Reading “The Essential Haiku” and “Extraordinary Zen Masters”

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa
edited by
Robert Hass
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have liked haiku since I was a teenager, but I can say that a more serious interest in the form was sparked by the 2004 collection The Haiku Year, in which a group that included Michael Stipe and Grant Lee Phillips agreed to write a haiku every day for a year; the book’s introduction was written by Steve Earle, another of my favorites. Though that’s an unlikely way to solidify one’s affinity for an Asian poetic form, that’s the way it happened. I’ve been reading and writing them for years, so this collection The Essential Haiku was a natural one for the ol’ wish list. The book contains a solid introduction by editor and poet Robert Hass and a brief biographical sketch of each poet. (The three poets are all Japanese, and their birth and death dates span the mid-seventeenth to the early-nineteenth centuries.) After each sketch is a healthy selection of that poet’s writings: poems, journals, etc., and the book ends with “Basho on Poetry,” an array of instructional advice. Of the three poets, I found myself going back to re-read the section on Issa, whose life and poetry I liked the most. I already had several collections of haiku but this one is a nice addition. It was published in 1994 by Harper Collins and priced reasonably at $17.99. 

Extraordinary Zen Masters:
A Maverick, A Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet 

by John Stevens
My rating:
 4 out of 5 stars

And reading that book prompted me to buy and read this one right after it. Though the three poets in this academic work are not the three in the other collection, it was the sparseness of the biographical sketches in that one that left me wanting more. Published in 2013 by Echo Point Books, Extraordinary Zen Masters by professor of Buddhist studies professor John Stevens offers biographies of Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan that run about fifty pages each. The sections contain through and well-researched accounts of the poets’ lives and include examples of their poetry, art, or calligraphy where appropriate. I’ll be honest, though: I was glad to be reading the content and subject matter, but the experience of reading this book was not stellar. The style is quite academic (dry) – I struggled to finish the middle section on Hakuin for that reason – but there is some balance to that dryness by including illustrations and poems. Perhaps this is a little snobby: I don’t like reading trade books whose pages are printed on white copy paper— it’s hard on my eyes, and it also feels cheap. (I also realized after I bought it that the book lists for $15.95 on the publisher’s website, but cost me about $25 on Amazon, and that irritated me.) Unlike the previous title, I can’t recommend this one, unless you just want to read an academic history about three Asian poets written by an American scholar-priest.

Read more:  Sky Above, Great Wind  •  Love Letter to the Earth  •  Short Essay: “Happy, Happy”

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