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A Review of On Haiku

Sato, Hiroaki. On Haiku. New York: New Directions Publishing, 2018. 306 pages. 5.25″ by 8″. ISBN 978-0-8112-2741-4. $19.95.

When I first heard about Hiroaki Sato’s On Haiku, I imagined that this venerable commentator and translator was about to offer new thoughts on how to write haiku in English and perhaps explore this poetry’s great flowering beyond Japan’s borders. I presumed it would be new writing, and I eagerly anticipated what he might have to say. I was unsure how much he would share thoughts about Japanese haiku or haiku in English, or a mix of the two, or whether it would be descriptive in exploring what had been done in the genre, or prescriptive in advising students of haiku how to read and write this poetry in English. Except for advocating a one-line delivery of haiku, however, Sato is rarely prescriptive, and the actual book has turned out not to be what I first imagined. Instead, it’s a notable collection of Sato’s numerous essays relating to haiku, previously published over decades of observation and close consideration in various magazines, journals, books, and presentations — gifting readers with deep and reliable contextualization for varied haiku poems and poets at every turn.
The book’s chapters include at least five essays from Modern Haiku, three from Roadrunner, and one each from Lynx and Frogpond, among other published sources or occasionally speeches or presentations. Consequently, I’d seen some of these essays before, but was immediately grateful to have them all in one place, where their cumulative effect underscores Sato’s influence in the haiku genre — or serves as a reminder to those who weren’t paying attention that they should have. For those who regularly read the established haiku journals, perhaps it’s more significant to find essays in this book (at least half of them) that did not originally appear in those journals (a practice that more writing about haiku might emulate, so we’re not just preaching to the choir). The acknowledgments at the start indicate most of the sources, suggesting that at least the book’s last two essays are previously unpublished (one may also wonder what other haiku-related essays were omitted). It is useful to see the genesis of these essays, but it could also have been useful to have dates for each essay and more specific indications if any had been revised for the book—and yet they are typically timeless enough that the dates might have been valuable to only a few readers. I also note that each essay is left to stand on its own, and recall seeing only one footnote reference (172) pointing from one essay to another in the book, and one parenthetical reference (270) with a similar purpose.
All told, the book’s “meandering discourse” is like Japanese zuihitsu essays that “follow the brush,” offering remarkable range in revealing 20th-century haiku in Japan, from the tidepools of haiku basics to deep-sea dives into the work of prominent and sometimes controversial figures (for example, how many Westerners know that Japanese haiku poets have been arrested and imprisoned for their haiku?). We see essays on free-rhythm haiku, war haiku, haiku by a hooker, explorations of gendai (modern) haiku, haiku and Zen, women and haiku, and near the end, a brief consideration of haibun. Almost every chapter includes copious translations, each including the original Japanese, the romaji, and Sato’s one-line rendition, leaning towards a literal presentation of images, even if sometimes cryptically (that is, with sometimes fractured syntax, no punctuation, and not always with easily parsed grammar). Along the way, we find in Sato’s prose a unique and perhaps underappreciated perspective that straddles the worlds of English-language poetics (not just haiku) and modern Japanese literature (again, not just haiku). Sato has been a contextualizing conduit for an awareness of contemporary Japanese haiku practices for a long time, lifting the curtain on recent decades of haiku activity in Japan, often giving Western haiku poets their first view — and authoritative revisits — into the details of 20th-century Japanese haiku, and older haiku as well. This book celebrates that gift.
One feels depths of erudition and knowledge when reading the essays collected in On Haiku. And yet the book has fleeting moments of paucity, such as a reference to Harold Henderson’s Bamboo Broom influencing Robert Spiess’s haiku, where Sato says “I haven’t seen The Bamboo Broom [published in 1934] . . . but it may well have been the direct predecessor of his 1958 book, An Introduction to Haiku” (260–270). The earlier book is readily available in leading libraries and was indeed directly expanded for the 1958 publication, as the latter book announces in the very first sentence of its preface. In On Haiku’s first essay, Sato mentions in passing, “I do not have all of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku” (15), which may no longer be true, but it seems to be quite an admission in reference to such seminal books on haiku literature published in English, especially for someone like Sato (either that or it indicates that such books are not seminal for Sato, who can readily go directly to Japanese source texts). Another example is a 1999 essay, in which he asks “Are one-line haiku possible in English? The answer must be yes” (73). This is an admitted hobby horse of Sato’s, so when he goes on to mention the one-line haiku of Janice M. Bostok and Chris Gordon, one wonders why he does not mention Marlene Mountain, the doyenne of one-line haiku in English. These are instances of choices that set some of Sato’s essays apart from more academic exposition, and yet come with a sense of surefootedness. I do not mean to suggest that Sato isn’t thorough — in fact, the consistent sense one gets from the majority of these essays is of their fullness, and that each essay is like an iceberg, where we see only the top ten percent of the subject, or just a small fraction of Sato’s knowledge of it. Indeed, when Sato chooses not to shore up that one essay with a check of The Bamboo Broom, his implication is that the detail does not matter. He’s ultimately right, especially when the knowledge and contextualization throughout the rest of the book, from both a Western and Japanese literary perspective, is so dazzling. The general lack of citations and footnotes underscores his aim at more of a lay audience than an academic one, yet I doubt that an academic reader would blink twice at the great majority of Sato’s descriptions of history or literary significance, such is his voice of authority, disguised as it sometimes is by self-effacing casualness.
This is a book more likely to inform than to convince, but Sato’s goal is seldom to convince. What we get from On Haiku is a confident aloofness, an awareness that its author knows his subject deeply, yet is unshy in revealing the occasional gaps in his knowledge. He writes from where he is and does not always find it necessary to fill in every last gap. This conversational tone makes for a refreshing dismantling of pretense even while he dazzles. In the book’s preface, in which he briefly traces his path to haiku, including being president of the Haiku Society of America for three years, he notes his skepticism of haiku in English and his preference for translating (and writing) haiku in a single line “because most Japanese writers . . . treat it as a one-line form” (vii). From there, he launches readers into a smorgasbord of haiku icebergs, each essay giving much yet hinting at more.
The following are glosses on each of On Haiku’s nineteen essays.

Haiku Talk: From Bashō to J. D. Salinger
This is one of the book’s few essays for which a date is provided — 1994. It offers a high-level view of haiku and some of its concerns, such as form and content, plus its influence in the West. He notes that “Haiku has completely become a part of American life” (3), tracing its origins from the hokku or starting verse of renga, where seasonal reference was paramount, and where the verse acted as a salutation. He also talks of translator R. H. Blyth, and of Salinger’s influence on haiku, posing the question that “You might hazard that a sizable portion of American people who turned to haiku in the last three decades did so on account of Blyth via Salinger” (14–15).

What Is Haiku? Serious and Playful Aspects
This chapter offers an exploration of haiku’s Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist background in Japan and how that informs the so-called seriousness and playful inventiveness of haiku. Sato describes Bashō as “a secular seeker of the Way” (23) and contrasts the supposed seriousness of haiku’s religious contexts with the playfulness and wordplay that Bashō advocated, taking haiku out of the imperial court and into everyman’s tavern or tatami room, even while retaining erudition. Haiku tradition is described as more of a social act than a literary one, with social aspects lending wit and games of allusion to the mix — being “‘playful’ in a sophisticated way” (36).

Haiku and Zen: Association and Dissociation
Following on the religious context discussed in the preceding chapter, this essay uncovers the role of Zen in haiku tradition. While haiku has been excessively associated with Zen (thanks chiefly to R. H. Blyth), Sato does not take a counter stance, but merely presents the subject as demonstrated by haiku practitioners. The essay is a meander through poems and poets who may or may not have been following the way of Zen with their haiku. He notes along the way that “you might say that Zen makes it easy to feign facile profundity” (46).

Hearn, Bickerton, Hubbell: Translation and Definition
Here we find a defense of Sato’s hobby horse, the one-line presentation of haiku translations, with a hint of one-line haiku in English. This essay is dated 1999. Sato notes, somewhat in lament, that “With the majority of translators casting their translations in three lines, the view has taken hold that haiku is a three-line poem” (70), and adds that “the awareness that haiku is regarded as a three-line poem in the West seems to generate a sense of unease among the Japanese when translated in one line” (72). He does not say that three-line translations are “wrong,” but makes a case for the monostich.

White Quacks and Whale Meat: Bashō’s Kasen, “The Sea Darkens”
While much of Sato’s cogitations on Japanese haiku focus on contemporary writing, this essay turns its attention to Bashō, specifically a kasen renga written in 1684, offering a complete verse-by-verse explication, including seasonal references, link-ages, allusions, and contexts. This essay was first published in Jane Reichhold’s Lynx journal for collaborative writing in Japanese forms. We see into the life of the entire renga, and also into the minds of its creators.

