College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews 1020 Haiku in Translation: The Heart of Basho, Buson and Issa
Takafumi Saito and William R. Nelson

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

What do Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra, Zoot Sims and Sarah Vaughan have in common?


To be specific, they (and many others) recorded “Moonlight in Vermont.” Here are some lyrics.

(1) “Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves, a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont”
(2) “Icy finger-waves
Ski trails on a mountainside
Snowlight in Vermont”
(3) “Ev'ning summer breeze
The warbling of a meadowlark
Moonlight in Vermont”

Of course, there are also verses that go on a bit. They speak of telegraph cables that “sing down the highway and travel each bend in the road.” They don’t strictly follow the proper Japanese form. No matter.

It is enough to know that John Blackburn, who came from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and who died last year at the age of 93, knew and thought enough about haiku poetry to render his most famous popular song more or less in that form.

More important is the question of what North Americans have to do with haiku.

To answer this, we must remember that Japanese culture in all its forms from the far-famed tea ceremony, flower arrangement and calligraphy to the exploits of the samurai and kamikaze pilots and on to modern business practices and baseball players has been of interest to Westerners for some time. The initial fascination, of course, was part of what Edward Said dubbed “Orientalism.” It has permeated Occidental culture in several guises since spices and silk first were brought to Europe at the time of Marco Polo and his Venetian proto-bourgeois buddies. But Japan was also recalcitrant. Not until Admiral Perry and his four-vessel fleet – the famous “Black Ships” – steamed into Japanese waters was the policy of sakoku (isolation) ended, and Nippon was opened up to American and eventually global trade. This island culture has therefore been available for open exploration and exploitation for just a century and a half. The reaction of the Japanese to Western influences, and the relationship with the West has been problematic throughout.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, puts the matter in context. Explicitly racist itself in some accounts, it accuses the Japanese of being the most racist people on Earth. Balancing the delicate qualities of Japanese arts and culture with the warrior traditions of the samurai, Benedict’s characteristically psychological analysis was an example of the bifurcated Western attempt to appreciate a culture it did not understand and to understand a culture that it did not appreciate. Benedict’s split perspective has been repeated often.

The complete modernization of Japan – commonly called “the Japanese miracle” – that followed World War II, presented other interpretive and evaluative challenges. In the early 1950s, I well recall, “Japanese” was a synonym for “junk” in the shape of poorly made wrist watches and badly constructed children’s toys. By the 1970s, however, Japanese automobiles and electronics were well on their way to being state-of-the-art. From the 1980s onward, Karaoke, Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokémon and Tamagotchi all helped global cultural consumers sink to their self-appointed depths, while bonsai trees, elegant understated gardens and the refined simplicity of Zen koans remained sublimely Japanese.

Meanwhile, on the archipelago itself, Japan has been compelled to make cultural adjustments. It has been, we must never forget, the only host to American nuclear attacks; yet, Sadaharu Oh (curiously, a citizen of Taiwan) will most assuredly remain the greatest home run hitter of all time (with 868 dingers), no matter what Barry Bonds might do – with or without steroids. Paradoxes, it is plain, appear on all sides.

Japan is observed from the outside through bifocal lenses. After reading William G. Ouchi’s Theory Z, Western business leaders spent some time in thrall to Japanese management systems which promised jobs for life to employees, and won from the workers not only loyalty but fresh ideas about how to improve product quality and organizational efficiency. (It was conveniently forgotten that some of these innovations were, in no small part, previously adopted and adapted from US companies such as IBM.) After reading Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, however, some of those same Western business leaders were equally seized by vaguely veiled racist paranoia. Now, as Western attention has turned toward China, neither the excessive admiration for, nor irrational fear of, Japanese enterprise has constituted a dominant theme among countries of the Pacific Rim. Instead, there has actually been a resumption of interest in broader Japanese culture and customs.

For idle observers in the West, Japan presents host of contradictions. They are vaguely familiar with disparate elements of Japanese culture, and they brazenly refer to its population as “inscrutable” – thus displaying their own ignorance once again. Still, there are authentic enthusiasts among scholars and citizens alike. They can be found mainly among the young and the formerly young who have retained their fascination. They can be located among superannuated hippies who grew wise reading Alan Watts and Kahlil Gibran, marveling at Zen mondos and occasionally being taken in by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (to far too many chronic 1960s questers, Eastern art and thought lacked philosophical or territorial differentiation – sages were plentiful from Turkey to Thailand and from Tibet to Tokyo and all could be incorporated in the search for “meaningful” spiritual development). Nothing can be done to dissuade such superficiality. Something, however, can be done to connect authentic Japanese art to those who are sincere.

That something, however, is predicated on some initial seriousness in the heart and mind of the person seeking a bond to Japanese aesthetics and, in particular, its poetry. With time and practice, that first serious commitment may eventually lighten, and lift on its own, floating the attentive reader gently along. But a certain gravitas seems inevitable at the outset. Letting go of unnecessary things can be difficult, and require some concentration.

Knowledge of a few elemental concepts is useful to start. These include:

  • Shizen (unaffected naturalness);
  • Fukinsei (asymmetry);
  • Kanso (“Less is more”);
  • Yugen (subtlety);
  • Datsuzoku (transcendence);
  • Seijaku (serenity);
  • Koko (restraint);

Eric Munson, in applying these and related ideas to the aesthetics of the Japanese garden, chose to illustrate the complete experience of the garden with a poem by Muso Soseki (1275-1351):

“Rough standing stones
A stream meandering
Delight without end.”

