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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2

Review ~ Fly-ku!, by Robin D. Gill
Reviewed by Robert D. Wilson



I have many books about haiku and haiku theory. Some are sophomoric and say little, covering what has already been covered. Others, informative and well-written, hit on important points. And there are, of course, volumes written by learned university professors filled with almost everything a person would want to know about a specific poet or haiku-related subject though oftentimes bone dry, overpriced, and difficult to understand. Hungry to improve my craft, I have read these books, the good, the bad, and the ugly; and yes, I am a better person for it. Nevertheless, all too few have been truly fun.

Imagine my surprise then, when I came across the writings of Robin D. Gill, an American scholar and poet who writes in an extemporaneous style akin to that of Jack Kerouac; thinks like Herman Hesse, Koyabashi Issa, and Lewis Carroll, all rolled into one; and, like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, lured me covertly into an adventure park of the mind, taking me through chapter after chapter in books he'd penned with strange sounding names like Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! and Fly-ku! (the book I am reviewing here). And if this seems like a strange thing to say about the author of a scholarly treatise on haiku and haiku theory, so be it. There is no one like Robin D. Gill in the international haiku community. The man can write, and reading what he writes is enjoyable, easy to understand, and addictive. Yes, addictive! I found it hard to put Fly-ku! down; a scholarly tome that doesn't read like a scholarly tome, the March Hare pulling me from chapter to chapter, talking a mile a minute, sharing with me insight on haiku and the difficulty of translating haiku, as if that was the natural thing to do when people aren't at work or school. And, like Alice, I was learning a lot, but didn't know it at first, until I woke up later in my garden, sans the rabbit, with a clearer understanding of the subject matter Robin Gill addresses in Fly-ku!

What haiku is and is not

The preface starts with a capital caveat: “haiku is not quite what most who know something about it think it is." A few paragraphs later Gill states, "It is just plain wrong to insist upon 5-7-5 in English, because our syllables tend to be far longer than Japanese syllabets (my word for the uniformly short, elemental parts or letters of the Japanese syllabary). Blyth, not long before his death, finally got it right when he settled on 2-3-2 (accented) beats. If you go for that, you cannot go wrong. But don't get me wrong: it is fine to be wrong sometimes, too."

Gill examines the rudiments of what is and isn't a haiku in the book's opening pages, expounding on one point after another, with the ease of a storyteller. Further on, discussing modern haiku and its relationship to traditional haiku, Gill says, "While there is much in modern haiku to praise, it was old haiku that first captured my heart. Perhaps this is because haiku was young when it was old and, as such, not a few poems are disarmingly blunt and easy for the foreigner to appreciate."

The full, unabridged definition in the preface alone is worth the price of the book.

I have, on many occasions, heard a teacher tell students that writing a haiku is an easy thing to do. "Your poem needs to be three lines, utilizing a 5/7/5 syllable formula, and be about nature." End of lesson. This recipe for writing haiku is commonplace throughout the United States. I should know. I am a public school teacher and an administrator. Robin Gill's Fly-ku! should be required reading for teachers who teach haiku in their classrooms. As I previously stated, it is an enjoyable read.
More importantly, Gill thoroughly defines haiku; explains the difference between a haiku and a senryu; demonstrates the difficulty in translating haiku from one language to another; traces the history of particular metaphors; and explores the significance of cultural and social context in the writing and understanding of haiku. The book also addresses, among other things, the disuse of punctuation; the incommensurability of words; the usage of kigo (season words); the influence of Chinese poetry; and some of the differences between old and modern haiku, using flies in general and Issa's famous “fly-ku” as the touchstone for discussion in every chapter.

The points he addresses in his book:

And why the strange touchstone? Says Gill, "My discovery of the senryu behind Issa's famous poem gave me a legitimate reason to write about fly-ku. . . . I did, however, find every minute spent working on anthropomorphism in haiku absolutely delightful, and feel my extended treatment of «rubbing = praying hands» is an important contribution towards understanding why it is not so much the art of translation, as the nature of translation that is imperfect. And it delights me to know that no one who reads the first three chapters of this book will take translated haiku for granted."

A haiku is not easy to translate, let alone, to write or fully comprehend. There is a zen to haiku that can be paradoxical when Occidental and Japanese poets compare notes, as the author points out by placing translations of one poem in clusters he calls "Paraversing."

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Says Gill about Fly-ku!:

"It gives me great pleasure to demonstrate how and why poems and poets are better than they might seem: that is, to use my understanding of Japanese and knowledge of old haiku to find where something is lost in translation and my imagination to re-create it in English."

"Issa’s famous fly-ku, the one about a fly that indicates it does not want to be swatted, is one of the most commonly 'translated' haiku out there, yet, I cannot read a translation without feeling sad about what is lost to the non-Japanese reader. Because the loss comes not so much from some unshared cultural background as from pure linguistic accident, that loss cannot be overcome; it can only be explained. That is very frustrating for a would-be translator but at the same time is refreshing for it shows us that the world cannot be reduced to our language. It is not shrinking but full of wonder which shall remain so long as we conserve our linguistic diversity."

Adds Gill,

"Fly-ku's most important accomplishment is demonstrating how translation into English must either ruin poems by stripping words of their meaning or anthropomorphize them."

Fly-ku! by Robin D. Gill
Paraverse Press
097426184X - suggested retail price $15
Distributor: Ingram.

Robin D. Gill's Fly-ku! is priced several times lower than other small press haiku books.

Individuals should contact Amazon or their favorite bookstore to place an order.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku