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Monday, June 28, 2004


Japanese poetry loses a gentleman-scholar

NEW YORK -- Princeton professor Earl Miner, who died in April at age 77, was the one gentleman-scholar I had the honor of knowing.

In 1979, the year I became president of the Haiku Society of America, I invited Earl to speak to the group's annual meeting. The act required some daring. Whereas Princeton is an august institution of higher learning, the HSA (as the society is affectionately known by its members) at the time was a puny body, its membership fluctuating below 150. I even doubt that we were able to scrounge up enough money for his travel expense from Princeton to New York. But he graciously accepted the invitation. One happy thing was that the Japan Society, New York, in those days allowed us to use their facilities. Earl spoke in the auditorium.

I had not expected to head the HSA. A few years earlier, when asked to discuss haiku as a translator of modern, non-haiku poetry at one of its meetings, I had given a somewhat unflattering assessment of the genre: The form is too short to make it as a poem on its own; its origins suggest it requires a larger context, and so forth. An English major a dozen years earlier, I did not have a high regard for the ephemeral thing.

That year, though, Earl published "Japanese Linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences." Before then there were some attempts to explain renga, "linked poetry," but his was the first book to take this sequential form head on. The earlier efforts were either dismissive or misguided. Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850-1935), the great Victorian student of all things Japanese, had famously observed that the rules of renga are at once so minute and trivial that they are "puerile" and "absurd." Octavio Paz and three European poets simply took the notion of linking poems to produce "Renga, a Chain of Poems."

Renga, in any event, was the form from which haiku was born. So here was the chance for HSA members to learn the "the larger context" of their beloved form, in an authentic way.

In addition, in the singularly genealogical development of Japanese poetic forms, "Japanese Linked Poetry" was a logical followup to Earl's famous book with Robert Brower, "Japanese Court Poetry" (1961), which dealt with tanka, the mother of renga. The distracted English major that I was, I had bought and read it in Kyoto.

For many years afterward all I remembered from Earl's talk that day was his first encounter with haiku: a Japanese steel executive telling him, over sukiyaki, about a small poem about an old pond and a frog. So typical of a Japanese expounding to a foreigner on the mystery and profundity that can be achieved in such a short poem! As it turns out, Earl gave a careful exposition of renga, titled "Japanese Linked Poetry, Its Rules and Freedom." Cor van den Heuvel, author of "The Haiku Anthology" and my predecessor as HSA president, found the talk printed in "Frogpond," the magazine of the Haiku Society, and made a copy for me.

Earl's first encounter occurred in 1947 "at the redoubtable age of twenty" when he was "a civilian in military government in Nagoya." I wish I had asked him what his function was. The Princeton online obituary suggests he was at the time a student of Japanese at the University of Minnesota. But studying the language of a defeated nation soon after a horrendous war? After earning a B.A. in Japanese, the Princeton bulletin tells us, he went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in English, enabling him to encompass two distinctive literary fields.

His first book, in 1958, was called "The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature." His posthumous one will be called "Paradise Lost, 1668-1968: Three Centuries of Commentary."

"The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese" then asked me to review "Japanese Linked Poetry," or perhaps I was brash enough to propose the idea to its editor. Whichever the case, by then I must have been wearied of one-sided "reviews," especially of the academic variety: I proposed to do it in Q&A format. The editor, then the professor, agreed.

Again, all I had remembered from that "review" was Earl's expression, "You have a bee in your bonnet" -- until Amy Heinrich, director of the East Asian Library at Columbia University, promptly acquired a copy of it for me. Then I realized that my "questions" had been a series of protestations. These included one about his way of translating renga: repeating each of the three-line and two-line "stanzas" once, with occasional variations. To all that, Earl was courtesy incarnate. The "bee" flew in only when I remonstrated, "Both tanka and haiku are regarded as one-line poems in Japan. Then why translate them in five and three lines?" By then I was pushing for translating them in one line.

Earl remained scholarly in his stance. Some time afterward he sent me an academic paper whose author agreed with me on the matter of lineation of classical Japanese poetic forms, although he, of course, lambasted both Earl's translations and mine.

Earl recommended me for writing a new entry on haiku when the editors of "The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics" decided to update the tome. He had written the initial one, back in 1965. His position was a classic classicist's: "haiku is too reduced a form and grows too complexly out of its cultural background to be adaptable as a whole into Western languages" and actual haiku written in those languages are "almost invariably . . . trivial."

In 1994 the Japanese government decorated Earl with the Order of the Rising Sun. At his invitation I attended the ceremony at the official residence of the Japanese Consul General in New York. He looked frail.

Despite his classicist stance, Earl was happy when his interpretation and translation of Japanese literature affected poets. In his HSA talk a quarter century ago, he cited Richard E. Sherwin's sequential poem reproducing the format he devised. Sherwin must have been the first poet to do this. Today it is widely practiced. Among those I know outside the haiku world, Michael O'Brien and Maureen Owen have written such sequences. I regret I did not have a chance to show them to Earl.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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