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Saturday, September 12th, 2009

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7:10p
Quite a treat ...
I was amazed to find that Faubion Bowers' The Classic Tradition of Haiku was such a recent (1996) book. So many of the Dover Thrift Editions are re-prints of books long out of copyright, and I had assumed when ordering it that this would be some 19th Century exploration of this Japanese poetic style. I have a deep admiration and appreciation of Dover's commitment to producing this very inexpensive line of books, and am particularly so in the case of a book newly produced for the "Thrift" (the cover price of this being a mere $3) edition.

I was also not expecting much in terms of "instruction" from this volume, figuring that it would simply be a collection of assorted Haiku, perhaps with some basic chronological identifiers, but not much more than the translated poems. I was very pleased to find that Bowers' book goes far beyond that. The book is arranged chronologically, featuring 48 poets whose works span from 1488 to as late as 1902. Each has a brief biographical notation in a footnote, as well as years of birth and death. Every page (having 2-4 Haiku) features clarifying footnotes as well, putting various imagery and forms in context for the reader.

For those unfamiliar with the format of Haiku, it is typically a 3-line poem having 5, 7, and 5 syllables per line, although a variant has a 2-line coda following. One of the stylistic standards of the form is to have some connection with nature and some word involved that relates to the seasons (which is apparently a linguistic feature in Japanese much the way "gender" attributions make the Romance languages so confusing to native English speakers). Another attractive feature of this anthology is that each poem is presented in transliterated Japanese, so that one can get a sense of how they actually sound. In fact, most of the translators here have gone for "sense" rather than "format", so few (if any) of the English versions maintain the 5-7-5 structure.

Speaking of translators, the work of 45 experts is included here, ranging from the Editor's own contributions to those of Allen Ginsburg, with about 3/4 of the translations being culled from other works, and 1/4 apparently done specifically for this volume. Additionally, some of the more famous Haiku are presented with 2-3 versions by different hands.

Here are a few examples:

Matsuo Bashō - (1644-1694)
shirageshi ni / hane mogu chō no / katami kana
For the white poppy
the butterfly breaks off its wing
as a keepsake
                    tr: Makoto Ueda

Mukai Kyorai - (1651-1704)
hototogisu / naku ya hibari no / jūmonji
The cuckoo sings
at right angles
to the lark
                    tr: Burton Watson

Kaga no Chiyo - (1703-1775)
wakakusa ya / kirema kirema ni / mizu no iro
green grass -
between, between the blades
the color of water
                    tr: Patricia Donegan & Yoshie Ishibashi

Tagami Kikusha-ni - (1753-1826)
tama ni ge ni / mokutō ya tada / michi no tsuki
In spirit and in truth
silent prayer ... just
the moon on the road
                    tr: William J. Higginson

Masaoka Shiki - (1867-1902)
ki o tsumite / yo no ake yasuki / komado kana
the tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window
                    tr: Janine Beichman
Although brief, this little book is both beautiful and informative, from the editor's introductory essay through the multitudinous notes. I particularly enjoyed exercising my “menu Japanese” to read the poems out loud before reading the translations, as this gave at least a vague approximation of how these originally were meant to be.

This is in print, but (as is the case frequently with the Dover Thrift Editions) you are unlikely to find them at your local brick&mortar book vendor, as there's little room for a profitable mark-up. Once again, however, this is an ideal “throw in” for an Amazon order, to bump something up to the promised land of free shipping. Highly recommended!


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