Renga and Assassination: The Cultured Warlord Akechi Mitsuhide
This essay looks even farther back in history, to 1582, and provides an account of “Atago Hyakuin,” a 100-verse renga led by Mitsuhide, which may or may not have foretold his treasonous attack on his own warlord master, Nobunaga. It was written just before a surprise assault. Controversy abounds regarding Mitsuhide’s hokku, which was altered after its composition to give it a different meaning, as if to hide or mute treasonous intent. The essay also explores the complexities of renga composition, emphasizing that even warlords were well-versed in the art of renga writing. This chapter gives contextual intensity to what Sato describes as “the only renga of its kind in the history of Japanese literature” (109). Imagine if Churchill, Eisenhower, and all their generals were to write poetry together on the eve of the Normandy invasion.

Issa and Hokusai
This essay, from Modern Haiku, explores how Issa’s use of exaggerated perspectives echoes the painterly exaggeration of Hokusai, sharing numerous example verses by Issa. Sato draws out comparisons beyond just a common depiction of Mt. Fuji, noting that Issa “is thought to be the first haikai poet to record his day-to-day feelings” (112).

From Wooden Clogs to the Swimsuit: Women in Haikai and Haiku
Here we have a selective overview of women in haikai and haiku, starting with a definition of “haikai spirit,” stating that “Any haikai person must be imbued with fūryū, fūga, or fūkyō” (125). Fūryū is described as wind flow, or “a poetic turn of mind,” fūga as elegance and refinement, and fūkyō as a sort of “poetic dementia.” The chapter focuses mostly on fūkyō, exploring numerous examples of “eccentric” haikai women over a couple of centuries, those with a sort of wild creativity, including Chiyojo (also known as Chiyo-ni), that set them apart — making this one of the book’s more fascinating chapters. Following this comes a selection of modern haiku poets, starting with Hisajo Sugita, born in 1890, Takako Hashimoto, born nine years later, and Madoka Mayazumi, born in the later 20th century (I present names here in the Western order, surnames last, although Sato’s book does not, except for his own name).

The Haiku Reformer Shiki: How Important Is His Haiku?
We find an assessment here of Shiki’s worth not as a haiku reformer but as a poet, noting how extremely prolific he was (some 24,000 haiku in a greatly shortened life), yet proposing that, “For all his importance, Shiki was a mediocre haiku poet” (149). But is it fair to judge Shiki on his success rate, purely by percentages, or by the absolute number of excellent haiku? It can be argued that Shiki used a more prolific process to reach a certain number of good haiku, as if throwing more at the wall to see what might stick. If Shiki was aware that many of his haiku were weak, it would seem that the process should not be blamed for producing mostly weaker haiku — it was just a different way, through shasei, of getting to at least some good haiku. Sato acknowledges exactly this when he quotes Shiki from his book, Outline of Haikai, published in 1895: “It is even harder to get haiku of highest beauty by copying actual scenes [Shiki’s shasei technique, or sketching from life], but it is easier to get what may be termed second-rate [by doing so]” (151). Sato also notes, however, that “the shasei approach Shiki adopted couldn’t be the sole reason he didn’t turn out many good haiku” (152), adding that Shiki did not “expect much from haiku” (152). Of additional interest in this chapter is a discussion of Shiki’s controversial cockscomb poem.

The “Gun-Smoke” Haiku Poet Hasegawa Sosei
From the preceding chapter on Shiki we move to a discussion of war-related haiku, which Shiki advocated. Shiki himself attempted to reach the war front, as a journalist, but the war ended just as he arrived. Nevertheless, many other haiku poets wrote about war, in Japan’s Chinese, Korean, and Russian conflagrations early in the 20th century and especially during and after World War II. Questions of authenticity arose, too, regarding whether it was legitimate to write about war when one is not in the trenches oneself. Sato says that while “some haiku poets . . . believed that haiku ought to describe what the writer actually saw . . . it became fashionable to write haiku imagining what might be happening on faraway battlefields” (166). This chapter discusses the 1940 Kyōdai Haiku Incident, where at least fifteen haiku poets of the Newly Rising Haiku movement were arrested for harboring “dangerous thought” in their haiku (the unconventional forms of which were also seen as not being traditional enough). The chapter concludes with “gun-smoke” haiku written in the trenches, especially those by Sosei Hasegawa. Here is one example: “Facedown on snow an enemy corpse coppers scattered” (173).

