Volume 40.2
Summer 2009

book review:

Haiku: The Art of the Short Poem. A Film
by Tazuo Yamaguchi

Reviewed by Bob Fritzmeier

Tazuo Yamaguchi. Haiku: The Art of the Short Poem. A Film, by Tazuo Yamaguchi. Edited by Randy Brooks. (Decatur, Ill.: Brooks Books, 2008). 1st edition. 96 pages; 5.5 x 8.5. Glossy four-color cover; perfectbound with full-length DVD. ISBN 978-1-929820-10-8. Price: $28.00 from the publisher at 3720 Woodridge Dr, Decatur IL 62526.

If Tazuo Yamaguchi was not a gambler before he took on this project, I’d call him one now. And I’d dare to put Randy Brooks in that category, too. This cin-a-lit collaboration was quite a departure from what I’d known of haiku. For me it had always been print-on-page, or, at most, a poem in a poetry slam. Imagine the intrigue I felt when I first read an ad for the film on the Internet.

Yamaguchi was hired to document the 2007 Haiku North America biennial conference. His work on the project in Winston-Salem, N.C., in the summer of that year led him to create the first documentary film about English-language haiku. If you have ever enjoyed haiku in any medium whatsoever, then prepare yourself for an aural-visual expansion of that experience.

Haiku enthusiasts who have read works by the poets who appear here but have not met them will get pleasure from now being able to put faces and voices to the names and words on a page. It’s no wonder that an equal number of men and women poets are featured in the film. We find that an egalitarian spirit has been developing in the haiku movement for several centuries. To complement Bashô, the founder of the genre in the 1600s, we are given haiku by Chiyo-ni, one of the greatest female haiku poets, from the 1700s.

Not only is haiku poetry for sharing, as the late William Higginson posits (in the film), but I would submit that it’s also for challenging certain of our mindsets. Such for me was the poem by A.C. Missias:

veteran’s cemetery —
a wide expanse of lawn
beyond the graves

My uncle, whose name I carry, was a U.S. Army sergeant who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in World War II. In the large framed photo that I have of the “thousand white crosses” in a cemetery there, his is blown up in one corner so you can read his name and infantry unit on it. I have felt tremendously sad over the years about it, pondering the suffering of the soldiers who fought in that horrible winter. But Missias has truly liberated me, and I feel a pervasive peace about that situation that I could not find anywhere else. Her word “beyond” is the mot juste for expanding a reader’s consciousness in more ways than one.

In his film Yamaguchi has produced a playful and instructive work. It has been creatively shot and composed in terms of the variety of cinematic techniques. Also of a high order is the quality of picture and sound. The music is almost what I would call “Japanese John Cage.” It fits the quick cuts back and forth between the present and the past.

The traditions of haiku are duly honored. The American and British variations on it in the 20th and 21st centuries are honestly presented. And all of it is done in eye-catching graphics, with sound effects to boot, like a dog barking during a poem about a fire hydrant.

The book that comes with the DVD includes all the haiku that are written out on the screen in the film, plus all those that are read aloud. Also included are some Japanese-language originals with the translations, quotes by some of the poets, and biographical notes on all of the poets. Brooks and his wife Shirley, the publishers, are to be commended for putting an attractive cover with subtly-layered meanings on the book, and lots of space between the poems and quotes.

There are surprises here for all viewers/readers, including even the poets who were interviewed for the film. So whether you want to enjoy this treasure at home, or teach it in a classroom, it will serve you well.



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