There is no better time to read this inspirational book than now, during the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies. There is a clear link between Japanese and American baseball, and both the World Series and this book of poetry exemplify this. Sport can ennoble the human spirit through its literature.
The Red Sox lead the series 2-0 as I write and one of their stars is Hideki Okajima, the first Japanese pitcher to appear in a World Series game. Okajima, who pitched last year for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, pitched brilliantly in the second game for four strike-outs.
The Red Sox also have another Japanese in Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was with the Seibu Lions and who should soon feature prominently for his new American club. Matsuzaka led the Japanese national team to victory in last year’s inaugural World Baseball Classic, the equivalent of soccer’s World Cup. The American All-Stars, significantly, did not even reach the semi-finals. This was a case of the pupils showing the teachers how to play.
Baseball was first introduced into Japan in the 1890s by the Americans, but true to national character, the Japanese have always emphasised teamwork over power hitting. That is not to say that individuals have no place in the game. In recent times, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhisa Ishii are some of the Japanese stars who have made the grade in the United States. More can be expected to do so.
This book illustrates the two-way cultural flow that the game of baseball has inspired. It shows that the sport can lift the human character beyond mere physical feats and into an almost mystical realm and inspire the most beautiful and almost spiritual poetry in terms of American and Japanese haiku and senryu.
The book features the work of some of the most important American and Japanese haiku poets. There are Jack Kerouac, one of the pioneers of haiku in English, Alan Pizzarelli, one of the giants of American haiku and senryu, and Masaoka Shiki, described as one of the four great pillars of Japanese haiku. Shiki helped popularise baseball in Japan just over a century ago.
The poems, numbering more than two hundred, span that century, but they are timeless. They contain the kind of simple but enduring images that are the essence of haiku.
under the lights
hitting it out of the park
and into the night
~ Cor van den Heuvel
the night game continues
~ Kadokawa Genyoshi (1917-1975)
Arthur “Bud” Goodrich (b. 1919), Helen Shaffer (b. 1923), Arizona Zipper (b. 1940), Michael Fessler (b. 1944), Michael Dylan Welch (b. 1962) and Chad Lee Robinson (b. 1980) are just some of the thirty American haiku poets featured.
There are fifteen Japanese poets who make the book, including Kawahigashi Hekigoto (1873-1937), Yamaguchi Seishi (1901-1994), Taki Shun’ichi (1902-1996) and Yotsuya Ryu (b. 1958).
The book provides biographies of all 45 of these poets and analyses their work, giving several examples of the haiku penned by each writer. It details their interest in baseball and how this was translated into their poetry. As the Library Journal stated, this book “Will inspire some ball fans to be poets and some poets to be ballplayers”.
Haiku sums up human emotions and universal truths and combines it with the natural world of the seasons, and nature in general, with great brevity and clarity. In dealing with the sport of baseball, this poetry demolishes the idea that sport is just for ‘jocks’ and shows that it can appeal to all of us. It contains basic human emotions and paints scenes with which we can all empathise, be it from our childhood, adolescence or adulthood.
the boy not chosen
steps over the home plate
picks up his books
~ Edward J Reilly (b. 1943)
at the night game
seeing a former pupil
in the bleachers
~ Imai Sei (b. 1950)
the obituary leads me
to an old baseball card
~ Edward J Reilly (b. 1943)
Hopping over the mound
and into the dugout
the first robin
~ Arizona Zipper (b. 1940)
As an Australian, I do not know much about baseball. I have only attended one live game in my life. That took place at the Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the mid-60s. The game was between the Cleveland Indians, who are currently enjoying a bit of a revival, I am pleased to say, and the California Angels. I don’t remember the score.
I have seen at first hand how popular the game is in Japan, where it and soccer are causing great angst among the Sumo fraternity. I have seen a park in Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku, which is dedicated to the baseball greats of that city. I knew a woman there whose father was one of the giants of the game and who was worshipped as a local hero. He could do no wrong, she said. The next time I am in Japan, I will go and watch a game.
my office briefcase
I hold it tightly in my arms
as I watch the night game
~ Taki Shun’ichi (1902-1996)
at the same moment a swallow
and a cool breeze
~ Arima Akito (b. 1930)
the game of catch
~ Yotsuya Ryu (b. 1958)
The book also has chapters explaining the game of baseball in America and in Japan. This is a cultural, historical and sporting survey of the game and the similarities and differences between the two countries. There is a comprehensive book list of baseball and haiku, as well as a valuable index of poets.
I first heard of this book on PBS Radio while driving to a soccer game. If I could, I would have detoured immediately to a baseball game. I’m glad I read the volume and I am now eagerly looking forward to the remaining games in the World Series, even if I can only watch them on satellite TV. How I would love to be there. Well, TV is the next best thing, and I guess it’s better than:
summer night radio
thru the dark static
a Pedro fastball
~ Michael Ketchek (b. 1954)
But the poetry is a glorious substitute.
Walter Pless is the soccer writer for the Hobart Mercury, in Australia.