Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review – For All My Walking by Taneda Santōka (Trans. Burton Watson)

walkingTaneda Santoka was a tragic figure - his mother and brother suicided, his father squandered the family fortune and Taneda himself battled an alcoholism that he knew had the better of him.

This tragic life, Burton Watson suggests, is part of the reason he is reserved a place in Japanese literary history (the Japanese apparently have an appreciation for those that mess up their lives completely) the other is his contribution to and continuing development of, Japanese Free Verse Haiku (Haiku without Kigo and syllable* restriction). 

For All My Walking is a collection of Taneda’s daily diaries and the Haiku he wrote, including travels that he intended would echo Basho's own .  The Haiku are presented in chronological order and when taken from published collections Watson notes this.  Interspersed between the Haiku are diary entries which Watson has included to give some context to the poems and to give us a sense of the poet.

In that regard I find similarities with earlier works such as Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior but perhaps this owes something to Watson’s arrangement rather than the intention of the poet ie Watson’s selections create a narrative whereas Basho creates his own.

Basho is more reserved and in the main directs his gaze outward.  Taneda’s diaries seem to focus more heavily on himself, his battle with alcoholism and his struggle to maintain a living.

In presenting the Free Verse Haiku Watson has this to say:

My own interest in Santōka’s work centers more on the poetry itself, particularly the manner in which it experiments with different poem lengths and syntactic patterns, and the challenge that these present to the translator. Since free-style haiku do not adhere to the conventional 5–7–5 sound pattern, the translator is free to break them more or less wherever he or she wants or, like Hiroaki Sato in his translations of Ozaki Hōsai’s free-style haiku, to translate them as a single line in English. I have regularly broken my own translations into two or three lines in the hope that this division will help readers grasp the syntax of the poem and slow down the reading.

Modern Japanese in nearly all cases requires more syllables or sound symbols to express a given idea or image than does modern English, and so English translations of Japanese haiku, if not deliberately padded, will almost inevitably turn out to be briefer in wording than the originals. And when confronted with a poem such as Santōka’s haiku “oto wa shigure ka,” one comes out with something looking like this:

that sound

the rain?

My initial impression of the Haiku were that they felt a bit flat.  By the end of the book, whether it was through sympathy with Taneda or familiarity, I did gain some appreciation.  He reads at times like English Language Haiku (possibly because of the lack of Kigo or allusion) or perhaps I should say that some English language Haiku start to resemble Taneda’s work.

I can’t help but feel though that the change from Traditional to Free Verse Haiku would be more keenly felt in the original Japanese and that in translating, quite a lot is lost.  Take for example the beautiful sound that the poem above makes in Japanese, which owing to its brevity can’t really be replicated in English.

Taneda can be extremely self involved at times and at others he captures what is going on around him in reverent detail:

July 11, 1938. Today is the day the ashes of the dead soldiers arrive. I caught the 10 o’clock bus to Yamaguchi…. At Yamaguchi Station, a guard of honor, families of the deceased, onlookers standing around under the glaring summer sky, waiting, myself among them. Hot, hot! Now and then, spatters of rain, like tears from the sky.

A little past twelve the train arrived. Ah—two hundred and thirty or forty some dead, a “triumphal return” with no hurrahs, a pitiful scene. Alongside the white boxes, two or three memorial bunches of bellflowers, two or three pigeons appearing, circling in the sky above. Sounds of muffled weeping, muted volley of rifles, sad notes of bugles, as the procession moves solemnly through the crowd, taking the dead men back to their home unit.


(“Home Front”)

valiantly—that too

pitifully—that too

white boxes



(“Home Front”)

drops of sweat


on blank white boxes



(“Home Front”)

town festival

as bones

coming home for it?



(“Home Front”)

scarecrow too

bravely waving

the Rising Sun flag


Taneda is still popular in Japan today, so I think that in addition to suggesting he be read to improve a Haiku poet’s historical knowledge, there’s an argument to be had for studying the work of someone who must surely still have an effect on the writing of modern Haiku.

*Note I am using the term syllable loosely here to represent the Japanese symbol sounds

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Narrow Road To The Interior and Other Writings by Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill

narrowKnown also by the title Narrow Road to the North, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings collates several travelogues and hundreds of Haiku written by the Japanese master Basho.

