haiku book reviews

These are short reviews of various haiku books and related books I've read. Ones I recommend strongly are marked with the exclamation point: Cool!

Introductions to Haiku

Haiku | The Haiku Handbook Cool!

Haiku Theory

One Hundred Frogs | The Japanese Haiku | Traces of Dreams Cool!

Traditional Japanese Haiku

The Classic Tradition of Haiku | The Essential Haiku | A Net of Fireflies
Haiku Master Buson | Haiku: The Poetry of Zen

Other Traditional Japanese Poetry

One Hundred Poems | Kanshi | The Ink Dark Moon | Saigyo
100 Poems by 100 Poets | Zen Poetry


A Haiku Journey | Basho's Narrow Road | The Spring of My Life Cool!

Modern Japanese Anthologies

Modern Japanese Tanka Cool! | Cage of Fireflies | Modern Japanese Poetry

Non-Japanese General Anthologies

The Haiku Anthology Cool! | Haiku Moment | A Solitary Leaf | Midwest Haiku Anthology

Special Topic Anthologies

Heiwa (Peace) Cool! | A Haiku Menagerie (Animals) | 101 Corporate Haiku (Business)
Outcry from the Inferno (Atomic Bomb Tanka)

The Haiku Anthology
edited by Cor Van Den Heuvel

This is the book that first got me interested in haiku. It's wonderful wonderful. It's an anthology of contemporary English-language haiku with a willingness to have a broad definition of what constitutes haiku. It has lots of good stuff in it, so I hate to quote so few -- go out and read the whole book. Probably my favorite haiku in the book is this first one by Bob Boldman. It combines such an odd mixture of feelings in a very stark image. The last one by John Wills is great for its syntax and its movement. Marlene Mountain also does a great job of capturing the heat, the sights, and the sounds of a single moment in an incredibly concise statement.

the fingers of the prostitute cold
-- Bob Boldman

summer night clothes whirling in a dryer
-- Marlene Mountain

dusk    from rock to rock a waterthrush
-- John Wills

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa
edited by Robert Hass

Robert Hass has put together an excellent collection of traditional Japanese haiku. He has translated most of them quite well, and does an excellent job of describing their context and of selecting and ordering the poems. Buson is my favorite of the three Japanese poets presented -- he does an amazing job at imagery. Basho, to be honest, is not one of my favorite -- as one of the earliest haiku poets, he strikes me as having many good ideas, but not being quite so skilled at writing -- of course, to be fair, that's really hard to judge in translation. Issa has a nice light-hearted view of the world, but he also seems to be less skilled in description, though I love Issa's haibun. Nevertheless, I expect you'll like the few I've picked out here.
Lightning --
and in the dark
the screech of a night heron.
-- Basho
Tethered horse;
in both stirrups.
-- Buson
Snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

-- Issa

Modern Japanese Tanka
edited and translated by Makoto Ueda

A great and highly-readable book of modern tanka. The introduction gives a solid introduction to the development of modern tanka, both from Japanese and Western influences. Twenty poets are featured with a short biography of each and a nice introductory selection. The poems are varied and interesting. Definitely worth reading.

One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Kenneth Rexroth

This is a selection of classic Japanese poetry in translation (the original Japanese is there too). The poems, mostly tanka/waka, are not my favorite selection -- mostly court poetry without a lot of the intensity nor the imagery common in later Japanese haiku and tanka. Nevertheless, the translations seem fairly good and the poems are all quite accessible.

One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English
Hiroaki Sato

A thoroughly enjoyable book for those who are interested in the history and analysis of poetry. This book is the best and most thorough introduction to renga that I've read. The chapters don't hang together entirely -- they seem to be a collection of essays published separately, but that's fine. The best gem of this book is the large collection of alternate translations of Basho's classic frog poem. Here's my translation:

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

an old pond,
frog-leaping :
water's sound...

Haiku Moment:
An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku
edited by Bruce Ross

This is a healthy collection of English-language haiku. I'd say it's much less innovative and much less exciting than The Haiku Anthology. The poems are almost all on nature themes, without a lot of further depth or insight. Still, for a traditional view of what haiku should be, this collection represents it well and presents poems which are direct and clear. Furthermore, having over 800 poems and 185 poets, nothing beats an anthology for giving you a broad sense of what various writers are doing and what can be done with haiku.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology
edited by Faubion Bowers

Though a short book (78 pages), the collection is a good one: classic haiku from the 15th to 19th century with a wide selection from many different authors. I hate footnotes, but this book puts all of its commentary into footnotes -- nearly every poem has a substantial footnote. Nevertheless, the commentary is interesting, so squint your eyes and start reading...

