Volume 40.3
Autumn 2009


book review:

Walden by Haiku
by Ian Marshall

Reviewed by Tom Lynch

Walden by Haiku, by Ian Marshall (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2009). 272 pages; 5x 9. Hardbound with cinnamon-colored cloth. ISBN 0-820332-88-7; 978-0-820332-88-8. $28.95 from booksellers.

Unearthing Walden’s Latent Haiku

When I first heard that Ian Marshall’s new book was titled Walden by Haiku my first response was, “Oh no?!, not another book of haiku about Thoreau?!” But even a quick glance at the text assured me that it was something quite different than I had imagined, indeed something unique. Walden by Haiku is at once more imaginative, more innovative, and more challenging than the haiku-inspired-by-Thoreau collection I had uncharitably feared it to be.

Ian Marshall is a professor of English and environmental studies at Penn State University, Altoona. A leading figure in the burgeoning field of ecocriticism — the study of the interrelationships between literature and the natural environment — Marshall is a past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. He is also the author of two groundbreaking books: Storyline: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail, and Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need. Both of these books blend personal narrative experiences of hiking excursions with literary analysis in ways that have been truly revolutionary for ecocriticism.

In the past few years Marshall has turned his attention to the study of haiku as a form of nature poetry and has considered the challenging issue of the degree to which haiku aesthetics can contribute to our understanding of the Western nature-writing tradition. Walden by Haiku is the outgrowth of those ponderings.

Many of you may be about to complain that Thoreau didn’t know anything about haiku, so how could this Walden by Haiku project make sense. Marshall has anticipated your complaints. As he well knows, although Walden is permeated with references to Sufi, Hindu, and Confucian writings, indeed the skeptics are correct, Henry Thoreau never read a haiku. “I’m not claiming that Thoreau was influenced by haiku,” Marshall assures us, “or [was] even aware of haiku or the haiku tradition in writing Walden. I’m not claiming that Walden itself constitutes some sort of extended haiku. I’m not even claiming that Walden consistently and unerringly demonstrates the traits of haiku” (xv). So calm down, he is telling skeptics. On the other hand, if his project is to go forward, Marshall can’t conclude with such a disclaimer: “And yet, and yet,” he continues, “for all that, Thoreau’s aesthetic principles and his relationship with the natural world do turn out to have a great deal in common with haiku. Let us count the ways: an emphasis on simplicity, a respect for worn and humble and familiar things (wabi?), a sense of aloneness (sabi?), a reliance on paradox, and the use of humor, especially in the form of puns” (xv–xvi).

But, we might plausibly ask, if Thoreau was unaware of haiku, how is it possible that his writing exhibits so many haiku traits? Marshall proposes a process of convergent evolution as a result of convergent desires: “in trying to see the world as it is, to come to know it through direct experience, to inquire into the meaning and value of a natural fact, to wonder what it means ‘to live deliberately,’ Thoreau indeed had to have in mind (some of) these intentions and to have pursued them deliberately, in a way that suggests some convergent evolution between Thoreau at Walden and the writer of haiku” (xxvii).

The suggestion that haiku-like aesthetics occur in Walden because of the convergence of aesthetic and philosophic aims and methods is, it seems to me, even more intellectually compelling than if such comparable aesthetics occurred simply because Thoreau had read some haiku. It’s not a question of imitation, then, but of something much deeper, a common quest to discover a way of representing nature in language that is as transparent as possible and that strives to be as true to the “suchness” of nature as it is possible to be. This is an idea I had myself fumbled towards in my 1989 dissertation on American haiku poetry, “An Original Relation to the Universe.” But where I wandered around providing a (much too) vast and verbose context for this idea, Marshall has unerringly driven to the heart of the matter.

So what, exactly, is Walden by Haiku? It is, simply, a collection of 293 haiku gleaned and edited from Thoreau’s prose in Walden and accompanied by commentary. Marshall’s purpose, he explains, is threefold: “to offer a primer on haiku, to provide fresh insights into Walden, and to demonstrate the pertinence of haiku aesthetics as a theoretical basis for understanding the nature writing tradition in English” (xvi). Marshall admirably achieves all of these goals.

The book is in three parts. The first (Introduction) is a lengthy discussion in which Marshall explains and defends his task and suggests some of the implications of his project. “What follows,” he proposes, is “a literary thought experiment. It will not take you long to figure out what I’m up to here  — reducing Walden, chapter by chapter, to a series of haiku” (xiv). Speculating on the relationship of American nature writing and haiku, he argues that “the high points in nature writing are typically marked by those passages that contain the most haiku-like prose. Those high points are in essence ‘haiku moments,’ when the writer’s awareness of self dissolves into egolessness, a dropping away of boundaries between self and world such that what we get on the page is an attempt to place us in the world itself, as if the writer and her language were not even there intervening or mediating between us and the piece of the world under consideration” (xiv).

The second part of Walden by Haiku consists of haiku, or at the very least haiku-like poems, that Marshall has “unearthed” in the prose of Walden. Here are a few randomly chosen examples:

it was morning, and lo,
now it is evening
incessant good fortune (17)
distinctions with the hoe
level one species
cultivate another (33)
to know the flavor
ask the partridge (42)
while I hoe
a sparrow alights
on my shoulder (67)
rambling into
higher and higher grass
on into summer (82)

In the third section of the book (Sources and Commentary) Marshall repeats each haiku, then provides the prose passage from Walden from which he unearthed it, and concludes with his own commentary on how he rendered the prose passage into haiku and/or his insights into its meaning. For example, in the “Ponds” chapter we read:

the bloom rubbed off
in the market cart

“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them. A huckleberry never reaches Boston; they have not been known there since they grew on her three hills. The ambrosial and essential part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender” (173). It is the firsthand experience, the process of picking berries, as opposed to the end product purchased at second or third hand, that accounts for the full taste of a huckleberry. It comes from the bush on the hill, the climb of the hill, the sweat on the brow, the gentle tug that urges the bush to release each berry into beckoning fingers. Similarly, those who turn to haiku for their apothegmatic quality or a quick snicker (as in the pseudo-haiku we see about things like computer problems) are not really experiencing the actual world. Picking a berry, writing a haiku, living a worthwhile life: each is a process that involves going to the source and putting in some effort (146).

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of books and articles have been published on Thoreau’s Walden. Truly, one might think, there can’t be much more to be said about it. But Marshall’s Walden by Haiku does indeed teach us something new. It helps us return to Walden with fresh eyes. For that alone we should be grateful. At the same time, however, it also provides those of us interested in haiku with fresh insight into the origins and character of the haiku tradition in the English language. That, too, is no mean feat.

Because it is so unconventional and even, I would say, daring, Walden by Haiku will certainly not please everyone. Serious scholars of haiku and serious scholars of Walden may well dislike it intensely. To which I can only respond, don’t be so serious. Lovers of haiku, lovers of Walden, lovers of nature, and lovers of poetry, if they have an adventurous bone in their body, will also love this book.



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