Friday, August 20, 2010

To Walk in Seasons: William Howard Cohen

Another older book I've read recently to prepare for the fall haiku session is To Walk in Seasons: an Introduction to Haiku, by William Howard Cohen.  It first came out in 1972 as part of the wave of all things Eastern introduced with the counterculture changes of the 60's.   It was published by Charles E. Tuttle Company, a publisher largely responsible for some of the great Japanese poetry books (as well as books on all aspects of Japanese culture) that have been introduced to Western readers.   Like One Hundred Famous Haiku, which I looked at in a previous post, To Walk in Seasons is an older book and so many of the innovations in rendering haiku we take for granted today had yet to be realized.  Cohen does these renderings himself, without slavishly adhering to the 5/7/5 form that was still common at that time.

Cohen, a poet himself who "won the title of United States Olympic Poet" representing the US in Mexico City in 1968, notes that his method of translation was "to study all the available translations I could in English then make my own version."  It is not clear if he knew the Japanese language, though he studied Far Eastern philosophy, literature and art at the University of Florida and traveled to Japan.  He particularly acknowledges R. H. Blythe and Harold Henderson and his brief introduction to haiku is clear, concise, and right-headed enough that I've found it useful for my own intro for this fall's course.

Of the 50 pages of translations (with up to 4 ku per page), I did not find a large amount that grabbed me and hung on.  However, the ones that did are quite striking.  I marked 10 for a further look-see.  Some are close enough to other versions to be hardly distinguishable.  Still, the poems themselves are the thing and here they are:

Under the cherry shower
water down the mountain
turning stones to songs.

I sit like Buddha
but the mosquitoes don't recognize
my Nirvana.

These perfect morning-glories!
The faces of men are always
a little off.

One man
And one fly
waiting in a large room.


The stone gods vanished -
only the dead leaves kneeling
on this temple stoop.

How many flowers
are blossoming in the mind
when the cherry blooms.

The rain is falling
but the hollyhock
still points to the sun.

Even when the heart
is slowly dying
the flowers still bloom.

On the edge of the stream,
not knowing its name,
this weed flowers.

When the world blossoms
it can never be put back.
How the petals fall!

The first poem by Onitsura is simply beautiful, with a visual essence reminiscent of Buson, whose poems, though present in the anthology, didn't strike me in Cohen's renditions.  In this one, though the water turning stones to song catch the attention, but cherry petals transform it into a fine haiku.

Oemura's "I sit like the Buddha" has the Zen quality which is at once humorous and yet literal.  I think of some of Issa's poems about mosquitoes and fleas - Issa imagines sending a flea to its next incarnation, Oemura senses that the reverse will not be true.

Or maybe it will.

The next two Issa poems are familiar in various renditions, especially the 2nd one.  I think Cohen has nailed both of these; certainly the man, the room, and the fly is a tough one to screw up.   For me, however, "These perfect morning-glories!" is sublime, probably my favorite ku in this collection.  It captures a moment of recognition, of placing human beings in the natural world, that one comes upon in life almost as a surprise; truly a satori-like moment.  I've spoken to a some people about experiencing this type of thing.  For a few weeks many years back, I had the experience, not a conscious conjuring, of seeing peoples faces as visages of different types of animals: squirrels, monkeys, dogs etc.  It was quite uncanny, more than a little unsettling, slightly surreal, and ultimately, well, numinous, really.  This feels akin to that kind of moment, captured by Issa and done perfectly by Cohen.

The next 3 poems by Bashō are very different than those I've seen in the past, resulting in what feels like almost completely different poems.  They illustrate how different translations present the reader a slightly different angle each time and how, the more translations of a particular poem one reads, the fuller the portrait becomes.  Really, these versions endear Bashō to me in a way he hasn't been before and I am thankful for them.  The first gives a holistic view of the world, seen possibly through a sort of homage to the old religion of Japan, Shinto - I bring no expertise here, only my recent reading of many of the seminal volumes on haiku.  Whether the specificity of the culture references are lost on Western readers matters not, except to the purist; for some of these poems to break through all these obstacles of time and culture proves their true universality and worth.  "The stone gods vanished" is certainly one of those poems.

"How many flowers" - well, did I say "These perfect morning-glories!" was my favorite here?  Well, see, I've lied - and they say never trust the poet, never mind that: never trust the reader.  Bashō here literally takes the poem and nature to their place of conception, the mind itself.  I don't recall this poem in other versions and so I suspect Cohen has done something radical here and possibly violated some basic translating precepts.  Fortunately, all to great effect.  What's captured perfectly is the moment so important each spring in Japanese culture, the blossoming of the cherry tree.  Yet Bashō takes that current, living moment and shows how the mind projects it in such a way as to allude to other flowers blossoming, perhaps the memories of past springs blossoming in the mind.  Beautiful.

