Monday, February 2, 2009

Book Review: Basho--The Complete Haiku, trans. Jane Reichhold

Rarely can a book of poetry
be considered essential. Sometimes, as in the case of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems or Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, it is a book's historical socio-political importance that makes it essential. Sometimes it is the magnificent size and depth of the project, as in the case of Sanders's 1968 or Hughes's Ask Your Mama. Sometimes a book is simply so beautiful that every serious student of poetry must read it. With Basho: The Complete Haiku, the first complete collection of haiku master Matsuo Basho's haiku in English, translator Jane Reichhold accomplishes all three.

Reichhold organizes Basho's haiku chronologically, showing us his progression and personal growth as a haijin. In addition to presenting each haiku, Reichhold also provides notes of commentary, as well as the original Japanese, the romaji and the "literal" translation for each haiku, inviting readers to participate deeper in each piece, and perhaps even translate a few haiku themselves. Sometimes these notes give us some insight into Reichhold's process, or explain a specific Japanese reference or allusion in the poem. Occasionally, there is a pun in the poem that needs to be explained. However, Reichhold often gives two translations of the same piece:

At the house of Hosho Sadayu at a
three-poet party

growing old
one does not even know it
after forty
growing old
one who doesn't know it
is the chickadee

In the notes, Reichhold explains that the last line of the haiku, "shijukara," could mean "after forty" or "chickadee" She writes "The wordplay allows two distinct haiku--one with a nature reference and one without."

In addition to the translations, the original texts, and the accompanying notes, Reichhold also provides a biography for Basho before each chapter, as well as an introduction, explaining the importance of Basho for contemporary poetry. As if this wasn't enough, Reichhold provides an appendix detailing the techniques used by Basho with specific haiku used as examples as well as a glossary of Japanese literary terms.

As many poets know, translation is not an exact science. The Latin root of the word means "to carry over" or "to carry across," and a translator is essentially asked to carry what they can from a poem over into another language, hoping that what is lost will not read as a detriment to the original piece. There are many versions of Basho by many translators, each with their own nuances and choices. This website lists fifteen versions of one haiku, this website thirty versions of another. With that in mind, I'm sure there are scholars and nitpickers who will explain where Reichhold went wrong or why their version is better than hers.

Those sorts of discussions and debates are best left to those who know the Japanese language and culture, and I'm sure Reichhold will be able to hold her own. For the time being, Basho: The Complete Haiku stands as the most complete study in English of Basho's work, and is a mandatory read for anyone interested in poetry.


Anonymous said...

Well said.... I got this book before Christmas and it quickly became one of my favorite volumes.

pottygok said...

Do you have any favorite haiku?

Anonymous said...

What an excellcent review Josh. Very well said.

Anonymous said...

Two favorites from this volume that come immediately to mind are:


clams survived
and became valuable
year's end


are you the butterfly
and I Chuang Tzu's
dreaming heart

Jane Reichhold said...

Thanks Josh for all the kind words! May Basho smile on you with many haiku. \o/ Jane

Greg said...

great review!


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau