It was back-to-school night, and the high school English teacher was telling the assembled parents about the ten-week writing module that the class had just begun. Explaining that instead of writing essays, the students would be writing poems, she gave two reasons for this departure from convention. First, a diagnostic test had shown that the writing skills of the students were generally poor, and she believed that they weren’t ready to attempt full-scale essays. Second, the class was very large, and it would be impossible for her to read and respond to so many essays every week. The parents received this explanation with perceptible unease. One ventured a question: Wasn’t writing poetry actually more difficult than writing essays, demanding more highly developed and specialized language skills? “Oh, don’t worry,” the teacher answered; “we’ll be doing haiku.”
For American readers, haiku occupies an ambiguous position. On the one hand, there is a strong literary tradition running from Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) and later Japanese masters of the form through twentieth century figures such as Ezra Pound to contemporaries such as Gary Snyder. While this tradition has never been well represented in college literature curricula, being largely restricted to specialists in classical Japanese, anthologies of Japanese haiku in English translation had an enormous impact on American poetry in the post-World War II period.
Haiku also played an important role in introducing elementary and high school students to poetry. In the 1960’s especially, many children first encountered poetry in the classroom through haiku. Instead of seeing poetry as an exalted but remote art—whatever those exotic creatures called poets do—students were encouraged to write poetry themselves in the form of haiku, just as in an art class students would be encouraged to draw and paint and not merely look at pictures. In this connection it is worth noting that Bashō himself was by profession a teacher of poetry.
For many readers, the fascination with haiku was part of a larger interest in Eastern thought, and particularly in Zen Buddhism. R. H. Blyth, whose extensive translations of haiku were among the most widely available in the 1950’s and 1960’s, believed that the distinctive qualities of haiku were rooted in Zen, and that perspective shaped his translations and commentary.
On the other hand, the very popularity of haiku has worked against it. Today many readers associate haiku with kitsch and cuteness and phony profundities. In part this reaction can be attributed to snobbery, but not entirely. Haiku’s ambiguous status also derives from questions raised by the form—questions that connect with larger debates about poetry.
Stripped of many of the formal conventions that governed the composition of traditional haiku in Japanese, haiku and haiku-influenced poetry in English have contributed to the now-dominant tendency to define poetry as a particular kind of perception or attention, with no reference to the forms and measures that have traditionally distinguished poetry from prose. At the same time, the radical simplicity of haiku focuses anxiety and skepticism about the nature of poetry (and the nature of art): “Is that all there is to it?”
For that reason, Makoto Ueda’s Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentarydeserves the widest possible readership. Obviously a must for anyone with an interest in Bashō and haiku, Ueda’s book should also attract readers and students of poetry generally; it would make an excellent text for a course in poetics. Ueda is a scholar of Japanese literature whose previous books include an introductory study of Bashō for Twayne’s World Authors series (Matsuo Bashō, 1970) and Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1984). Editor and translator of Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology (1976), Ueda is himself a poet as well.
Ueda’s concise introduction surveys the origins of haiku or hokku, the significance of Bashō’s work in the development of the form, and the substantial tradition of commentary on Bashō’s hokku in Japan. Hokku had its beginnings in the linked-verse form known as renga, which dominated Japanese poetry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first verse of a renga sequence was called a hokku (“opening verse”); it was written in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern familiar to modern readers of haiku. The second verse, a waikiku (“accompanying verse”), consisted of two phrases of seven syllables each. The renga sequence would continue in this fashion, alternating between verses in the 5-7-5 pattern and verses in the 7-7 pattern; while the sequences varied in length, the most common length was one hundred verses.
Renga was court poetry, typically composed at festive occasions by a group of poets who took turns trying to outdo one another with the verses they contributed to the...
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