Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Robert Hass (Ed.),The Essential Haiku

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa

Edited and with Verse Translations by Robert Hass

Paperback, HarperCollins 1994

Years ago, a friend who was visiting Japan sent me a beautiful volume of haiku by Kobayashi Issa. I also needed a general collection of haiku for my library, so a few weeks ago I purchased The Essential Haiku, edited by former Poet Laureate Robert Hass. I'm very happy with it.

Hass covers the three great masters, Basho (1644–1694), Buson (1716–1783), and Issa (1763–1827). The language in the translations is gorgeous. In addition to the poems, there are some pages from the poets' journals. The book also includes introductory material for each poet (which looks interesting but I'm saving it for another day).

Here are just a few of the many poems that made a strong impression.


     Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
     I long for Kyoto.


     Year after year
on the monkey's face
     a monkey's face.


     Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end—
     tonight's moon.


     That wren—
looking here, looking there.
     You lose something?


     Lime blossoms!
let's talk about the old days
     making dinner in the kitchen.


     New Year's Day—
everything is in blossom!
     I feel about average.


     These sea slugs,
they just don't seem
     Japanese.


     A bee
staggers out
     of the peony.


     A snail
waving its horns
     uncertainly.



The journal entries include a section from Issa's Journal of My Father's Last Days, translated by Robert N. Huey. In these pages, Issa recorded his father's grueling illness and eventual death. An entry from the early days of the journal: 

Tears were streaming down my face. I just sat there, looking down and unable to say anything. Because of his kindness, my debt to Father is deeper than the matchless snows of Mount Fuji, unmelted by the summer sun, and deeper than a twice-dyed crimson. Yet I hadn't stayed at home and taken care of him. Instead, I had drifted around just like a floating cloud; before I could wonder whether I had gone east, off I was to the west. The days and nights rolled on like a wheel going downhill, and twenty-five years had passed. To have stayed away from my father's side till my hair was white as frost--I wondered whether even the Five Violations could be worse than this.

In my heart, I prostrated myself and thanked Father. But if I were to openly shed tears, it would surely make him feel even worse. So I wiped my eyes and said with a smile, "Now put things like that out of your mind. Just hurry up and get well." I gave him some medicine, and added, "If you get better soon, I'll become the perfect son of a farmer, the Yataro you used to know. I'll cut hay, plow the land, and really set your mind at rest. Please forgive me for what I've been until now." When Father heard this, his joy was boundless.

The most direct reflection of this time, among the poems in the book, is this:


     Last time, I think,
I'll brush the flies
     from my father's face.


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