Classic Haiku : A Master’s Selection Book Review

I adore haiku. I bought a copy of Classic Haiku: A Master’s Selection, translated by Yuzuru Miura, right when it was released in 1991. The book has gone through cover changes since then, but the content within is just as beautiful and timely.

These haiku are all originally written in Japanese and as many have commented over the centuries it’s incredibly tricky to translate Japanese into English in the first place, never mind to capture the subtle nuances of a 17-syllable-short haiku. Yuzuru Miua tackles this task with great skill. For each poem the English translation is given first, then a roman-letter version of the Japanese so you can at least try to see what it sounded like even though you aren’t sure of the word meanings. Finally, the Japanese characters are given for those who do read Japanese.

The poems are broken up into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Plus a bonus few for New Years. Each poem is on its own page and occasionally there are simple drawings to go with the poetry.

While many of these poems are online in other versions (i.e. done by other translators), it’s well worth it to get this book to get these translations. A talented translator makes all the difference.

For example, one poem is by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1892). He lived in a different era and in a different culture. Even so, we can envision the scene of his poem:

A spring day –
A long line of footprints
On the sandy beach.

When you read it in Japanese, even if you don’t quite know the words, you still get a sense for how it sounds.

Suna-hama ni
Ashi-ato nagaki
Haru hi kana

Or perhaps this one by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) –

The fly
Wringing its hands and rubbing its feet –
Don’t swat it!

I’ve had that same feeling myself. That this tiny little creature is going about its day, blissfully unaware of any danger. It deserves its chance to enjoy its short life.

I wish that the birth / death dates were given with each poem and that there was more information about the poets. I realize this isn’t a biography but I do like to learn about poets as I’m reading their entries. Other than that minor complaint, this is a delightful compilation and should be on the shelf of any lover of poetry.

Highly recommended.

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