Volume 38.1 Autumn 2007

book review:

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan
by Abigail Friedman

Reviewed by Joseph Kirschner

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan, by Abigail Friedman, foreword by Michael Dylan Welch (Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2006). 224 pages, 5 ½" x 8", perfectbound. ISBN 1- 933330-04-X. $14.95.

Imagine picking up yet another learning-to-write-haiku book and quickly discovering it is a page-turner. Abigail Friedman’s memoir, The Haiku Apprentice, deals with her experiences in Japan struggling to learn to write Japanese haiku while on assignment with the U.S. State Department. She effectively weds personal narrative and the craft of haiku, leaving one with the pleasure of a narrative tale.

An important part of Friedman's embassy / diplomatic job was to attend meetings. During the requisite social period at one such meeting, a bald man in a polo shirt came to sit next to her. They ritualistically swapped business cards, and on his she noticed a haiku name, Ryojinboku (literally, "traveling tree man"), and the fact that he was a member of the Hiroshima A-bomb Survivors Association. As she later records, it was this man from Hiroshima with a "Buddha-like smile" who introduced her to haiku in Japan. (Ironically, Friedman’s father once had worked on the atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project.)

Eventually Ryojinboku invited her to join his haiku group where she met her future mentor, haiku master Kuroda Momoko. Michael Dylan Welch, in his excellent foreword, describes Momoko’s position in the Japanese haiku world as "one of Japan’s foremost haiku masters and a leading member of Japan’s Haiku Poets Association." As we read about Momoko’s work with Friedman we vicariously experience the teaching style of a haiku master along with Friedman’s efforts to internalize the teachings and grow in understanding of Japanese language and culture.

Friedman’s entry into the world of Japanese haiku soon convinces her of the wisdom in the adage "life is what happens while one is planning something else." What she discovers is an art form as well as the value of community in learning to write haiku. Along the way, haiku turns out to be "a path of self-discovery." Previously, haiku only had served as a pleasant way to practice reading Japanese.

The steps of Friedman’s haiku path remind us of issues we often face in writing and reading English-language haiku. Among these are the use of season words, the matter of syllable count, and the role of the personal in haiku. Like many beginners in haiku Friedman felt a strong need to learn and follow a set of rules. At one early session with her mentor she expected to work on them, but Momoko "began to redefine my conception of haiku … she was intent on teaching me the feel of haiku." Her mentor suggested that she think of haiku as a vessel into which to pour her feelings, thus moving beyond the intellectual and logical. Friedman was soon to discover that this is much easier said than done. As Ryojinboku said about the personal dimension, one must think of the most deeply impressive part of a thing or event and write about that. There is never enough room to write about all one feels in a particular experience. Friedman keenly felt the contrast between writing haiku and foreignservice dispatches. In haiku she discovered she had to cultivate an awareness of meaning beyond the words.

How she learned to deal with the personal dimension in haiku is evident in the following verse she brought to her mentor.

in the pot
soft long noodles
forgetting the old year

Momoko counseled her to try to capture the mood of her experience of cooking noodles. Momoko suggested a variant:

bring to a boil
New Year’s noodles
making a home

Since "making a home" is central to the mood Friedman had in mind, the suggested change makes it explicit.

While Friedman was working with Momoko she also was studying with a calligraphy master. This added experience helped her appreciate how page presentation can contribute to a haiku’s meaning. The characters themselves, she discovered, serve to flesh out meaning hidden in the basic ambiguity of spoken Japanese.

A few reservations about the book have to do with what follows the memoir. After some endnotes Friedman suddenly turns pedagogical. Perhaps she wanted to make the book more "practical," even to be adoptable as a textbook. She tacks on notes on writing haiku in English, advice on starting one’s own haiku group, a listing of some further readings, and advice on questions for reading groups. The further readings section is a very spare introduction to the literature, directed toward beginners. There is a hasty quality about this lengthy "googled" list of paper and on-line journals plus the limited selection of books. An index would have been helpful in locating forgotten gems.

Friedman’s memoir on writing haiku in Japan will have wide appeal for not only haiku beginners but advanced writers as well. The latter will appreciate the Japanese roots of the rapidly evolving English-language haiku. Moreover, they may be called to think further about what it means to write haiku. Perhaps some will return to a basic question: what is it that makes haiku haiku and not just an exotic form of short-verse poetry.



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