CAGE OF FIREFLIES: A BOOK REVIEW By Joshua Sellers

2009/10/03

On September 14, Mr. Joshua Sellers gave us his comment on my haiku in the article ‘Basho’s stay in Kisakata, Akita(Part 1)’.

Mt. Chokai

rising in white clouds

dragonflies below

白雲の鳥海山に蜻蛉飛ぶ

Hakuun no  choukaisan ni  tonbo tobu

He says in his comment, “This is a beautiful haiku. The contrast between the massive mountain and its stillness and the dragonflies darting about creates a truly beautiful image.”

  He also says in his e-mail, “Oh, I have a question for you…This only occurred to me today—there is a piece of music for shakuhachi(honkyoku) that is called ‘Akita Sugagaki’ (which translates as ‘reed fence’). I was curious to know if the ‘Akita’ mentioned in the title of music is the same as the town Akita?”

  Mr. Joshua Sellers enjoys playing the shakuhachi (尺八). His performance of the shakuhachi is shown on his homepage“Sketches From Life ( a haiku journal by Joshua Sellers) ”: http://haikuist.wordpress.com/.

joshua sellers pic

   I answered his question as follows:

 「琴古流本曲 秋田菅垣

琴古手帳によれば、秋田にて梅翁子から伝えられた曲と言われている。秋田地方に伝承された菅垣と理解されているが、詳細は不明。」

The note of the Kinko school says,“This piece of music was passed down in Akita district by the old shakuhachi player called ‘梅翁子 (Baioushi)’,’ Old Man Plum’, but the details are unknown.”

 This time Mr. Joshua Sellers has read the following book, ‘Lucien Stryk, Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Haiku Athens: Swallow Press, 1993’.

  And he has contributed his book review.

  First of all, we’d like to introduce him to you.

Mr. Joshua Sellers is a 39-year old musician and has been involved in various genres over the years. He is one half of the US/New Zealand rock duo, Joker and also records ambient music under the name of Murmur. After a very long hiatus from writing poetry and co-editing the (now-defunct) philosophy journal Heart Beats, he has returned to writing as a student of haiku. His blog, Sketches from Life is a journal recording his own explorations in writing. Josh currently lives in West Memphis, Arkansas.

  Next we post his book review.

Anyone seeking books of Japanese haiku in English will immediately notice that the majority of the books available are translations of Bashō, followed by anthologies that include only Bashō, Buson and Issa, “the Big Three” of haiku.  There are two things conspicuously missing・what about older haiku poets besides Bashō, Buson and Issa, and also: what about modern Japanese haiku? 

True, Bashō, Buson and Issa are important, indispensable poets.  There is good reason they are “the Big Three.”  Naturally, they outshone their contemporaries.  But there were other haiku poets of merit too.  I find it annoying that so many other poets are almost impossible to find (unless you are able to pay several hundred dollars for R.H. Blyth’s out-of-print four-volume Haiku!).  Why are there no translations of Sōgi, Kyorai, Onitsura and so many others?  Imagine searching everywhere for recordings of classical music, finding only Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, but no Handel, Brahms and Schubert.  Its puzzling. 

Equally puzzling is the lack of modern Japanese poets, even Shiki.  As far as I know, Burton Watson’s slim volume is the only book of Shiki’s haiku available in English.  Recently, I have come across Lucien Stryk’s wonderful anthology, Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese Haiku.  Sadly, even this books appears to be currently out-of-print. 

 Stryk reminds the reader that the tradition of hokku, later to be known as haiku, did not simply stop with “the Big Three,” but continued on its way into 20th century Japan.  It is for this reason that the title of Stryk’s book comes from the following haiku, by Kasho:

Into the cage of

fireflies, mostly dead,

I send a breath.

 I find the Stryk’s anthology lovely.  Lucien Stryk is an American poet in his own right and unsurprisingly, this works to his advantage.  Translation is a tricky task, especially with poetry.  To compound matters, haiku is made of very few words・there isn’t a lot of “wiggle room” to begin with. 

