The Dover Haiku Anthology

As far as I can recall, this review is not previously published. I never had the text on my computer, but discovered a hand-written draft in my copy of the book. I first wrote this review on 13 April 1997 in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. If this review was published, I’ve lost track of where and when, but will add that information if discovered. A published version may differ from this version, which also includes a few minor edits and additions made on 23 May 2012. For what it’s worth, I recall William J. Higginson telling me that he consulted with Bowers on some aspects of Bowers’ book manuscript before it was published. This is an important little collection, although, in the years since I wrote my review, I can’t say the book has been as influential as I had originally imagined, especially given its very cheap price and ubiquitous availability. But it does remain widely available and is still worth reading and recommending to others.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology. Faubion Bowers, ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 96 pages, 5.25 x 8.25 inches. $1.50 [now $3.00] in bookstores.

This Dover anthology of classic Japanese haiku, though unassuming, is a significant publication, for at least three reasons: It is highly selective and eclectic; it is very inexpensive and widely available; and it is sure to remain available—as are most Dover publications—for many years to come. Because of these factors, this book is likely to be highly influential in classrooms, and with those curious about haiku poetry. And, as such, I think it represents the genre very well.

The book begins with a three-page foreword by the editor in which he distills a few answers to the question, “What are haiku?” Bowers quotes Harold Henderson, R. H. Blyth, William J. Higginson, and Arthur Waley. I wish he had not quoted James Kirkup (whose tautological aphorisms simply masquerade as haiku) for his writing about and approach to haiku I frequently find at odds with or blind to the prevailing thrust of the genre in English. Yet even quoting Kirkup illustrates the eclecticism of this anthology.

The foreword notes that haiku “tell a story and paint a vivid picture, leaving it up to the reader or listener to draw the meanings out and complete them in the mind’s eye,” adding that “Each haiku also contains a hidden dualism: the near and far, foreground and background, then and now, past and present, high and low, sound and silence, and temporality and eternity.” Bowers also emphasizes the “what,” “where,” and “when” aspects of haiku as being the most important, for without things we perceive through our senses (“what”) in a clear location or context (“where”) at a particular time (“when”), good haiku cannot happen. In his foreword, Bowers also introduces the history of haiku and their cultural significance, touches on characteristics of the Japanese language and translation problems, and discusses such haiku strategies as caesuras, season words, and haiku’s “one breath” nature. This discussion neatly sets up the expectation of variety and diversity so common to haiku.

The anthology’s variety is most strong in its selection of haiku and translations. The book contains 276 translations of 234 poems ranging over 400 years from Sōgi (d. 1502) to Shiki (d. 1902). The poems are by 47 poets (plus three anonymous poems), translated by 45 translators. The translations date from Lafcadio Hearn (1900), Basil Hall Chamberlain (1902), and Curtis Hidden Page (1923) through to Blyth, Yasuda, and Henderson, and to more recent translations by Higginson, Makoto Ueda, and Hiroaki Sato. The earliest translations are by Shigeru Nishimura (1879), Inazō Nitobé (1893), and William George Aston (1899), and the most recent include Alex Kerr, Patricia Donegan, and Bowers himself (none of Robert Hass’s or Sam Hamill’s translations are included, I note).

Also of note in this selection, for those who persist in believing that English-language haiku should be a 5-7-5 syllabic form, is the fact that about 95 percent of the translations are not 5-7-5. And this despite including translations from early in the 20th century, when the 5-7-5 form was first transplanted into English. I feel weary sometimes of banging this drum about the inappropriateness of the forced 5-7-5 form in English, where the pattern is not natural as it is in Japanese, or even equivalent to the sounds (not syllables) they count, yet somehow this belief persists with many people, especially the general public, but even otherwise well-educated poets. Perhaps we are reluctant to reject what we first learned as schoolchildren, when we believed that our teachers could do no wrong. Yet here again, in this fair and representative book, is overwhelming evidence against the 5-7-5 form. Bowers even makes note of instances where the Japanese originals depart from the traditional Japanese form.

So you will not find much 5-7-5 in this anthology. What you will find in these pages is three or four haiku per page, given first in a single horizontal line in romaji, followed by one or more translations of the poem in English. The translations range from a single horizontal line (41 of those, mostly by Hiroaki Sato and translations from 1932 by Max Bickerton), to two-liners, many three-liners, and two four-liners. Many poems are also annotated by the editor, who sometimes gives related translations (seven further poems appear in these footnotes). The annotations provide biographical detail (the poems are arranged chronologically), cultural information, and give contexts, influences, and cross-references. For example, we learn of Yasuhara Teishitsu (1609–1673) that he “destroyed all but three of his 3,000 haikai poems, leaving us with less than 30 of his words.” Indeed, the notes are entertaining and informative, and strike a pleasing balance between too much and too little.

One poem in the collection is not a translation. Bernard Lionel Einbond’s “frog pond . . . / a leaf falls in / without a sound” is included with five translations of Bashō’s famous frog poem. Einbond’s poem, as many American haiku poets know, won the 1987 Japan Air Lines haiku contest. Including such a poem in this anthology indicates the presence of an English-language haiku community (the Haiku Society of America is also mentioned in the introduction). Practically all other collections of Japanese haiku translations make no such nod towards haiku in English, so this is a refreshing change.

In all, this is a pleasing collection, thoroughly researched, sweepingly representative, and amazingly inexpensive. Buy yourself several copies—for yourself, to give as gifts, or to donate to schools and libraries. Thanks to Dover for this invaluable publication. Maybe an anthology of English-language haiku might also follow from Dover someday.