The Haiku Masters of Japan Drop In for a Visit

      by David Lehman

Thanks to Bob Hass, I’m
reading the haiku masters
of Japan—Bashō,

Buson and Issa—
in one essential book: The
Essential Haiku,


published by Ecco,
with smart intro and useful
notes by Mr. Hass.

Examples follow.
(Translators do not observe
strict syllabic count).

Here is Bashō as
rendered by B. Watson in
fifteen syllables:

“It’s not like anything
they compare it to—
the summer moon.”

And now for Buson,
trans. by Yuki Sawa and
Edith M. Shiffert:

“I go,
you stay;
two autumns.”

Issa, the last of
the three, wrote the following
(trans. Robert Huey):

“Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.”

Perhaps most famous
Japanese haiku has frog
poised to leap in pond.

Here it is with five
syllables in line one then
seven and then five:

“Into the old pond
the young frog jumps and there is
the sound of water.”

Throw away the rules
and you get something better.
At least I think so:

“Pond.
Frog.
Splash.”


Originally posted by David Lehman to his Best American Poetry blog on 28 August 2011. Four errors to point out here. First, the “two autumns” poem is actually by Shiki, not Buson (an error Hass seems to have perpetuated from Harold G. Henderson who perpetuated it from R. H. Blyth before that). Second, the “two autumns” translation is actually by Hass himself, not Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert. Third and fourth, “It’s not like anything” and “Children imitating cormorants” are also translated by Hass, not Burton Watson or Robert Huey. But wait, theres more—such as the error of presuming that 5-7-5 is the rule for haiku in English. I also see irony in the poem getting something better by breaking the rules and yet following the misperceived rule of 5-7-5 syllables throughout the bulk of this poem (or blog post, as the case may be) . . . but there you go. Still, an enjoyable overview of Robert Hasss essential book.