From the 2.26 Incident to the Atomic Bombs: Haiku During the Asia-Pacific War
A further exploration of war haiku extends to this chapter, perhaps the book’s most fascinating, also its longest. It is filled with historical details such as when battles occurred, how many air raids occurred, and when, how many bombers were involved, and how many homes were destroyed, giving a more human perspective to Japan’s devastation in World War II (this sort of knowledge was surely part of Sato’s early life, having been born in Taiwan in 1942, fleeing to Japan immediately after the war, and going to college at Doshisha University in Kyoto, graduating in 1967). These details provide context for the many poems presented. It’s a difficult chapter, outlining a selection of haiku (and a few tanka) written about war, including by soldiers and commanders. This survey details the persecution of Newly Rising Haiku movement poets, especially Sanki Saitō and other key figures (if I come from this book wanting to read more work by any one poet, it would be Sanki Saitō). Particularly compelling is the section on Hakusen Watanabe (196), who was arrested for his war haiku (including his famous “War was standing at the hall’s end” poem). The chapter concludes by featuring poems written by poets in the army, not just poets critical of the war, the most wrenching of which is the section on Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, who led a suicide raid after hearing of Japan’s surrender (202–203).

“Haiku Poet Called a Hooker”: Suzuki Shizuko
A frank portrayal of the hooker haiku of Shizuko Suzuki, presenting not just her overtly sexual haiku but also dark poems on subjects such as methamphetamines, suicide, and her relationships with American occupation servicemen after World War II, where she was one of the tens of thousand of “comfort women” that catered to occupation forces. This chapter offers a startling view into postwar haiku, exploding the too-common myth of haiku as tame nature poetry.

“Gendai Haiku”: What Is It?
This chapter purports to answer the question of what “gendai” (modern) haiku is, but partially just flirts with the answer — ultimately because the term itself is so general that it has been misunderstood in Western haiku circles. Sato notes that the term “is defined by time period rather than by content or approach” (219), even while most Western haiku poets seem to perceive “gendai” in terms of content, or as being experimental or avant-garde. Along the way, this chapter gives examples from various eras of haiku over the last century and distinguishes between the avant-garde and the merely “modern.” The chapter takes no stance for or against any of it. Sato says of Japanese haiku poets, “haiku writers are a contentious lot” (221), and the same seems eminently true of haiku writers in English (I recall, maybe twenty years ago, well-known formalist poet Annie Finch saying in an online poetry forum that “Haiku poets are touchy”). Particularly useful is a section on avant-garde haiku, called zen’ei in Japanese, and its discussion of the vanguard work of Shigenobu Takayanagi, Tōta Kaneko, and others. Sato contrasts the avant-garde as distinct from both “traditional” and “nontraditional” haiku, referring to “the great divergence from the standard mode of haiku that took place after Shiki’s death” (227).

Mitsuhashi Takajo: Some Further Explication
This essay offers a sampler survey of haiku by three of Japan’s “Four T’s,” four outstanding contemporary women haiku poets: Takajo Mitsuhashi, Teijo Nakamura, Tatsuko Hoshino, and Takako Hashimoto, but mostly Takajo (Takako is not discussed, having already been presented in the “From Wooden Clogs to the Swimsuit: Women in Haikai and Haiku” chapter, which this essay might easily have been grouped with). We are thus given a continued view into haiku by women — not so much into topics that are restrictively feminine, but poems of varying subject matter by these prominent women haiku poets. Here’s one selection from Takajo: “Red spider lilies bloom I think of a battlefield,” after which Sato notes that “Red spider lilies are associated with death in Japan” (236).

Mishima Yukio and Hatano Sōha
Yukio Mishima made a name for himself in many ways throughout his life, mostly through theater, but especially in 1970 by means of a dramatic public disembowelment and decapitation. Because of his notoriety, his haiku had been saved, though relatively few. Sato presents a selection of them here, in the context of the poet’s sensationalist belief (according to Donald Ritchie) that “life was but a stage” (240). These poems are paired with selections by Sōha Hatano, who Mishima had written about at length.

Outré Haiku of Katō Ikuya
Referred to as an “anti-traditionalist,” Ikuya Katō made “heavy use of puns and allusions” and produced poems of “incomprehension” (247) that are “deliberately abstruse,” pursuing the “‘meaninglessness’ in haiku” (252). Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that this essay on “outré” haiku (like the essays before and after this) appeared in Roadrunner, Scott Metz’s erstwhile online journal for avant-garde haiku in English that has privileged the opaque. This chapter digs into extreme leaps of logic necessary to even begin understanding this poet’s work, ultimately ending with the question, “are such extended, extraneous interpretations warranted?” (254).

In the Cancer Ward: Tada Chimako
This chapter offers a view into the haiku of Chimako Tada, a noted translator who took up haiku writing late in life when diagnosed with cancer. Each poem, from 160 published after the poet’s death, may be seen in the context of that diagnosis, such as “Summer-thin: a little gaining the weight of death” (261). Here we encounter haiku as a sort of therapy, one of many stances by which to approach this poetry.