The Japanese Haiku:
Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English
Kenneth Yasuda

This book reads like a PhD thesis (and it probably is one), so for those of you who like to read technical literary theory, this is the book for you. It does provide the most thorough analysis of haiku theory, history, and writing techniques I've found anywhere, but it is a bit dry. Also, the dramatic flaw of this book is that the author insists on almost always writing and translating haiku with the first and third lines rhyming - UGGH! It sounds awful...rhyme makes every poem seem trite. I found myself mentally converting each poem into a more natural non-rhyming form as I read.

Haiku in English
Harold G. Henderson

This is a very short book -- it can easily be read in one afternoon. It's a nice straightforward introduction to Japanese Haiku, English Haiku, and Teaching Haiku. For the novice, even the novice who intends to dig deeply into haiku literature, this is a very appropriate first book to read to set the tone for further reading. (It's not really intended for experts though, so it doesn't have much to offer at that level). Being short, it seems quite appropriate for a short workshop or for a one-week study of haiku in a semester poetry class. It gives sufficient examples but doesn't contain a collection of haiku itself. One beautiful aspect of this book that it's easy to overlook is that each page has a wonderful little illustration at the top, and they're almost always relevant to the topic of the page. They're subtle and easy to not pay attention to, but they're really nice and worth the attention.

A Net of Fireflies
Harold Stewart

This is a beautifully-constructed book (at least the "giftbook edition") -- an elegant cover and a wonderful collection of haiga (haiku illustrations). But I have to point out that the translation is about as bad as I can imagine -- the poems are selected from the best of Japanese haiku masters, but they are all translated into 2-line rhyming couplets and given titles. When titles are not in the original version, I think that adding them clearly conflicts with the minimalist intention of the original. I can't imagine a more intrusive and distracting style than to create poems which rhyme in only 2 lines, and the insistence on rhyming every 2-line poem leads to the overuse of trite and obvious rhymes.

The book also includes an interesting essay on haiku and haiga, where Stewart tries to justify his form of the translation, but it's clear that he has a total lack of appreciation for what makes something "poetic" in English. He seems to fail to understand what can be accomplished in free verse, and assumes that all "English" poetry must be based on strict rhyme and meter to be poetic, but translating Japanese haiku into rhymed couplets is about as absurd as translating English sonnets into 5-7-5 poems on the assumption that anything else would not be "Japanese poetry". His refusal to make a more direct translation, on the argument that such a translation wouldn't be 'a poem', suggests that he fails to appreciate that a deeper level of poetic value exists in the meaning, the minimalism, and the profound immediacy of the original haiku.

Ogura Hyakunin Isshu / 100 Poems by 100 Poets
The Japanese Text Initiative (based on MacCauley's Translation)
or One Hundred Poems from One Hundred Poets by H.H. Honda

This is a classical Japanese collection (thirteenth century) of 5-7-5-7-7 verse (waka). It's fairly well-known, though the poetry itself is only moderately good by modern standards. The poems are generally self-reflective, and a large number of them are simply plaintive decrees of love in one form or another. The version available on the web is actually an excellent translation in direct clear language, which does a very reasonable job of preserving the literal meaning and providing the rich details of the original poems. The book by Honda, on the other hand, converts each poem into a 4-line poem with an abab rhyming pattern. In the process, the meaning is sometimes significantly compromised and the syntax is frequently contorted to make the rhymes work. Honda also gets caught up in archaic "poet-speak" with lovely regressions like "ere", "alas", and "lo". In any case, the online version is definitely worth looking at -- they include wonderful woodblock prints (in black-and-white) with each poem.

101 Corporate Haiku
William Warriner

This is a small book, a quick read, that gives witty remarks related to business, each in the form of a haiku. The haiku isn't bad, but it's not substantially better than what you can get with a little searching around the web. So I'd say, save yourself the money and spend it instead on upgrading your modem. Warriner seems to interpret the principal of immediacy in haiku as requiring "A twist. A punchline, if you will." The result, in my opinion, is haiku which is more intellectual than inspirational. The poems generally lack strong imagery and a sense of "being there'. The haiku moment is lost in favor of an instant "surprise".

