Lost Haiku, Authorship, and Translation

Cover image of Andrew's book entitled Full Moon is Rising

Before I begin: Remember that the deadline for the community open mic is Monday, August 28th at 11:59 pm CST! Read the reminder post for updated submission details. Link: https://culinarysaijiki.com/2023/08/21/reminder-last-chance-for-the-podcast-open-mic/

I’ve slowly started to build up an interesting collection of mid- to late-twentieth century classical haiku translations. Many of these anthologies are by people that, at least to me, are obscure. Perhaps those more experienced are familiar with them, but these are not translators I regularly see cited in essays, blogs, podcasts, or presentations. Ultimately, upon reading them, I’ve developed a better sense of why R. H. Blyth remains a standard reference point. Though certain stylistic elements of his frustrated me, especially when I was first delving into haiku, ultimately, when I read these less-popular translators, I start to see more of what Blyth did well. I will focus more on Blyth’s translations in a later post. This week, I wanted to talk about a text that took me by surprised: Full Moon is Rising: “Lost Haiku” of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and Travel Haiku of Matsuo Basho a New Rendering by James David Andrews (Boston: Branden Press, 1976).

I picked up this book a few months ago at Prairie Archives bookstore in Springfield, Illinois. The poetry section at Prairie Archives is where I’ve picked up a number of my obscure(ish) classical haiku translations. I was intrigued when I saw the title of the book, but also didn’t think much of it. At $5.00, it was cheap enough to justify adding it to my collection. I do recall having a vague assumption that Andrews might have uncovered some of Bashō’s haiku that, in 1976, had not before been seen. However, I also figured that, given the book’s age, the hypothetical discovery was no longer novel.

(Note: Because Bashō’s name does not include diacritical marks in Andrews’ book, I have omitted them in direct quotation.)

I finally picked up Full Moon Rising earlier this month as part of The Sealey Challenge. Within the first page, I realized I had overlooked the signifier of the quotation marks in the title: Andrews was referring to the haiku as lost, but using the quotation marks to indicate that was not actually true. (How did I miss this? Given the ways in which people put quotation marks around things for emphasis, or in some cases with a total lack of logic, I no longer assume they mean anything when I see them in anything other than a direct quotation.) Which, by the way, is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I taught technical writing, I implored my students to instead use the correct word rather than use quotation marks as a form of negation.

“These are “lost haiku” by being poems that (in some instances) Basho might well have chosen to write, but did not.”

p. 11

I admit that I was confused. I couldn’t tell if this was some sort of creative writing exercise, an attempt at serious engagement with the haiku tradition, or an act of utter hubris. After all, it’s not as though any of us could ask Bashō’ what he did or did not intend.

Fortunately, Andrews provides context. His inspiration came from reading Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Unfortunately, that explanation didn’t improve my feelings toward Andrews’ work. I began to feel more reticent.

Reading the book in English, I was also impressed by the poetic vividness of many of Basho’s prose narrative sections. And I asked myself what would happen if some of the prose jewels in Basho’s narrative were transformed into haiku — especially in those places where Basho could have given us a haiku but did not.

pp. 11-12

What I find disheartening here is the seeming lack of knowledge of the haibun form, or an understanding that the prose and haiku are supposed to work together to create a unified whole. In addition to Andrews repurposing many of the haibun passages into haiku, the second section of Full Moon is Rising consists largely of Bashō’s Narrow Road haiku completely divorced from their prose counterparts. I am well aware that many of Bashō’s haiku available today were excised from the context of renga. Yet Bashō created the haibun. I do not have a copy of Yusasa’s translation, so I do not know if he has any introductory matter that explains the haibun form. Even so, the idea of Andrews taking the haiku out of context, translating them, and adding his own haiku in place of some of the prose just doesn’t sit right with me.

I also find myself caught in the balancing act of allowing for remix and reinvention, and the hubris of trying to revise someone’s work, especially in a form that they invented. Certainly, without the option of riffing and repurposing, there would be a void in the creative world. Percival Everett’s novel Erasure more or less cribs a whole scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. People have written entire essays about the ways in which sampling in hip-hop and pop music creates a sense of engagement between compositions. The world of haiku is an allusive one; certainly, even with the glut of frog/pond/water imitations, you’ve found one that made you smile. I know that I have.

Ultimately, I might be less frustrated by this book if I felt either the translations or the original poems were particularly well-done. However, I take several issues with Andrews’ approach to haiku. The three examples below are all translations of Bashō; Andrews’ original poems are stylistically the same. (The examples are displayed as screenshots because it’s the 21st century but apparently indenting poems is a feature that’s just too hard for blogs.)

The primary issue I have with these poems is that Andrews’ commitment to the 5-7-5 structure compromises the poetic integrity of the haiku. Just as Andrews appears to be ignorant (at best) about haibun structure, he seems rigidly committed to 5-7-5 even though he admits in his own introduction that other people were not adhering to that.

What I have done is, first, to provide a new rendering of each of the haiku that Basho did write in his travel sketches. It happens that in his 1966 translation [. . .] Mr Yuasa did not put Basho’s travel haiku into the classic seventeen-syllable (5-7-5) form. Instead, he used a four-line form of varying quantity. In my new rendering here, the 5-7-5 form is used throughout. So far as I know, this complete group of Basho’s travel haiku has never, until now, appeared in English in the 5-7-5 form.

p. 12

While I do not know Yuasa’s motivation for using a four-line form for the haiku, I will say that the four-line structure for classical translations is not uncommon; I’ve found a number of examples in English-language translations from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. What frustrates me is Andrews’ apparent pride at his devotion to 5-7-5, even though it wasn’t used across the board, even in 1976. He seems proud of his work and seems to think that Yusasa’s is inferior. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine that Yusasa would have less expertise in the matter than Andrews.

The other aspect of Andrews’ work that I struggle with is his rejection of English articles (a, an, the). I’m not sure if it’s due to his devotion to 5-7-5 or a desire to make English seem more like Japanese, which does not contain grammatical articles. My guess is that it’s a combination of both. Regardless of intention, the choice to avoid articles further compromises poetic integrity. At best, the text is choppy; there is no flow. At worst, the poems could be construed as racist.

Not every piece in the collection is bad. The haiku above is, at the very least, competent. Ultimately, though, Full Moon is Rising leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I will keep it in my collection in the sense that I think it’s worth having access to multiple translations, even those that you don’t like. While I generally avoid teaching by negative example, there is a time and place for it, and understanding what you do not like is important for developing your own writing and/or translation style. I might even reference it again in future discussions of translation. But ultimately, I have concerns about Andrews’ approach and philosophy, and I do not recommend this as a source text.

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