Basho: The Complete Haiku



4.0 out of 5 stars Basho: An interpretation

Matsuo Basho is the undisputed master of haiku. He refined what was seen as a simple, almost comic, style of verse into something that we would call high art. A collection like this, with all of his haiku translated and gathered together into a single, annotated volume is an absolute treasure, and the only surprise is that it wasn’t published many years ago.

Of course, collecting the haiku is easy. There are numerous collections available in Japanese, and it is simply a matter of reprinting them. But translating his haiku is a different problem all together. Haiku are a form of art that take unique advantage of the Japanese language, and they can only be approximated at best. There are two general styles, a more-literal translation that tries to capture the form and order of the writer, and an artistic translation that tries to capture the feel of the poem while using the flow of the English language. The main difference is with the third line, which in a Japanese haiku is always a non-sequitur image that relates only indirectly with the first two lines, providing the scenery for the story.

Jane Reichhold takes the artistic approach, and I must admit it is one I am not particularly fond of. This is definitely “Jane Reichhold’s Basho: The Complete Haiku”, with the emphasis being on her interpretation rather than on introducing people to Basho’s poetry. She is undoubtedly talented and respected, having published such books as Writing and Enjoying Haiku: A Hands-on Guide and Narrow Road to Renga: A Collection of Renga, and her translations have a beauty and power all of their own, but she ignores Basho’s forms, and creates continuous narratives in the poems, narratives that do not exist in the original.

Ultimately, it is a matter of style, and preference of one over the other. I prefer a more literal translation that is true to the Japanese original. Others prefer the artistic approach. Some of the best haiku collections, such as The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (Dover Thrift Editions), present the same poem translated by several different people so you can see how the meaning can change depending on the interpretation.

To me, the greatest section of “Basho: The Complete Haiku”, which I wish had been the focus of the book rather than tucked into the back, is the appendix with all of Basho’s haiku in both their original kanji and in the Alphabet-characters romaji, along with a literal English translation and annotations. This is the true treasure trove, with the master’s art in his own words. To make this book perfect, and to take the emphasis off of Reichhold and put it back on Basho, the appendix wouldn’t have been tucked into the back but threaded throughout the front with each poem being presented in its original Japanese and accompanied by the annotations and both literal and artistic translations. As it is, I find myself reading the back of the book much more than the front, but even so it is an amazing addition to my library and I am happy to have all the poems collected at last.


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