With the passing image of garden in mind, we can return to a focus on the haiku. The structure of haiku poems is fairly well known. In its traditional form, a haiku is constructed on a clear template – three lines with a pattern of 5 / 7 /5 “on” or sounds (roughly equivalent to Western syllables). Typically, a haiku poem also contains a special “season word” or “kigo,” which places the work in its natural context. A pause is signalled by a “kireji” which is normally placed at the end of either the first or second line. In English, commas, dashes or other punctuational breaks serve the purpose. This form of the traditional haiku has, of course, been modified by modern (and postmodern?) Japanese poets who compose “free form” haiku (often written as a single line).

This much is common knowledge in the West; less well-known are the origins and social functions of the haiku. In their impressive presentation of translations of 1020 haiku poems by three masters of the form, Saito and Nelson – beautifully supported by the artwork of Munetaka Sakaguchi – take time to explain its foundations and to offer an explanation of its enduring popularity. They present some of the best work of Basho – the pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa, (1644-94); Taniguchi Buson (1716-1784), who was later called Yosa Buson; and, Issa (1763-1827), the nom de plume of a poet known as Yataro as a child, and officially registered under the name of Nobuyuki. All three were prominent in Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), an extraordinary era of political consolidation, economic development, scientific advance and cultural achievement of which the work of Basho is frequently cited as the primary example.

Although not formally attached to Zen Buddhism, haiku reveals an incontestable Zen influence in its themes and its implied teachings. Its immediate artistic roots are in the prior verse form known as the renga, which was common among Zen monks in the 15th and 16th centuries. Like Zen itself, it combines compassion, silence, simplicity, attentiveness and an awareness of passing time. Like Zen, as well, “haiku may bring a startling insight into the ordinary.”

The path of Zen is not to achieve wisdom in the sense of a universal answer to human questions, but to understand that answers are obscure because the questions are absurd. Not for nothing is the fact that a Zen master’s major teaching tool is his wooden staff, which he uses to strike a blow against the body of a monk who is over-using his mind. Wisdom, such as it is, comes to those who Like Zen Buddhism itself, the appreciation of haiku poetry is often made difficult because of the pretensions of the reader. Its artistry is open and transparent; it is the reader who introduces the murky, unintelligible thought that renders hidden what is in plain sight. Haiku’s beauty begs the elimination of complexity, not indulgence in it. It is for precisely this reason that haiku suffers when people try to read too much (indeed, anything) into it. Stripping away the pomposity of high culture, haiku is revealed very much as a poetry of ordinary people.

Saito and Nelson explain that Haiku “was born among the common people, and has been developed and supported by them until today. We find,” they add, “nothing in haiku nothing too sublime or too refined that people, in general, do not understand.” Essential to the understanding of haiku is its naturalness. To replicate nature as nature – without human interference, interest and interpretation – and to allow naturalness to appear in its uncomplicated and uncompromising reality is the key to understanding haiku.

Saito and Nelson show plainly how haiku differs from other poetic traditions that heard nature’s call. European Romantics, they contend, also sought inspiration in the physical environment; but, their purpose was to internalize it, to transform it and to bend it to the purpose of providing personal inspiration. As such, the Romantic Movement affords merely a historically interesting moment in European cultural development, whereas haiku is read and written as much today as ever.

They provide a telling example in the contrast of Wordsworth’s lines with those of Basho.

Wordsworth writes:

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
He does not even identify the flower; it is all about “him”.
Basho, on the other hand, fashions an entirely different link.
“Tired out
A good time to find an inn —
Wisteria in bloom.”

The human experience is not mystified or abstracted. It is set clearly in its proper perspective, and the beauty of the flower prevails.

Whether singing of frogs or rainfalls, of birds, children or oceans, haiku expresses co-existence, harmony, and the joys and pathos of the human condition in economical, but never cramped and constricted ways. It opens doors of perception by leaving much unstated.

I read all one thousand and twenty poems in one lengthy sitting. Used to translations that catered excessively to the project of making the journey into the poem easier for Western readers, I confess that I found some of the expression jarring. That was because Saito and Nelson attempt to remain faithful to the original work, more than to translate into the syntax and idiom of English.

The decision to approach the translation in this way requires a small period of adjustment from the reader. It is necessary to allow the structure and language of the poem to dictate its reading. The process is worth the modest pain. Too often, the compressed brilliance of expression is dulled by the effort to bring it too easily to the view of the reader. In this translation, readers are not passively invited to admire a bowdlerized product that has been reconfigured for the convenience of the reader, but to join – as much as our limitations permit – in the perceptions of the poet. It is a far more rewarding experience.

Insofar as it is reflective of Zen Buddhism, haiku redeems the disappointments and the tragedies of ordinary life by alerting us to a sort of pantheism. It affirms the holiness and interpenetration of all things. In this sense, wrote one enlightened observer, “the tea ceremony in Japan [is] a ritual of devotion; … a seventeen-syllable haiku poem [is] a universal statement of faith; … a quick brush-drawing [is] a gesture of piety in Eternity.” Haiku’s message is that “we are all a part of Absolute Being, and we are all a part of each other.” This is a message that we all might do well to receive. Reading the poems in this book is a fine way to start.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology