A Timeless Model Series: The Poetry Notebook. Today the Home Forum Continues a Monthly Series That Explores Poetry. We'll Look at the Work of Basho, Buson, and Issa, Japanese Haiku Masters Who Wrote in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries and at the Impact Their Poems Have Had on American Poetry. Sixth in the Series. the Previous Essays Ran on March 3, April 14, May 12, June 9, and July 14. Poetry Reprinted with Permission of the Publisher: `The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa' Edited by Robert Hass the Ecco Press 329 Pp., $25

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Some people could argue that American poetry has reached an all-time low. Both scholars and writers could point to someone like Allen Ginsberg as an example of how the art form has been reduced to shock poetry: the more shock value, the better. Critics could even cite Ginsberg's recent reading at the Boston Public Library, in celebration of his achievements over the last 28 years, as an example. Most of what the poet read was blatantly sexual and depended on his passionate dramatizations for much of its power. On paper, the poems might seem superficial.

Still, others could argue that Ginsberg is helping to bring poetry back to its former glory - when it appealed to a large segment of the population. This group would insist that Ginsburgh and other showmen have revived the oral aspect of the genre and freed poetry from elitist ivy towers.

But no matter what one thinks about Ginsberg or the in-your-face poetry competitions that have become so popular all across the country, one thing remains clear: Poets of every era struggle to redefine the art form. No one escapes the questions "What is poetry?" and "How do I fit into the poetic traditions?"

Perhaps that's why the publication of "The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa" is so timely. Compared to much of what is printed today, haiku can seem gentle and simplistic: three-line candies. But when Ezra Pound, who profoundly influenced modern poetry, and others needed inspiration early in this century, it was to haiku that they often turned.

The Imagist movement, founded by Pound in 1908, fashioned many of its rules after the principles of haiku: no unnecessary words; direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective; and reliance on the unadorned image. Imagist poems aimed to create a sense of freedom from time and space; there also needed to be a sense of sudden growth - something outward and objective transforming itself.

The Imagist movement ended in 1917, but what the Imagists had learned about the relation of language to meaning, about impression, expression, and communication, helped them fashion the styles for which they would become famous. In turn, these master poets - including Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams - shaped a new course for poetry in the 20th century.

As the 21st century approaches, haiku will remain an important model. …