On Haiku

Hiroaki Sato. New Directions, $19.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2741-4
In this collection of essays and talks from the past 25 years, translator and critic Sato (Snow in a Silver Bowl) exhaustively, and sometimes exhaustingly, tells all about haiku. Addressing the historical tradition, poetic form, and craft of haiku, the essays also perform close readings of specific examples, such as the celebrated 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho’s frog haiku, of which Sato once collected 140 different English translations. Roving further afield, Sato uses haiku to illuminate some of the difficulties encountered in Japanese-to-English translation (such as the absence of a Japanese equivalent to English’s plural s.) At the book’s most rewarding, it situates haiku as part of a larger story, explaining how the modern conception of haiku as a tiny, enigmatically philosophical poem represents a strange cropping of the original Japanese form, which served merely as the brief opening to a much longer poem composed as part of elaborate court rituals, and often incorporated humor and in-jokes. But many of the best insights are recycled across the essays, since they weren’t originally written to be read in one collection, and the prose is prone to distracting tangents. Individually, the essays are fascinating, reflecting Sato’s unimpeachable expertise in his subject. Unfortunately, read as a whole, they verge on the unwieldy and redundant. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 09/24/2018
Release date: 10/30/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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