All translated works depend on the skills and abilities of their translators and on the choices they are forced to make in trying to recreate something in another language and culture.  To that end I think Sam Hamill does a good job, or his tastes are more in line with mine i.e. three line haiku.

I have the paperback version of a similar work (the same travelogues) by Nobuyuki Yuasa that dates from the 1960’s and it presents the Haiku in four lines, this destroyed much of my enjoyment because they felt over explained to me – though the translations were perhaps more exact in their transmission of Basho’s ideas.

I of course, bring my own baggage to this book as both a reader and a Haiku poet having grown up in the West and been trained/ have learned, to write English Language Haiku.

In this collection you get:

  • Narrow Road to the Interior
  • Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones
  • The Knapsack Notebook
  • Sarashina Travelogue

Plus selected Haiku with their Romaji pronunciation.

Essentially you have poetic observations of travel, the people met on the journeyand hardships endured.  The travelogues are not long by modern standards, some sketches can be sampled on their own with out missing too much and some can be downright funny:

The road through the Nambu Plain visible in the distance, we stayed the night in Iwate, then trudged on past Cape Oguro and Mizu Island, both along the river. Beyond Narugo Hot Springs, we crossed Shitomae Barrier and entered Dewa Province. Almost no one comes this way, and the barrier guards were suspicious, slow, and thorough. Delayed, we climbed a steep mountain in falling dark, and took refuge in a guard shack. A heavy storm pounded the shack with wind and rain for three miserable days.

Eaten alive by

lice and fleas—now the horse

beside my pillow pees


from Narrow Road to the Interior


Now the Haiku above rhymes(which can unbalance a Haiku in English), which is a choice of this translator. The Romaji is nomi shirami / uma no bari suru /makuramoto so perhaps Hamill was trying to match the internal rhyming of the original.  Thankfully the rhyme is spare in most of the other translations.

What I enjoyed most about the collection was understanding the context that some of his poems were written in.  I find when reading even great poems of the Japanese masters they can come across a little flat and underwhelming because we don’t have the basic cultural backgrounding that most Japanese would have.


They say the ancient poet Sōgi nearly starved to death in the high village of Hinaga. I hired a horse to help me over Walking-stick Pass. Unfamiliar with horses and tack, both saddle and rider took a tumble.


If I’d walked Walking-

stick Pass, I’d not have fallen

from my horse


from The Knapsack Notebook


Even though time and technology, country and culture separate us I found connection with these observations. The collection is a must for those wanting to attempt there own collection of Haibun and for anyone who studies Japanese form poetry in English.  For the general reader the prose observations might hold more interest or lead to an appreciation of the Haiku contained. 

Short intro to Matsuo Basho

A short video mentioning Matsuo Basho's philosophy and poetry.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: The Road Not Taken - Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr

the-road-not-takenMy first experience with Robert Frost and this poem was being on the receiving end of a year 12 English Curriculum. Thankfully it was delivered by someone who had an appreciation of poetry and how to impart it to 17 year old teens in the middle of Australia.  While not my favourite Frost poem, The Road Not Taken was among those studied.

From that point on, despite quite liking Frost’s work, I haven’t really sat down to give The Road Not Taken,a close reading since that time. I like many others probably remember its central message as being about taking the road less travelled, about not going along with the flow.

Here it is to jog your memory or if it’s your first time, to enjoy:


The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


Source: The Poetry Foundation

So what do you think?  Is this what the poem is about?  It’s generally accepted amongst learned folk that to read it as a tribute or paean to American Individualism is a misreading of the poem and indeed some of Frost’s comments on the poem suggest that he thought folks took it too seriously.  Orr’s claim :

The poem isn’t (with all due respect to can-do individualism) a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the
story of our own lives.

He then goes on at considerable but interesting length to interrogate this idea. Orr’s approach is an interesting one.  First he tackles Frost himself, as the man and as the constructed national treasure.  I found this section while no means a biography, a good summary of the man and how he presented himself to the public. 

