[Review] The Penguin Book of Haiku by Adam L Kern

3 Things About This Book
| Anthology of Classical Japanese Haiku (16th to 19th centuries) | Informative with Brief Commentary by Translator | Evolution of Haiku from Ribald to Refined |

The Penguin Book of Haiku by Adam L Kern
Published: 2018 by Penguin Classics
Genre(s): Asian Literature, Poetry
Book Depository

steady spring rains…
harusame ya
doubtlessly growing dark,
kurenan to shite
this day lingers on
kyō mo ari
– Buson , page 333

If you think haiku is all nature and pretty imagery as I did, this book will be a rather rude awakening because early haikus aren’t the picture of innocence, elegance and refinement as they are today.

Translated and edited by Adam L Kern, The Penguin Book of Haiku contains haikus by well-known and lesser-known poets, plus brief commentary and well-researched information regarding them. There are many with gorgeous imagery, providing us frozen glimpses of nature’s beauty, but as alluded to earlier, even greater in number are haikus that are vulgar and cheeky. The evolution of haiku from the olden days to more contemporary times was fun to see as well.

however sublime,
ikani ikani
even the blossoms cannot compare:
hana mo koyoi no
tonight’s white moon
tsuki ichirin
– Sōin , page 343

While I enjoyed interpreting the many potential meanings (aside from the obvious) of the haikus on my own based, I appreciated the explanations of poetic intents and historical contexts included. Thus, I think that this book would’ve been better had the layout of its content been done more thoughtfully. On one hand, I understand that the haikus are linked to each other in some ways as they act as responses to the one before. But, after 50 pages, it got pretty tedious to go back and forth between the haikus and the brief commentaries. It might’ve been better to put the commentary in footnotes or interweave it with the original haikus instead of separating it the way it is. I also wished that we got the haiku in their original Japanese alphabets too, instead of just the romaji.

All that aside, I find some of the translations rigid or flat. They aren’t as poetic or creative as the other translated ones I’m used to reading, but I assume that they’re more linguistically accurate. Nevertheless, if you like poems with good flow and rhythm, you might not enjoy this collection as much. But, if you can look past that and simply wish to dive deeper into classical Japanese haikus, give The Penguin Book of Haiku a try!



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