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The Melancholy Haiku of Hosai Ozaki

Right Under the Big Sky, I Don't Wear a Hat, Hosai Ozaki, translation by Hiroaki Sato, with introduction by Kyoko Selden, Stone Bridge Press.

Traditional haiku follows a five-seven-five syllable pattern and because of this, English translators have invariably rendered haiku as a three-line poem. But in Japanese, the haiku is a one line poem. In Right Under the Big Sky, I Don't Wear a Hat, the first English translation of the haiku work of Hosai Ozaki, Hiroaki Sato has chosen to present the poems in their original one-line format. This choice makes Hosai's personal voice--an instrument of melancholic insight--stand out the stronger.

Hosai Ozaki (1885-1926) was an insurance salesman in Japan, Manchuria and Korea before giving up the rat race for the life of a Buddhist monk. This move was spurred by an inner emptiness as well as by a drinking problem, a vice that unfortunately trailed him into the monastic life. He spent time at several Buddhist seminaries but found that his ill health, brought on by the alcohol abuse, made him unfit for the rigorous demands of that life. While serving as a sexton at a temple in Kyoto, Hosai was expelled for drunkenness. Eventually he obtained a position as caretaker of a small Buddhist temple on the island of Shodo, where he lived a simple and solitary life. His duties consisted of sweeping the floor, raking leaves, and lighting devotional candles for the occasional pilgrim. Hosai spent much of his time writing many of the haiku gathered here. In 1926, refusing to leave the island for medical treatment, he died from pleurisy and catarrh of the throat.

Right Under the Big Sky contains over 500 of Hosai's haiku and 6 short prose meditations he wrote while living on Shodo. They reveal a poet who has taken the impersonal form of the haiku and made it into a means of personal expression. Hosai's haiku speak of the everyday events of his own life, the personal epiphanies in which moments of transitory insight manifest themselves. "There it was, my face, I bought the tiny mirror and came home" reads one poem. Or, "With waves secretly rolling in it has grown light." Translated with little or no punctuation, unpretentious, and seemingly written just after the event took place or the observation was made, Hosai's haiku provide brief, imagistic glimpses of his life as a Buddhist monk.

The loneliness of this life is often evident. "I've become completely alone and the evening sky," reads one poem. "All day I haven't said a word, a butterfly casts its shadow" and "From the lonely body nails begin to grow." This melancholy is balanced by an offbeat humor: "To one of the ears, she comes to tell a secret," or "The letter I'm writing lying down is peeked in at by a chicken." Sometimes this humor is softer in tone, a shrug of the metaphorical shoulders. "Being poor, with a row of potted plants," or "Dog, you almost wag your tail off for me," or "Even nail-clipping scissors I have to borrow." My favorite is: "In a kindling fire I can see all my furniture."

Hosai was among the first writers to break with tradition and explore new subjects for the haiku. His personal tone, although a dramatic shift from earlier work in the genre, continues the intense focus of the haiku, transforming that focus into an introspective examination of his daily routine. More than that, his study of this outer minutiae leads Hosai to examine his interior life as well. Time and again, he is startled into self-awareness by a common object or situation. "In the darkness of a well I find my face," he writes. "Clipped the nails, the fingers, there are ten of them."

This introspection is also found in the prose pieces, which tell of his work at the Shodo temple, reminisce about earlier times in his life and allude to Buddhist monks and haiku from other centuries. Part diary and part journal, these musings have titles like "Wind," "Stones," and "Lights," each essay turning its subject over and over in the mind like a pebble worn smooth by ocean waves.

Hosai is an important voice in modern haiku, one whose work opened the form to a wider range of subject matter and whose wry sense of melancholic humor belies a serious spiritual motive. His haiku are among this century's finest.

--Thomas Wiloch