The Essential Haiku

First published in Woodnotes #23, Winter 1994, pages 51–52.

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass. Ecco Press, 1994, 330 pages, hardback, 5½ by 7¾ inches. $25.00 in bookstores. The laudable “Essential Poets” series by Ecco Press takes a slightly different turn with Robert Hass’s latest book. Rather than focus on a single Western poet, the 20th volume in this series looks East toward not one but three poets: Bashō, Buson, and Issa. Given the book’s size and price, the choice and scope of material could hardly be better. Nevertheless, Hass’s “versions” of classic poems by these three haiku masters may be criticized for often being based on R. H. Blyth’s translations rather than the original Japanese (in “A Note on Translation,” Hass says “my starting point was almost always a previous scholarly translation”). In addition to many poems (sometimes in translations from other sources), the book contains several prose pieces as well as diary and journal selections from each poet. Most notable, however, are the book’s introduction, biographical and literary over- views of each poet, extensive notes to the poems, and short essays on the history of haiku, its terms, and the many facets of haiku translation. A fine bibliography rounds out the book, but could have been improved by pointing the inquisitive reader toward contemporary English-language haiku and such books as Bill Higginson’s Haiku Handbook, Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology, or Bruce Ross’s Haiku Moment. One might speculate if this omission was deliberate. At any rate, Hass indicates that his aim with The Essential Haiku was to “give a fuller sense of [Bashō, Buson, and Issa] to readers in English than has yet been available, and [to] also give some sense of the variety and intensity of experience this small form can sustain.” Whether Hass attains this goal or not, his book does give haiku a positive nod from the realm of academia and mainstream poetry. The Essential Haiku should indeed prove true to its name as an essential haiku reference for years to come.