DailyHaiku - A Daily Shot Of Zen


Special Feature 3—Summer Review Special

Roots and Branches:
DailyHaiku Summer Review Special

(books you may not have read but possibly should)

by Patrick M. Pilarski

— July 09, 2008 —

Books Reviewed and Noted

The Poetry of Zen by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton (full review)
Haiga Moments by Ignatius Fay and Raymond Belcourt (full review)
Three Chinese Poets by Vikram Seth (briefly noted)

The Poetry of Zen

Translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton (2007).
Shambhala, Paperbound with french flaps, 208 pp., $16.00 Can.
ISBN-13: 978-1590304259

Translation is an art. A difficult art, especially when the translator needs to balance the poetic beauty of the original work with an accurate conveyance of the poem's form and content. As evident by the exceptional translation work found within the pages of The Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton are worthy of the challenge.

The Poetry of Zen consists of a preface, two solid introductions to the influence of Zen Buddhism on Asian verse, a large selection of new translations, and notes on the poets themselves. The translation section of the book is further divided into Chinese poets and Japanese poets, chronologically arranged to span a major part of Asian poetry's history (4th century BC to the early 1900's). The poetry itself covers the gamut of Chinese and Japanese forms, including quatrains, octets, tanka, haiku, and haibun. Poets include Basho, Issa, Buson, Kikaku, Ryokan, Saigyo, Han Shan, Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, and many more.

Each section of translations is preceded by a short but concrete introduction to the poets themselves, their social and political environment, and how they were shaped by (or helped shape) the practice of Zen as it evolved and propagated throughout Asia. This extra context is invaluable, and brings a new depth to the translations that follow.

What sets The Poetry of Zen apart from other collected volumes is the quality of translation, specifically the way it presents the words in a way that conveys some of the beauty and melody that must have been present in the original (if not the exact form). One excellent example I keep coming back to is a translation of Li Po's "Zazen on Ching-t'ing Mountain":

The birds have vanished from the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

I am of the opinion that the best translators are also well versed in the craft of poetry. This poem not only shows Hamill's skill in conveying content, but also in creating something that holds together as a profound poem. Very few translations achieve this. However, it may come at the cost of fidelity: at times the poem structure and scansion seemed so well adapted to the English language that it made me question how much of the original structure was preserved. Comparing the final lines from an admittedly fidelity-based translation of Li Po's "Questions Answered" with the equivalent lines in The Poetry of Zen, we see a marked difference:

The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.

I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.

(Translation by Sam Hamill, The Poetry of Zen)

Peach blossoms flow downstream, leaving no trace—
And there are other earths and skies than these.

(Translation by Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets [1], noted below)

This is not intended as conclusive evidence of well-used poetic license, especially given the traditional aspects in Hamill's translation, but it is something for the reader to consider when reading the translations in The Poetry of Zen. In my opinion, any liberties taken by Hamill and Seaton in the presenting of the included poems are liberties well taken—it is rare and wonderful for translations to show some glimmer of a poem's majesty in its natural language. Take for instance this very poetic translation of prose from Issa's The Spring of my Life:

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace "crane" and "tortoise" echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year's Eve with empty wishes for prosperity.

The translations are followed by an excellent section presenting a brief description of each of the included Zen poets. One of the most interesting descriptions was given for one of history's most interesting poets, Han Shan:

Han Shan (8th century) was a Zen tramp who scribbled poems on his cave wall and on rocks and trees around temples, shrines, and monasteries...

Taken as a whole, The Poetry of Zen is a well translated, well designed book that fulfills its goal of showcasing the influence of Zen Buddhism on the development of Asian poetry. It is invaluable as a corroborating reference, or as a first beautifully poetic look into Japanese and Chinese Zen poets throughout the ages.

[1] Three Chinese Poets. Vikram Seth. HarperPerennial, 1993.

Purchasing Information: Direct from the publisher, any online seller, or most large booksellers (known to be available from Chapters on Whyte Avenue, Edmonton).

Haiga Moments: Pens and Lens

By Ignatius Fay (poetry) and Raymond Belcourt (photography) (2008).
Paperbound, 60 pp., $12.00 Can.
ISBN-13: 978-0-9809572-0-4

Haiga Moments is an attractively packaged book of haiku, senryu, and short poems by Ignatius Fay coupled with the stunning photography of Raymond Belcourt. It is not a typical or traditional volume of haiku, haiga, and senryu, and should therefore be approached with an open eye.

When sitting down to pen a review, it is important to acknowledge any bias and context that might cast shades on the content of the reviewed work. In this case, I approached the book from a contemporary perspective of English-language haiku. This viewpoint is eloquently put forward by the Haiku Society of America:

A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.[1]

The majority of published English-language haiku (as showcased by the diverse selection in dust of summers: The 2007 Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku [2]) has a tendency toward brevity and economy of language, and an egoless presentation of striking two-part moments. While I have a healthy respect for experimental approaches that break this convention, my preference is toward a short and breathtaking two-part haiku moment.

In the introduction to Haiga Moments, Fay states that haiku's "subject matter focuses on examinations or comments on nature and the world at large" and that the convention is to retain the "strict structural limit" of 5-7-5 haiku. I would suggest that Fay's definition is at odds with many contemporary views on the English-language haiku form—where the focus is more on communicating an experience than a comment or examination—but it is a definition that drives much of the work in Haiga Moments.

