Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Pocket Haiku: Sam Hamill

Back in 2011 at the Haiku North America Conference in Seattle, poet Jerry Ball addressed a large roomful of haiku poets, practitioners, and scholars and set forth a challenge: he would present a series of quality haiku and we should determine the one element they all had in common. 

He read poem after poem after poem and the assembled audience puzzled over their commonality, themes, philosophy, subjects, bent, and allusiveness to no avail. Person after person suggested possible connections without any luck.

Turned out that Mr. Ball was at once having a bit of fun and demonstrating a valid, if decidedly unpopular concept: haiku written in English in the 5/7/5 form.

Form vs content: the eternal battle in haiku, in poetry generally, in philosophy, and, yes, in life.

Mr. Ball's demonstration, as intended, gave everyone in the room something to think about.

Sam Hamill is a well-known poet, translator and activist who has collected together in The Pocket Haiku some 200 plus of his translations of classic haiku that have long been revered by readers, fellow poets, and critics alike. As the name implies, the book is small: 3 x 4.75 inches. At this size it fits in nearly any pocket you might have, giving you the ability to carry with you the core canon of classic haiku without ever having to charge a battery or power up 'the source.'

One remarkable aspect of these translations is their general adherence to the 5/7/5 form as delineated above. There is much to be said for the work of translators such as Lucien Styrk and Robert Hass and their use of a much briefer approach in their translations, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with Hamill's approach. 

Here's a poem by Bashō, which I've probably read in any number of collections that I have no memory of. Hamill's translation is a resonant, singular work:

Come out to view
the truth of flowers blooming
in poverty 

This rendition resonates in an at once very modern and a very classical way. In this next poem, the deep truth of humanness is quietly revealed:

utter aloneness -
another great pleasure
in autumn twilight

Perhaps this is less than modern yet all the more true for that. One can feel the irony cut both ways: aloneness is thought of as alienation, yet aloneness is the very thing that may unite us all, the essence of who we are. The oneness of all things is writ large in this compact gem.

All the wonderful Issa ku are represented here. Personally, the one that is fresh and new in Mr. Hamill's rendition is:

Just to say the word
home, that one word alone
so pleasantly cool

The poet here is engaged in a full tilt sensory way. It is not often that sound and touch are the senses that connect in a synesthiesiac manner. In this poem, the connection is resonant in a deep, abiding way. 

A special delight of this collection is that, beyond the three classic haiku poets, there is a small collection of "Other Poets" of the classical school. Here, there are some less familiar gems, as in this anonymous haiku:

To learn how to die
watch cherry blossoms, observe

Here is the connection to nature, the Buddha's noble truth in action. And the deep truth of this poem, and the form itself, is easily confirmed when one thinks how the great haiku master, Shiki, spent his final years.

As I do with a great majority of books I read, I left the introduction to last. As a final example from this exemplary collection, I'll leave you with an Onitsura poem that I was happy to see Mr. Hamill chose to highlight in his intro:

True obedience:
silently the flower speaks
to the inner ear
This is a collection to go through again and again, as I've done and will continue to do. Whether at the bus stop, on lunch break, waiting on an appointment, concentrating full bore, I find the overall approach and execution, as in the works of Bashō and Issa, as instructive on many levels. 

For Bashō there was the Way of Haiku, for Issa Pure Land Buddhism. For Sam Hamill, in his capacity of translator in this volume, there is the task to communicate the essence and the resonance of classic haiku, its origin, its philosophy, its execution ... 

... and, its all-important universal message. And he has done just that.

This book belongs in the collection, and pocket, of every haiku aficionado. It can be purchased directly from the publisher, Shambhala, or your favorite independent bookseller. You won't regret it.


PS  Click to learn how to contribute to Wednesday Haiku   


Michael Dylan Welch said...

Nice review, Don. Interesting that only one of the five translations you quote is 5-7-5. Indeed, I don't think Hamill is slavish about that syllable count, although his translations do tend to be longer than most other translators.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks so much, Michael. As you point out Sam is not slavish on his syllable count - the majority here seem to fall in the 16 to 17 syllable category (admittedly a small sample, indeed) indicating, I think, a dedication to fully getting the sense right, without too much or too little. Looking back over this fine collection entire, it would seem the vast majority are in the 16 to 17 syllable category, so you are right, Sam's translations tend to be longer.

His introduction talks about the form in depth and is well worth the read for those who haven't had a chance. As always, this is a topic haiku aficionados never seem to tire of, including myself, of course.

Content over form seems to me to be the best rule, with deep respect to the form as an integral part of the process.

Thanks as always,


P K Padhy said...

One of the beautiful review articles recently I have read. The essence of haiku lies in the diligence of fragrance of flower, simplicity of flow of river, spread of leaves with gentleness of the trees, calmness of clouds and reflection of soothing of shadow. Nature is supreme.The cited examples of haiku evolve around aesthetic supremacy of expression.Thank you Don for your endeavour.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


A deep bow ...