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Volume 34.3
Autumn 2003

book review:

Selected Haiku by Takaha Shugyo
edited & translated by
Hoshino Tsunehiko & Adrian Pinnington


reviewed by David Burleigh

Selected Haiku by Takaha Shugyo. Edited and translated by Hoshino Tsunehiko and Adrian Pinnington, with an introduction by Hoshino Tsunehiko (Tokyo, Japan: Furansudo, 2003). 108 pages, 21.2 cm x 14 cm, papercover, $16.00 / ¥2,000 (tax included). ISBN 4-89402-524-8 C0092

A small selection of these translations—fifteen poems—appeared previously in this journal (31.2), with a note introducing Takaha Shugyo as “one of Japan’s leading contemporary haiku poets.” Since then, some readers will have encountered his work in anthologies, and perhaps have anticipated the appearance of a full collection.

Professor Hoshino’s lucid introduction to the volume in hand gives us the basic facts about the poet: that he was born in 1930 and worked for a company before resigning to become a full-time poet; that he is the head of a group called Kari (“Hunting”), which publishes a magazine of that name. A secondary aspect of this account is the view that it provides of what we might call the “economy” of haiku, meaning not the sparing use of words, but rather the operation of a system. Only one poem is quoted in the prose:

the chirping of tree crickets—
after having judged
a thousand verses in one day

The judging is done in order to select poems for inclusion in a journal or a column. There is a poem by Masaoka Shiki about three thousand haiku and two persimmons that similarly expresses this arduous task. Haiku practice in Japan, we are reminded, is a huge organic system based on membership support, in which the leading poet must function not only as an exemplar, but as an educator too. It is a demanding position to be in, but one which Takaha Shugyo performs with skill and dedication, as one of the more prominent custodians of traditional haiku culture.

This is the second time that a substantial number of Shugyo’s haiku have been translated. The first set of English translations was done by the late Jack Stamm, a New York poet who worked as a copywriter in Japan. (Stamm’s own haiku were collected in a posthumous bilingual volume, to which Shugyo contributed a short memoir in Japanese.) It was privately published under the title One Year of Haiku, and contained forty-six verses, with English and Japanese on facing pages. There were ten poems for each of the four seasons, with a small group of poems written overseas gathered at the end. The new Selected Haiku contains 102 haiku, arranged more or less chronologically, to cover fifty years of composition. The date of composition is given in each case; though there are no formal groupings, it is notable that the last eighteen poems were all written in other countries. This time the translations have been done by two scholars, though one of them, Hoshino Tsunehiko, is a poet too.

Apart from a larger format, which allows more space to each poem, and the inclusion of the Japanese in roman letters, the most noticeable change is that the poems have been printed entirely in small letters, except for names. This is the practice that Haruo Shirane and Makoto Ueda follow in recent volumes, and it may be their lead that Hoshino and Pinnington have followed. The large bilingual anthology published by the Modern Haiku Association in Japan in 2001, however, employed an opening capital letter for each poem. Curiously, the four poems by Shugyo in that anthology, plainly by the same translators, were the only English versions in the entire volume that ended with a period as well. Presumably that was done at Hoshino and Pinnington’s insistence?

There is a certain amount of overlap between the two selected volumes: almost half of the poems Stamm translated reappear in the new selection. It seems reasonable to assume that all the poems were chosen by the poet himself in each case, and represent some of the best of the many haiku he has composed. The first verse in the new selection sees him getting on a tramcar, and the fifth verse is this:

hi o tachishi kikansha no shita chichiro naku

beneath the locomotive
with its fire put out,
crickets sing

Like the famous verse by Yamaguchi Seishi (1901–1994), about a train coming to a halt in summer grasses, of which it carries an echo, this verse shows an intersection between the man-made and the natural world. It easily submits to an ecological reading. But what is more surprising, as one reads on, is how relatively few of the verses deal with the modern, urban world that Shugyo actually inhabits:

shinryoku no apâto tsuma no harigakoi

in our apartment,
amidst the spring greenery,
my wife encased in glass

The well-known verse below was written from the Empire State Building, and graces the cover of the book:

matenrô yori shinryoku ga paseri hodo

from the skyscraper
the fresh greenery of the trees—
just like parsley

The expression paseri hodo is not easy to render, since hodo means the degree or limit or extent of something, and is somehow more suggestive than the words in English. Stamm’s version typically aims for the 5–7–5 syllabic pattern, and is freer in expression:

From a skyscraper,
nothing but so much parsley—
springtime’s new greens

The poems written overseas that close both collections seem to bring the poet closer to the urban world.

