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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

Baseball Haiku
Edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura
A Review by Johnye Strickland


Anyone who has ever been to a baseball game, or played catch with the neighborhood kids, will find something in this new collection of baseball haiku and senryu to bring back memories. The poems cover a wide range of experience, from fireflies in the outfield to flirtation in the bleachers. Every time I reread one, I relive a moment in time from my two summers in the box seats behind my catcher husband. How I wish I had known about haiku. I used to envy the fan across the isle who brought her knitting. It would have been an interesting challenge to covertly capture haiku in our "goldfish bowl."

The book itself is designed to reflect the game. The Table of Contents becomes "The Score Card." The Introduction, "Warming Up." The Appendix, Book List, Index, and Credits are "Extra Innings." And of course, the dust jacket, with its painting by Max Mason of a pitcher looking for the catcher's signal, scoreboard and light tower in the background, puts you right there in the stadium, ready to take in the sights and sounds of the season.

In the Warm Up section, Cor van den Heuvel makes a case for the natural affinity of haiku and baseball: they both require the players and fans to be in the moment. And since baseball takes place outside, it is by nature close to Nature during playing season, but moves inside to be replayed by the "hot stove league" in winter, thus making it, like haiku, relevant to all seasons. He also points out that American haiku poets don't have to use a "prescribed season word," though "nature will always be present, even if it is not immediately apparent."

The inclusion of Japanese haiku in English translation is another step toward the internationalization of both sports, or arts, if you prefer. It is especially interesting to see the first ever baseball haiku, written in 1890 by Masaoka Shiki, "the fourth pillar in Japan's pantheon of great haiku masters":

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch    (p. 143)

As a companion to the first baseball haiku, the book also presents the first American baseball haiku, by the Beat poet Jack Kerouac (recorded with jazz and other haiku on Blues and Haikus in 1959):

Empty baseball field
   __ A robin,
Hops along the bench    (p. 9)

It was not easy to pick favorites to share with you. But here are a few I find memorable:

summer afternoon
the long fly ball to center field
takes its time

          Cor van den Heuvel (p. 20)

crack of the bat
the outfielder circles under
the full moon

          George Swede (p. 47)

[In two summers of night games, I do not recall a single appearance of the moon, which seems a bit odd, considering how much ado we used to make of the moon and magnolias in The South.]

struck out---
    back in the dugout
        he kicks the water cooler

          Alan Pizzarelli (p. 79)

rainy night
a hole in the radio
where a ballgame should be

          Ed Markowski (p. 108)

a ground-rule double
any ball that's hit into
the green onion field

          Imai Sei (p. 182)

lights-out siren
the night game continues
by moonlight

          Kadokawa Genyoshi (p. 167)

I had intended to suggest you might want to buy a copy of this book and give it to someone, even if baseball is not your thing, just to encourage major publishers to take a chance on more hard cover editions of haiku. Or better yet, send a copy to your local sportswriter, suggesting that he/she mention it in the sports section. It's still a good idea, but apparently no longer necessary, since rumor has it that this book quickly became a Best Seller. I am looking forward to spending more time with each poem, hoping to have more of my own baseball moments reappear. And I am grateful to the Japanese players/poets for inventing naitā (night game) as a kigo. My very own first baseball haiku popped into my mind as soon as I read that.

Baseball Haiku
Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura,
Editors and Translators
W. W. Norton & Company (2007)
Hard Cover, 248 pages.
ISBN 978-0-393-06219-9
$19.95 USA; $25.00 Canada