The Art of Haiku

By Clark, Anna | The Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Art of Haiku


Clark, Anna, The Christian Science Monitor


There is hardly a schoolchild who is not familiar with haiku, the Japanese art of the tiny poem, constructed out of three lines of 5- 7-5 syllables and traditionally evoking images from nature. But while an understanding of haiku is often left at that, its legacy in art and literature is decidedly more complex. In The Art of Haiku, Stephen Addiss illuminates how haiku evolved in the hands of its masters, stretching from the eighth century to the 12th. He purposefully juxtaposes the well-known poetic form with its less famed artistic counterparts: paintings, called haiga, and calligraphy. Fully formed haiku was meant to be experienced both visually and textually. This uncommon book gives us the chance to do just that.

Addiss is the right man to author The Art of Haiku. He is not only a leading haiku scholar, but also a practicing artist who has exhibited ink paintings and calligraphy around the world. He translates from Japanese, and has a lengthy list of publications. Fittingly, as haiku has its roots in song, Addiss traveled the world as part of the folk music duo Addiss & Crofut. He studied music at Harvard University and, with composer John Cage, at the New School in New York. He didnt begin his graduate work on East Asia until he was in his late thirties.

Fascinating as Addiss himself is, he keeps out of the spotlight in The Art of Haiku. The book is a steady narration on the emergence of haiku, beginning with the courtly tradition of tanka (five-line poems or songs of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables) and evolving into new forms, including haiga, haikai (comic verse), and renga, where two or more poets go back and forth to create a chain of linked tanka, shaped by a range of curious rules. Chinese-derived words were frowned upon, but seasonal references should be included in roughly half the segments [], Addiss informs us. Some words could only appear once in a thousand verses, including the words for demon, tiger, dragon, and woman.

The book is rich with poems 997 haiku, nearly all translated by Addiss and integrated easily with the text alongside transliterated Japanese originals. Particularly fascinating is the discussion of haiku translation. Idiosyncrasies in the originals, such as pause marks called kijeri (literally, cutting words) leave room for translators to make judgment calls on how to evoke rhythm or amplification. Addiss encourages readers to sound out the Japanese originals and provides the tools to do so to hear the music, and he does so with a grace that does not undercut the worth of the gorgeous English versions. He arms readers with a wealth of context on how, for example, the Japanese word for color and passion is the same. …

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