In the new selection, there are some lovely things:

yo no shinju shi no gyôkan o yuku gotoshi

fresh green trees at night—
like walking between
the lines of a poem

kumo no i no mattaki naka ni kumo no ue

in the midst
of the perfection of its web,
the spider’s hunger

The first is one of several poems that discover a meeting point between the poet’s craft and the natural subject, while the latter verse delivers a reflective frisson. The language is always clear, but improvises less than Stamm, whose versions are given on the haiku below:

yamaguni no yukige shizuku wa hoshi kara mo

mountain country thaw—
the melting snow drips
even from the stars

Snow in the mountains
glitter-melting drop by drop
from the stars, too

kareno yuku mottomo tôki hi ni hikare

journeying over
the withered moor,
drawn by the furthest light

Crossing barren fields
captivated by a light
far far away

One cannot award the laurels unequivocally to either of the translations: Hoshino and Pinnington are usually more accurate, if sometimes a little flat; Stamm is livelier, if now and then a little loose. But the differences between them raise some interesting points.
Take these two versions, for example, again with Stamm’s given below:

umi ga mieshi ka ikanobori orite kozu

can it see the sea?
the kite which
refuses to descend

Kite—has it looked at
the sea, that it refuses
to come down again?

The tenses and the structure are somewhat different. Stamm presses the connection with more persuasive rhetorical effect; and his “come down” seems a more suitable expression than “descend,” which suggests an airplane. This verse too may be usefully compared:

raise ni wa tenba ni nare yo tozanuma

in your next life,
be a pegasus!
mountain pack

Hill country cart horse,
hurry up and be reborn
horse as Pegasus

There are minor differences again, between the more interpretive and the more literal versions, but certainly “mountain packhorse” is the more apt expression for the animal. The “Pegasus / pegasus” variation is subtler, and here the lower case works quite well. Yet it is not employed quite throughout the new translated volume, which has upper case for names, as well as an opening apostrophe (“O”). As so often, the use of lower case tends to highlight problems of punctuation.

Professors Hoshino and Pinnington do not always seem quite certain on this matter. It is sometimes difficult to see why a dash was preferred in one case, a colon in another, or a comma in a third. There are a few verses where the use of a comma creates a sort of dangling participle:

kôhajime kusabi no gotoki ichigo hori

the first manuscript of the year,
looking for that one word
which will act as a wedge

Another question this volume raises is about the translation of season words: should they be consistently the same, as they are in Japanese, or varied, as seems natural in English? In this selection kareno is given twice as “withered moor,” while hinataboko, which usually translates as “basking in the sun,” is given in two other ways. One of the latter is just a little bit perplexing:

daibutsu no te ni aru omoi hinataboko

like lying
in the palm of the Great Buddha—
winter sunshine

It is necessary to return to the initial “like” to be sure the poem is about someone enjoying the winter sunshine and not about sunshine on the palm.

It is a pity that there are no notes on the poems, even to explain the season words. Readers find these illuminating, especially readers who are not familiar with the Japanese. There is quite a lot available already on that subject in other volumes, however. Certainly this is a valuable addition to the growing number of individual collections of work by modern haiku poets translated into English. It is different enough from the Stamm collection to be enjoyed together with it (though both were only issued in Japan), and sufficiently distinctive to be enjoyed alone.

One of the characteristic gestures to be found in haiku is of gazing at the hands, or of holding something in them. Shugyo has several unique poems about cracking walnuts (and different ones in the two selections). They are intriguing pieces, whose intention is less metaphysical than metaphorical perhaps:

kurumi waru kurumi no naka ni tsukawanu heya

cracking open a walnut —
inside the shell,
one unused room

This is not a mystical revelation (like that received by the fourteenth-century English mystic Julian of Norwich, gazing in astonished wonder at a hazelnut resting in her palm), but something much more down-to-earth: a revelation of the ordinary. It is exactly the kind of revelation to which the haiku is peculiarly well suited, and which Shugyo is masterly at conveying.



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