"Not long ago, the Japanese New Year began with the New Moon, and was so popular a subject for poetry that it comprised a season of its own. This was the first season of the year, not the fifth, but our custom of referring to the Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter as four seasons left me no choice but to call it the fifth season."
—Robin D. Gill (cover, The Fifth Season)
According to the author, his newest book is volume one of a proposed multivolume saijiki that will cover the five seasons. Blyth, of course, wrote a four volume series dealing with the four seasons, but Gill's book goes into much more detail, covering deeper ground.
Written in accessible language (no scholar-speak for this author), we are taken by the hand into Gill's world, like Alice following the hare into a wonderland that's more than meets the eye. Haiku is given its proper due. We are exposed to the incredible, often delicate depth of beauty and introspection of a genre that is grossly misunderstood by many English language school teachers and by well-meaning poets as well.
Take for instance, the following haiku of Shinsei's, translated by Gill:
miyako kana makizuna niou hana no haru
(capital/kyoto!/'tis/: scatter-sand smells/glows flower/y-spring)
the old capital
spring redolent with
"I added the 'old' because miyako means Kyoto, at the same time the old capital, for Edo was the de facto seat of power and prosperity. White beach sands (or something like it) may have served instead of good-luck salt (tossed and/or clumped up by gates). It was scattered on the road before important processions and in front of many gates on festive occasions of which the New Year was the greatest. This was particularly the case in Kyoto, the Imperial seat at the time. Kyoto was far from the sea, but traditionally received tributes from the coast, including skewered sea cucumber and, perhaps, sand. These ritual uses of salt and sand bespeak the ancient maritime roots of the Japanese." (p. 30)
this is the capital capital indeed
fresh sand illuminates flowery spring's aglow
our new year with new sand
"The 'illuminates' and 'aglow' reflect the problematic verb niou, which first means 'smells/s,' but in classical literature means to glow in a beautiful way! The italicized 'this' and 'indeed' capture what I take to be the significance of the kana at the end of the first 5-syllabets, which is not a mere 'cutting-word,' or a hyphen of sorts, as some might think of it, but clearly emphatic, or even exclamatory here. Drop lightly colored beach sand into a still dreary winter set, add an exclamation or think 'ah!' as you read the first line of the translation and you may grasp the mood of the original, which is impossible to convey in one translation without notes." (p. 30)
As is clearly seen here in Gill's commentary, an Occidental can easily misinterpret a Japanese haiku, being unfamiliar with the language and culture. Add to this a lack of familiarity with archaic Japanese, which at times is not always in sync with its contemporary counterpart, and the chance for misinterpretation is doubled. Translating a haiku is not a simple matter of taking out a Japanese language dictionary, looking up the meaning for each word and, voilá, the English language translation of the poem emerges. It's an intricate art-form.
There are literally hundreds of haiku in Gill's book, The Fifth Season, and with a few exceptions, all are translated by the author coupled with commentary and alternate translations. This is Gill's signature style, and fortunately for the reader, his exposition and commentary are accessible to the lay public.
"Haiku is minimal poetry. Most of the meaning must be found between the phrases, or
words . . . "
—Robin D. Gill
The Fifth Season is Gill's finest book to date and I anxiously look forward to the other volumes promised in this series.