One of my new year resolutions is to read poems or haikus every day. So I thought I would share the top 5 haiku books I’ve found with you as well. Even if you don’t want to or don’t have the time to read haikus every day, you can enjoy them whenever you want. I always think it is nice to have a book of poems or haikus at home so that whenever you feel like it, you can randomly open a page and start reading. They are also great conversation pieces as well!
There is something magical about haikus. They can, in seconds, take you somewhere calming and make you feel sublime. They have the power to transform how you feel. And they can change how you see the world. So you better have a couple of haiku books in your library, they are powerful.
Top 5 haiku books
1- On Love and Barley: The Haiku of Basho
Basho, one of the greatest of Japanese poets and the master of haiku, was also a Buddhist monk and a life-long traveller. His poems combine ‘karumi’, or lightness of touch, with the Zen ideal of oneness with creation. Each poem evokes the natural world – the cherry blossom, the leaping frog, the summer moon or the winter snow – suggesting the smallness of human life in comparison to the vastness and drama of nature.
Basho himself enjoyed solitude and a life free from possessions, and his haiku are the work of an observant eye and a meditative mind, uncluttered by materialism and alive to the beauty of the world around him. One of the best haiku books out there.
2- The Penguin Book of Haiku
A Japanese poetry form that flourished from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, haiku are defined by their brevity: they are usually only three lines long and a total of seventeen syllables. Most famously, they use natural imagery to make Zen-like observations about reality. However, as this anthology reveals, there’s much more to haiku than cherry blossoms and waning moons: the verse included here is frequently erotic, funny, rude, and mischievous. Adam Kern has travelled throughout Japan to gather the best and most important examples of the genre, and his vivid and engaging translations form the basis of the Penguin Book of Haiku. If you like haiku books, you need this in your library.
For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
3- The Haiku Handbook -25th Anniversary Edition
One of the haiku books to keep for a lifetime. The Haiku Handbook is the first book to give readers everything they need to begin appreciating, writing, or teaching haiku. In this groundbreaking and now-classic volume, the authors present haiku poets writing in English, Spanish, French, German, and five other languages on an equal footing with Japanese poets. Not only are the four great Japanese masters of the haiku represented (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki) but also major Western authors not commonly known to have written poetry in this form, including Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright. This makes this one of the most interesting haiku books on the market.
With a new foreword by poet, translator, and author Jane Reichhold (Basho: The Complete Haiku), this anniversary edition presents a concise history of the Japanese haiku, including the dynamic changes throughout the twentieth century as this beloved poetry form has been adapted to modern and urban settings. Full chapters are offered on form, the seasons in haiku, and haiku craft, plus background on the Japanese poetic tradition and the effect of translation on our understanding of haiku.
Other unique features are chapters on teaching and sharing haiku, with lesson plans for both elementary and secondary school use; a seasonal word index of poetic words; a comprehensive glossary; and a list of enduring classic resources for further exploration. By any standard, The Haiku Handbook is the defining volume in the genre, one of the best haiku books.
4- Haiku: Japanese Art and Poetry
The graceful, evocative haiku books featured here were composed by the renowned Japanese haiku masters of the past four hundred years, including Matsuo Bash, Taniguchi Buson, and Kobayashi Issa. The deceptively simple poems rendered in English with Japanese calligraphies and transliterations are paired with exquisite eighteenth- or nineteenth-century paintings and ukiyo-e prints and twentieth-century shin hanga woodcuts from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Canada. Haiku: Japanese Art and Poetry presents thirty-five pairs of poems and images, organized seasonally. The Introduction details the origin and development of haiku, the lives of the most famous poets, and the obstacles faced when translating the concise yet complex lines. A gorgeous example of haiku books.
5- The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology
A highly distilled form of Japanese poetry, haiku consist of 17 syllables, usually divided among three lines. This unique collection spans over 400 years (1488–1902) of haiku history by the greatest masters: Basho, Issa, Shiki and many more, in translations by top-flight scholars in the field. Editor Faubion Bowers provides a Foreword and many informative notes to the poems. If you are going to read one of your first haiku books, I’d recommend this.
Bonus haiku books
Since I wrote this blog post, I read many other beautiful haikus and discovered excellent haiku books. I thought I’d share them with you as well. I hope you can find a book to your liking and enjoy all the haikus!
Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda
One of the most interesting and beautiful haiku books: The fascinating and quirky biography of a dishevelled poet, skillfully interwoven with his original works. Zen monk Santoka Taneda (1882-1940) is one of Japan’s most beloved modern poets, famous for his “free-verse” haiku, the dominant style today. This book tells the fascinating story of his life, liberally sprinkled with more than 300 of his poems and extracts from his essays and journals-compiled by his best friend and biographer Oyama Sumita and elegantly translated by William Scott Wilson.
Santoka was a literary prodigy, but a notoriously disorganized human being. By his own admission, he was incapable of doing anything other than wandering the countryside and writing verses. Although Santoka married and had a son, he devoted his life to poetry, studying Zen, drinking sake and wandering the length and breadth of the Japanese islands on foot, as a mendicant monk. The poet’s life alternated between long periods of solitary retreat and restless travel, influenced by his tragic childhood. When not on the road, he lived in simple grass huts supported by friends and family.
Santoka was a lively conversationalist who was often found so drunk he could only make it home with the help of a friendly neighbour or passerby. But above all, throughout his life, he wrote constantly; poetry and essays flowed from him effortlessly. Santoka’s eccentric style of haiku is highly regarded in Japan today for being truly modern and free from formal constraints. His journals and essays are equally thought-provoking-the musings of an unkempt but supremely self-conscious mind on everything from writing to cooking rice and his failure to live a more orderly life.
This translation and its introduction are by best-selling author William Scott Wilson, whose other works include The Book of Five Rings and The Lone Samurai. Wilson provides sensitive renditions of the haiku illustrating Santoka’s life as well as an extensive introduction to the influences on Santoka’s work, from contemporary haiku poets and his Buddhist teachers. One of the must-read haiku books.
The River of Heaven: The Haiku of Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki
“In this, his final work, American senior Zen Roshi Robert Aitken lovingly ties together two threads, Zen practice and haiku.” ―Spirituality & Health
Known to many as the study of quiet stillness and introspection, Zen Buddhism distinguishes itself through brilliant flashes of insight and its terseness of expression. In River of Heaven these concepts and pillars lend themselves to an exploration of Haiku, one of the most delicate and interpretive poetic forms in the world. The haiku verse form, with its rigid structure and organic description is a superb means of studying Zen modes of thought because its seventeen syllables impose a limitation that confines the poet to vital experience. In Haiku as in Buddhism, the silences are as expressive as the words.
In this volume, American Senior Zen Roshi Robert Aitken gives new insight into Haiku by poetic masters Basho, Issa, Buson, and Shiki. In presenting themes from Haiku and from Zen literature, Aitken illuminates the relationship between the two. Readers are certain to find this an invaluable and enjoyable experience for the remarkable revelation it offers. One of the newest and finest haiku books out there.
Haiku Illustrated: Classic Japanese Short Poems
Haiku – seventeen-syllable poems that evoke worlds despite their brevity – have captivated Japanese readers since the seventeenth century. Today the form is practiced worldwide and has become established as part of our common global heritage. This beautiful traditionally hand-bound volume presents new English translations of classic poems by the four great masters of Japanese haiku – Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and Masaoka Shiki – accompanied by both the original Japanese and a phonetic transcription, and a photograph or artwork highlighting or echoing the poem’s theme. With a timeless design, Haiku is an expert introduction and celebration of one of the most beautiful and accessible forms of poetry in the world. One of the gorgeous haiku books to keep for a lifetime.
Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years
Haiku in English is an anthology of more than 800 brilliantly chosen poems that were originally written in English by over 200 poets from around the world. Although haiku originated as a Japanese art form, it has found a welcome home in the English-speaking world. This collection tells the story for the first time of Anglophone haiku, charting its evolution over the last one hundred years and placing it within its historical and literary context. It features an engaging introduction by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and an insightful historical overview by leading haiku poet, editor, and publisher Jim Kacian.
The selections range from the first fully realized haiku in English, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” to plentiful examples by haiku virtuosos such as John Wills, Marlene Mountain, Nick Virgilio, and Raymond Roseliep, and to investigations into the genre by eminent poets like John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Seamus Heaney. The editors explore the genre’s changing forms and themes, highlighting its vitality and its breadth of poetic styles and content. Among the many poems on offer are organic form experiments by E. E. Cummings and Michael McClure, evocations of black culture by Richard Wright and Sonia Sanchez, and the seminal efforts of Jack Kerouac. An interesting and beautiful one among haiku books.
