Haiku that Bring a Smile

Haiku that Bring a Smile

Haiku Humor: Wit and Folly in Japanese Poems and Prints, Stephen Addiss, with Fumiko Y. Yamamoto & Akira Y. Yamamoto, Weatherhill, 2007, 128 pp.

Stephen Addiss and his colleagues essentially announced a program in 1992 with the publication of the first book in this series, the elegantly designed and executed hardcover book from Weatherhill, A Haiku Menagerie: Living Creatures in Poems and Prints. Then, as now, the relationship among the three “authors” — how each contributed to the whole — is unclear, but clearly, this book of animals in haiku with art selected to adroitly complement the poems had the potential to head a series of such books on various haiku topics. Modest size (and price) coupled with fresh, colored reproduction of Japanese woodblock art and a clean, inviting layout help readers both familiar with and new to Japanese haiku to easily find favorites among the well-crafted translations. The original texts, included in Japanese characters, invite those who can read them to compare originals and translations. Brief introductions, one about the poems and another on the prints, help orient the reader new to this kind of material, and brief paragraphs at the end identify the poets and painters as to time and place in the scheme of these Japanese arts.

Over the next decade, new books emerged: A Haiku Garden: Four Seasons in Poems and Prints, 1996; Haiku People: Big and Small, 1998; Haiku Landscapes: In Sun, Wind, Rain, and Snow, 2002. These are hardcover books in a common, 6¾x8¼” (17×21 cm), format. Although Garden and Landscapes are each divided into seasonal sections, the other two have their own, unique divisions: Menagerie into Walkers, Fliers, Crawlers, and Swimmers, and People into Childhood, Maturity, and Old Age. The latter volume’s introduction takes up matters of translation in a caring but not pedantic way, and may be of use to anyone starting out to translate such poems.

With Haiku Humor: Wit and Folly in Japanese Poems and Prints, the series continues, after a five-year hiatus. In the interval, Weatherhill has become an imprint of Shambhala Publications. (Formerly, it was a subsidiary of the Japanese publisher Tankosha, an “affiliated organization” of Urasenke, the well-known school of cha-no-yu in Kyoto.) The most obvious change in Haiku Humor is the shift to a paperback format, but the page size and basic design continue, including sewn signatures. Like its predecessors, this book is a pleasure to hold and read.

Haiku Humor has its own sections — Human Foibles, The Human Touch, and Smiles with Nature — and, in another new departure for the series, includes senryû as well as haiku. The relationship between the two intimately related genres takes up several paragraphs in one of the introductions.

The authors of Haiku Humor frequently offer a new view of an old friend, as in this version of one of Issa’s best-known haiku:

Don’t hit me!
the fly wrings its hands
and wrings its feet

In the usual translations Issa seems to tell the reader “Don’t hit it!”; but having the fly itself give the warning is a possible reading of the original, and, as the authors point out, provides an example of Issa’s penchant for personification. This one appears only in the introduction, but another on the same subject from Issa, less friendly, appears in the body of the book:

Swatting a fly
I chant a sutra
“Namu Amida Buddha”

Which means, of course, that for all his empathy with other creatures, Issa is also pragmatic — and quite willing to poke fun at his own foibles.

Speaking of “foibles,” the term often appears in connection with senryû, and Addiss and company have found some non-seasonal poems by renowned haiku masters that seem even closer to senryû than the poems above by Issa. For example:

In humans
nothing is worse than
cleverness — Onitsura

which certainly seems more like an aphoristic senryû than like the quality haiku we expect from Bashô’s contemporary. Fortunately, many of the senryû bring a quick chuckle, being at least as graphic as a good haiku:

The foolish couple
mimicking the erotic picture
sprained their wrists

Not all the anonymous senryû suggest the sexual, of course, and Haiku Humor includes many that seem very haiku-like in their gentle touch:

The coat
runs through the sudden rain
without a head

This anonymous piece might better appear in the order of its original composition—“without a head / the coat runs through / the sudden rain” — in which the startling event unfolds as truly weird before the mystery is resolved. I am partial to Harold G. Henderson’s suggestion that a haiku or senryû should follow the order of perception, for best psychological effect. Translators reverse the order of a poem at its peril, though grammatical differences between languages sometimes require such reversals.

This minor quibble aside, Haiku Humor is a laudable addition to the Addiss and Yamamoto string of well-designed and produced books of Japanese short poems and elegantly spare art. These engaging volumes provide an excellent place to begin reading haiku, or to follow up prior reading with fresh translations and new poems by many poets. I cannot help but hope there will be another, and sooner than five years hence.