Frost seems to exist in the public consciousness as some sort of folksy farmer sage spreading simple home truths when the reality is perhaps more interesting and more constructed. I come away from this section of the book having great admiration for Frost’s ability to generate authenticity.

Orr then moves on to the poem itself where he kindly lets us know that the confusing nature of this poem even tripped up the good friend and poetry critic Frost based it on.  Essentially though this chapter is a close reading of the poem pointing out particular word choices or lines that support if not a different meaning than the poem is assumed to have, then raising doubt in the reader’s mind.  Take for example the title of the poem: The Road Not Taken.  It was originally titled Two Roads but it’s frequently misremembered as The Road Less Travelled.  What was Frost trying to get the reader to contemplate right from the beginning?  This is perhaps my favourite section.

The book could have stopped here and still have been a worthwhile read but Orr then goes on to discuss The Choice and The Chooser in subsequent sections. The former section is a significant investigation of choice or choices, how we make decisions and quotes scientific research on the process. If this section presents an examination of the process, The Chooser examines the different selves possible/present in the poem.

Finally Orr leaves us at the Crossroads, quite literally with -  Epilogue: The Crossroads.  Here we are left to contemplate, perhaps deeper than we have before the nature of choice and ourselves, in that most literally liminal of places – the moment before we decide our direction.

So is the The Road Not Taken. for everyone?  It’s certainly not an academic text i.e. one aimed at other academics.  You’ll want to perhaps have some interest in poetry and perhaps Frost himself.  That being said if you love language and literature this is such a smooth flowing and engaging read I think you’d enjoy it anyway.

This review was based on an ARC copy.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women (ed.) Makoto Ueda

Haiku were traditionally the purview of  men in Japanese culture.  Educated women of court wrote the longer and more lyrical Tanka but Haiku developed from the starting stanza in longer linked poems that were composed at social gatherings held for that purpose. Generally speaking the women served and performed hostess duties at these gatherings rather than participating in the creation of poetry. 

In Far Beyond the Field, far-beyond-the-fieldhowever,  Mokoto Ueda demonstrates that Japanese women have been present from the very beginning of the form, writing contemporaneously with some of the noted Masters.  In this collection Ueda has compiled 400 Haiku of some 20 poets in a selection that gives the reader a substantial survey of the field from the 1630’s to the present day.

Ueda also noted that in terms of gender, the field of contemporary Haiku poetry is dominated by women poets (some 70%) though men do still fill the majority of roles as critics and anthologists.

Having read a fair amount of Basho, Issa, Buson and Shiki the most striking difference I observed is in the content.  Sure there are nature sketches, observations of the world and people’s general interaction with it but it doesn’t seem to matter what period the female poets are drawn from, there is a strong focus on women’s concerns and the oppression they feel. 

I sense a more impassioned, emotive and at times contemporary set of Haiku:


do you paint your eyebrows

using water for a mirror,

riverside willow?

Den Sutejo 1633–1698


a bush warbler—

my hands in the kitchen sink

rest for a while

Kawai Chigetsu 1634?–1718


flowers of sorrow in bloom—

walking past my gate

a mirror polisher

Enomoto Seifu 1732–1815


choosing a swimsuit—

when did his eyes

replace mine?

Mayuzumi Madoka, b. 1965


As a reader and Haiku poet myself, the content presented suggests there are more possibilities for the form than one might think, even from a traditional standpoint.  There’s room for passion, wit and social commentary.

Ueda presents the Haiku in English, with Romaji translations following every two poems ( I suspect in print form this equates to two poems and their Romaji on each page).  Footnotes are presented, particularly with some of the older works, where the poet might be alluding to classical Tanka or Chinese poems.  That being said I enjoyed the translations and felt that not too much was lost in the process.

I particularly liked the following by Ishibashi Hideno, who lived until 1947:

chapped hands

and no rice—I weep

with a monkey’s face

Ueda explains this poem in his introduction:

This was written after the Second World War, when there was severe shortage of rice and indeed of anything else to eat. As a housewife the poet has to laugh off the situation, but her laughter ends up in “a monkey’s face”—half grinning and half weeping.


If you are a Haiku poet, particularly from the West, I think this work is a must read.  I feel it adds balance in terms of tradition and history.  The print versions are very expensive (due no doubt to limited print runs) but if you can borrow a copy or an ebook version from your library then I suggest you do so.