 It has been said many times that translation is a balancing act between the objective and the subjective: accurately communicating the written text but at the same time, conveying the feeling and resonance of the original poem.  Usually that balance is never quite met.  In the case of Cage of Fireflies, I think Stryk errs on the side of subjectivity.

 There is only one other English anthology of Japanese haiku I have found, Makoto Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku: An Anthology, published in 1974.  Ueda also has a lovely anthology of Japanese haiku by female poets, Far Beyond the Field, another rare contribution to Japanese haiku dedicated to poets other than “the Big Three.”  Comparing some of the poems with Ueda’s Modern Japanese Haiku confirms that Stryk may have taken some extra liberties with the Japanese text.  Ueda’s anthology also includes the original Japanese text, the Romanised text and a literal word-for-word translation.  For example, here is a haiku by Sōseki:

 肩に来て人懐かしや赤蜻蛉                                     夏目漱石

(kata ni kite  hito natsukashi ya  akatonbo)        (Natsume Soseki)

Red dragonfly

seeking company,

lands on my shoulder.

(Stryk, pg. 39)

It comes to my shoulder

longing for human company:

a red dragonfly.

(Ueda, pg. 46)

And here is the literal word-for-word (or character-by-character I should say!) rendering by Ueda:

 Shoulder / to / coming / person / longs / : / red-dragonfly

 Stryk obviously has taken a great liberty with the poem, placing the red dragonfly at the beginning of the haiku, rather than at the end, which is clearly how Sōseki wrote it in the Japanese.  The English equivalent of the kireji (“cutting word”) is absent.  The word order changes the perception of the moment as well.  In Stryk’s version, we see the dragonfly searching about and then landing on the shoulder.  It is a sharp image.  How much can it really be considered Sōseki’s poem I can’t say.

 In spite of this, I confess that I prefer Stryk’s translation to Ueda’s.  I love Ueda’s anthology, but I can’t help but wish his translations were less wordy・and this is what I find appealing about Cage of Fireflies: here, the haiku are quite spare.  This seems to be more in keeping with the Japanese haiku・they are extremely short, much shorter than what most haiku written in English are. 

 Here are just few lovely moments in Cage of Fireflies.  This is one by Hakusen:

 Nightover

sleeping children,

sound of the waves.

(pg. 44)

And this one by Rinka:

Butterflies gone,

how sharply blue

the sky.

(pg. 113)

And this one by Seishi, perhaps my favourite in this collection: 

 Dewy night,

blazing stars

I’ll live forever

(pg. 103)

Stryk’s anthology contains some “seasonless” haiku, an innovation characteristic of some modern haiku.  But one misleading thing about Cage of Fireflies is that he seems to have excluded those more radical poets who experimented with content and form.  The only notable exception is Kaneko Tōta, with his mention of motorcycles, slums and steel mills.  Not that I personally am really attracted to many of those more modern innovations myself, but admittedly it doesn’t reveal the diversity of modern Japanese haiku as Ueda’s anthology, which goes so far as to include four- and five-line haiku. 

 Nevertheless, Lucien Stryk’s Cage of Fireflies is a joy to read and gives readers in English a rare glimpse into modern Japanese haiku.  I’m very pleased to add it to my haiku library. 

~ Joshua Sellers

PS

Mr. Joshua Sellers gives us his comment, saying that he wants to add that he has discovered that Lucien Stryk’s book is actually still available directly through the publisher at the following link: http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Cage+of+Fireflies

 Posted  by Hidenori  Hiruta

 

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3 Responses to “CAGE OF FIREFLIES: A BOOK REVIEW By Joshua Sellers”


  1. […] October 2009 by Ikiru Hidenori Hiruta of the Akita International Haiku Network has graciously published my book review of Lucien Stryk’s Cage of Fireflies: Modern Japanese […]

  2. Ikiru Says:

    Thank you, Hiruta-san for posting this on Akita International’s blog.

    I want to add that I have discovered that Lucien Stryk’s book is actually still available directly through the publisher at the following link:

    http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Cage+of+Fireflies

    Once again, thank you. 🙂

    ~ josh


  3. […] November 2009 by Ikiru The following book review was originally published at the Akita International Haiku Network on 3 October […]

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