I believe I recognize the hollyhock poem; it usually is trasnslated with the narrator walking up a hill, noticing the hollyhock on the side of the path pointing toward the sun even though its raining.  Here is Jane Reichhold's translation from a past post:

path of the sun
the hollyhock leans into
early summer rain

The Reichhold translation, too varies from some other standard translations, the path here becoming the sun's path rather than the path the hiker is on.  I believe the variation in both these poems is, indeed, to good effect, again providing the reader with another way into Bashō's mind and intent.

The next Issa poem, "Even when the heart," is another beauty, one I'm either unfamiliar with altogether (which wouldn't be surprising since he composed some 20,000 poems) or which is translated in such a way that I don't recall any other versions.   As with so many Issa poems it at once contains so large a sorrow and so large a joy that it seems impossible that so much may be encompassed so tiny a work.  This is why he is called Master around here.

Cohen's translation of the Chiun poem is subtle and ambiguous.  I take it to mean that both the weed itself and the viewer don't know the weed's name; the first conveys an important Buddhist philosophical precept and the second the all important humor that should be brought to this world of sorrow.  Woe is a world without laughter.  The ambiguity of the 2nd line, "not knowing its name," functions as a sort of gate that swings both ways.  This type of ambiguity, along with punning, often is largely lost in translation and, so, is marvelously evoked here.

Finally, Teitoku's haiku is another which seems to incorporate the entire world and how to feel about it.  It is indeed recognizing a moment of great sorrow without, perhaps, suggesting that the world will blossom again.  Still, being in the present tense, one can hardly limit future vision.  It is a lovely poem of change, really, because, though there is sorrow, there is such beauty in how the petals fall, accentuated by the exclamation appended by Cohen, along with the emphasis on the "how" of the falling petals rather than the fact of their falling.

The prefatory material to this collection by Cohen is quite good, a nice succinct summary, thorough without being overwhelming, about the history of haiku and the elements considered important in its composition and appreciation. It is well worth a reading since, no doubt, different poems will strike other readers in unexpected ways.


The featured poem this week comes from Lilliput Review #138, May 2004.   It seems to me that this piece by Jen Besemer addresses something I've touched upon above, in archetypal way, if you will.  See what you think.

stone is skin.
lips from bridges
and tongues escape.  the strings
and tails of their fetters
fall.  Walk to the wall
of a face.  walk to the edge &
peer out.
Jen Besemer 

a cuckoo--
the bridge beggar
listens too
translated by David G. Lanoue


PS  Get two free issues           Get two more free issues


Charles Gramlich said...

Turning stones to songs." That single line is worth so much.

Ed Baker said...

Besemer cityself

po em really GRABBED my "me" !

"stone is skin
peer out."

all of the "stuff" in this post
"grabbed" me...

I could
certainly continue
along these lines
however the

full moon
from a behind a cloud
is winking at me

she AND Stone Girl
willy nilly

come and go
whether or not
I am ready

pee est

Ed Baker said...

my copy just here hard back brand new and with the original dust-jacket
also brand new...

1972 First printing Tuttle

printed in Japan... 1972!!

on the rear dust jacket leaf/fold a Cohen poem
"from a haiku cycle based on the title of this volume.":

To walk in seasons
is to discover what's inside
a split instant

To walk in seasons;
passing through a dry gate
into a rainstorm

To walk in seasons -
is to wake and
find you really are.

(first stanza not correctly formatted)

also in: New Directions 34
An International Anthology
of Prose and Poetry 1977


included some Robert Duncan lots of VOU "stuff" and 15 Cid 'shorties' that I've never seen and some James Purdy and lots of other 'stuff'

here is first CC piece..1977!


the rain. The
task of the

poet keeps
coming down
in buckets.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Ed, wow, that arrived mighty quick. All I have here is a paltry new paperback copy, but the poems seem to be the same. I do hope you enjoy the collection.

I have a few of those New Direction volumes around here. No idea where or how filed. I like the Cid poem - never saw that one before.

Greg Schwartz said...

thanks for the heads up about that book... never heard of it before but it sounds kind of neat. i really like that "stone gods" translation.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Greg, that "stone gods" haiku does have an extra dimension. I like it very much.

Oleg K. said...

William Howard Cohen's book was one of my first haiku books. I remember having purchased it in a Boston bookstore and reading it on the bus all the way up to Swampscott where I was staying during my week there. Until now I've never heard (or seen) it mentioned.

Cohen's take on the poems is indeed interesting - I think the "Splash!" he adds to Basho's pond ku is a cute way to introduce beginners to the different ways haiku can be translated as well as the immediacy of the form.

Thanks for highlighting the book!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I initially came across "To Walk in Seasons" through my reading, got it out at the library, read it, purchased a copy, and read it again. Cohen brings a different approach, a sort of combination of the old school, having been written in '72, and a very individual approach - his personality shows through without being intrusive.

Glad you liked the overview. I remember the pond haiku was very different. I'll have to go back and take a look.


Theresa Williams said...

I so agree about that haiku by Onitsura. Beautiful.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks so much, Theresa.