Volume 42.2
Summer 2011


book review:

Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Basho
by Steven D. Carter

Reviewed by Charles Trumbull

Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Basho, Steven D. Carter, translator (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). 167 pages; 5x8. Glossy brick-red card covers; perfectbound. ISBN 978-0- 231126-47-9. Price: $22.50 from the publisher or booksellers.

While volume after volume of new translations of Bashô and the other classical masters of Japanese haiku keep appearing, it is useful to contemplate the fact that there was more—two hundred years more—of haiku history before Bashô was born than since he died. In his two-volume History of Haiku R.H. Blyth devotes thirty- five pages to renga and the development of the hokku (haiku) form before Bashô, but few of the other surveyors of haiku history give more than passing consideration to haiku's first 500 years. For this reason alone the present volume is a welcome addition to the literature and fills a virtual void. As the work of a respected scholar of Japanese culture such as Steven D. Carter it is especially noteworthy.

Carter's Introduction leads the reader from the first mention of renga in Fujiwara no Kiyosuke’s Commonplace Book in the year 1157, through the heyday of renga and the acquisition by the hokku ("beginning verse") of special properties and importance. In Haiku Before Haiku the poets are presented chronologically by birth date, so the studious reader might be able to discern an evolution in style of hokku over the centuries. Carter presents the poems, with headnotes, on left- hand pages with rômaji and brief notes about the authors and verses on the facing pages.

It is fascinating to read through the hokku, thought I find it tough sledding because I simply lack the cultural and literary background to appreciate the works fully.

Many seem to be permutations of the same themes — the properties of the moon or cherry blossoms:

A plank bridge
of black pine goes white
in evening moonlight

Satomura Jôha (1524–1602)

Ah, the capital —
at least one cherry tree
at every house.

Chiun (d. 1448)

personifications or conceits:

On such a night
only rain would not admire
the moon.

Gusai (d. 1376)

A sad tale?
Is that what you want

Teitoku (1571–1652)

or personal observations:

Glimpses of white
between blinds of haze —
snow on the peaks

Sôgi (1421–1502)

Beckoning me?
Surely not —
pampas grass.

Sôin (1605–1682)

But I am probably reading these verses with prejudices acquired from studying 21st century English-language haiku. Knowing more of the historical context would be helpful to me.

The collection ends with twenty haiku of Bashô's. With a few exceptions, the haiku selected are not among the best known of the master's work. This one, for example (sourced from Kon Eizô, Bashô nenpu taisei 242 [1991]), is not included in the Toshiharu Oseko or Jane Reich- hold collections of Bashô's complete haiku or translated elsewhere into English as far as I can tell:

Nothing special,
yet even so, enchanting —
wild violets.

Carter gives no indication why these verses of Bashô's were selected over any others, though the feeling one receives is that these are generally more important as hokku for renga than as freestanding haiku — but that could probably be said about most of Bashô's work, as he was first of all a renga master. Anyway, the selection seems to look backward — at Bashô as the culmination of the renga master — rather than forward as innovator, the first master of haiku, as we think of him today.

This is a prize of a book for anyone interested in the broad sweep of Oriental verse.



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