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Sunday, Aug. 7, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

INTERNATIONAL HAIKU

A few words for Hiroshima

SEKAI HAIKU 2005 / WORLD HAIKU 2005, edited by World Haiku Association. Tokyo: Nishida-shoten, approx. 270 pp., 2004, 1,800 yen (unknown binding).
WATASHI NO HIROSHIMA HAIKU II / MY HAIKU OF HIROSHIMA II, by Yasuhiko Shigemoto. Hiroshima: Keisuisha, 99 pp., 2005, 857 yen (paper).

Reviewed by DAVID BURLEIGH The short poem known as haiku has spread to so many other countries now that it is worthwhile having organized exchanges. Some of the fruit of these exchanges is on display in "World Haiku 2005," a bilingual gathering of poetry and prose (and even pictures) prepared by the World Haiku Association that is intended to be the first of an annual series.

In fact, an earlier umbrella organization was set up some time ago in Japan to establish formal links with haiku societies in other countries (Haiku International Organization), and still exists. But the WHA, set up fairly recently, has a more active base, and what its members are trying to do is more interesting. As I write, a delegation from Japan is about to depart for a meeting with poets from other countries, to take place in Sofia, Bulgaria.

That this anthology is bilingual means that the text is given in both Japanese and English. It begins with a selection of poetry, three verses each from nearly 150 poets, and this section is followed by essays about haiku practice and poetics.

Rather than being placed on facing pages, the Japanese and English portions run from different ends of the book, meeting in the middle, where there are 10 pages of haiga, or haiku pictures. It is actually more than bilingual, since there is a scattering of verses in other European languages, including those written in Cyrillic.

Some of the most accomplished verses evoke the winter season, perhaps because the cold weather pushes us to clearer images and thought:

A rope hanging
from the depths
of the snowy sky

(Kei Fusegi)

I'll stick a red stamp
on my letter
to the withered field

(Junrou Inoue)

A winter egg --
put into words
it becomes heavy

(Seikojo Matsushita)

The three above poets were born before World War II, which may explain the maturity of their work.

Though there are skillfully written poems, in English, from America and India, for example, the most intriguing contributions are from Eastern Europe. It may be that they have not been well rendered into English, since some of them seem slight or sentimental in conception. Helpfully, though, there are also essays on the situation of haiku overseas, in Russia and Bulgaria for instance.

In Russia, we learn, the poets of the Silver Age made some response to haiku early last century, and that leading literary journals carry short poems in that form today. In Bulgaria the haiku has been taken up, if not exclusively, by the recent Nava group as part of their interest in short poetic forms: "All poets from the Nava circle have published traditional poetry as well . . . This short form was an integral part of Bulgarian poetry, not an alternative." So the reception has varied according to the country.

A Portuguese poet, Casimiro de Brito, and a Japanese one, Ban'ya Natsuishi, explain their individual work, while Philip Rowland offers a discussion of "surreal haiku," which are the subject of debate in British journals. The haiku was first promoted overseas as a kind of poetic sketch from life, while in its homeland it has frequently involved the imaginative faculty. The accommodation to this elsewhere is one of haiku's growing pains.

On the very first page of the anthology we find this verse:

In Hiroshima left behind
my 19-year-old
eyes

(Sagicho Aihara)

The birth date of the author makes it clear that he was in, or visited, Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing. Though unstated, plainly that is the intended meaning. There are two further verses, by other poets, that similarly refer to Hiroshima, besides another that more ambiguously refers to "August."

It is not strange that the memory of Hiroshima should linger in people's minds, nor that the name itself has become synonymous with the horror of the atomic bombing. Yasuhiko Shigemoto scarcely mentions the name of the city other than in the title of his new collection, "My Haiku of Hiroshima II," but what it stands for is the whole subject of this volume.

Shigemoto published a collection of his haiku on the atomic bombing to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the event 10 years ago (reviewed Sept. 26, 1995). Now he marks the 60th anniversary with an additional gathering of poems. The afterword, recounting his own experience with the tragedy in childhood, makes clear why we should not forget.

Many of Shigemoto's verses present the Atomic Bomb Dome in various weathers and seasons, often with beautiful effect:

In the A-Bomb Dome
there seems to be no place
for birds to build a nest

Now and then, the poet's tone is admonitory, even to himself:

Still being alive
seems to be a sin for me
Hiroshima Day

All the poems, printed bilingually one to each page, are new and additional to the previous collection. They have been well rendered into English, and it is certainly an admirable project.

One of the key elements in Japanese haiku is the seasonal reference, usually embodied in a word that evokes the time of composition. In contemporary haiku, which occasionally lack such references, this practice has come under strain, particularly since the haiku went overseas. The idea of an evocative keyword, not necessarily seasonal, has been suggested as an alternative. The name "Hiroshima" is a highly resonant example.

Contact the Haiku International Association at 7F, Azuma Building, 2-7, Ichigaya Tamachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0843 (www.haiku-hia.com), or the World Haiku Association at 3-16-11 Tsuruse-nishi, Saitama 354-0026 (www.worldhaiku.net).


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