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The Art of Haiku

This uncommon book gives readers a chance to experience haiku both visually and textually. 

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The Art of Haiku:
Its History Through Poems and Paintings By Japanese Masters
Shambhala
352 pp.

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There is hardly a schoolchild who is not familiar with haiku, the Japanese art of the tiny poem, constructed out of three lines of 5-7-5 syllables and traditionally evoking images from nature. But while an understanding of haiku is often left at that, its legacy in art and literature is decidedly more complex. In The Art of Haiku, Stephen Addiss illuminates how haiku evolved in the hands of its masters, stretching from the eighth century to the 12th. He purposefully juxtaposes the well-known poetic form with its less famed artistic counterparts: paintings, called haiga, and calligraphy. Fully formed haiku was meant to be experienced both visually and textually. This uncommon book gives us the chance to do just that.

Addiss is the right man to author “The Art of Haiku.” He is not only a leading haiku scholar, but also a practicing artist who has exhibited ink paintings and calligraphy around the world. He translates from Japanese, and has a lengthy list of publications. Fittingly, as haiku has its roots in song, Addiss traveled the world as part of the folk music duo Addiss & Crofut. He studied music at Harvard University and, with composer John Cage, at the New School in New York. He didn’t begin his graduate work on East Asia until he was in his late thirties.

Fascinating as Addiss himself is, he keeps out of the spotlight in “The Art of Haiku.” The book is a steady narration on the emergence of haiku, beginning with the courtly tradition of tanka (five-line poems – or songs – of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables) and evolving into new forms, including haiga, haikai (comic verse), and renga, where two or more poets go back and forth to create a chain of linked tanka, shaped by a range of curious rules. “Chinese-derived words were frowned upon, but seasonal references should be included in roughly half the segments […],” Addiss informs us. Some words could only appear once in a thousand verses, including the words for demon, tiger, dragon, and woman.

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