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A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen [Paperback]

by Matsuo Basho, Robert Aitken, W.S. Merwin
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)


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Book Description

October 1, 2003 1593760086 978-1593760083 First Thus
Zen Buddhism distinguishes itself by brilliant flashes of insight and its terseness of expression. The haiku verse form is a superb means of studying Zen modes of thought and expression, for its seventeen syllables impose a rigorous limitation that confines the poet to vital experience. Here haiku by Bashõ are translated by Robert Aitken, with commentary that provides a new and far deeper understanding of Bashõ’s work than ever before.

In presenting themes from the haiku and from Zen literature that open the doors both to the poems and to Zen itself, Aitken has produced the first book about the relationship between Zen and haiku. His readers are certain to find it invaluable for the remarkable revelations it offers.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint; First Thus edition (October 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1593760086
  • ISBN-13: 978-1593760083
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #634,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.2 out of 5 stars
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Totally Recommended April 15, 2010
Format:Paperback
Full disclosure: I came to this book with a strong interest in the haiku of Basho (as well as Issa, Buson, Chiyo-ni, et.al.) but very little knowledge of the Japanese language. Most of the books I've been able to find so far provide various translations but little commentary or translator's notes. A Zen Wave, however, provides much to think on--a well-considered English translation; the original in romanji; and a literal word-for-word translation. Comments on individual poems go into the particular challenges of rendering Japanese into understandable English (random example: "Most translators render naki as "weep," but this is incorrect. Its homonym means "weep," and so this carries through as an overtone, but the ideograph Basho used refers to the cry of any animal, with reference derived from context.")

The other aspect of the book is, of course, Zen. Aitken uncovers deeper meaning in Basho's haiku, informed by both Basho's understanding of Zen (he was "familiar with the ways of Zen monks to some degree") and Aitken's own (as a Zen roshi.) These essays take the reader to many delightful places, bringing all sorts of things along the way--poems by T.S. Eliot and Joyce Carol Oates; monk stories; Zen koans; slightly cranky rants (oh, the poor acolyte of the 60s-70s who wanted master Aitken to LOVE his students . . . ); and out-and-out didacticism. "Basho's purpose was not merely self-expression," Aitken tells us. "With his great compassionate heart, he was saying, 'Go thou and do likewise.'"

Again, I am no expert on haiku or Zen; merely a student. As such, I found this work both delightful and useful. I would not agree with a previous reviewer who found the book lacking in "depth" but I wouldn't mind if Aitken had tackled more poems. For that matter, I wouldn't mind if other contemporary translators of Japanese poetry would give us more material like this.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent insight into the translation of Zen haiku January 15, 2008
Format:Paperback
A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen

This book provides an excellent insight into the editing choices that must be made in translating poetry (in this case Zen haiku) from another language into English. I found the author's discussions and commentary to be compelling and answered many questions that had arisen in my mind concerning the interpretation of Japanese haiku. By providing the Japanese poem side-by-side with a literal word-by-word transcription into English, together with the author's translation of the poem into English, I was able to easily follow the author's rationale as to how best to express the essence of the poem.

This book is more, however, because it provides insights into Basho the man and Basho the poet, influences upon his life and the poems he wrote, and the context within which those poems were written. By way of further explanation and comparison, the author also provides haiku from other poets and alternative translations of the subject haiku by other translators.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly Exceptional May 23, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition
This is an extraordinary book on two counts: it is a penetrating commentary on Zen as lived by the poet Basho', and it is an exemplary translation of Basho''s poetry.

What makes A Zen Wave stand out? Translators of haiku, of which there have been many, have employed a variety of strategies in attempting to render the compact haiku form into English. In translating Basho', Aitken has adopted the only sensible strategy: he dispenses with the 5-7-5 syllable structure, for the simple reason that it doesn't work in English, and he resists any temptation to impose western poetic conventions. Instead, he focuses on capturing the Zen spirit of Basho'. It is here, in conveying the spirit of Basho''s haiku, that Aitken proves himself so adept.

For each poem, Aitken first gives his English translation, followed by a romanized version (ro'maji), and a literal, word-for-word transliteration of the Japanese. This allows the reader to appreciate both what the original poem looked like, and the liberties taken by the translator in `creating' an English version. This format discloses the translation process with uncommon honesty. It both allows and compels Aitken to explain and justify his translations. Here is an example: The Old Pond

(First Aitken's translation)
The old pond;
A frog jumps in--
The sound of water.

(Then the ro'maji)
Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

(Then the literal transliteration)
Old pond!
frog jumps in
water of sound

Then, in a section called "The Form," Aitken provides a detailed explanation of the pertinent grammatical features, such as the cutting word, "ya," and how the poem's structure creates its poetic effects.
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