Classic Haiku: The Greatest Japanese Poetry from Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Their Followers
The ultimate introduction to the art of haiku, this collection accompanies the greatest haiku poems with evocative photography. Featuring a deluxe cloth cover with a foil-blocked sticker and a removable insight card with instructions on how to craft your very own haiku, this comprehensive and beautifully packaged collection is the perfect gift for the poetry lover in your life. One of the best haiku books out there.
This essential collection of Japanese poetry contains nearly two hundred haiku by the four most celebrated haiku masters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a delightful seasonal interlude by several other leading haiku poets. Sometimes known as “the Great Four” of haiku poetry, Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki began mastering the subtle craft of the haiku as far back as 1670, capturing fleeting moments from life and nature with almost photographic clarity in just 17 Japanese syllables.
Although thoroughly steeped in Japanese culture, history and philosophical tradition, the elegant, profound and highly accessible haiku has nevertheless transcended the bounds of its cultural heritage to become one of the most celebrated and widely translated poetic forms in the world. Featuring gorgeous accompanying images by renowned photographer John Cleare and an in-depth introduction by noted anthropologist and poet Tom Lowenstein, this volume combines literal translation with literary interpretation, expert commentary and evocative images to bring these poems to life in a way that is fully accessible to the modern reader while remaining faithful to the crisp visual nature of the haiku form. One of the exquisite haiku books for gifting and keeping for life.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches: Matsuo Basho
A haiku books list would be missing lots without this book.
In his perfectly crafted haiku poems, Basho described the natural world with great simplicity and delicacy of feeling. When he composed “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” he was a serious student of Zen Buddhism, setting off on a series of travels designed to strip away the trappings of the material world and bring spiritual enlightenment. He wrote of the seasons changing, of the smell of the rain, the brightness of the moon and the beauty of the waterfall, through which he sensed the mysteries of the universe. These travel writings not only chronicle Basho’s perilous journeys through Japan, but they also capture his vision of eternity in the transient world around him.
In his lucid translation Nobuyuki Yuasa captures the lyrical qualities of Basho’s poetry and prose by using the natural rhythms and language of contemporary speech. In his introduction, he examines the development of the haibun style in which poetry and prose stand side by side. This edition also includes maps and notes on the texts. A must-read among haiku books.
Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson
An elegant choice among haiku books. Lovers of haiku will rejoice at the arrival of this book, the first complete translation of the collected haiku of Yosa Buson…rendered into English with obvious care and devotion…Through Buson we realize what haiku is best at expressing–this moment’s experience, bare facts, simple observations, elegant statements of ‘thus-ness.’–Inquiring Mind
“Having W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento as co-translators of this book is close to ideal, and this is the best English translation of haiku books that has ever been published. Their English translations are accurate and poetic and there is nothing better for introducing this great poet.”–Donald Keene, Anahorish Japanese Literature
For a translator to be faithful and readable, as Mr. Merwin always is, is no small achievement.–The New York Times
From Latin to Russian to Japanese, translator [W.S. Merwin]’s oeuvre suggests an intrepid quality as well as a scrutinizing sympathy.–Boston Review
This is the first complete bilingual (Japanese/English) translation of the Buson Kushu, a comprehensive collection of the haiku of Yosa Buson (1716-83). Buson’s haiku brim with paradox: they are bawdy yet delicate, sparse yet powerful. W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento worked for a decade to co-translate these poems into English-language versions as luminous as the original Japanese. An essential volume of world literature among haiku books.
nochi no yo kakete
Courtesans come out
to see the cherry blossoms
as though they were betting on their next life
I’ve been a huge fan of haiku books for a long time now cause I love Japanese culture and literature. The other day I watched James May: Our Man in Japan on Prime Video. It was funny, full of fantastic information and excellent views from Japan. James May likes haikus and reads haikus on the show on each episode. So I thought I’d share my favourite haiku books here as well, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading them too.
Check out my other lists about books!
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Do you have any favourite haiku books? Please share them with me in the comments section below.