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A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku…

A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings (1960)

by Harold Stewart

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1033184,135 (3.29)1
Two-line Japanese poems translated into English, arranged by season, with Japanese paintings of a related genre and the author's "On haiku and haiga - essay."



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Harold Stewart collects, presents, anthologises, translates, and describes 320 Japanese Haiku, along with 33 Haiga/Haiku paintings in color. With Bibliography and Index.

The artistic genius of the Japanese touches perfection in little things. Carved ivories for the girdle (netsuke), metal-inlaid sword-guards (tsuba), dwarfed trees (bonsai), etc. Many of Japan's treasures are "enshrined within that most diminutive of poetic forms: the haiku." [117] The haiku is but 17 syllables, yet at least four major poets have devoted their whole lives to composing nothing else. Includes the works of Basho, Buson, Kikaku, Mogan, and the comical Jakushi, the autobiographical Ryokan, the child-like Onitsura, among others.

Includes color plates and examples of Haiga - a Japanese concept for simple often deliberately incomplete pictures combined with poetry, usually meaning haiku. In Basho's time, haiga meant a brushed ink drawing combined with calligraphy. The Tao and Zen concepts lie behind much of this expression. The author references R.H.Blyth's "Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics" as a lively and provocative revaluation of prose and verse from a Zen standpoint. It "exposes our spiritual bankruptcy and sweeps away much dead and pretentiously moribund writing". [127] The author concedes that Blyth's comparison "are odious and his incriminations misplaced" for his failure to distinguish a religious tradition from a metaphysics. ( )
  keylawk | Feb 25, 2014 |
Perhaps as much as the poetry of Walt Whitman or William Carlos Williams, the haiku of Japan taught me to redefine poetry: not in conventional patterns of rhythm, meter, and rhyme, but rather in imagery, juxtapositions, and condensed expression.

The book that first defined haiku for me and outlined its history was a little paperback: An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson (Doubleday Anchor, 1958). Nowadays, most people begin the definition with syllabics: a three-line poem, the first and last line of five syllables, the middle one of seven (5+7+5). Henderson does not; he emphasizes the nature of the poem itself: its suggestiveness, its imagery, its contrast, its condensation, its subtlety. Here are a few of his explicit defining statements:

(a) “In order to produce their effect, haiku writers make great use of what they call rensõ or association of ideas . . . .”

(b) Because of the prevalence of nature imagery in haiku, Henderson makes note of “a charge that has been advanced that haiku are more concerned with nature than with human affairs. Such a statement is ridiculous. Haiku are more concerned with human emotions than with human acts, and natural phenomenon are used to reflect human emotions.”

(c) “There is still another device which haiku-makers use to condense the expression of their thoughts. That is the omission of words which would be required in a grammatically formed sentence but which are not really needed to make the sense clear.”

Using these fundamental characteristics of haiku — suggestiveness, imagery, condensation —, I have come to think of haiku as the juxtaposition of images, briefly stated, suggesting human emotion, not a bad beginning definition of poetry

Henderson translates many examples from the great masters with particularly full chapters on the great Matsuo Bashõ in the seventeeth century and Taniguchi Buson in the eighteenth. His text centers around his own translations. Though he preserves the three-line form, regrettably he decides that such short poems in English should rhyme, hence he produces somewhat wooden translations. However, in a footnote he always provides the original with a literal translation.

However, the anthology of haiku that I am reviewing here — A Net of Fireflies, translated by Harold Stewart (Charles E. Tuttle, 1960) — abandons the three-line format but attempts to capture the sense of the poems in more natural English, albeit in rhyming couplets. Unfortunately, his translations tend to cuteness and simplicity; therefore, they lose the whole essence of the haiku.

However, in a fine essay, modestly printed with the notes at the end of the volume, Stewart deals with the topics of spirit and substance as well as form and technique. Of the spirit of haiku, he says, “What, at first sight, seems no more than sensuous perception of nature, acquires, as we read between the lines, an added dimension from the hidden depths of Sûnya, the teeming Abyss of Infinite Possibility.” The haiku, he says, is not so much a poem as “a quintessential condensed formula for a poetic experience.” The experience of the haiku requires the collaborative imagination of the reader: after a period of puzzlement, “quite suddenly the instantaneous lightning of Satori flashes forth.” The words of the poem imply far more than they state, and the readers’ responses may be different, or even multi-layered for the individual reader. The poetry is in the response, thanks to the suggestiveness of the words.

