Every now and then the book lover may discover a volume that might invoke a library rather than a book, and as the pages are turned everything seems to be in it. The Essential Haiku, edited and partly translated by Robert Hass, is one of these “libraries” – albeit (and as the title suggests) a specialized one.
Hass’ book offers much more than just haiku poems: there are essays devoted to Basho, Buson, and Issa; there are examples of each poet’s prose; one chapter is dedicated to Basho’s thoughts on poetry; there are notes on different Japanese genres; a note on translation; and an extensive list of further readings – all in all a generous source.
Japan’s poetry tradition is rich and ancient, but outside of the country the knowledge of Japanese verse is usually limited to the seventeen syllable haiku. There are quite a few traits of the haiku poems that make them untranslatable – puns are, as Hass explains, often lost; Syllable count? Don’t bother! The syntax? Well… – but some elements do survive the passage from Japanese to English. For example, the spirit of haiku requires plain language, and this can certainly be a building block of a translation. And then there is matter of nature and seasons, and the presence of Zen Buddhism.
Basho once said that a poet should detach his mind from self, and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and feelings, and this monastic mindset can transcend language barriers and give a sense of the original poem, as in this interpretation of Basho by Hass: The winter sun – / on the horse’s back / my frozen shadow.
Haiku can be understood as purely descriptive (although some poets would shun this notion), but it is also symbolic. The ever-present seasons are what they are, but they also stand for something else. However, a reader doesn’t have to study Japanese culture, history, and mindset in order to embrace haiku – like art in general, haiku can be grasped on many different levels, and (to use Basho’s words once again) perhaps it’s enough if the poem seems as light “as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed,” as in this Basho haiku: Winter garden, / the moon thinned to a thread, / insects singing.