There are some examples of true haiku moments in the volume. The most effective come early in the book, in a short section on flowers. Two of my favourite examples from this section did indeed show evidence of an interesting juxtaposition between images to create a full moment:

crystal flower vase
surrounded by a halo
of fallen petals

dismal, cloudy day
even the flowers remain
asleep in their beds

The latter utilizes an effective pivot after the second line, and leaves some interesting space for the reader, but may have benefited from a shorter syllabic structure (e.g. "cloudy day / even the flowers / asleep in their beds"). Another example of Fay's playful insight into nature presents itself in the poem:

bumblebee flitting
among the meadow flowers
humming to itself

There are some examples in the book that would fulfill a reader's expectations of contemporary English-language haiku and senryu, and a number that come close. However, many poems in the book felt more like comments or personal insights, lacking the depth and immediacy of true haiku and senryu. Part of this may be due to their length and the lack of juxtaposed images. A major factor is the obvious presence of the poet within a number of the poems—many poems seem like direct comments by the author, and lose the egoless accessibility of a poignant haiku moment (or the "show-not-tell" approach common in well-crafted senryu). An example of this commentary is exemplified in the first poem of the book:

how can such pure evil
exist in a world of such
surpassing beauty?

And later on in the poems:

you don't have the right
to unload your guilt on me.
your past—deal with it

too many people
are more secure pursing
cyber relations

This tone and structure is a noticeable trend throughout Haiga Moments. Many poems aim satire at the modern world. While some insights show keen wit, humor, and a unique perspective, it seemed that on a whole this tonal choice left little space for the reader. Despite these breaks from the traditional feeling and structure of haiku and senryu, some of Fay's poems do convey a sense of sabi and mono no aware. An example of this would be his poem:

I found the body
lying frozen in the brush
I shall mourn the fox

It is quite interesting to read Fay's sources of inspiration for the poems, included as a brief section at the end of the book. This section presents a view into the poet's mind, and indirectly the reason for his structural and tonal choices within the poems.

One of the highlights and areas of true excellence in Haiga Moments was the photography. Printed on glossy stock with vibrant color, Belcourt's images are placed to complement the tone and subject of the surrounding poems. Each is accompanied by one selected poem, and the poem's Japanese translation (a nice touch).

The photographic composition is at times stunning, with colour and empty space used to draw focus to the crucial aspects of the presented scene. When digital editing was employed, it was rarely distracting and in all cases served to benefit the particular image. Belcourt's skill at photographic composition is evident, and his ability to capture both motion and its potential is immediately apparent in Haiga Moments.

The photos range from representations of the natural world to the transience of human endeavours. An excellent example is the image of a leaning barn in evening light, which for me was one of the most evocative moments in the book. A number of photos also present candid images of humanity, which nicely complement Fay's social commentary.

While some of the haiku-photo pairings fail to achieve the high bar of true haiga, with poems acting more as captions than cohesive partners, some truly hit the mark. My favourite example from the volume was the image of boot-tracks in deep snow paired with:

valley deep in snow
alone with nature until
line of fresh footprints

Though much of the poetry in Haiga Moments falls short of presenting a true moment, it is an interesting and well-produced independent volume. Readers need to be warned to check their common conceptions of modern English-language haiku at the door before engaging the book, but they will be more than adequately rewarded by a set of excellent photographic perspectives... perhaps even moments.

[1] Haiku Society of America Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms (2004): http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html

[2] dust of summers: The 2007 Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku. Edited by Jim Kacian and the Red Moon editorial staff. Red Moon Press, 2007.

Purchasing Information: $12 + $3 S&H, Pens & Lens, P.O. Box 1182, Nisku, Alberta, Canada, T9E 8A8. Distribution: Chapters (Whyte Avenue & Gateway Blvd., Edmonton), Greenwoods Bookshoppe (Edmonton).

Three Chinese Poets

Translated and edited by Vikram Seth (1993).
Harper Perennial, Paperbound, 80 pp., $15.00 Can.
ISBN-13: 978-0060950248

While Three Chinese Poets is certainly not a new book, it is worth noting. Haiku readers may be interested to know the historical Chinese context that helped fuel the poetry of early Japan.

In his book, Vikram Seth presents an excellent introduction to the history behind Tang dynasty Chinese poetry, its social and political context, and its structure. The book contains a selection of work by Wang Wei, Li Bai (Li Po), and Du Fu (Tu Fu), along with what is one of the most informative introductions I have read in some time. Seth explains the rationale for his translation choices, and goes so far as to illustrate the key structural traits of a Tang dynasty Chinese octet by way of an elaborate—and highly informative—visual example. This deconstruction of Wang Wei's "Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses" changed the way I look at translated Chinese poetry, and lent new insight into the rest of the book's excellent translations.

Seth's translations are for the most part traditional, including rhyme and grammatical parallelism. Coupled with his end-notes, they are also a fascinating look into the history of Tang dynasty China. Three Chinese Poets is a short and accessible book, and especially useful as a reference for comparison to other translated works.

Purchasing Information: Available used from a number of online resellers.

Patrick M. Pilarski

Patrick M. Pilarski (photo by Linda Pilarski)

Patrick M. Pilarski is the co-editor of DailyHaiku. His poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, Other Voices, Frogpond, Simply Haiku, Contemporary Haibun Online, and Modern English Tanka. Patrick is the author of one collection of experimental haiku and haibun, Five Weeks.

Past Special Features

"What is a special feature?" you may ask. The DailyHaiku special features section is dedicated to innovative collections of haiku and related forms that work very well as a thematic unit, bring the reader a new perspective on the form, explore the seasonal nature of haiku, or push the bounds of haiku in novel directions. Special features will be posted throughout each year (usually as a surprise) and will also be included in the yearly print edition.