Some people could argue that American poetry has reached an all-time low. Both scholars and writers could point to someone like Allen Ginsberg as an example of how the art form has been reduced to shock poetry: the more shock value, the better. Critics could even cite Ginsberg's recent reading at the Boston Public Library, in celebration of his achievements over the last 28 years, as an example. Most of what the poet read was blatantly sexual and depended on his passionate dramatizations for much of its power. On paper, the poems might seem superficial.
Still, others could argue that Ginsberg is helping to bring poetry back to its former glory - when it appealed to a large segment of the population. This group would insist that Ginsburgh and other showmen have revived the oral aspect of the genre and freed poetry from elitist ivy towers.
But no matter what one thinks about Ginsberg or the in-your-face poetry competitions that have become so popular all across the country, one thing remains clear: Poets of every era struggle to redefine the art form. No one escapes the questions ``What is poetry?'' and ``How do I fit into the poetic traditions?''
Perhaps that's why the publication of ``The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa'' is so timely. Compared to much of what is printed today, haiku can seem gentle and simplistic: three-line candies. But when Ezra Pound, who profoundly influenced modern poetry, and others needed inspiration early in this century, it was to haiku that they often turned.
The Imagist movement, founded by Pound in 1908, fashioned many of its rules after the principles of haiku: no unnecessary words; direct treatment of the ``thing,'' whether subjective or objective; and reliance on the unadorned image. Imagist poems aimed to create a sense of freedom from time and space; there also needed to be a sense of sudden growth - something outward and objective transforming itself.
The Imagist movement ended in 1917, but what the Imagists had learned about the relation of language to meaning, about impression, expression, and communication, helped them fashion the styles for which they would become famous. In turn, these master poets - including Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams - shaped a new course for poetry in the 20th century.
As the 21st century approaches, haiku will remain an important model. As Matsuo Basho said in the 1600s, ``The function of haiku is to rectify common speech.'' That requires - as it did in Basho's time - the use of accurate, original images, often from daily life, along with a strong sense of time and place. It also means seizing and rendering a moment purely, so that the images resonate with mysteriousness. Take, for example, these translations of Basho poems:
The oak tree: not interested in cherry blossoms. The spring we don't see - on the back of a hand mirror a plum tree in flower.
So much is distilled into so few words. But what saves these poems from being just nice little pictures is the mindset of the poet. Even first-time readers will recognize the voice of a seeker. Basho's timeless perspective exists, to some degree, in all cultures, and the staying power of the poems reflects this. Contemporary poets can learn as much from Basho's work as his 17th-century students did.
The other two poets featured in ``The Essential Haiku,'' Yosa Buson and Kobayashi Issa - known as the artist and the humanist respectively - complete the haiku palette. Buson, a distinguished painter, wrote poems that were visually intense and full of color. He suggested a world that was constantly coming into being:
A heavy cart rumbles by and the peonies quiver. A tethered horse, snow in both stirrups.
These poems also contain a certain universality. In fact, the work of 20th-century American poets Jane Kenyon and Robert Bly is reminiscent of Buson's work. Not in the sense that Kenyon or Bly borrowed from Buson, but that his inspirations and perspective predated theirs, as if tapped from a common source. Likewise, the poems of Issa - with their humor and pathos, touch of rage and cynicism - sound almost like miniatures by Walt Whitman or Pablo Neruda:
Zealous flea, your're about to be a Buddha by my hand. Cricket chriping in a scarecrow's belly.
The sentiments in both poets' work speak surprisingly well to contemporary readers, and for this reason alone ``The Essential Haiku'' is a valuable book. But in an age when poets must work to attract a general audience, the art of the haiku masters suggests that moving forward may mean going back to basics. Only when poets have mastered the essentials can they begin to shape an enduring artistic vision.