Book Reviews

The Haiku Apprentice:
Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan
Abigail Friedman

Stone Bridge Press

Haiku Apprentice author, Abigail Friedman, may initially seem an unlikely guide into the world of haiku, the delicate lyric poetry form of Japan.

A US diplomat stationed in Japan, Friedman’s work is intense, focusing on the nuclear threat from North Korea. She’s the kind of person who, at the end of a late evening speaking engagement, scans the room contemplating possible emergencies and preparing to be the level-headed, take-charge person.

In a conversation recounted early in the book, though, Friedman reveals herself to be a diplomat in the best sense: respectful, thoughtful and an able listener. Offered an unusual calling card in response to her own standard business card, Friedman follows her curiosity about "Traveling Man Tree" (the haiku name of the card owner) and pursues a conversation that marks the beginning of her journey into the world of Japanese haiku.

When the promised invitation to join a writing group arrives a month later, she treks by train, bus and foot to reach the small town location. The spirit of warmth and common purpose she experiences in that first encounter with the group of 30 or so Japanese men and women immediately engages her.

The memoir that follows, while not a how-to book in the typical mold, offers so graceful an entry into the pleasures of experiencing haiku it will surely inspire readers interested in trying their own hands at the evocative form. The haiku sprinkled generously throughout the text include examples from acknowledged early masters:

BASHO (1644-1694)

winter leeks
washed all white
ah … the cold!

and from members of the haiku group and their teacher:


bringing to a boil
New Year’s noodles
making a home.

The group’s haiku master, Kuroda Momoko, agrees to meet independently with Friedman for some requested "remedial" help. As the two work together over several sessions, Momoko generously instructs Friedman in the subtleties of writing haiku and her own philosophy about the process. Explaining seasonal words (kigo), Momoko calls them "our national treasures." She continues, "Some seasonal words have been in use since the Edo period. When we pick up one of these jewels and use it in a haiku, it is rich with history. They capture the essence of Japanese life."

Other members of the writing group also come into focus as Friedman connects with them in her quest to deepen her appreciation of the place of haiku in modern Japanese lives. An economics professor, whose haiku written in the midst of a hospital stay had intrigued Friedman, tells her about the tradition of haiku called "illness writing" (byosho). During a discussion of a poem by Travelling Man Tree, she learns his story of the Hiroshima bombing.

Stone Bridge Press has done a lovely job with the aesthetics of the book as a physical object as well. It’s a sturdy paperback, with an appealing burgundy-colored cover and attractive interior design. In a particularly nice typographical touch, the text of each haiku is presented in Japanese characters, in transliterated Japanese, and in English. As an aid to prospective writers, a brief but comprehensive section at the end offers tips on writing haiku in English and on starting a haiku group, as well as suggestions for further reading.

Reviewed by Bridget Boylan