homeeditorsreviewsessaysmhbooks issues


Volume 34.2
Summer 2003

book review

Hibikiau shishin: Haiku to Furansu no shijintchi
by Haga Toru


Reviewed by David Burleigh

Hibikiau shishin: Haiku to Furansu no shijintachi, by Haga Tôru (Tokyo: TBS Britannica, Japan, 2002). 219 pages, 18 cm x 11.5 cm. hardbound. ISBN 4-484-02204-4. ¥1,000 + tax.

This book was published on St. Patrick’s Day last year. There is no significance to that, except for the fact that Japanese books always give the day of publication most precisely. I acquired it several months later, having had it recommended to me twice by different people. Both knew of my interest in haiku, though only one of them was aware that I had met Professor Haga. His subjects are comparative literature and French, and since he retired from the University of Tokyo, he has been president of another institution in Kyoto.

One of Haga’s responsibilities in recent years has been to help coordinate and institute the Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Awards, a new set of prizes being made in Matsuyama, Shiki’s birthplace. As readers of this journal know, one of the first awards was made to the late Robert Spiess. Another one was made to the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (b. 1923), who gave a lecture, “Haiku, Short Verse and French Poets.” After the lecture, there was a symposium discussion, picking up on some of the points that Bonnefoy made. These events, in which Professor Haga played an important role, took place in September 2000. This book is one of the varied offshoots from all of that.

In the title, the word hibikiau means to echo or reverberate, while shishin means poetic sentiment or feeling. The subtitle refers to “Haiku and French Poets.” So the idea is of an interplay of feelings and ideas focused particularly on haiku, and exemplified in the work of French poets who have had contact with that form. The prologue or opening chapter gives some examples of short poems from a book by Paul Claudel. It was published, in the format of a Japanese book, in Tokyo in 1927, with the title Cents phrases pour éventails, and the poems in it reflected Claudel’s sojourn in Japan. It has since been translated into English, by Andrew Harvey and Iain Watson, as A Hundred Movements for a Fan (London: Quartet, 1992).
Claudel, an important poet who was sent to Japan as the French ambassador in the middle of his diplomatic career, occupies the center of this account. When he arrived in 1921, Claudel was already fifty-three years old, and had served previously in China. He stayed in Japan until 1927, when he left for Washington. The small haiku-influenced book that he issued in his final year, was the fruit of his contact with the arts of his host country. Haga invites the reader into this world with samples of the poems, given in French and his graceful Japanese translations. There are also illustrations at the beginning of the book, of the original volume, of fans that Claudel inscribed with poems, and of a notebook that he kept with musings on certain Chinese characters.

Haga traces the background to this, from the early English versions of haiku done by Basil Hall Chamberlain and W.G. Aston, on through the discovery and imitation of haiku by Paul Louis Couchoud (1879– 1956), most of which happened around the turn of the century. In this he covers much the same ground as Jeffrey Johnson did in the last issue of this journal, with some minor differences in detail. There is an important difference in approach, however, in that Haga is more concerned to fill in the circumstances in which the poems were composed. He suggests what pictures Claudel might have seen, or what poems he might have read, and even what he might have been thinking when he composed a poem. Now and then the author indulges in conjecture, though what he says is usually helpful, and enhances our appreciation of the work itself.

If Claudel is the biggest star in the small firmament of French poets who have come under the influence of haiku, he is by not by any means the only one. There have been others, particularly since the war, and these too Haga introduces, to bring the story up to the present time. The most notable of them is probably the poet Phillippe Jaccottet (b. 1925), whom Haga deals with next. Once more, samples of the poems, drawn from Jaccottet’s several collections, are provided. All of these are very brief, like much of this poet’s work:

Dans l’étendue
plus rien que des montagnes miroitantes
Plus rien que d’ardents regards
qui se croisent
Merles et ramiers

In the distance
nothing but shimmering peaks
Nothing but ardent glances
Blackbirds and doves

The lyrical, almost ethereal, quality of this, both in the original and in this translation by the Irish poet Derek Mahon, is typical of Jaccottet’s style and method. Its evocativeness has something akin to haiku, about which Jaccottet has written. More specifically, he has written on the work of R.H. Blyth, of whom he has for decades been a dedicated reader. Indeed, he has produced an elegant slim volume, Haïku (Fata Morgana, 1996), made up entirely of versions from Blyth retranslated into French. Though the haiku are beautifully presented in it, one to a page, the poet curiously retains capitals at the beginning of each line, and a final period, features that his own short poems have abandoned.

Haga’s bibliography includes the English Claudel, but it overlooks the English Jaccottet, which is nonetheless worth searching out. Derek Mahon’s translation of the Selected Poems was given an award when it came out from Penguin in 1988. Though no longer available, a further selection from this appeared as Words in the Air from Gallery Books in Ireland a decade after. Both editions are bilingual. Similarly influenced by Blyth was the poet Louis Callaferte (1928–1994), who published a more markedly haiku-like collection of his own work, which Haga discusses next in his estimable account of these writers and their work.

It has to be said that Haga does not take any particular critical line in his discussion, and that his book is mainly written to inform the reader about, and to celebrate, the work of the poets he describes. It performs these tasks admirably. In the closing chapter, he acquaints us with the background to the Masaoka Shiki Prize, and the inaugural presentation. The first Grand Prize went to Bonnefoy, whose commemorative lecture has already been published, in Japanese and English, in Matsuyama, as was the symposium that followed it. Haga closes with some afterthoughts on the exchanges that took place at the symposium, for which he acted as the chair. Still keen to make suggestive parallels, he sets some extracts from the prose poetry of Arthur Rimbaud against certain verses by modern Japanese haiku poets, and leaves us with these reverberations.



©2002 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656