Book Review – The Heart of Haiku

I have just finished reading this treasure which I found on Kindle for 99p. The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield, is a tiny book that you cannot afford to miss. If you have any love for poetry, zen, words, nature, or beauty, you will delight in this work.

Jane Hirshfield is a well known American poet and the author of  several collections of poetry and notably a collection of essays entitled:  Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

The Heart of Haiku brings us a brief history of Haiku, Renga and Tanka, how they first came to be written, which is interesting in itself. I particularly like the way the author compares the origins of haiku and its fellow forms, with today’s online gaming and other interactive media.

The larger part of the book focuses on the life and work of the 17th century Japanese poet known as Matsuo Basho. The book opens with Matsuo Bashō’s own words on poetry :

In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orfices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of a court, and at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to be a scholar, but it was prevented from either because of its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore, it hangs on to it more or less blindly.

Words taken from: Journal of a Travel-Worn Satchel by Matsuo Bashō

Hirshfield’s writing is a joy to read, and with this subject is would be hard for her to go wrong.  As well as a fascinating insight into the life of the poet, there are some entertaining stories of some of his poems and how they came to be written.The book is only 29 pages in length, I really don’t want to say much more, other than read it. I will leave you with one of my favourite Bashō poems. This one I particularly like, because he wrote it inside his straw hat, that was his roof while he traveled. He walked in the shelter of his own words.

 under this world’s long rains

here passes

poetry’s makeshift shelter

When I think of this ragged poet, wandering the roads of 17th century Japan, wearing these words in the brim of his hat, I feel total pure love.  A 21st century tweet really doesn’t have the power to make me feel like that…