The joy of discovering poets I would like to read more of is unfortunately tempered by the fact that this collection may be the only easily accessible collection of its kind in English.  My thanks go to Professor Ueda for bringing these works and poets to light.




Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan


ink-dark-moonIf Haiku are observational and sparse, understated in their emotion, detached from the poet’s ego – then I find that Tanka are almost their opposite. 

With Tanka the poet expresses their emotion, asks questions directly of the reader(or themselves) and  layers emotional imagery that can seem to explode off the page (particularly if you have only been reading Haiku).  Indeed at times while The Ink Dark Moon, I found these poems from 8th-10th Century Japan more akin to the overtly emotional work of the western Romantics (albeit in shorter form).

I thought to pick

the flower of forgetting

for myself,

but I found it

already growing in his heart


Ono no Komachi


So the The Ink Dark Moon presents some of the translated works of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu two of Japan’s greatest practitioners of the Tanka form.  They wrote during the Heian era, the only period of Japanese history where female poets appear to have been able to rise to the height of their art and have been regarded as literary geniuses.

The book offers a substantial introduction, placing both writers in their historical context. The poems themselves are presented in two sections, Ono no Komachi’s work preceding Izumi Shikibu’s.

Now while Haiku and Tanka poets have been known to write poems in the tens of thousands the translators have offered a (comparatively) modest and reasonably digestible collection here - I gave up counting the number of Izumi Shikibu’s at around 60 Tanka.

At times the poems are presented with head notes (particularly if its a poem responding to lover or unique set of circumstances) and at times they are left to be read as is. There is, however, a substantial notes section that provides the Romaji version of the poem and any other interesting facts. 

The Ink Dark Moon is rounded off nicely with, On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation, which discusses some of the issues and choices translators make when translating from Japanese to English.

What is apparent, on reading either poet, is that the Tanka form with its focus on passion and love, requires less background knowledge to fully appreciate, than say Haiku.  There’s significantly less to be read into the poet’s intent or meaning.


Why haven’t I

thought of it before?

This body,

remembering yours,

is the keepsake you left.


Izumi Shikibu

I found The Ink Dark Moon to be both interesting from the point of beginning to understand Tanka and the history around the form but I was also moved by the poetry.  It’s must have for anyone interested in writing in the Tanka form, and a delight for those readers who enjoy the poetry of love and emotion.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki – by Robert Aitken


The variance in translations of the four Haiku masters usually makes any book on their best pieces interesting.

Aitken’s, River of Heaven, adds to this interest the insight of a western Zen teacher, so the reader has not only the pleasure of reading old favourites (perhaps slightly altered) but of reading a Zen infused short commentary on each.

While I found some of these commentaries a little light on content and some of them drew what I feel was a long bow in terms of interpreting the poets intent, for the most part it was a really enjoyable and instructive read.

The more I read traditional Japanese Haiku and commentaries such as those alluded to above, the more I realise what a deep ocean of literary experience and history they are based on.

The excerpt below is a good indication of the work you are likely to encounter:



tabibito to / waga na yobare n / hatsu shigure

Let my name
be “Traveler”—
first rains of spring.

Look in the phone book of any Western municipality and you will find a number of Washingtons, Lincolns, and Kennedys. That certainly doesn’t mean they are all part of a president’s family. However, one’s name in Japan is one’s identity. If you are part of an untouchable clan, you are stuck with a surname that identifies you as an untouchable. All untouchables who manage to migrate hasten to the nearest official name-changing office to become Tanaka or Watanabe or some other conventional Japanese name. But Bashō would be “Traveler,” even to the point of dying. As he wrote in The Narrow Way Within: “On and on I travel; / although when I fall and die / let it be in a field.” He actually did die on his travels, and in his very last hours he wrote, “Taken ill on a journey / my dreams wander / over withered moors.” He was a traveler even in his last dreams.


Haiku can appear to be just quaint mindful sketches when the reader is divorced from this prior literary and cultural knowledge, so for that factor alone it’s probably worth adding Aitken’s work to your collection of traditional Haiku commentary.

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