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, however, 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,
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
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:
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.