examples of longer forms of poetry and even prose fiction and nonfiction by the particular three authors at the core of this collection, and those writings help in a great way for the reader to better understand the lives and perspectives of the three great haiku masters this book explores. There is no doubt, at least from those who know and appreciate haiku, that the three poets chosen were very great poets who deserve to be remembered. As is often the case when one is dealing with a limited collection that has limited space and scope, this book is more a beginning and an introduction than it is a definitive and closing selection. This book ought to encourage the reader to write haiku and read a lot more of them, and that is likely to be a productive and enjoyable pursuit for those who happen to enjoy short and quirky poetry.