recommended / HAIKU AS LIFE

Haiku as Life: A Kaneko Tohta Omnibus

-Essays, an Interview, Commentary and Selected Haiku in Translation-

translated by Richard Gilbert, Ito Yuki, David Ostman, Masahiro Hori, Koun Franz, Tracy Franz, Kanamitsu Takeyoshi

Red Moon Press, 2019 / $35

This omnibus contains Kaneko Tohta’s poems starting in 1937, when he was 18, up to his passing in 2018 at age 98. Born in 1919, it seems fair to say that his work in many ways reflects what haiku was in Japan in its first century as “haiku,” a stand alone poem (named and conceptualized by Masaoka Shiki in 1894).

Besides the lifetime of poems (many of which, at least in translation, display a range of confessional rawness, beauty, evocativeness, and surrealism), the book offers illuminating essays, an interview, and commentary.

In their original Japanese, which the book includes, all the haiku are written in a single line. In English, the translation group presents them with a deep knowledge and appreciation of 20th and 21st century poetry in English as well as the range with which haiku (or ku, or minimalist poems) have, and are, being written in English: one line (monoku), 2 lines, the traditional English-language 3 lines aligned-left, 4 and 5 lines—each, at times, also playfully, spatially experimented with. As Hiroaki Sato notes in a review of an earlier, partial version of this omnibus for Modern Haiku, Gilbert’s justification of “this variegated approach” is the West’s “history of short-form poetics (Imagism, Objectivism, Language Poetry, etc.).” Sato importantly points out that “Kaneko apparently has not followed any of them,” however, and “never stepped outside the monolinear form and used no interlinear space, no punctuation, before or since.” So the group’s approach to presenting the poems is novel and refreshing in a sense, but also entirely inaccurate in another. An interesting conundrum. Since the poems are there in their original, untouched forms, and Gilbert’s open and purposeful about their choices, the approach, to me, seems original and thought-provoking.

One of my favorite things about the book was how Tohta’s comments inspired me to reread (and therefore have a new appreciation and understanding of) the poetry of Issa—in particular Makoto Ueda’s book Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, as well as David G. Lanoue’s extensive translations of Issa’s poems. This quote did it:

“. . . [Issa] possessed a raw perception of living beings. And it is in coming to recognize this perception that I have come to realize Issa’s sensitivity as something tremendous: the raw, living appearance of a genuine human being.”

And also this, following it:

“There are those who accumulate desires, who seize markets and even wage wars—I would like to force them to read Issa’s haiku. If they could understand this gentleness, this world of sensitivity in which living beings feel as living beings, then perhaps their lust for power might diminish, might be made to decrease. This is my small wish.”

If you are at all interested in Japanese haiku, I would think this book is a must have.



in the chilled ocean

a human song

—Kaneko Tohta (1971)