This is an extraordinary book on two counts: it is a penetrating commentary on Zen as lived by the poet Basho', and it is an exemplary translation of Basho's poetry.

What makes Basho's Haiku stand out? Translators of haiku, of which there have been many, have employed a variety of strategies in attempting to render the compact haiku form into English. In translating Basho, the author has adopted the only sensible strategy: he dispenses with the 5-7-5 syllable structure, for the simple reason that it doesn't work in English, and he resists any temptation to impose western poetic conventions. Instead, he focuses on capturing the Zen spirit of Basho'. It is here, in conveying the spirit of Basho's haiku, that Barnhill proves himself an adept.

For each poem, the author first gives his English translation, followed by a romanized version (ro'maji), and a literal, word-for-word transliteration of the Japanese. This allows the reader to appreciate both what the original poem looked like, and the liberties taken by the translator in `creating' an English version. This format discloses the translation process with uncommon honesty. It both allows and compels Barnhill to explain and justify his translations. Here is an example: The Old Pond

(First Barnhill's translation)
The old pond;
A frog jumps in—
The sound of water.

(Then the ro'maji)
Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

(Then the literal transliteration)
Old pond!
frog jumps in
water of sound

Then, in a section called "The Form," Barnhill provides a detailed explanation of the pertinent grammatical features, such as the cutting word, "ya," and how the poem's structure creates its poetic effects. This section is then followed by the author's commentary: historical, poetical, and Zen-influenced. In his commentary, he provides critical evaluations of other translations, assessing their fidelity to the original, and provides a rationale for his own version. I personally found this commentary very helpful in appreciating Basho's haiku.

If you are interested in Bash'o, in haiku in general, in poetry, or in Zen, I think you'll find this an exceptional book.