homeeditorsreviewsessaysmhbooks issues


Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

book review

Hokku: Writing Traditional Haiku in English
by David Coomler


Reviewed by William J. Higginson

Hokku: Writing Traditional Haiku in English: The Gift to be Simple, by David Coomler (Springfield, Ill.: Octavo Press, 2001), 157 pages, 6" x 9", paperback. ISBN 0-87243-255-6. $12.95 from Templegate Publishers, PO Box 5152, Springfield, IL 62705.

Narrow-Minded Haiku

David Coomler opens his introduction to Hokku with: “This little book will tell you exactly what hokku is and exactly how to write it” (7). He then rehashes some of R.H. Blyth’s more biased views, and contends that only those who hark back to pre-Shiki “traditional haiku”—which he would like us to call “hokku”—can ever find the true “Way of Hokku.” The book presents his limited view as if it were the only legitimate view of haiku. Frankly, Blyth lays the Zen on more than sufficiently. This guy’s hyper-biased view and failure to understand even his mentor’s words just cannot stand up to any great Japanese haiku poet’s work, past or present.

Unfortunately, the book also promotes errors of fact and dogmatic statements as truth. Anyone familiar with English-language haiku can easily spot the fallacies in his rants on everything from punctuation to the senses in haiku, so I will focus here on the problems in his understanding of specific Japanese haiku, and the illogical ways he uses translations to prove his often wrong-headed points.

To cite a prominent example (bold and italics as in the original):

The dash (—) is used in hokku to indicate a long, indefinite pause that either links to a following line or else just stands on its own to show continuing action, as in this example:

A hoe standing,
no one about—
the heat!


In Shiki’s example the dash indicates the continuing absence of whoever was using the hoe. Shiki’s hokku also shows the use of the comma in the first line as a brief pause…; and it shows the use of the exclamation point for very strong emphasis.… (25)

In Japanese haiku only a minute number of poets has ever used written punctuation. (Only one comes to mind, Takayanagi Shigenobu [1923–1983], and he only rarely used punctuation marks in any conventional manner.) The original Japanese for Shiki’s poem, in rômaji, goes thus: kuwa tatete atari hito naki atsusa kana (from Coomler’s evident source, Blyth, Haiku, 3, 9). There is no punctuation in the original Japanese. The original ends with the cutting word kana, for which many translators often use an exclamation mark, so no problem there. The grammar of the original, however, includes a run-on from line two to line three, and thus the haiku might better be translated as

A hoe standing,
no one about
in this heat!

Not to nit-pick a more or less passable translation, but let readers note: the decision to use a dash here or not is an English-language decision, made by a translator. Coomler says “yes”; Higginson says “no.” No Japanese haiku poet has anything to do with it.

Again, acting as if features of a translation were intended by the original’s author, Coomler cites his version of a poem by Suiha, then comments:

Spring cold;
the puppeteer
keeps coughing.

Where is the beauty in a puppeteer with a bad cold? But hearing the cough of the sick puppeteer makes us feel the damp chill of early spring even more intensely. (61)

When we look at his probable source, Blyth’s History of Haiku (2, 135–36), we find Blyth’s rendition of what the original poem did not do:

haru samuku sekiiru ningyô-tsukai kana

This spring it is cold;
The puppeteer
Keeps coughing.

No pun appears in the Japanese. Evidently, Coomler altered Blyth’s translation of only the first line in order to create the pun, perhaps so his readers would “get it” that the puppeteer was sick. And only several pages later Coomler warns hokku-writers “Do Not Play Word Games”! Since word-play has been a rather conspicuous feature of Japanese haiku since the beginning (though not in this particular poem), this only further points up Coomler’s abundant and willful ignorance of the whole genre.

Coomler compounds the problem of speaking about his own translations as if they reflected intentions impossible to the poems’ original authors by freely mixing his own original creations in English with his versions of Japanese originals. The latter may be accompanied by obviously Japanese authors’ names, but Coomler does not include any version of the original texts. Thus, by mixing his own works among poems by Japanese masters and discussing the translations as if they were originals, he subtly suggests that his poems rank among theirs. They do not.
Coomler has written some passable haiku, such as this one used to demonstrate his view of a “statement hokku” (88–89):

How cool
The call of the dove—
Midsummer rain.

but it hardly joins the company of such masterpieces as Shôhaku’s poem, which he groups with it:

I go nowhere,
No one comes—

Does that not seem like a masterpiece? Oh, sorry, that’s Coomler’s version. Back to Blyth for the original, jûgatsu ya yoso e mo yukazu hito mo kozu, and a clarifying translation (Haiku, 3, 337):

It is the Tenth Month:
I go nowhere;
No one comes here.

Shôhaku does not speak of October, the Gregorian month of bright leaves and glorious autumn outings. He speaks of the tenth month of the lunar calendar, roughly equivalent to our November, the first month of haiku winter, and the increasing chill as leaves go brown and down. What Shôhaku said pierces to the bone. Coomler’s version is plain wrong, and simply cannot be understood as a haiku of any great value. It would be nice if Coomler at least understood Blyth’s translations correctly, never mind the Japanese.

Coomler’s book not only attacks modern Japanese haiku, but ignores all post-Blyth books and other resources, not to mention the increasing wave of organizations and international events dedicated to haiku. There is no bibliography or listing of haiku resources. In fact, he directly criticizes those who seek information on haiku from a variety of sources, calling theirs a “‘Chinese restaurant’ approach” in which people take from different dishes to make an unsatisfactory meal. Fact is, I’ve had many excellent, well-balanced meals in Chinese restaurants just this way, and learned a great deal more about haiku from reading beyond the first book I got on the subject. Coomler’s under-cooked book is not among them.

Bashô lamented that his dedication to poetry prevented him from gaining enlightenment. Coomler’s dedication to his narrow view prevents him from getting anywhere beyond baby steps in his own haiku. He ends the book with a small anthology of 120 of his students’ haiku. Some of the poems in this collection surpass in quality anything preceding it, but a monotonous sameness pervades them overall—not surprising, given his narrow view of haiku. Though clearly beginners’ haiku, a few have a freshness that will be the only reason I keep the book on my shelves. Whether they know it or not, these students have already left Coomler behind. Others could do as well by starting with Blyth in the first place, then, hopefully, going beyond.




©2002 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656