Walden by Haiku, by Ian Marshall

Walden by haiku Walden by haikuMarshall, Ian; University of Georgia Press 2009WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

the old pond
not one wrinkle
after all its ripples

That’s one of Ian Marshall’s “found haiku” from Walden, “The Ponds” chapter. Here’s the original passage, helpfully included — as are the sources for each of the haiku from the main section of the book — in Part 2, “Sources and Commentary”:

Nevertheless, of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. Many men have been likened to it, but few deserve the honor. Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young, and I may stand and see a swallow dip, apparently to pick an insect from its surface as of yore. [emphasis added]

If you’re a haiku purist, or if the idea of rewriting a hallowed classic fills you with horror, you won’t like this book. I thought it was a blast, not least because even when I was young and impressionable I found Thoreau a little too long-winded, self-righteous, and apt to treat nature as an excuse to indulge in airy philosophizing (though as Marshall points out, this tendency diminished over time). Transcendentalism is utter crap as far as I am concerned, and nothing could be father from the Zen spirit of haiku as Bashō, Buson, Issa and Shiki practiced it. So to me, Marshall’s distillations offer an almost ideal condensed version of Walden, cutting all the parts I don’t like and highlighting almost everything I do. In essence, he’s applied Thoreau’s famous directive, “Simplify, simplify” to the text in which it appears.

I’ll admit I didn’t read all of Part 2. I would’ve dipped into it much more often if the publisher had made it easier to quickly locate the source and commentary for a haiku in the first half, e.g. by including referenced page numbers in the top margin, as more scholarly books with extensive end-notes often do. Walden by Haiku is kind of a hybrid between a scholarly work of ecocriticism and a popularly accessible primer on haiku, and possibly the author or editor figured it would scare off potential readers to treat Part 2 strictly as end-notes.

Not that the main section of the book is lacking in a critical apparatus, however. Following a very readable 17-page introduction explaining the project and describing haiku aesthetics in general terms, the haiku are presented in the order in which Marshall “found” them in the book, chapter by chapter, each section followed by a few pages of additional commentary expanding on some aspect of haiku aesthetics as it might relate to Thoreau’s writing. It kind of reminded me of one of those volumes from Doubleday’s Anchor Bible translation, with the translation of each passage followed by two or three sections of increasingly arcane commentary and notes.

And in fact translation is how I’d describe this project. As I’m sure I’ve said here more than once before, I’ve personally found translation to be an invaluable aid to attentiveness, kind of the apotheosis of reading, which is why I think every serious poet should give it a shot. It’s clear from Marshall’s commentary that, despite the dozens of times he’s taught the book, the countless times he’s read it and the hundreds of journal articles and books about it that he must’ve read in the course of his career, translating Walden into haiku revealed new puns and other layers of meaning in the text that he’d never noticed before. Though Thoreau himself was unfamiliar with the haiku tradition, like any writer who goes outside of himself for moments of authentic contact and insight, many of his best passages can readily be translated by a skilled poet into approximations of English-language haiku. And Marshall is nothing if not a skilled poet. Here are a few other examples of Walden translated into haiku:

furniture on the grass
white sand and water
scrubbing the cabin floor

fishing for pouts
baiting the hooks
with darkness

a cool evening
the sound of a flute
stars over far fields

mortaring the chimney
our knives thrust into the earth
to scour them

after a cold night
my axe on the ice

Most of the poetry I’ve read this month has been in the form of chapbooks or shorter full-length collections, but I thought it was worth compromising on my book-a-day pace to fit this one in; I’ve been meaning to read it ever since it came out. Marshall is a friend of the family, so I suppose I should issue a disclaimer — except that many of the authors whose works I’ve blogged about this month have been friends or acquaintances. If I’d read the book and not liked it, I simply wouldn’t have blogged about it. And I’m not sure how much Ian will appreciate my slighting comments about Thoreau! But for the majority of readers who presumably hold more reverent attitudes toward ol’ Hank: I can assure you that there’s hardly a trace of arrogance in Marshall’s commentary. These are not appropriations but homages, I think. He’s very aware of the audacity of this project, his conclusions are cautious, and his general attitude toward his source comes across as an apprentice-like humility. In my translator analogy, he would be a W. S. Merwin rather than a Robert Bly or a Stephen Mitchell: someone determined to try and capture the voice of the original author rather than to impose his own.

Let me conclude with an example of Marshall’s semi-populist, semi-scholarly analysis: part of his commentary on the “old pond” haiku I quoted at the outset. This follows his quote of the source passage.

Again, I cannot help but see this passage and haiku as invoking the most famous and thoroughly analyzed haiku of all, Bashō’s “the old pond / a frog jumps / the sound of water.” Thinking of Walden as Bashō’s old pond [which Marshall also did at the beginning of the introduction] makes this passage as resonant as Thoreau’s “hound, bay horse, and turtle-dove” parable. The pond retains its purity and remains undamaged and unchanging even after all its far-reaching ripples—far-reaching in terms of both time and geography—and even after the ice-men (critics?) have done their skimming. And every time we find something new in Bashō’s old pond, the change is all in us. … Bashō’s pond haiku has been extensively commented upon, imitated, and evoked—as I have done one more time by arranging Thoreau’s comment here in the form of a haiku that echoes once again the sound of water Bashō heard over three hundred years ago. And still—all these wide ripples later—no wrinkles on the pond.

(Note, by the way, that the hardcover edition I’ve linked to at Open Library has been supplemented by paperback and electronic editions. Click on the publisher link for information about all three.)


  1. Simply3 is generally attributed to Emerson, not Thoreau.


    1. Thanks for the correction; I’ll amend the post. I think the mis-quote mixes up two phrases from the same passage:

      Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.


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