Book Review : The British Museum Haiku Animals

I am always impressed by the imaginative ways that museums showcase their collections through their publication. Take the British Museum. They have some 30,000 objects in their collections that relate to Japan ranging from samurai swords, kimonos to woodblock prints. Alongside exhibition catalogues, the British Museum has produced a series of books that pair haikus with Japanese prints and paintings from their collections.

The British Museum Haiku Animals edited by Mavis Pilbeam is one of this series of books and is a gem. The book pairs the poetic meditations of Japanese masters including Bashō, Buson and Issa with exquisite woodblock prints and paintings from their collection.

Haiku Animals by Mavis Pilbeam

A concise introduction introduces readers to the concept of a haiku - a poem that usually consists of 17 syllables in 3 units of 5-7-5 and that has a simplicity but suggests rather than conveys its complete meaning to the reader.

The poems are arranged according to the time of day and the book takes you on a meditative journey through a single day with a variety of animal companions. In that day, we encounter creatures large and small including sparrows walking across tatami floors, snails slowly climbing Mount Fuji and rabbits suffering in the midsummer heat.

even the rabbit
droops one of her ears - 
midsummer heat!

Akutagawa Ryūnsuke

Bunpo Rabbits (detail)

Kawamura Bunpō (1779-1821) Rabbits (detail) from Handscroll of Japanese Subjects c 1807

Each haiku is written in Kanji and phonetically and is matched with an artwork depicting the animal that inspired the poet's words. 

Haiku animals

The book features an impressive variety of artworks including woodblock prints, netsuke and scroll paintings that drawn from the 17th century through to the 20th century by artists including Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro. 

The book is rounded out by a short bibliography that introduces the different poets featured within the book and shines a light on the different styles of haikus from the melancholy works of Issa to the avant-garde meditations of Tōta.

like squids
bank clerks are fluorescent
from the morning

Kaneko Tōta


 Kōshirō Fish, Jellyfish, Squid and Coral 1937 

My only slight niggle with this charming book is that it lacks an index so you can't easily locate the works of particular artists and poets. But don't let that put you off buying this book. It is a feast for the eyes, a delight to browse and a great gift for anyone who is interested in poetry, art and Japanese culture.