I’ve learned a great deal from Patricia’s two-part conversation with Janice Doppler about the concept of zoka in haiku. I think it’s her best workshop yet! Be sure to check it out, so you’ll be ready to submit your haiku when the submission period opens.
Looking Ahead to Season 3 I’m already preparing for Season 3 of The Culinary Saijiki. I want to create a full 52 weeks of blog posts and podcasts episodes centered around the theme of “Feasts and Festivals.” My goal is to curate a global celebration of food and haiku in 2024, focusing on everything from bombastic national holidays to sacred religious traditions. To do that, I need your help! Start thinking about blog posts or podcast episodes you’d like to create, and be on the looking for full details soon.
Before I commence with this week’s post, I want to take a moment to thank Kimberly Kuchar for buying me three coffees in support of this work. I’m grateful for the support! I’m working on some late summer and early autumn bonus content. If you want to contribute financially, you can do so using the button below.
I recently stumbled on a 178-page PDF of Bashō’s poetry compiled by Hungarian writer and artist Gábor Terebess. What I find remarkable about his work is that virtually every haiku includes three or more translations of the same poem. I wish I’d happened upon it sooner! You can view the document for yourself here: PDF.
In focusing on classical haiku this season, I’ve naturally given a great deal of thought to translation. One of the things that I’m interested in is translational range: the ways in which one poem can seem similar or different based on who translates it. Terebess’ PDF is an excellent resource because it allows the reader to see a number of translations of the same poem, illustrating the range in form and content.
I’ve admittedly neither taken as in-depth a look at classical haiku or thought this much about translation as I have before this season of the project. (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true.) And in reviewing Terebess’ PDF, I had a realization that was new to me but perhaps an old idea to people who have been studying haiku longer than I have. It finally occurred to me that not only does translation affect the tone and emotional resonance of the poem, but it can change the ways in which readers perceive the subject matter of the poem.
Here is the romaji version of Bashō’s haiku:
aki chikaki kokoro no yoru ya yo jō han
Terebess offers seven different translations of this haiku1. In five of the variations, there was nothing that suggested to me that I should include this poem in my database2.
Autumn is near; The heart inclines To the four-and-a-half mat room.
as autumn approaches our hearts are drawn together– a four-and-a-half mat room.
David Landis Barnhill
Autumn nearing Inclination of my mind! A four-and-a-half-mat room.
Autumn approaches and the heart begins to dream of four-tatami rooms
Smell of autumn – heart longs for the four-mat room.
However, two of the translations meet my definition for inclusion in this project:
sensing autumn’s approach four hearts draw together in a small tea room
as autumn draws near our hearts feel closer to this small tearoom
As I’ve mentioned at various points during this project, I take a broad view when collecting poems for this project. Planting and composting, cooking and cleaning, feast and famine are all part of the spectrum. So a tea room merits inclusion, but a general room does not.
At the time of this writing, my Japanese is not strong enough for me to make an informed decision of my own regarding the original. (I let my Duolingo streak lapse in the midst of moving last year, and at this point starting over just feels overwhelming.) This example shows me just how much I am at the mercy of translators (in pretty much any language) to accurately and poetically convey the subject matter.
One might ask whether or not this issue truly matters if one is simply reading for the sake of reading, rather than collecting material for a large project. But I believe that it does. While the issue of the tea room versus the general tatami room is my primary cause for concern, the translational range for this poem is wide. Blyth, Aitken, Hamill, and Stryk have translations that imply a single person and a sense of longing, whereas Barnhill, Ueda, and Reichold mention multiple people. I perceive the latter three poems having a greater degree of intimacy.
I focus on food because it’s a useful lens for me to explore larger topics. Yet the challenges I find and the themes I come across are ultimately not specific to my area of focus. The challenge of whether or not to classify this as a culinary haiku is just a small component about the broader issues that readers face when reading in translation.
Translation is an art unto itself, and like all arts, it is subject to human foible and human preference. There is no perfect approach, and even if there was, an ostensibly perfect translation wouldn’t necessarily resonate with all readers. I think it’s worth embracing that imperfection. That doesn’t mean being uncritical; rather, it means that our criticisms are grounded in this knowledge of translational fallibility.
I think that the best thing that we can do as readers and practitioners is to read translation as widely as possible. If we can study translation the way we study poetry written in our native language(s), we can learn to appreciate the spectrum of what’s available. Identifying what we enjoy and do not enjoy in a translated work is a useful aesthetic exercise that can not only yield insights about our own poetic values, but also help us recognize potential blind spots. For example, I’ve learned to appreciate R.H. Blyth as a product of his time. I don’t think any of his translations will be my favorite, but I can still find value in his work, as well as gratitude for his anthologies, and the groundwork he laid for future haijin writing in English.
Ultimately, I will add Ueda’s and Reichold’s translations to my database. I admit that the Ueda version is the one I find most aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that, though, I have decided that I want to simply live with the contradiction of culinary and non-culinary versions of this haiku. Existing with contradiction is one of the driving forces of this project.
On the day I write this, every coffee shop (chain or local) is selling pumpkin-flavored beverages. Students have gone back to school, the days are getting shorter, and those who care about such things have put their white clothes away. But summer vegetables are still in abundance, and I worked up a serious sweat on my lunch hour walk. We’re nearly at mid-autumn on the haiku calendar, but are still in summer based on the Gregorian calendar. Working on this project, I am constantly aware of how I am always existing within the contradictions of seasons and cultures. So it makes sense to accept the contradictions of working in a form whose foundational texts I must (for now, at least) read in translation.