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter
translated and edited by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto

It's not all haiku, but it's good poetry with a haiku feel. The book is divided into 4 sections: Chinese poetry, Japanese poetry, Japanese haiku, and poetry by Shinkichi Takahashi. The selection of Japanese haiku is quite good -- I particularly like the small selection of poems by Kikaku, e.g. "Shrine gate / through morning mist -- / a sound of waves", and the selection by Issa contains several of his better poems. Takahashi is a modern Zen poet with a surreal feel to most of what he writes. The Chinese poetry varies, but I found a few particularly inspiring. For instance, this one by Nan-o-Myo, in response to the Zen directive of "not falling into the law of causation, yet not ignoring it": "Not falling, not ignoring-- / A pair of mandarin ducks / Alighting, bobbing, anywhere." To me it's a powerful description of a whole sequence of actions visible simultaneously, without causation, and yet reflecting causation. While the poem is not haiku by my standards (for instance, it can't be understood on its own -- the first line has meaning only with explanation of context), it has many attributes of the finest haiku.

A Haiku Journey
translated by Dorothy Britton
Basho's Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages
translated by Hiroaki Sato

These two books are translations of Basho's "Narrow Road to a Far Province". Basho recounts his journey through Japan with his companion Sora. The tale is told in prose form with haiku interspersed throughout, in a form called haibun. They encounter and stay with people along the way, from monks to merchants to prostitutes. They join in renga sessions and visit various uta-makura, "poetic places" -- places which are mentioned in traditional poetry.

Britton's version is a quick read and a very reasonable translation, though more often than not she's a rhymer, creating silly rhymes in the haiku. The book also has a kanji version in the back, thankfully including small phonetic hiragana annotating difficult kanji for those of us who are only students of Japanese.

Sato's version is an excellent translation. The language has a natural simple beauty and strikes one as being very faithful to the original. His version is much more the scholar's reference, with extensive and interesting footnotes, romaji versions of all the haiku, excerpts from numerous renga composed during the journey, and a complete and annotated renga at the end called "A Farewell Gift to Sora" which was composed during the trip when Sora had to separate from Basho and go on ahead because of an illness.

Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home
translated by Burton Watson

Saigyo was a 12th-century Buddhist monk who left court life to pursue priesthood and poetry. He writes waka in a form which seems to be innovative for its time by focusing more closely on nature themes and imagery and less on social and emotional situations. Saigyo was a strong influence on later poets such as Basho.

This book is a selection of Saigyo's poems organized according to seasonal topics (plus "love" and "miscellaneous"). I enjoyed the poems, though none in particular stand out as exceptional. The introduction and footnotes are helpful and explain Saigyo's life in a sketchy fashion, though apparently very little is actually known about him.

Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Haiku
translated by Lucien Stryk

By the same translator as Zen Poetry, this book contains a good selection of a few hundred haiku. By "modern" is meant that the poems come from the late 19th and early 20th century -- certainly there aren't any contemporary poems in here, and you'll only find one or two poets with any sense of the industrial age having begun. This collection starts with poems by Shiki and continues with those who have followed in his footsteps. With a relatively short introduction, this book offers little beyond the poems themselves. While I found the poems on the whole rewarding, I did wonder whether there was an aesthetic which encouraged the selection to be mostly fairly common poems (good, but unexceptional) interspersed with only a few that were really striking.

A Haiku Menagerie: Living Creatures in Poems and Prints
Stephen Addiss, with Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto

For some reason, I was reluctant to buy this book and had trouble taking it seriously...looking back at the jacket cover I realize that the description of the book makes it sound trite. Don't let the cover fool you! This was a very rewarding book. The poems are selections of animal poems by Japanese haiku masters. The illustrations are beautiful, full-page, full-color reproductions of Japanese woodblock prints. Each poem is printed in both English and Japanese, and short but useful biographies are given for each of the poets and artists. The book contains about 48 paintings and 120 haiku and is beautifully-crafted.

The Spring of My Life: and Selected Haiku
translated by Sam Hamill

This is the most wonderful collection of Issa's writings I've ever seen. "The Spring of My Life" is a haibun of 21 chapters. Each basically starts with a short anecdote and is followed by a series of haiku on related themes. The anecdotes are alternately charming, fascinating, and disturbing.

Sam Hamill gives a very readable and honest translation. In the latter half of the book is a collection of about 160 haiku with English and romaji versions of each. I started noticing problems in the translations as I read the Japanese versions -- Hamill has added filler words, making the moon into a "bright moon" and a frog into an "old frog". Harmless enough, but unnecessary -- it appears he's done it just for the sake of making most of the English haiku be 5-7-5, which is hardly justification enough for altering the meaning of the poems.

Still, this was one of the most inspiring collections of haiku I've read.

