A Haiku Primer and Sea Slugs

by Olivia Zhu

0f1707dfe44a29d53e4b320ce90b782cA month ago, I wrote about haikus that wended their way through the Internet and found me. Really, truly—I hadn’t gone looking for them, had read them casually, and thought I might forget them. “And yet, and yet…” Chiyo-ni’s and Issa’s haikus kept nagging at me, so I looked for the translations that spoke most to me and wrote about them. Their mark lingers still, though, and when I passed by a used copy of Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets from Bashō to Shiki in a bookstore, I had to pick it up.

Relatively speaking, it’s quite an old book on haiku. Published in 1958, it now appears to be out of print—so I really felt quite fortunate stumbling across as a clueless neophyte. It’s so old that inflation dictated I pay almost double the $1.45 that’s listed on the duck-decorated paperback cover, even in the book’s well-loved condition—still well worth it, of course. From what little I’ve read online, it seems likely that Henderson might have contributed to initial interest in haiku in America, as he helped found the Haiku Society of America and published some of the earliest English-language works on Japanese haiku.

As a primer, Henderson’s introduction provides a helpful but not overwhelming explanation of Japanese grammar and poetics, and he offers analysis of and selections from the most notable writers. Both of the haikus I wrote about last time happen to make an appearance in the slim volume. In the same gently assistive manner, Henderson provides quite a bit of background and interpretation for the first set of haikus in any given chapter, but then provides a set nearly triple that size for the reader’s exploration. He writes rather emphatically that he has “a very strong belief that too much explanation can take the pleasure out of any poetry.”

Really the only gripe one might have with the text is Henderson’s insistence on shoving rhymes onto the naturally unrhymed poems, which he himself recognizes as a position in need of defense. In short, he argues that his rhyming ought to be permissible because first, he likes rhyme. Second, he prefers structured verse. And thirdly, because haiku are so short, he wants to make it clear to the reader that they are poems instead of “an unfinished piece of prose.”

In retort, it seems to me that the first two points—as personal preferences—seem to make him an overreaching, overeager translator. The last point might have been valid in 1958, but perhaps due to Henderson’s work, the haiku form is far more recognizable in English-speaking countries. This flaw does not negate the fact the book is charming, and helpful, but it is only truly useful as a starting point. One ought to search elsewhere for more faithful translations, due to the rhyming reason alone.

Ah, but there are so many treasures in here nonetheless. For example, Henderson includes one he titles Enigma, by Kyorai:

Head or tail,
which is which, one can’t be sure—
sea snail!

Unfortunately, Henderson’s insistence on rhyming here changes the meaning quite a lot. A sea snail does clearly have both a head and a tail, but the word Kyorai originally used was namako, or sea cucumber, which does look rather headless and tailless.

That being said, doesn’t the poem present such a sweet picture of a slightly clueless marine denizen, rather lowly, rather vulnerable, but worthy of attention nonetheless? Chiyo-ni’s haiku is the epitome of a moment of quotidian longing, Issa’s that of poignancy in grief. But this—this snippet of a sea cucumber is full of good humor, of paying attention, extracting pleasure, and leaving the poor thing to continue its echinodermic existence.

(By the way, when I first read this haiku, I thought of the beautiful nudibranches, colorful sea slugs that can look like cows or sheep among much more vividly-hued options. When I tried to find the haiku later on when I didn’t have Henderson’s book at hand, I ended up discovering there is a huge tome of 900 translated Japanese haiku solely on the topic of sea slugs. The compiler and author, Robin D. Gill, has divided it into metaphors centered on different sea slug archetypes—who knew they even existed!—which I cannot help but assign individual bright nudibranch colors.)

All this to say, well, I hope to offer something a bit more insightful on the topic of haiku next time, or will have perhaps moved on to something else. But if not, I certainly don’t mind dwelling on the movements of sea cucumbers, or any of the other denizen’s of Henderson’s little collection.