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Volume 34.3
Autumn 2003

book review

Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women
by Makoto Ueda


reviewed by William J. Higginson

Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women, by Makoto Ueda (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 244 + xv pages, 5.5•" x 9.5•". ISBN 0-231-12862-2 (hardcover), 0-231-12863-0 (paperback). Available in bookstores for $54.50 and $22.50.

Far Beyond the Field includes translations of four hundred haiku written by twenty poets from the seventeenth century to the present. The poets and their poems appear chronologically, creating an overview of the way haiku has been used and experimented with over the last 400 years or so. “At the same time, the reader is admitted to the often marginalized world of female experience in Japan, revealing voices every bit as rich and colorful, and perhaps even more lyrical and erotic, than those found in male haiku.” So says the advertising copy of Columbia University Press’s web site. You bet! Some of these haiku sing of subjects, moods, and situations that most male haiku poets seem not to comprehend, Japanese or otherwise. At the same time, however, most of these haiku sing universal human themes that have long been cherished in Japanese haiku and been marginalized by the Zen-dominated male anthologizers and commentators of the early to mid 20th century, both Japanese and English. In fact, many of the kinds of haiku found in Far Beyond the Field have existed in Japanese haiku by both women and men since the beginning of haiku.

The list of poets represented here reads like a roll-call of the greats of Japanese haikai and haiku, past and present: Den Sutejo (1633–1698), Kawai Chigetsu (1634?–1718), Shiba Sonome (1664–1726), Chiyojo (1703–1775), Enomoto Seifu (1732–1815), Tagami Kikusha (1753–1826), Takeshita Shizunojo (1887–1951), Sugita Hisajo (1890–1946), Hashimoto Takako (1899–1963), Mitsuhashi Takajo (1899–1972), Ishibashi Hideno (1909–1947), Katsura Nobuko (b. 1914), Yoshino Yoshiko (b. 1915), Tsuda Kiyoko (b. 1920), Inahata Teiko (b. 1931), Uda Kiyoko (b. 1935), Kuroda Momoko (b. 1938), Tsuji Momoko (b. 1945), Katayama Yumiko (b. 1952), Mayuzumi Madoka (b. 1965). A few of these folks will already be somewhat familiar to avid readers who have tracked down the nearly-absent-in-English women of Japanese haiku one place or another—one thinks of the more modest but excellent anthologies edited by Leza Lowitz et al., A Long Rainy Season: Haiku & Tanka, and Kôko Katô and David Burleigh, A Hidden Pond—Anthology of Modern Haiku, soon to be reissued. But nowhere that I know of do we have so full and thorough a collection of works by these stars in Japan’s haiku firmament.

Also, no precedents for Far Beyond the Field exist in English, though Japanese publishers often issue anthologies of and commentaries on women’s haiku. For the moment, we must follow that misogynist lead, unfortunately. Like the Japanese, we have also been continually bathed for a half-century or more in Japanese haiku by men in collections edited by men who admittedly dislike “women’s haiku,” as if the haiku of women were somehow less human, less universal than those of men. (I am constantly reminded of the truism that more than half of humanity consists of females; when do we suppose the men—Japanese, American, others—will get it?)
Ueda provides a rich and comprehensive introduction, with more clear and accurate background on Japanese haiku and its development over the past four centuries than can be found in so few words elsewhere in English. (Note that I did not restrict my comment to “women’s haiku”; neither does Ueda.) Following that, we have the women poets who rounded out Bashô’s own day, some of them his actual disciples or close relatives of disciples. Ueda precedes each poet’s work with a brief sketch of her life. The only real gap in Ueda’s sequence of poets, in the later years of the Tokugawa or Edo Era after Kikusha (Issa’s contemporary), reflects the failing haiku of that time as well as the increasing repression of women in a declining culture. Lovers of Bashô, Buson, and Issa will find much to ponder in the poems by and thumbnail biographies of poets mostly unknown to readers both in and out of Japan.

like a fish
in the sea, this body of mine
cool in the moonlight

Does Seifu’s simile surprise you? No modern turn-coat, she, but a major poet of her era, 200 years ago. The translation is accurate. (And yes, despite Blyth and Henderson, Japanese haiku poets—men and women—do use similes and metaphors.)

does a dustpan
share in the Buddha’s nature?
blossoms’ shade

As this example by Kikusha demonstrates, men have no lock on the Buddhism-and-haiku connection. Read the book to find out how Kikusha illustrates this poem, what Zen story it alludes to.

Ueda’s introduction and the inclusion of several early women haiku poets’ brief biographies and samplings of poems constitute a kind of catch-up history, of which much more needs to be done. Going on into modern times, Ueda gives a good overview of the work of a powerful group of haiku poets who also, like their predecessors, refuse to be stuck in the “haiku moment” box or the “haiku Zen” box or any other box, even the “women’s haiku” box:

in the sweltering sky
a ladder—someone carries it
to the deep shade

—by Hashimoto Takako,

rich in humor and a love of the arcana of daily life.

Can haiku have titles? Try this one:

clear starlit sky
in the freezing night, after the planes’
roar has vanished

—then add the title, “Air raids night after night.” Apparently Ishibashi Hideno had not heard that rule about omitting titles for haiku. (And note that the haiku of Sarajevo and other recently war-torn places do have their precedents in Japanese.)

Here we have also Katsura Nobuko, a strikingly intimate and sensitive poet:

on the scale
my bathed and steaming body
this night of snow

How compare the lightness and heaviness of snow to anything human? And again, Nobuko uncovers herself:

think of the burning fire
at the bottom of the earth
last year, this year

What? “Thinking” in haiku?? Remember Bashô’s masterpiece (my translation):

New Year’s Day
I remember—loneliness—
autumn dusk

And then we have the incursion of modern mass culture, with its genuine and its false all mixed up together, as in Kuroda Momoko’s:

fugu soup—
on the wall, a great big
John Lennon

Momoko is as merciless as any true poet:

something to the rose
she cuts the rose

To be sure, there are infrequent lapses in a translation here or there:

a flowering chestnut
falls, the sound assailing me
as I stand

Here the Japanese (provided throughout in romanized form) makes clear that Hashimoto Takako hears the flowers of the tree fall, not the tree itself, as the translation suggests. Such problems beset all translators; one only hopes to avoid getting them all the way to print, but invariably one or another slips through. Such small difficulties only point up the humanity and pitfalls of this enterprise, trying to bring a true account of Japanese haiku to our world.

Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women is published in the same format as Ueda’s anthologies Modern Japanese Tanka and Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu. More than either of these, however, it takes us into a world largely undiscoverable in English until now. In this one book, Ueda not only redresses the unconscionable marginalization of Japanese women haiku poets that pervades almost all previous works on Japanese haiku in English, but corrects the imbalance of his own earlier and still extraordinary work, Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, which was compiled in the 1970s, before modern Japanese women haiku masters had come fully into their own.

Now, at last, the stage is set for a comprehensive, multi-volume collection of modern Japanese haiku that ignores gender as an issue, but allows the full range and depth of that great genre to enter our lives. Until such an anthology appears, however, Makoto Ueda will be our best guide to both the men and women who have made Japanese haiku what it is today. Reverently, I keep both Modern Japanese Haiku and Far Beyond the Field close at hand on my work table. Either is indispensable; together, they are incomparable.



©2003 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656