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Volume 38.3
Summer 2007

book review:

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball
by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura, editors

Reviewed by Scott Simon

Baseball Haiku: American and Japanese Haiku and Senryu on Baseball, by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura, editors. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007). 214 pages; 5 x7.25. ISBN hardbound 0-393-06219-8; softcover 978-0-393-06219-9. $19.95 from booksellers.

The ball soars at stars / A white sphere under the moon / Baseball is haiku. I could go on. And honestly, I opened this book with trepidation that the editors would, too. But Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura have put together a collection in which haiku and baseball find each other that not only doesn't stretch to make the point, but opens your eyes to new features of both games. Both, after all, freeze the image of an instant in our minds: puffs of dust from a catcher's mitt on a third strike, the click of cleats on dugout steps, or a runner's shadow stretching down the third base line in September. Both are created to mark the passage of seasons: the blooming and dimming of green grass, and the arc of objects soaring across a moonlit sky.

The editors credit Jack Kerouac with composing the first American baseball haiku (Kerouac was an accomplished high school athlete, went to Columbia on a football scholarship, and discovered haiku in the Bay Area in the mid-1950s), and it still could be considered the classic:

Empty baseball field
— A robin,
Hops along the bench

Nature is still at the heart of the order in this haiku, which is almost cheerfully indifferent to the actual game. But this collection features twenty-one haiku from one of my favorite poets, Detroit's Ed Markowski, who puts the nature of the game at the center of his work:

distant thunder
the home run hitter
drops a bunt

You would need to be a fan to fully enjoy some of Markowski's haiku, such as this image from a minor league game:

night game in durango
all the stars
above the diamond

But for many Americans, the Japanese poets writing baseball haiku will be a real revelation. The game did not come to Japan, as it is so often misunderstood, during the U.S. occupation following World War II, but back in the 1870s. The editors do not furnish a date for the first baseball haiku but cite Masaoka Shiki (1867—1902), who wrote:

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

As a generalization, there seems to be more nature images in many of the Japanese haiku (slow clouds, cricket chirps, and, a phrase I am still trying to fathom, Akimoto Fujio likening the lights of a night game to "a turtle drying off.") But there are also happy glimpses of the game's centrality in so many childhoods, as in Hoshino Tsunehiko's:

my son runs toward
the budding tree —
their first base

which so nicely captures not only the image of a budding tree, but the boy who himself is just coming into bloom.

Years ago, when I took my wife to her first baseball game (Dodgers-Mets in LA), she tucked a copy of Paris-Match into the scorecard so that she could share the experience without becoming bored. Sometimes it takes a visitor (my wife is French) to point out the obvious: baseball has so many pauses and stretches of inaction — some people could get through Finnegans Wake by the seventh inning.

Now that she understands the game, she doesn't bring a magazine along (though of course, we also have two children to fill our hands and offer distraction). But Baseball Haiku could go along nicely, and I like the idea of fans trading haiku between innings, rather than having to watch the advertising floor show that most ballparks run onto the field these days. Hey, sports fans, how about a seventh inning haiku!

• • •

Scott Simon is an award-winning radio journalist who has covered issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to racial strife in Chicago and Philadelphia. He is currently host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday. A self-confessed fan of the Chicago Cubs, Simon has written four books, including Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan (2000), and Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball (2002). His next novel, Windy City, will be published by Random House in March 2008.

 

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