Terebess does not include full bibliographic information for each translation; he simply credits the author. I do not own works by all of the translators referenced in this post, which is why I have, like Terebess, simply attributed their names. ↩︎
These are not grouped in the order they appear in Terebess’ PDF; rather, I have chosen to group them by similarity of translation in order to better illustrate my point. ↩︎
Not all of this episode’s contributors have a dedicated online presence, so in the interest of fairness, I am not including supplemental links in these show notes. However, I encourage you to seek out these poets in the various print and online haiku journals:
Thank you again for being willing to share your work, as well as having patience with the technological issues!
Thanks to Pamela P. for buying me a coffee! I appreciate the support. If you want to support this project financially, you can do so atat https://www.buymeacoffee.com/culinarysaijiki. You can also help by sharing this podcast with anyone who you think might enjoy it.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
There is just one week left to submit some food haiku for the community open mic! This is the only open mic of season 2, so don’t wait around for next time. Otherwise, you’ll be waiting until 2024! Read on for full submission details.
First, a reminder that if you run into any issues submitting your work, please email me at the address below. I’m happy to help!
Due to changes in the Spotify for Podcasters interface, there are now two options for sending your work:
Record your haiku and email the file to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can use your voice memo app and attach it to an email. It’s the simplest option this season.
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!
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).
One of the research questions that surfaced for me earlier this year was when the presence of an animal in haiku meant that it was a food poem, and that I should add it to my collection. I wrote an initial post about meat in haiku during Season 1 of this project, but that question hadn’t occurred to me at the time.
Through reading and reflection, I’ve established some guidelines to help me decide whether or not an animal haiku is also a food haiku. Before I get into that, though, I feel the need to establish that these guidelines only apply to animals that are commonly used as food. I realize that to some degree, what constitutes an edible animal is culturally specific (such as crickets, guinea pigs, or the ortolan bunting), and I do my best through research to avoid my own cultural biases. However, there are certain animals that we rarely (if ever) see used as food. For example, eagles, hawks, and vultures are not likely to wind up on a rotisserie. Some animals simply do not need to be considered, and if I did find a haiku in which a skunk was roasting on a spit, I would certainly add it to my collection, if for no reason other than novelty.
Here are my criteria for when an animal could be considered meat:
The haiku also references hunting, trapping, or fishing.
If the animals are in captivity, they are on a farm or ranch, with the implication that they are being raised for food.
The haiku references cleaning or butchering an animal, the initial stages of preparation for food.
The haiku references cooking or preserving the animal.
The above criteria all indicate the intent to eat the animal, in one way or another. Even if the poet won’t necessarily be the one eating, the reader understands that the animal in the poem is one likely to be consumed by someone.
Next I’ll discuss six example haiku: three that indicate the animal is meat, and three that do not. All of these classical examples are translated by R.H. Blyth, and I found them in the haiku anthology from the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series.
The octopus trap: Fleeting dreams Under the summer moon.
The above haiku starts with the image of an octopus trap. In Japan, these traps are called takotsubo; they are traditionally ceramic vessels attached on a rope and cast into the ocean. Octopi hide in the pots, or use them as nests, making them easy to capture. Since this haiku describes a form of fishing, with the intent of eating the octopus, I consider this a food haiku.
(Although takoyaki is my favorite Japanese street food, I admit that the thought of an octopus thinking it was getting a nest and then being turned into food makes me want to not order it for a while!)
A woman Under the azaleas placed in the pot, Tearing up dried cod.
In this haiku, the fish is caught and dried. It’s long dead, and has been preserved for the future. In fact, this one might be a debatable food haiku because the woman mentioned in the first line appears to be using the dried fish as azalea fertilizer rather than food! (Azaleas are also toxic to humans; the poem does not reference the fish being used for garden fertilizer.) However, since dried cod could be used as food, I’m including it here.
In the fisherman’s house The smell of dried fish And the heat.
In Shiki’s haiku, we don’t see the dried fish, but we smell them; one can only imagine how the summer heat makes that more intense. The first line references a fisherman, someone who’s job it is to catch food not just for himself, but for others as well. The scent of his trade permeates his whole life, including his dwelling space. Since this is a haiku that is again about the catching and processing of fish, it is a food haiku.
A school of trout Passed by: The colour of the water
In contrast to Shiki’s other haiku in this post, here, the trout simply swim by. Although trout is a common sight at grocery counters and on restaurant menus, here, there is no indication that the speaker of the poem is doing any fishing. We do not see an attempt to lure or trap them. The speaker is sitting by a river, but the fish are simply there, and then they are not. To that end, I cannot consider this a food haiku.
A trout leaps; Clouds are moving In the bed of the stream
Again, we have a trout, which we can consider a food source. However, as in the previous haiku, Onitsura presents the trout as leaping while clouds move overhead. We do not see anyone, either the speaker or an observed third party, doing any fishing. There is no sense that the trout is leaping toward its doom. Instead, we have the haiku moment of the interplay between water and sky. Once again, it’s not a culinary poem.
In an old well A fish leaps up at a gnat: The sound of water is dark
Finally, we have a haiku from Buson in which the fish is the one doing the hunting. While we don’t know whether the fish was successful in catching the gnat, we do see it in action on its own quest for sustenance. Since no human is in pursuit of this fish, it’s not a culinary haiku.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below!