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:




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, there’s 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 Hass’s essential book.