A Solitary Leaf: 1996 Members Anthology, Haiku Society of America
edited by Randy Brooks & Lee Gurga

The Haiku Society of America publishes the journal frogpond. I don't know what process determined the poems in this collection, but the selection is reasonable. For some reason, I found the poems here about human affairs to be the most compelling, for instance, "raking leaves" or "boy in the doorway". By far the most magical poem was this one by Kim Dorman: "monsoon burst--/barefoot girls dash/for the temple". I can't quite pin down why it feels so legitimate, but partly it must be that every element is in such perfect unity.

Midwest Haiku Anthology
edited by Randy Brooks & Lee Gurga

A 1992 anthology of writers from the Midwest or writing about the Midwest. I really liked the format of this book -- each author had a chance to write a short essay about themselves and the reasoning behind their poems -- a great opportunity to get to know people and to see various thought processes. One unfortunate bias I noticed was what seemed to be an admiration for the rural lifestyle, and a sense that city-folk couldn't really have quite the haiku intuition -- it wasn't a major theme, just a feeling I picked up as I read. I've got two disagreements with this point of view. First, that nature and seasons are everywhere if you tune your senses to them. Donald Kelly writes a couple poems in this anthology about kids in the driveway and pink lemonade that wonderfully capture the suburban Midwestern experience (as well as being fairly universal). Second, my concern is that haiku is viewed as being limited to nature topics. In city life, so often our lives are dominated by other types of experiences, that are equally legitimate for discussion in haiku, and I hate to think people might be suppressing those experiences in their poetry in favor of some kind of pastural worship.

In any case, as a native suburban midwesterner myself, I can vouch for this anthology as an accurate rendition of midwestern life. It provides an excellent model for bringing haiku to a specific locale.

Haiku: Volumes 1-4
R.H. Blyth

These 4 volumes are probably the most unusual of all haiku books. Blyth attempts a tour-de-force of every topic related to haiku. Volume 1, "Eastern Culture" covers Japanese art and religion, haiku technique, haiku philosophy, haiku poets, and various "states of mind" such as selflessness and simplicity. Each topic is reviewed in a reflective essay that is not so much an introduction to the topic as it is a forum for Blyth to grapple with the issue and attempt to persuade the reader of some point of view or another. Volumes 2-4 are seasonally-organized collections of haiku with extensive commentary for each haiku.

It's not completely clear who Blyth intended these books for. First published in 1949, a slightly outdated world-view peeps through now and then. As a whole, the books are not really a terribly good introduction to haiku, since he seems to presume some vague knowledge of terms and topics before beginning each one. At the same time, the level is simple enough to be a good second book to read after learning some of the basic terminology, and the coverage of all things "haiku" is comprehensive. If anything, the books seem to be aimed at some European-educated literati -- it's as if he's trying to convince some group of the legitimacy of haiku by connecting it to traditional poetic and Christian ideals. Furthermore, while Japanese and Chinese are well-translated, he throws in untranslated German and Italian without a second thought, as if any reader could be assumed to know them (don't worry, the book is still quite readable without knowledge of German or Italian). Blyth demonstrates himself throughout to be quite well-read, but the one thing that especially bugs me is that his constant attempts to relate haiku to European literature seem forced, unconvincing, and entirely unnecessary.

Even with the odd tone, the books make a very good learning experience. The analysis of haiku is well-informed, thoughtful, and generally right on the mark. Blyth is also an excellent translator from my point of view: he makes a straightforward literal translation, but he is quite sensitive to the difficult task of preserving the subtleties and intent of the original Japanese, as well as nicely capturing some of the ambiguities, which are very hard to capture in translation.

Heiwa: Peace Poetry in English and Japanese
edited by Jiro Nakano & Brien Hallett

This book has 150 haiku and tanka related to peace written in English and Japanese (all poems appear in both languages). The book is dedicated to Senator Spark Matsunaga, who himself was dedicated to the mission of peace, and this is a beautiful tribute to him. The poems are the result of an international contest and are of uniformly high quality. There is very little heavy-handedness or preaching. Instead, a wide variety of approaches are taken to talk of peace from many unique perspectives, but speaking clearly to the common human desire for peace. As an example of one of the poems in this collection that really sparks my interest:
August sunshine
all the children drop their guns
for lemonade
-- Carol Dagenhardt

The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku
William J. Higginson

This is an absolutely excellent and very thorough introduction to haiku. Despite it's subtitle, the book really doesn't talk much about writing haiku per se. Rather, the majority of the book is about the history and theory of haiku. No writing exercises. All the same, it's highly-readable and does a great job of presenting both traditional and modern approaches to haiku. The teaching sections are lesson plans targeted at elementary school age, but the book as a whole is clearly targeted at adults. The book is full of haiku examples from around the world and has excellent appendices: season words, a glossary of Japanese haiku terms, and a long list of books to refer to.

Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets
translated by Burton Watson

Kanshi is poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets, imitating Chinese form and style. This collection is of Edo-period works which were written roughly contemporaneously with classic haiku. I have to admit that these poems don't appeal to me in general. Basically you've got 1. poets writing in a non-native language where they haven't even met a native speaker; 2. in a strict poetic form that carefully regulates rhyme, syllable-count, and tone; 3. imitating dead Chinese poets in style; and 4. translated finally into English. It comes across that way. The poems are the kind of uninteresting result you expect from an idle intellectual puzzle. The language is dull. The topics are dry. Also unfortunate - the book does not include the original Chinese. As one friend commented, if there's no Chinese, then that's not Kanshi, it's Eishi (English poetry).

Outcry from the Inferno: Atomic Bomb Tanka Anthology
edited and translated by Jiro Nakano

This is a collection of 100 Japanese tanka written by survivors of the atomic bombs. The poems aren't necessarily well-crafted, but they have quite a spiritual force. Most describe direct accounts of the aftermath of the bombs. Nice version with English, Japanese, and romaji for every poem.

Haiku Master Buson
Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert

Buson is considered one of the 4 great haiku masters. He was an artist by trade, and his haiku has a strong sense of imagery and reflects a keen sense of observation. He seems to have viewed Basho as his primary influence, and he is probably best contrasted with the other great haiku masters by having lived a fairly ordinary and relatively happy life.

This is a good overall compilation of Buson's works. It includes several introductory essays on his poetry and a brief biography -- the introductory essays are a bit disorganized, but they do the job. It also includes a hefty collection of haiku, organized by season, and a few longer poems, essays, stories, and letters by Buson. The haiku include romaji and kanji versions, so this is a nice book for continued study. The book is very practical: I found the translations quite accurate, if a little less exciting than I'd hoped, but with no problems I could really point my finger at. I particularly enjoyed Buson's little "ghost stories" about foxes and badgers. I found that his poems inspired me to write quite a bit in imitation, so Buson definitely had his artistic effect on me.

Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry
translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe Shiffert and Yuki Sawa

This anthology was first published in 1972. It contains mostly free-verse poetry from the 20th century, though it also has haiku, and I think the section of tanka is by far the best selection within the book. No original Japanese is included. An appendix gives brief biographies of each writer, and an introduction puts it all into a jumbled framework. I have to assume the selection of free-verse poets represents important notables in Japanese poetry, but something was lacking, whether it was the selection of poems or weak translations, I can't say. The tanka section has crisp, pertinent poems with strong, clear imagery -- it may be worth picking the book up in the bookstore or library and browsing through the tanka.

Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho
Haruo Shirane

This is a tremendous scholarly work covering the lifetime of Basho, his works, and the poetic theory underlying Basho's poetry. After reading this book, you will undoubtedly read Basho's poetry with a significantly greater depth, seeing poems serve many functions and having multiple levels of meaning. Shirane reinterprets and demystifies Basho from a very modern critical viewpoint. Basho is viewed less as an ascetic or as some kind of mythical priest, and much more as a poet in his times, with his own set of biases and his particular approach to marketing himself as a poet. Basho's writing techniques are covered in detail, including juxtaposition of images, the principal of lightness, the use of season words, and the combination of traditional influences with contemporary freshness.

The Ink Dark Moon
translated by Jane Hirshfield with mariko Aratani

A collection of about 150 tanka from two great female writers of the Heian period (around 850-1050 A.D.). The poems mostly consist of private communications with lovers -- romantic, mildly erotic, or philosophical. The original Japanese (romaji versions) and notes on the poems are unfortunately piled into an appendix, making it frustrating as you flip back and forth between the poems and the background material.

Haiku: The Poetry of Zen
edited by Manuela Dunn Mascetti

This is a small gift book of 56 pages (67 haiku) and very high production value. It's chalk-full of beautiful illustrations. It's not a very deep book, neither a good introduction to haiku nor a good introduction to Zen. The haiku selections are from excellent writers, but nothing special about the choice of poems. All of the poems are from other haiku books, most of which should be relatively easy to find. This may be good as a gift book for someone who isn't very interested in haiku and wants a quick and elegant overview, but it's really intended more for display than for reading.

If you'd like your own haiku book or chapbook reviewed here, send me a copy at my address on my homepage, and I'll be glad to add it. -- Tom