The Essential Haiku

Edited by Robert Hass

Cover of The Essential Haiku by Robert Hass with photo of koi fish swimming

Setting & details: N/A
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Translation quality: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation:
The most enjoyable book of haiku in the whole world

I’m going to admit a shameful secret: I’m not a poetry reader.

Except for this poetry. For some reason, whenever I sit down for five minutes and pick up Hass’s Essential Haiku, an hour later, I’m still saying, okay, for real this time, just one more.

What I’ve always loved about haiku in general (besides the fact that they’re short) is their accessibility—pow, instant hit with the clue stick!—but they also quietly deliver deeper messages with a little more thought. And what makes this particular collection so wonderfully readable is that they weren’t tediously rendered word-for-word from the Japanese—they were translated by a poet. And not just any poet—a killer poet. I mean, a Poet Laureate-level killer poet. (True story. Robert Hass is that good.)

Translating any kind of poetry is devilishly hard work, because poems are such intricate constructions of word play and layered meaning, so choosing dictionary-correct words pretty much guarantees that everything that makes a poem worth reading gets left out. Haiku are especially tricky, because they’re so…small. It’s much easier to translate wordy things than spare ones, and haiku are about as spare as you can get. Which is why it’s pure joy to read these gems of haiku perfection through the lens of a fine poet’s sensibility.

Hass hits the bullseye time after time, distilling the layers of meaning, mood and imagery into English versions that are as brilliant and pithy as they are in the original Japanese.

Let me show you what I mean. Do you remember last month’s poignant haiku by Bashō? Here’s the Robert Hass version:

Even in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto.

And here’s how this one’s usually translated (from R.H. Blyth’s well-known anthology):

I am in Kyoto
Yet at the voice of the hototogisu
Longing for Kyoto

No comparison, right? I mean NO comparison. Here are a few more summertime faves from Hass’s collection:

As the sound fades,
the scent of the flowers comes up––
the evening bell.

Children imitating cormorants
are even more wonderful
than cormorants.

Coolness of the melons
flecked with mud
in the morning dew.

Escaped the nets,
escaped the ropes––
moon on the water.

Not knowing
it’s a tub they’re in,
the fish cooling at the gate.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

Year after year
on the monkey’s face
a monkey face.

What good luck!
Bitten by
this year’s mosquitos too.

They made you smile, didn’t they? Now go back and look at them again. Don’t you love what the children-and-cormorants one says about art? And how true it is that some things, like monkey faces, don’t get better with time? How fish just keep on being fish, right up until they become sashimi, and an old man can find a quirky appreciation for mosquito bites that says so much about how he’s approaching the end of his life?

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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