I’ve become something of a haiku scholar in the last few months. The way it started almost feels serendipitous. Last spring I finally found the time to stop in to Open Book’s new space in my neighborhood–the West Loop. Open Books is a nonprofit used bookstore with an excellent collection. I poked through a lot of store, including the poetry section. I wasn’t looking for haiku–in fact I was looking for several contemporary poet’s work. I didn’t find any, but what I did find was a gorgeous hardcover copy of A Net of Fireflies by Harold Stewart, which is a compilation of famous haiku and haiga paintings. It’s a gorgeous book. I went home and spent whole evening with it–I couldn’t put it down.
For the uninitiated, haiku are essentially very short poems that present simple scenes or ideas in unexpected ways. Often haiku contain a sort of “twist” in them that involves a pun or a play on words, and often this happens at about the middle point in a haiku, so many of them almost seem to have two halves. The twist in a haiku often aides in the expression of a Buddhist idea, often one of transience, minimalism, compassion, or the importance of mindfulness. At their most basic level, haiku are nature poems that present natural scenes in a brief, beautiful vision. In accordance with this, Haiku compilations are divided into four sections corresponding to the seasons.
I didn’t exactly have this clear of a definition of haiku in my head when I began reading A Net of Fireflies. In many ways, I think haiku are best understood via experience. As I read through this collection I was continually amazed at the beauty and vision one small poem could contain. Each haiku presented me with a clear moment to experience that was both visceral–the imagery was so clear I felt like I was actually looking at pictures–and paradigm shifting, as the image was often expressed in a way that challenged the way I first viewed it. Perhaps an example will help illustrate this:
A white swan swimming to the shore beyond
Parts with his breast the cherry-petalled pond.
First, we’re shown a stunningly beautiful vision of a swam swimming through cherry blossom petals, but we’re also gently nudged to think about the idea of the pure white swam being unperturbed by, perhaps carving a path through, the discordant jumble of petals. Further, a reader with knowledge of Buddhist imagery will note that the pure white swan is a metaphor for enlightened consciousness and that swimming from one shore to the other is a metaphor for the journey from suffering to enlightenment. So much is contained in so little.
The haiku are fantastic, but so is the book itself. It has a fan-adorned cover and is printed on folded paper, which I assume is in keeping with Japanese printing tradition. The book contains a number of haiga paintings. Haiga, the author explains, are the haiku of painting. They are simple, minimal, and present a thought-provoking natural scene. I found them a nice companion to the haiku, though as a poet, I have to admit I prefer the haiku themselves. At times the haiga almost seemed a bit too unpolished to me, which doesn’t jive well with haiku. I see haiku as ultra-polished tiny nuggets of poetry. Still, the haiga are intriguing.
I’ve noticed that many casual reviewers of this book didn’t bother to read the essay it contains after the collection of haiku, which I think is a shame. I do think it’s a bit hard to crack, mostly because the author himself is deeply rooted in Buddhism and is very interested in Buddhism’s role in haiku. Stewart was an Australian poet who moved to Japan later in life and lived his life as a zen Buddhist and scholar. He spends a good chunk of the essay discussing the various Buddhist principles as they relate to haiku. Readers unfamiliar with Buddhist doctrine will definitely find that a lot of this goes over their heads, though I do think it’s worth the effort as Buddhist idiology is a cornerstone of haiku. Happily, Stewart also goes into other aspects of haiku, including a comprehensive definition of what haiku is and isn’t and a very long discussion on the challenges of translating haiku.
I was most interested in reading his thoughts on haiku translation, as his own translations break with the form codified by so many other haiku translators: that of the 5-7-5 syllabic line structure. Stewart discusses at length the failings of other translators, highlighting specifically that they fail to convey to the average occidental reader the true meaning, mood, and feeling of the original haiku. I think his arguments are very valid. In Japanese, haiku have a certain rhythm that is built on the phonemes of the Japanese language. This same rhythm is impossible to directly translate into English, so Stewart suggests using a structure that does work to create the same effect in English: the rhyming couplet. I have to say that after reading several different translations of the same haiku, I’m inclined to agree with him. I find Stewart’s haiku much more evocative and well-rounded than typical 5-7-5 literal translations. Perhaps this is also because Stewart allows himself certain poetic license in his translations as well–again in the spirit of retaining the meaning and mood of the original haiku. He even goes so far as to title the haiku in an effort provide context that the occidental reader might need to fully understand the poem. At times I found these almost unnecessary and found myself skipping them while reading, and at times I found them very useful for the context they provided.
One final note on Stewart: as a poet, he is decidedly a man after my own heart. He despised nonsensical modernist poetry as much as I do–so much so that he and a fellow poet actually came up with a hoax in which they composed gibberish modern poetry and submitted it under a phony name to the Angry Penguins, a literary journal, where it was lauded and published. They then outed themselves as a way of exposing the ridiculousness and senselessness of modern verse, much to the chagrin of the publishers.
The above might seem like a bit of a strange anecdote here, but I mention it to highlight Stewart’s character. You see, as I was reading through A Net of Fireflies the first time I noticed that I quite like a lot of the haiku by a poet named Ho-o. I looked up the name to see if I could find more of his (or her) work, and what I found was that the poet Ho-o never existed. In fact, those haiku were actually written by Stewart himself, but never disclosed. I found some articles claiming he did this as a joke, to see if his fellow writers and critics would notice, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Stewart was clearly a haiku devotee–I think he actually wanted a platform on which to write and publish his own haiku. Given the quality of his poetry, I’m not upset that he did this, despite the ego it must have taken. In fact, I wish he had written more and published his own collection.
I’m thrilled to have found this book–it opened up the world of haiku to me. This is my kind of poetry. I love the sharp, clear images, the lack of unnecessary length, the simple natural beauty. After having read several other anthologies (reviews forthcoming) I can say that this has been my favorite and is likely the best place to start if you’re unfamiliar with haiku and interested in experiencing it.