The Sound of Water

First published in Woodnotes #24, Spring 1995, page 41.

The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets, translated by Sam Hamill. Shambhala Centaur Editions, 1995, 132 pages, paperback, 4¼ by 5 inches. $11.00 in bookstores. Much like Robert Hass’s Essential Haiku, but much smaller and more selective, Sam Hamill’s new translations of classic haiku by Japanese masters come in a pocket-sized collection of the best Japanese haiku. The book is divided into sections for Bashō, Buson, Issa, and “Other Poets,” with two poems per page. A serendipitous surprise for haiku poets is the discovery of delightful sumi-e illustrations by none other than Kaji Aso, at whose studio the Boston Haiku Society holds its monthly meetings. Hamill suggests a disregard for Japonesque haiku written in English, however, offering the following comment in his introduction: “Haiku may well be the most widely recognizable poetic form in the world. At play with form, children quickly discover their own poetic imaginations; almost anyone can learn to make decently readable haiku in no time at all. Just as anyone can learn to write a quatrain or a sonnet. The problem remains: to be great, a poem must rise on its own merit, and too much haiku is merely haiku. Haiku written in American English and attempting to borrow traditional Japanese literary devices usually ends up smelling of the bric-a-brac shop, all fragmentary dust and mold or cheap glitter coating the ordinary, or—worsethe merely cute or contrived.” Despite this assertion, Hamill also notes that “In our own age and language, wonderful haiku have been written by poets as diverse as Gary Snyder, Richard Wright, Lew Welch, and Richard Wilbur, to name but a few.”