Two years ago (2018), Penguin Classics came out with an anthology titled The Penguin Book of Haiku. One might have thought it would include all kinds of undiscovered treasures of old hokku, but that turned out not be be true. Instead, the best part of the book was its rather iconoclastic introduction, which dispassionately cuts away many of the fantasies associated with the history of the hokku — out of which “haiku” had its beginnings near the end of the 19th century.
The author — Adam L. Kern — has many sensible things to say about what he calls haiku, for example:
“Accordingly, Bashō, the first of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, the poetic genius who single-handedly elevated boneheaded wordplay to bona fide art form called haiku, the undisputed patron saint of haiku, never, strictly speaking, wrote a single haiku in his life. How could he have, when the haiku dates only to circa 1894, two centuries after the man’s death in 1694?”
Now as readers here know, I have been saying for decades that Bashō did not call what he wrote “haiku.”
Somewhat confusingly, however, though in the text Kern makes clear that the old hokku and the later haiku are not the same thing, he goes on to oddly distinguish them in the text by anachronistically italicizing the earlier verse form as haiku, leaving the later category initiated by Shiki un-italicized as haiku. He differentiates them like this:
“… derives from an eclectic variety of collaboratively authored witty linked-verse practices that flourished primarily during Japan’s premodern Edo period (1600-1868) and into the modern Meiji (1868-1912).”
” … Indeed the haiku, far from being traditional, existing long ago and continuing to the present day in the same unadulterated form, is traditionalist, claiming the authority of tradition though actually brought into existence in the mid 1890s. This is hardly ancient by Western standards, let alone Japanese.”
As for the connection with Zen, he writes:
“Haiku is assuredly not Zen poetry. And contrary to popular belief, Bashō was no Zen master. That he shaved his head and donned priestly garb was equivalent, during his lifetime, to wearing a beret to signify one’s status as an artiste.”
Well, that is both true and not true. While one certainly cannot legitimately say that all writers of the hokku (and certainly not the later haiku) were Zen Buddhists, one can legitimately say that the best of old hokku were permeated by the Zen aesthetic that also strongly influenced the other Japanese arts, among them tea, calligraphy, painting, and Noh. And of course Japanese culture in general was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in some form — and Zen is Mahayana (the “Northern” category of Buddhism in contrast to the “Southern” or Theravada).
In short, aside from terminology, there is much in the book’s introduction to recommend for those interested in the history of hokku and of the origins of the later haiku. The problem arises when one goes beyond the introduction into the book itself, which turns out to be a surprisingly (and disappointingly) varied collection of many kinds of brief verse, all of which the author has chosen to throw together under the wide umbrella classification “haiku.”
Now to be fair, the author gives an advance warning of this in the introduction:
“And so two caveats. First, readers of this volume expecting the haiku, or even merely a premodern equivalent, might be in for a shock. Given the silly, satirical, scatological and sensual content of many verses, traditionalists in particular may well be scandalized, fearing that a Trojan horse has been smuggled into the Holy Citadel of Haiku.”
This is a legitimate caution to readers that what they are about to encounter is not going to be what they expect. Instead, one finds a small number of hokku of quality scattered amid a much larger collection that abundantly includes what the author describes as “‘dirty sexy’ haiku.” — indeed, a mixture of forms, including linked verses, senryu, etc — all dumped into the same laundry bag. While one cannot claim not to have been forewarned in the introduction, by the time one gets to page XXVI, where this revelation is made, it is already too late — the reader will already own the book, unless — as I did — it is borrowed from a library.
Then there is the matter of translation. Leaving the question of the author’s choices regarding omission of capitalization and often punctuation, the verses of diverse kinds vary in translation from the quite literal to the sometimes confusingly interpretive.
An example from Buson:
disgorging its rainbow:
The problem is in the last line. Buson died in 1784. “Dynamo,” whether used of a machine or figuratively of a human, is an English term that came into use in the 1880s for the former, the 1890s for the latter. It is anachronistic and inappropriate here, in spite of Kern’s interpretive intent. He should have been satisfied with simply
Disgorging a rainbow —
Almost a literary crime is Kern’s translation of Hashin’s winter hokku as:
heaven and earth:
neither exists apart from
Snow fluttering down.
While the original says simply,
Ten mo chi mo nashi tada yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not only snow ‘s ceaselessly-falling
No sky nor earth —
Another example — Buson’s
a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.
As a translation it is aesthetically disappointing. To the author’s credit, however, is the explanation he gives in the verse commentaries that follow the anthology, which in the case of this verse is quite good:
“An imaginative visual double take [mitate] of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku, perhaps, replete with the artist’s round seal (insu), emphasized by an extra syllabet. Buson has charmingly taken to its logical extreme the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy, as with the following waka by Tsumori no Kunimoto (c.1023-1102): ‘how they resemble / the lines of a letter / written in light greys — / those geese returning homeward / through darkening skies ….'”
Readers are likely to be mystified by the bizarre arrangement of the verses, which mixes the four seasons in a manner the author thought, it appears, indicative of the “collaborative flow” of old linked verse. It was a serious error that completely neglects the significance of the season and is not at all helpful.
In summation, my view is that paradoxically, the best parts of The Penguin Book of Haiku are first, the introduction, and second, the commentary following the verse collection. The anthology itself, lying in the bulk of remaining pages, is extremely trying for readers, as one searches among the multitude of trivial and pornographic entries for quality verses rising above that low level. Consequently, the book is likely to be of interest primarily to those who want an overview of all the various kinds of brief verse (briefer than waka) written in old Japan, from the pornographic and erotic, the satirical and the humorous, to the fewer hokku of quality included in this multifarious and — I think for most readers — disappointing and regrettable mixture. While one may understand the author’s purpose in using such a collection to puncture romanticized notions about old Japanese verse, that does not lessen the unsatisfying and inconvenient nature of the anthology.
On leafing through it, I could not help being reminded what an excellent job of selection R. H. Blyth did in his four Haiku volumes and two History of Haiku volumes — which together still offer the reader the finest anthology of the best of old hokku available to date — though these books have paradoxically now been out of print for several years.