At a glance:
THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU is a one-volume anthology of haiku by three of the greatest and most famous writers of this quintessentially Japanese literary form. As Hass writes in his introduction to the book, “the three men represent three types of the poet—Basho the ascetic and seeker, Buson the artist, Issa the humanist.” One long section of the book is dedicated to each poet, and at least one brief prose piece by each writer is included. Each section is preceded by a brief biography of the haiku poet whose works are being examined.
Hass, a poet and professor of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, has translated most of the haiku himself. By his own admission, he is not an expert in the Japanese language, although he has learned some Japanese. He has worked from the translations of other poets, simultaneously referring to the Japanese texts of the works he has selected.
Hass has been wise enough to use the translations of others when he has been convinced that he could not provide better versions. For the most part, Hass has produced effective translations, although undoubtedly those who are familiar with these haiku in other translations will find fault with some of the choices he has made. It should be noted that much of what makes haiku evocative cannot be translated. The original texts are full of untranslatable puns and plays on words. Difficult and undesirable decisions must be made by the translator of haiku.
Hass has done a good job of selecting his texts. The works themselves are delightful. THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU is an excellent first book for a person who is beginning to study haiku, and readers who are familiar with haiku will also find much to admire in it. Hass has also provided, in addition to his introduction, “A Note on Haikai, Hokku, and Haiku,” “A Note on Translation,” and a brief bibliography, “Further Reading.” These sections are informative and interesting. There is also a section of notes that are keyed to page numbers and first lines. These notes are extremely helpful, but there is no indication in the introduction that they exist. Not all of the haiku have notes, and one must flip back and forth, checking page numbers, to find the ones that do. The reader would have been better served if the haiku that have notes had been marked in some unobtrusive manner. Checking page numbers only to find that no notes exist is tedious and distracting. In spite of this flaw, however, THE ESSENTIAL HAIKU is a fine work and a welcome addition to the libraries of poetry lovers.
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