Source Text: The Sound of Water

An image of the front cover of Sam Hamill's The Sound of Water.

One of the things I find helpful in the study haiku is people sharing the various sources they use in their own writing practice. A few weeks ago, I gave an overview of Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables, which is one of my non-haiku source texts. I also thought it would be worth while to share some of the haiku-specific books I’ve chosen. Since Sam Hamill’s The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets was the first full anthology of translated haiku I ever read, and I’ve returned to it several times, I thought it would be a good starting point.

I first purchased The Sound of Water in the summer of 2017, for nature writing workshop I was taking as part of my MFA coursework. We had a unit on haiku, and in hindsight, I have mixed feelings about the fact that haiku got lumped in with nature writing and was never addressed in any other context. Although the truly egregious part was that the professor did not have a haiku practice. Even with the incredibly limited knowledge I had about haiku in 2017 (at least compared to what I know now), I knew many of the things he was telling the class, and the feedback he was giving on my poems, were not coming from an intimate knowledge of the form. (But at least he knew better than to make us stick to 5-7-5.)

I read The Sound of Water in 2017, returned to it in 2019, and for too long, it remained the only classical anthology that lived on my shelf. Eventually, I started engaging with other translations, and didn’t return to this particular book until beginning The Culinary Saijiki in 2022. One of the most fascinating things about returning to a book you have loved after a few years is seeing to what extent it still resonates.

To prepare to write this post, I reviewed the introduction to the book again; I don’t think I’ve read that portion since 2017. I was surprised to see Hamill definitively use the definition of three lines, 17 syllables, and the 5-7-5 count structure (p. ix). The introduction is dated with the year of 1993; I might have been mislearning haiku in my third grade classroom at this point, but I know that among my American haiku elders, the 5-7-5 debate was already well underway. (Practitioners were also having discussions about whether or not English-language haiku should be one line to better reflect Japanese writing.) I don’t begrudge anyone having a preference; to definitively state that 5-7-5 is the only way seems erroneous even for 1993. I admit that I didn’t learn any better until 2012, but that was at the point in which I began to actually dabble in the community of serious practitioners. If Hamill was working on serious translation, it seems to me that he should have been aware of the structural discussions. Certainly Hamill didn’t have room for a full analysis of the issue in this tiny volume; a sentence of acknowledgement might have sufficed.

But I suppose what I really struggle with is that, although Hamill is definitive about the 5-7-5 structure, he cannot stick to it in every translation. Buson’s haiku below has a 5-6-6 structure.

Not cherry blossoms
but peach blossom sweetness
surrounds this little house

Buson, trans. Hamill

While the above haiku is not 5/7/5, it still manages the 17-syllable count that Hamill believes in. Yet he cannot even maintain the 17 syllable rule throughout the entire book. The Bashō haiku below is 5/6/5, for a total of 16 syllables.

The banana tree
blown by wind pours raindrops
into the bucket

Bashō, trans Hamill.

Effective translation is one of the most difficult literary challenges one can undertake. I don’t think it would be possible to do 5-7-5 or 17 syllables 100% of the time and still produce engaging poems. The problem to me isn’t the structure of the translations itself; it’s that he makes claims about haiku structure that were already tenuous, and to which he could not possibly uphold 100% of the time. It’s the lack of nuance in the introduction that frustrates me.

I don’t have major complaints about the haiku themselves. Sometimes, Hamill’s use of punctuation feels perfunctory, and honestly, I think The Sound of Water contributed to my own unartistic use of punctuation for several years. Some of the poems feel bloated given the commitment to 5-7-5, but there’s also a sense of translational mastery here; none of them feel like fill-in-the-blank exercises. I feel like Hamill is a translator of a transitional period. He still has some of the trappings of Blyth: capitalizing the first letter of each poem; often using standard punctuation. Yet he also eschews some of that punctuation, and his versions of these classic poems feel a little less rigid. It’s not the minimalist work that would come to dominate much of the 21st century, but rather a gesture toward it.

I do have a number of other quibbles, and many of them might be described as petty. For example, Hamill says Basho wrote haibun (xvi), not that he developed the form itself. I also take issue with the idea that, “[A]lmost 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” (xiii). I’d say it took me about three years of committed haiku practice to be able to write “decently readable haiku” consistently (and there’s a reason I never published many sonnets back in my mainstream poetry days). I’m sure there are some haiku geniuses out there for who the form comes easy. But I bristle at even the implied idea that haiku is an easy form for everyone. I still see that idea reflected in the mainstream poetry world.

And ultimately, I think that Sam Hamill is more of a mainstream poet. When I first read The Sound of Water, I was also a mainstream poet, hoping the MFA I was so foolishly pursuing would make it easier for me to find tenure-track creative writing jobs (we know how that turned out). Six years later, the whole world has changed; my creative and professional lives are quite different from what I imagined. I think the strong reactions I’m having now are because The Sound of Water feels in many ways like a mainstream poet dabbling in haiku.

And from 2012-2017, that’s exactly what I was: a mainstream poet dabbling in haiku. But for all of my complaints about The Sound of Water now, I can look back on that summer spent reading it and realize this book was the start of my transition into committed haiku practice. Hamill’s book is what inspired me to begin my weekly haiku exchange with my friend Warren, and start writing and reading haiku regularly. I still wouldn’t get really serious until 2020, but 2017 and The Sound of Water was an artistic turning point for me.

Ultimately, while I’m less-enamored with The Sound of Water than I used to be, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I might nitpick about it now, but I cannot deny that in the path of my creative life, it had a big impact.

Community Open Mic Reminder:

n August, the podcast will feature a community open mic. Everyone is welcome to contribute! Please review the requirements below, and send me an audio recording to include on the show!

Click the Send a Voice Message link here:

Deadline: Saturday, August 26th at 11:59 pm CST.

Theme: Transitions


  • Please include your name before you read
  • Please read each haiku twice
  • Poets are limited to a maximum of three haiku
  • Haiku should include food as well as the theme
  • Please keep your ku family-friendly
  • Please reach out if you run into recording issues!

Preorder Postcards from Texas

I’m thrilled that my third chapbook (and first haiku chapbook!) is about to make its way into the world. I’m especially happy to be sharing the lineup with Lenard D. Moore and Julie Bloss Kelsey. You can order titles individually, or bundle them all (which comes with a discount and some bonus swag).

6 thoughts on “Source Text: The Sound of Water

  1. hello, i’ve enjoyed your articles here. i am considering submitting for you open mic, but have questions about haiku that reference the absence of a much longed for food. i have one poem that does this, but wonder if it is too subtle:

    late freeze
    and the peach trees blossom
    only butterflies

    would that reference to food be too subtle?

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