Reflection 248: Haiku Again

March 28, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

It’s been a while since I’ve looked at haiku as tokens of human consciousness, so I thought I’d revisit them now that I’ve finished my book. The idea being that I can’t imagine a more succinct expression of what’s going on in someone’s mind on a particular occasion than what they jot down in those few syllables. I don’t mean the formulaic, 5-7-5 kind we teach kids in grade school to make them into little poets. I mean haiku as even grownups put their hearts and souls into them as a worthy means of capturing particular insights in a medium that lasts about as long as the insight itself.

As Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote them in Japan, haiku were a forerunner of tweets in being a means of capturing impressions while away from home, getting just enough down on paper to kindle memories that could later be shared with others. It’s tricky translating haiku from the Japanese, not only because the syntax differs from English (with verbs coming at the end of a sentence), but as Harold G. Henderson points out, there aren’t any articles (a, an, the), pronouns (he, she, they), distinctions between singular and plural, or marks of punctuation. Which often get added in translation to make them acceptable to ears used to hearing English. Instead of punctuation marks, Japanese haiku include kireji, words that serve as a kind of stage direction regarding emphasis and rhythm to be read aloud without adding meaning to the text.

In his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday Anchor, 1958), Henderson sometimes adds rhymes to the haiku he translates, but he bases his versions on literal word-for-word renderings from Japanese into English, so it is easy to get back to a crude semblance of the author’s mind at work.

1. For instance, here is one haiku in a) Japanese, b) literal English translation, c) Henderson’s, and d) my rendition.

a) Shizu-no | ko | ine-suri-kakete | tsuki | wo | miru

b) Poverty’s child | rice-grind-starting | moon | at | looks

c) Poverty’s child— / he starts to grind the rice, / and gazes at the moon.

d) farmer’s child / grinding rice / looks to the moon

As a depiction of basho’s conscious experience, this is a highly compressed and economical presentation of a scene the poet saw on his travels in which a sensory impression of a boy in a field was categorized (interpreted or conceptualized) as “poverty’s child.” The situation drawn to our attention is that the boy does not look at what he is doing, but at the moon, a contrast that rouses the poet to take notice because it conveys the boy’s feeling of reluctance or isolation while performing this particular task. That feeling is not stated in so many words, but is conveyed by the two-fold action at the heart of the poem—the grinding while looking at the moon.

2. Here’s another example (all of these are by Basho).

a) Kare-eda | ni | karasu-no | tomari-keri | aki-no-kure

b) Withered-branch | on | crow’s | settling-keri | autumn- nightfall

c) On a withered branch / a crow has settled— / autumn nightfall.

d) lone crow / on a withered branch / autumn nightfall

In Japanese and Henderson’s English, the branch comes first, then the crow, that combination setting us up for consummation with the mood affirmed by “autumn nightfall.” The image is all of a piece, the coming of night paralleling and affirming the crow on its branch. In this example there is an affinity between branch and crow that draws our attention, not a contrast as in the first poem. Our feelings can be bivalent, either attracting or distracting our conscious attention. In this example it is the coherence of the entire image that moves and confirms our experience. In d) I switched the order in which crow and branch appear in this scene to avoid the awkward (to my ears) Japanese construction placing the verb after the subject after the direct object, wrecking in the process Basho’s comparison between crow and night as both descending. The poetry lies in the sound and rhythm of the original Japanese, which is lost in translation.

3. Here’s Basho’s most famous haiku, considered a breakthrough in 1686:

a) Furu-ike | ya | kawazu | tobi-komu | mizu-no-oto

b) Old-pond | : | frog | jump-in | water-sound

c) Old pond— / and a frog-jump in / water-sound

d) old pond / frog leaps / “blip”

According to Henderson, the story is that Basho was sitting with friends in his garden when, during the stillness, they all heard the sound of a frog diving into water. Basho quickly gave out the last two parts of a tripartite haiku; the challenge was to find a suitable first part, which Basho after some discussion, settled on. The pond would not have been uppermost in the group’s consciousness, nor the visual frog. It was the sound the frog made hitting the water that caught their attention, as novelty often does. The issue became, what would be an appropriate setting for the resulting sound? To make sense of that sound, Basho placed it in the context of an ancient body of water, setting the quality of long endurance against the brief and abrupt appearance of the frog (which was imagined but not seen). The pond was a body of water in the understanding; the frog was a conceptual diver-into-water; only the sound was a concrete, sensory impression. It was the surprising nature of that damp “blip” in the universe amid a conversation about other matters that created the occasion for poetry in the minds of those present. The actual writing of the haiku became part of the occasion, so the entire scene has come down to us as an integral part of the Basho legend.

