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The gentle natures of the old haiku masters.
on December 8, 2006
Poetry, it is said, is what disappears in translation. This may often be true, for patterns of rhythm and sound in a poem can seldom be carried over into another language, even if the translator be a poet.
Happily, this is not a problem in _1020 Haiku in Translation: the Heart of Basho, Buson and Issa_, 2006. Translated by Takafumi Saito and William R. Nelson. Artwork by Munetaka Sakaguchi. The simple patterns of everyday speech, and the utterances of things and places and feelings are brief, yet in their simple imagery and emphasis, the poems offer us at least sparks of awareness of the here-now presence in life, and at best grant us a revelation, a brief kind of surprise, an overwhelming openness.
The poesy of Japanese haiku is preserved, not in the 5-7-5 pattern, but through strong-weak stress patterns. The Japanese count of seventeen syllables in three lines (5-7-5) is naturally rendered in English differently, but still true to the original. Basho's famous frog haiku becomes: "An old pond - / A frog dives in / Water sound." Because of such apparent simplicity, schoolchildren around the world have been impelled, one believes, rather than driven, to learn and appreciate haiku - and to write them!
For children see, too, the variety of content in haiku. The poet Issa writes, "Don't swat it! / The fly is rubbing / Its hands and legs." This haiku is found in the book, _1020 Haiku in Translation: the Heart of Basho, Buson and Issa_. This anthology does not only include well more than others of the three masters' poems but also devotes many pages to helpful supplementary information not readily found in other collections.
Non-Japanese readers who possess books with some of these poems may wish to compare the English translations in them with those in this new and generous volume for their sometimes interesting differences.
In the Biographical Notes we are told of the many personal tragedies in Issa's life, thus making his grief and longing more poignant for us.
Unique with this anthology, I believe, is the use of grouping; in Contents and throughout the book, the haiku are organized not only under the customary Seasons for each poet, but also under themes, such as Children, Flowers, Feelings, People at Work, and many others. This makes it easy for the reader to quickly find poems of special interest.
Also convenient for readers who may have only a first-word-or-two recall of a haiku that is slipping away is the One-Line Index where each poem in Romaji is listed alphabetically by the first word.
Traveling through paths of pages in 1020 Haiku . . . one pauses often by the radiant black-on-white words of the poets and the translators, and not less by the delicate and strong illustrations of the artist.
In their Preface the authors speak of how a harmony of "things, events, feelings," in a haiku, "if internalized by the world's people, could dramatically bolster world peace. People living side by side, without argument, without force." So grand and noble a vision for the humble haiku? To come only through its soft voice of one or two breaths and heartbeats two or three? One would not dream it possible, were it not for voices of gentle natures like those of the old masters and those who care to follow after, to see and to show. Thus Issa:
The heart of the Goddess of Mercy
In the sway