The Essence of Modern Haiku, Really?

The following short review, from 1993, is probably previously unpublished. Ordering information dates from when this was written and may no longer
be accurate. See also the new postscript, written more than two decades later, which sees some aspects of the book in a different light.

The Essence of Modern Haiku: 300 Poems by Seishi Yamaguchi, translated by Takashi Kodaira and Alfred H. Marks. Mangajin, Inc., 1993, 330 pages, 6 by 9 inches, available in paperback, $19.95, or hardback, $24.95, at bookstores or from the publisher, Mangajin, P.O. Box 7119, Marietta, Georgia, 30065-1119. Or order with your credit card at 1-800-552-3206.

The publication of this book should be, I suppose, a significant haiku event. Taken simply as text, however, The Essence of Modern Haiku embodies many problems that threaten to choke the life out of haiku. Each page presents one haiku, including the original Japanese, a romaji rendering, the poem in English (in large type), the date of composition (ranging from 1924 to 1978), a paragraph explaining the context, background, or inspiration of the poem, an identification of the poem’s season word and its category, an explanation of key Japanese vocabulary words and their allusions or overtones, and, on some pages, what are called “other points of interest.” While any one of these details may be interesting, and while they provide a clear window into the world of Japanese haiku, they crowd the page, crowd the haiku, and give the whole book an overbearing, spiritless feel. What’s more, practically all of the poems (or rather, the English translations by Takashi Kodaira and Alfred H. Marks) are so far removed from English and American culture as to render them obscure. The explanations with each poem help bridge the cultural gap, but I doubt that any but a few of the English versions would ever be accepted by respected American haiku publications. The poems written here are too different. If Seishi Yamaguchi represents what is primarily being written in Japan today, then the difference between their haiku and our haiku is great indeed. Although this book is expensive, I would cautiously recommend that you read it to see, more clearly than I can explain here, that difference.

—30 May 1993, Foster City, California


I recently came across a quotation from The Essence of Modern Haiku. This drove me to pluck the book from my shelves, where I had left it for many years. In it I discovered a short errata sheet from the publisher, and the preceding review note. I might have written my short review for publication in Woodnotes, but I’m not sure, and haven’t confirmed that it was ever published—I suspect not. Having just read this note now, twenty-two years later, I acknowledge that I would say different things about the book today. For one, much of the apparatus that bothered me in 1993 now strikes me as perfectly fine for the study of this poet’s work—indeed, even helpful and enlightening. This is not an art book, or a book just of poetry, but a book of explication. To have such extensive glosses and helps with this many contemporary poems translated from the Japanese is a rare treat. I also make no mention of the front matter, which features three informative contributions. First is a welcoming foreword by Sonō Uchida (whose book of haiku, A Simple Universe, I later published with my press, in 1995). Second is the preface by Alfred H. Marks, which speaks to the challenges of translation. And third, especially rewarding, is Takashi Kodaira’s informative essay, “A Study on Yamaguchi Seishi” (name presented in the Japanese order, surname first), which all on its own is well worth reading for the way it explores Yamaguchi’s work and places it in the history of twentieth-century haiku. Also included are a chronology and a simple map of Japan showing the locations of 181 stone monuments on which Yamaguchi’s haiku are engraved—one of which is at the top of Mt. Fuji.

When I wrote that the text “embodies many problems that threaten to choke the life out of haiku,” I was referring to the translations and the apparatus. Although I’ve changed my mind about most of the apparatus, the translations are still problematic. They are nearly all 5-7-5 in structure, a format Marks defends. He says he needed to follow this pattern because Yamaguchi’s poems were in that form and that if he wanted to do free-form translations, he would have started with a free-form poet such as Hekigotō, Santōka, or Hōsai. But Marks makes the same error that generations of others have made in failing to recognize that English-language syllables are not the same as the sounds (not syllables) counted in Japanese haiku, and the fact that Japanese uses far fewer words than English to use up its seventeen sounds. So no, Yamaguchi didn’t use the 5-7-5 syllable form at all; rather, he used the 5-7-5 sound form in Japanese. This is despite the fact that Marks says that “Japanese syllables are not the same as those of English” (xi). So the chief problem with all of the translations is that they are long and wordy, surely a distortion of Yamaguchi’s original Japanese. A count of the words of any of the poems in this collection shows this to be true—the English versions are always padded with more words than in the Japanese. As 5-7-5 translations go, they seldom suffer from awkward line breaks or an inverted syntax that plague other translations to get them to “fit,” but they still come across as plodding and wordful. Here’s an example:

These green bottle flies

on carrion here—where on earth

were they until now?

The words “these,” “here,” and perhaps “on earth” are not needed.

One aspect of the apparatus also still bothers me. The notes from Yamaguchi himself about his poems include the date of composition, which is useful, but too often a restatement in prose of what the poem already says. For example, after “The wind carries it / through the night, from north to south— / the Gion music,” we are told that this poem was composed in 1958, and that “In Kyōto, I heard the music of the Gion Festival. The wind from north to south carried the music through the city streets” (148). Anyone who knows Japan would know that Gion is in Kyoto, so we are told nothing worthwhile here, and this sort of redundancy happens over and over again—although not without occasional details that provide a deeper context. More useful are the translators’ notes about season words and vocabulary, the latter of which might be of interest to someone seeking to learn Japanese. But still the cumulative effect of all the apparatus is deadening, creating that overbearing, spiritless feel I mentioned. Even if one wants to study a poet, it shouldn’t feel this burdensome.

It can be hard to define the essence of haiku, let alone the essence of modern haiku. Seishi Yamaguchi represents a pinnacle of haiku in twentieth-century Japan, to be sure. The Essence of Modern Haiku is one window into the poet and his work, but it feels that his work is not represented at its best in this collection. Nevertheless, with the Japanese, the romaji, and at least the translations offered, one can study each poem and consider making one’s own tighter versions.

—15, 29 November, 3 December 2015, Sammamish, Washington