Stewart’s succinct comment on the form of the haiku is itself an adequate formal definition: “It is distinguished from prose only by its poetic diction, its melody of assonance and alliteration, often with onomatopoeia, and its division into three lines, so arranged as to have a count of five, seven, and five syllables respectively.” With just a bit of editing, one gets a perfectly clear characterization of the form of modern poetry in English: it is distinguished from prose only by its poetic language, its melody of assonance,alliteration, and consonance, and its division into lines.” Could one do any better determining the common elements shared by, say, William Carlos Williams, e e cummings, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, James Dickey, and Rita Dove?

I choose this anthology of haiku, not because of the amateurish translations, but because it is itself a masterpiece of bookmaking. Boxed, bound in linen, printed on double pages of fine paper, it is a collection of haiku and haiga, which the subtitle of the book designates as Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings. The haiga are simple paintings, appearing almost amateurish, or perhaps one should say primitive: a few simple lines, swashes of color, a recognizable scene or image but few details, and overall an impression of childlikeness. The painter whose works have been selected for this volume said in a postscript that “haiga should be drawn just as haiku are written: in a single breath, without thought or hesitation, and with sparing touches of the brush.” Or as another painter said, “The mystery of haiga lies in its clumsiness. If drawn with a vigorous spirit, a sublime beauty shows through the very gaucheness of the picture.” Usually, a haiku is inscribed on the haiga, but the painting does not necessarily, if fact usually does not, illustrate the haiku, but is a kind of parallel vision. To a modern viewer they look as if they combine pen-and-ink with watercolor, or occasionally charcoal. Actually, this is quite understandable, for the Chinese “ink,” or sumi, is not liquid and acid like Western inks, but solid and alkaline. “In a sumi drawing,” Stewart explains, “a few spontaneously skilful touches imply . . . the living movements of nature with which [the painter] is in contemplative union.”

Haiku, according to both Henderson and Stewart, always designate the season, for seasons in Japan are associated with human moods and expectations--expectations which, by the way, may be fulfilled, exchanged, shaded, or even inverted. Stewart clearly enjoys twists and, hence, chooses to translated these ironic verses into his rhyming couplets:

The little nightingale of buff and brown
Singing its first spring quaver—upside down!

On white plum-petals that were pure and sweet,
The nightingale now wipes its muddy feet.

The host said not a word. The guest was dumb.
And silent, too, the white chrysanthemum.

Ah, on the fallen leaves before my gate,
How far hs footsteps sound for whom I wait!

Another year departs: the bell is tolled.
—And I intended never to grow old.

Regrettably, Stewart's translations have lost the succinctness and obliqueness of original haiku; they are wordy, self-explanatory,esplicit, too interpretive, and artificial. But his essay and the design of his book capture the nobility of haiku.
  bfrank | Nov 25, 2007 |
This is a beautifully-constructed book (at least the "giftbook edition") -- an elegant cover and a wonderful collection of haiga (haiku illustrations). But I have to point out that the translation is about as bad as I can imagine -- the poems are selected from the best of Japanese haiku masters, but they are all translated into 2-line rhyming couplets and given titles. When titles are not in the original version, I think that adding them clearly conflicts with the minimalist intention of the original. I can't imagine a more intrusive and distracting style than to create poems which rhyme in only 2 lines, and the insistence on rhyming every 2-line poem leads to the overuse of trite and obvious rhymes.

The book also includes an interesting essay on haiku and haiga, where Stewart tries to justify his form of the translation, but it's clear that he has a total lack of appreciation for what makes something "poetic" in English. He seems to fail to understand what can be accomplished in free verse, and assumes that all "English" poetry must be based on strict rhyme and meter to be poetic, but translating Japanese haiku into rhymed couplets is about as absurd as translating English sonnets into 5-7-5 poems on the assumption that anything else would not be "Japanese poetry". His refusal to make a more direct translation, on the argument that such a translation wouldn't be 'a poem', suggests that he fails to appreciate that a deeper level of poetic value exists in the meaning, the minimalism, and the profound immediacy of the original haiku. ( )
  tombrinck | May 4, 2006 |
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