Receiving a Falconer’s Haibun
This is perhaps the book’s most personal essay, a glimpse into English-language haibun, in contrast with Japan, where haibun is essentially no longer written — this chapter referring to the “last notable haibun in the modern period [in Japan]” most likely being a selection assembled in the book New Haibun by Kyoshi Takahama in 1933 (269). Sato distinguishes haibun from journal entries that include haiku. Accordingly, this chapter presents a haibun by Mary Ellen Rooney, contrasted with a journal entry (ending with a haiku) by Sōseki.

Through the Looking Glass
Another more personal essay, this one is listed as being “for Mary Jo Bang” (who provides a back-cover blurb). It discusses some of the challenges of translation — as if the translated poem is seen through a looking glass, that is, at best a mirror of the source rather than ever being the source itself. Perhaps this chapter serves as an apology for whatever ends a translator can never reach, yet defends the translator, perhaps subconsciously, for grappling with difficult and sometimes impossible choices. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura wrote that “Translation is always a treason, and . . . can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade.” Hiroaki Sato embraces this treason, for it is the only way Westerners can see the fabric of Japanese literature in many of its riches.

Rounding out On Haiku is a two-page glossary of terms, where “waka” is not listed and the definition for “haiku” mentions kigo (season words) but not kireji (cutting words). Here I was informed that the name of the 36-verse “kasen” renga form was “derived from the 36 poets designated as poetic saints by the poet Fujiwara no Kintō (966 – 1041)” (281) and, in the definition of kireji, startlingly, that “Bashō did not recognize any kireji” (282). Following this is an eleven-page glossary of names, with birth and death years and brief information on the significance of each person — a mix of both Japanese and Western figures, limited to those mentioned in the book. I imagine both of these additions to be at the publisher’s request, and they are useful resources in a single location, but what might have been of greater benefit, especially for any researcher, would have been a thorough listing of poets, themes, locations, eras, and other topics in an index. Because On Haiku ranges so widely, and in such a meandering way (though pleasing), an index is the one feature I most wish this book had included.
Woven into all the essays in On Haiku are occasional but sufficiently common references to the Haiku Society of America, the Haiku North America conference, Red Moon Press, the Haiku Foundation, and other artifacts of the North American haiku community, plus references to several key English-language haiku poets. A book such as this is likely to reach a wider audience (even beyond just poetry) than the usual haiku journals and organizations, so these references generate a sort of validation and promotion of the English-language haiku community, a recognition of its activity — even while Sato questions the HSA’s definition of haiku (67). Sato’s focus is clearly seated in Japanese haiku, whether modern or ancient (but mostly modern), and we may wonder if he might turn his pen to writing more systematically about haiku in English, with Japanese contextualization, instead of mostly the other way around (perhaps he could write that new book I imagined when I first heard about On Haiku, something to update his One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English, published by Weatherhill in 1983). At the very least, Sato has already published a book in Japanese about haiku in English, Eigo Haiku: Aru Shikei no Hirogari (Haiku in English: A Poetic Form Expands, Tokyo, Japan: Simul Press, 1987, a 250-page book), but it would be fascinating to see an English translation of that book — not to mention updates to cover the three decades since its publication.
Speaking of updates, as previously mentioned, some readers might have wanted this book’s essays to be updated to reflect developments and new understandings that have evolved in the decades since each piece first saw the light of day. That would have surely taken a tremendous amount of work for some essays, yet not have been necessary for others. Each essay serves as a snapshot of haiku studies at the time of its original publication, but readers might have been better served with updates where useful, or at least a clearer explanation of what appears to be a choice not to update all or most of the text. As it is, the book collects a remarkable set of essays, but it would have been beneficial for dates or publication information to be more clearly emphasized, either with each essay or in supplementary material — and in more detail, and more systematically, than the information provided in the acknowledgments. This possible insufficiency, or lost opportunity, pales in comparison to the value of what the book does provide, however.
There’s also a sort of randomness to the topics in these essays (understandable given how they were produced over many years for a variety of journals or other purposes), and although they are partially grouped in a logical progression, such as putting together the chapters on war haiku or experimental haiku, one wonders what remains unspoken but within the author’s capable experience, his encyclopedic reliability, whether about English-language haiku or Japanese haiku — or haiku elsewhere in the world. Among the many icebergs of haiku that Hiroaki Sato explores, we may wonder what remains below the surface. As readers we sense that Sato knows. To that end we might wish for a sequel to this book, whatever content it might explore, if only we could give the septuagenarian author another forty years.

— Michael Dylan Welch

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