“The Penguin Book of Haiku”, translated by Adam L Kern

The Penguin Book of Haiku, Adam L Kern (trans) (Penguin, May 2018) The Penguin Book of Haiku, Adam L Kern (trans) (Penguin, May 2018)

How many readers of this book will have been subjected to teachers who made them write bad haiku in school? I count myself lucky to have attended a school where such torture didn’t take place, although I am assured that some students actually enjoy the exercise.

When I opened this book, however, I learned several things about haiku that I didn’t know; most importantly, for example, they were not simply seventeen-syllable poems about frogs jumping into ponds and other similarly scintillating subjects, but were of varying length, often written in a series by several poets dilating on a theme or phrase, and that they could also be vulgar, bawdy or even downright obscene. Sometimes they may be seen accompanying erotic and often amusing illustrations known as shunga, where large hairy penises encounter equally large hairy vulvas. Kern includes a number of these in the book, including one hilarious example where a couple is being observed by a rather disapproving snowman and the man has managed to keep enough clothes on to protect his more tender parts from the cold. The woman, it seems, has not.

This humorous aspect of the book demonstrates one of the differences between this new anthology and others; Adam Kern doesn’t hesitate to include examples of haiku which most readers haven’t encountered, and the illustrations, which also include portraits of some of the poets, just make the book more interesting. If anyone takes offence, there are hundreds of examples of less “risqué” material for those readers; Kern’s objective is to show just how versatile a form haiku is, and that it was quite often written by people who were more likely familiar with the Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo than with isolated straw huts, frog ponds or the echoing halls of the imperial court. We find out that haiku was part of the popular culture of Japan almost as much as it was of the more refined culture of writers like Bashō.

It was, it turns out, the distinguished late 19th-century poet, Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who “invented” the modern haiku, which is in fact just one part in a series of linked verses extracted from its original context and made to stand alone. Shiki, it turns out, also “extracted” seventeen-syllable haiku from Matsuo Bashō (1644-1695), the man typically and erroneously believed to have been the father of the modern haiku, one of which included his famous (or notorious) lines on the frog jumping into a pond. Kern tells us that Shiki achieved his objective by “misrepresenting Bashō’s verse as a Western-style standalone poem”, an aspect of haiku rarely seen before the end of the 18th century, but which has now spread worldwide.

As Kern explains, this spread is rather paradoxical; “on the one hand,” he tells us, “it is this exclusive Japaneseness that serves as the touchstone by which the haiku derives its authenticity,” but also it has an “accessibility and universality”, which we may say that most verse-forms do not have, except perhaps the sonnet or limerick. There are not too many children, one hopes, being made to write Pindaric odes or epyllions.

The “Japaneseness” of haiku (which, by the way, probably developed from Chinese antecedents) Kern speaks about includes a suspension of the writer’s ego or personality (very welcome when one considers most contemporary poetry), objective description and ephemerality, this last based on the Buddhist truism that nothing lasts forever. It was these notions which inspired the turn-of-the-century movement known as Imagism, where the likes of TE Hulme, Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolittle and others discovered Japanese verse-forms and for a few brief years liberated English poetry from the ever-present intrusive “I.” The poet Yonejiro Noguchi was perhaps the first Japanese to write haiku in English.


This book contains about one thousand haiku, many of which are presented authentically by Kern in their older linked forms, so readers can see what they looked like before Shiki (and others) turned them into what we know as haiku today.

The detailed and very accessible introductory essay which Kern provides gives us all the information we need to know about the transformation and the history of the form, its use by the four great “Haiku Masters”, namely Bashō, Yosa Buson (1716-1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) and Shiki himself. All of these have material included in the book, alongside the work of lesser-known writers, and Kern includes a substantial scholarly commentary on each work, giving information about its author, its form, and how the poems are structured.

Far from being dry and academic, Kern’s commentary contains a wealth of analysis and explication written in lively and accessible language, giving the reader a chance to learn a great deal about the technique of the poetry and the way language is used to express various levels of thought and feeling. For example, explaining a poem by Buson,


a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.
ichigo no
kari na hayama ni
tsuki no insu


Kern shows us that Buson is doing


an imaginative double take (mitate) of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku.


To do this, the poet has taken “the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy.” This explication shows the reader clearly that Buson is not merely describing the scene, but simultaneously linking it with a visible, artistic representation of itself, and taking (in Japanese) only nine words to do it, in English thirteen! Now, we don’t necessarily need to know this to enjoy the poem’s surface, but Kern allows us to see it the way a Japanese reader with some literary knowledge would have seen it, and we wonder at how much can be crammed into such a compact space. It’s difficult enough to write a fourteen-line sonnet, but look what Buson can do in nine words!


One comes away from this book with a healthy respect for the range and scope of haiku, not to mention the differences in tone and content. The bawdy and obscene poems were certainly an eye-opener to this reviewer, and many of them were very funny, which might come as a surprise to anyone who thinks Japanese poetry is always serious or contemplative.

My one very minor criticism, which may be dismissed as a quibble, is Kern’s use of American colloquialisms and slang like “snatch” (female genitals) or phrases like “guys taking a look-see,” and, of all things, that ghastly weasel-word “awesome”. The same complaint would have been levelled, I should add, if Kern had been British and the poems were peppered with words like “bloke” or phrases like “daft bugger”. Could there have been some neutral terms for these? This is a minor annoyance for one reader, however, and I’m sure that most people wouldn’t even notice.

This book was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had lately, and now readers can see what haiku really was like and what it can do. Kern is a marvellous translator overall; I read every page of this book without getting bored, I smiled and sometimes laughed out loud. The illustrations further add to the enjoyment.

It’s a book that should be in the library of anyone who loves Japanese literature, and congratulations to Adam Kern for turning our notions of haiku on their heads.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.