In the past, I would frequently lose myself in used bookstores, emerging with an optimistically hefty pile of books to read. My literary eye is often bigger than my stomach’s reading abilities. This habit of mine has waned since I purchased my Kindle. It’s now far easier to pirate classics and purchase the newer novels… View Article

Book Review: Haiku Master Buson

Genre: Haiku

In the past, I would frequently lose myself in used bookstores, emerging with an optimistically hefty pile of books to read. My literary eye is often bigger than my stomach’s reading abilities. This habit of mine has waned since I purchased my Kindle. It’s now far easier to pirate classics and purchase the newer novels I’d like to read on the Kindle store.

Since I’ve gotten into haiku, however, I’ve experienced something of a renaissance in my used bookstore visits. Reading poetry on a kindle is a wretched experience–the line breaks are never right and the poems sit awkwardly on the page. Rather than spending a fortune on new books of haiku, I’ve chosen to peruse the often ample collections at my favorite used bookstores, and I’ve found some real winners. This is how I happened upon Haiku Master Buson, the thirteenth book in the “Companions for the Journey” series, described by the publisher as “Inspirational work by well-known writers in a small-book format designed to be carried along on your journey through life.” A pithy, if slightly overly sentimental description. The series as a whole seems to focus on asian and Zen poetry. I wonder if I’ll happen upon any other books in the series at any point.

Disregarding the series, Haiku Master Buson is an excellent standalone book. It’s a comprehensive collection of the poet’s work, organized, as always, by season. The authors provide a nice overall introduction to Buson and haiku as well as introductions to each seasonal section that elucidate some of the metaphors and cultural paradigms in Buson’s haiku. Their introductions are more pedestrian than scholarly, but I think this makes the book far more accessible and enjoyable to read.

I don’t think the authors translated the haiku themselves. The haiku are translated via the most common method–that of preserving the original meaning while losing the exact 5-7-5 syllable count and without rhyme. I encountered a few haiku in this collection that are also in A Net of Fireflies–a compilation of famous haiku from many authors that is translated using a more unique rhyming couplet form (see my review here). I found the differences between the two quite interesting. For example:

Spring rain;
the belly of the frog
not wetted
– from Haiku Master Buson

“First Puddle”
Though spring rain patters on the mud, as yet
The froglets’ sallow bellies are not wet.
– from A Net of Fireflies

They are quite different. Via comparison it becomes clear just how much liberty Harold Stewart took with his translations and how much more vibrant and polished the haiku he produced were. Still, a part of me almost prefers the austere translation from Haiku Master Buson. I think it’s fair to say that they both have merit.

I particularly enjoyed the essay by Yuki Sawa that proceeds the collection of haiku. Sawa provides excellent context to better understand Buson’s poetry and the world in which he lived. I particularly liked learning about the differences and similarities between Buson and Basho, and the way in which Buson idolized Basho. As a newbie to the world of haiku, I found it enlightening.

buson-haiku-1

In general, this book does an excellent job of characterizing Buson. In addition to the collection of haiku, it includes his longer poems and a selection of his prose, mostly taken from letters. This helped give me a real vision of Buson and the world in which he was writing. I picture him almost as I would a romantic impressionist painter compared to the more austerely baroque Basho. His haiku are lively and pictorial, and he doesn’t shy away from the glib or ironic–writing haiku about beautiful seasonal scenes in one breath and haiku about a priest’s bowel movements in the next. The collection even contains a haiku teasing the haiku poet for his own hubris.

Perhaps Buson’s personality is elucidated best in Sawa’s essay when he compares Buson’s final haiku, written on his deathbed, with Basho’s, which was written in the same circumstances. While Basho’s haiku is bleak and melancholy, Buson’s speaks of hope and a new dawn rising. Not only is his poem beautiful, Sawa’s comparison of the two poems is cogent and well written. For the haiku novice, this book is an excellent read.

The watermelon in this photo is from my dad’s garden–he let me pick a ripe one when I visited him a few weeks ago. You can determine the ripeness via knocking on a melon’s rind and listening for a hollow sound. I snacked on the melon I picked while reading this book and it seemed appropriate, given Buson’s worries over his own daughter’s happiness and his appreciation for the small pleasures in life–pleasures like sweet, fresh, homegrown watermelon and the sound produced when knocking on the hull of a ripe melon. 

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