Poetry of Japan -- a comprehensive look; Japanese linked Poetry: An Account with Translations of Renga and Haikai Sequences, By Earl Miner. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. $ 20.
Japanese linked poetry, written by several poets in turn and thus lacking in narrative plot, is little understood in the West. Now, for the first time, scholars and poets have a truly comprehensive study in English. Professor Miner presents the development of the two forms, renga and haikai no renga, against a background of Japanese history from the 13th to late 19th centuries and within the context of Japanese literature. The second half of the book is given to translation with analysis and commentary of two important examples of renga and four well-known haikai.
Linked verse has a structure marked by alternation of verses containing specific subject matter with seasonal and miscellaneous verses. Renga, usually found in 100-link length, can be extremely complex, as Miner shows, through examples and discussion of the principal poets, especially Sogi. Hakai grew out of renga, being at first only a lighter, often humorous form of the latter, using more down to earth language.
Haiku poets will prize the book's material on the flourishing of haikai at the time of Basho and the relationship of hokku (the opening verse) to haiku. And Professor Miner's commentary on the linked poem he has translated will help fill in the cultural picture. Few but the specialists, however, will follow his verse-by-verse analysis.
The translation here, especially those involving Basho and his friends ("Even the Kite's Feathers," "Throughout the Town," and "At the Tub of Ashes") seem flowery in comparison with other English versions. Nevertheless, each new translation adds to understanding, and the Miner translations of "A Hundred Stanzas Related to 'Person'" by Sogi alone, and the Buson and Kito "Peony Petals Fell" are especially welcome.
A glossary and figures detailing structure of 100-stanza renga and 36-link haikai as traditionally positioned on Japanese writing paper are valuable adjuncts to this monumental, if sometimes difficult work.