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BOOK REVIEW: On Love and Barley by Matsuo Bashō

On Love and Barley: Haiku of BashoOn Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a short collection of English translations of the haiku poetry of Matsuo Bashō. Bashō is one of the seminal figures in Japanese literature, and was a fascinating person. Living in 17th century Japan, his hometown was Iga-Ueno (a city whose other claim to fame was being one of two centers of medieval black-ops warriors known as ninja,) but he was also an ardent traveler and Zen Buddhist. One will note that many of his poems are about traveling.

The name of the collection is drawn from one of the poems (labeled “152” in this collection) that reads: “girl cat, so thin on love and barley”

Translating poetry is one of the hardest language tasks imaginable—and translating haiku to English is the hardest of the hard. This is because Japanese is grammatically sparse and the number of beats per syllable is limited, while English… not so much. Therefore, if one literally translates, not only would one likely get circa-2000 Babel Fish gibberish, the Zen simplicity vanishes. One has to appreciate any haiku to English translation that gets some of the feel of haiku right while still conveying meaning. This collection does a nice job in many cases, and maybe does it as well as can be expected.

The original poems [i.e. the Japanese] aren’t included. This may not seem like an issue to a reader who doesn’t know Japanese, but it can be nice to read the original poem phonetically (Japanese is a very phonetic language—unlike English.) The sound of a poem can be as evocative as its meaning. Some haiku translations offer three versions of the poem (i.e. the Japanese characters [useful only for Japanese readers], a Romanized spelling of the Japanese poem, and the translated poem), but—except for some of the poems referenced in the introduction—this one only gives the translation.

There is a substantial introduction that both gives one insight into Bashō as a person and poet, and puts his haiku into a broader context. There are also some end-notes for many of the poems to make sense of words and phrases that may not make sense to a contemporary English reader. There are some drawings that aren’t necessary, but they don’t hurt either, making a nice way to break up the collection. The book consists of about 50 pages of poems (with 5 haiku / page, or 250+ poems), and is less than 100 pages in total.

I would recommend this collection for poetry lovers. While poetry translations can be perilous, they can also offer new insight–even if one has read multiple translations of the same poem in the past.

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