4. Here’s another haiku centered on the role of rice in Japanese culture.

a) Furyu-no | hajime | ya | oku-no | ta-ue-uta

b) Refinement’s | beginning | : | “interior’s” | rice-planting-song

c) The beginning of all art: / a song when planting a rice field / in the country’s inmost part.

d) art begins here / rice-planting song / in rural Japan

The song Basho heard in the northern province of oku on one of his journeys is at the heart of this haiku. He composed the verse on the spot when asked to share a poem he had written in the northern interior. He heard in the local work song the deep beginnings of the more sophisticated art of the city. The first part of the poem stemmed from his understanding of the customary transition from rural folk art to a more intricate urban treatment. He contrasted the two—song and art, country and city—and that contrast creates the tension between the two parts of the poem that gets our attention. The first part is conceptual—art had to have begun somewhere. The second is based on personal experience on his journey. The result is a larger understanding of the spatial and temporal relationship between rural and citified Japan. I ignore Henderson’s rhyme of part with art as extraneous to the haiku.

5. Here’s one based on Basho’s appreciation for the cultural history of Japan.

a) Natsu-gusa | ya | tsuwamono-demo-ga | yume-no | ato

b) Summer-grasses | : | strong-ones’ [plural] | dreams’ | afterward

c) Summer grass: / of stalwart warriors splendid dreams / the aftermath

d) summer weeds / fallen warriors’ / relict dreams

On one of his journeys, Basho came to the site of a famous medieval battle at a former castle, in his day gone to wasteland. He wept at the thought of lost glories and wrote this poem on the spot. Vegetation was all that was left of the famous story, providing the basis of the concrete sensory impression that contrasted with details his imaginative understanding provided from memory. Descended from warriors himself, Basho identified with the warriors, and felt their defeat personally. That contrast stirred his consciousness, and he compressed the disparity between then and now into this poem. Imagine compressing that history into five words! Such is the art of haiku.

6) This poem written in 1694 is one of Basho’s last.

a) Tabi | ni | yamite | yume | wa | kare-no | wo | kake-meguru

b) Journey | on | taken-ill | dreams | as-for | dried-up-fields | on | run-about

c) On a journey, ill, / and over fields all withered, dreams / go wandering still.

d) ill on a journey / delirium wanders / the withered land

At 50, still out exploring the Japanese landscape, Basho got sick and could not continue. Friends and pupils gathered to him and asked that he write a traditional “death poem” to sum up his life and beliefs. He told them that all his works since the Old Pond haiku was to be his legacy. But waking the next day after a dream, he summoned friends and followers to his bedside and he gave them this poem. Somewhat similar to the preceding poem about warrior’s dreams, Basho, understanding his nearness to death, relates his condition to his surroundings, and leaves his dreams (poems and pupils) to carry on in his stead. Dreams are a vital dimension of consciousness, and take us to realms we cannot reach by conventional means. Unspoken here, we are left to imagine the images Basho entertained on one of his last nights.

I have more Basho haiku to share with you, but I’ll get to them in a following post. My point here is that the world we truly live in is inside us in the felt-depths of our consciousness. When we die, all trace of that lived consciousness disappears, leaving our families, friends, and descendants to continue our journeys in their own way. It is highly unlikely that anyone would be able to recreate our unique awareness from the works, notes, and scraps we leave behind, for no collection of physical objects can capture the essence of a living being. But if we read between the lines that a singular consciousness has left us, we can attempt to construe what it was like to live a particular life. I am personally drawn to Matsuo Basho as an example of what can be captured through supreme skill, effort and economy. I see his legacy as a gift to those who choose to accept it. 

Basho made a point of engaging the land of his day through his travels and teaching. His loop of engagement was extremely active and discerning to the end. He used horseback technology, language, and little else in leaving us a portrait of one man’s sensibility and loop of engagement in his day.

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One Response to “Reflection 248: Haiku Again”

  1. Jim said

    This is a great analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed your insights and examples. Thanks for sharing them.

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