Reflection 249: Basho Again

March 29, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I think of haiku as the ultimate distillations of consciousness. Grappling with the instant in which we become aware of something, haiku capture what it is about a scene that attracts our attention and draws us out of our everyday selves, heightening our sense of engagement with life. Our sensory impressions, everyday conceptions, understandings, feelings, and personal values are all involved in reading and writing haiku. They address the exact moment we become alive to ourselves in rousing from our habitual stupor to discover we are participating in a situation of particular note. It is a haiku’s challenge to capture that situation in the most precise language possible as a gesture acknowledging how moved we are at the onset of one specific engagement.

In my last post I dealt with six haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, the man who used his pithy jottings to preserve and recapture the high points of his travels about Japan in the second half of the seventeenth century. Here I will consider six more.

Again, I am indebted to Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday Anchor, 1958). I present four versions of each poem: a) a Roman-alphabet version of the haiku in Japanese, b) Henderson’s word-for-word literal translation into English, c) Henderson’s polished English rendition, and d) my rendition as drawn from the literal translation (side-stepping Henderson’s urge to rhyme his translations, and add titles).

7. A haiku written in 1684.

a) Michinobe-no | mukuge | wa | uma | ni | kuware-keri

b) Roadside | mallow | as-for| horse | by | was-eaten-keri

c) Near the road it flowered, / the mallow—and by my horse / has been devoured!

d) roadside flower / fated to be eaten / by my horse

The wild flower by the side of the road attracted both Basho and his horse’s attention, leading to, first, the horse eating the flower, and then Basho capturing the incident in this haiku. The attractiveness of the flower was a set-up for its demise, producing the surprise and irony that made the incident stand out in Basho’s mind. This is precisely the kind of moment that wakes us up because of the disparity between appreciating one of nature’s beauties and then witnessing its inglorious fate. Compressed into a single episode of consciousness, we immediately grasp the familiarity of the grand plot by which we all bloom and succumb.

8. Here’s one from 1686 about wild boars.

a) Inoshishi | mo | tomo-ni | fukaruru | nowake | kana

b) Wild-boars | even | together-with | get-blown | autumn-storm | kana 

c) Wild boars and all / are blown along with it— / storm-wind of fall!

d) even wild boars / get blown about / autumn storm

As is traditional, this haiku is anchored by the seasonal reference in the last line, which confirms the force of a particular incident. Since Basho’s day, Japanese poets have witnessed events in the world as they are situated according to the natural order the seasons represent. Wild boars in autumn face different challenges than wild boars in winter, spring, summer. And if boars cannot find refuge, what about the poet who summons them? I picture Basho as blasted and drenched, using wild animals to speak to his plight, which is almost beyond words. For me, the key word here is “even.” The storm was even that bad. If the poet’s experience was truly ineffable, he manages to convey his helplessness and mental confusion through sympathy with wild boars.

9. Here’s one in which one sensory impression opens way to another.

a) Hototogisu | kie-yuka | kata | ya | shima | hitotsu

b) Cuckoo | vanish-go | direction | : | island | one

c) Where the cuckoo flies / till it is lost to sight—out there / a lone island lies.

d) where the cuckoo disappears / an island rises / from the sea

Here the cuckoo flying into the distance leads the poet’s eye to an island he had not noticed before—which must be where the bird was headed in the first place. We talk about what William James called the stream of consciousness—as if awareness flowed by itself. But in truth, we are responsible for the sequence in which we become aware of events because that sequence depends on how we direct our attention from one salient event to the next. Events don’t flow; we flow. Consciousness streams within us as we are moved to track the changes we notice. We are made to discover motion in our surroundings—such as the fly we spot out of the corner of our eye. Such as birds winging into the distance, and islands emerging from the sea in that direction. Replacing a bird with an island in our attention is no mean trick, yet we perform similar feats a thousand times a day. One thing points to another, and that to yet another. Think of movies, television, videos, aurora borealis. We are hooked on motion and tracking change, which we interpret as plots and narratives—and sometimes haiku.

10. And now what a particular island leads Basho to behold.

a) Ara | umi | ya | Sado-ni | yokotau | Ama-no | -gawa

b) Rough | sea | : | Sado [above] | stretch-across | Heaven’s | -river

c) So wild a sea—/ and, stretching over Sado Isle, / the Galaxy…

d) night surf / over Sado Island / the Milky Way

Here Sado, off the northwest coast of Japan, provides an earthly reference point for Basho’s otherworldly apparition. It is night. Wind is blowing. Seas are heaving, crashing. Over Sado, stars are gleaming in a swath across the sky. A night to remember. So Basho jots down a few words to spark his memory later on when he feels moved to recount his adventures. His life is one momentous journey made up of experiences such as this. Imagine what it was like in those days long before the advent of radio, film, TV, and computer games—the endless stream of distractions via new media meant to capture our attention for the benefit of those who profit from how we spend our time and money. Basho represents a world different from our world of today. But his jottings are still with us, and we can recover some of the world he experienced directly through his bodily senses if we will apply ourselves to that task.

11. Basho noticed many flowers on his travels, always in the context of his innermost sensibility. Here’s a haiku about hollyhocks.

a) Hi-no | michi | ya | aoi | katabuku | satsuki-ame

b) Sun’s | road | : | hollyhocks | lean-toward | fifth-month-rain

c) The sun’s way: / hollyhocks turn toward it / through all the rain of May.

d) where the sun should be / hollyhocks follow / showers in May

Basho here draws attention to the sun’s location in the sky and the direction hollyhocks face in tracking it—even though it may not be evident to those who do not depend on photosynthesis to make their own food. In this case, rainclouds hide the sun, but the hollyhocks spy it out and turn toward it nonetheless. As hollyhocks turn to face the sun, Basho turns toward the hollyhocks. We all have our tropisms, deliberately turning to face that which appeals to us. Our loops of engagement echo that natural force, ensuring we seek out those attractions which sustain us—food, air, water, companions, shelter, children, health, safety, and other drives and values that direct us toward what we need to survive. Hollyhocks need sunlight, Basho needs hollyhocks, we all seek engagement with what keeps us going.

12. One last haiku, based on auditory stimulation—or rather its lack.

a) Kane | tsukanu | mura | wa | nani | wo | ka | haru-no-kure

b) Bell | ring-not | village | as-for | what | [acc.] | ? | spring-evening

c) A village where they ring / no bells!—Oh, what do they do / at dusk in spring?

d) without bells / what do villagers do / on spring evenings?

Japanese syntax allows “bell | ring-not | village,” which I find more pungent than Henderson’s prosaic “a village where they ring no bells.” I long for the biting directness Japanese would allow me—if I spoke that language. Our own Anglo-Saxon heritage has been much softened and diluted by the Latin touch we inherited through Norman French. The native tongue of haiku is nearly untranslatable into modern English. We have much to learn from the study of haiku—about language and its relation to consciousness. I have tried to show in these examples that behind a particular haiku lies one human mind steeped in its own workings, its language reflecting that mind and its engagements better than our own language lets us speak our own minds as what they are rather than to make a certain impression on others.

That’s it for this round of haiku. As ever, y’rs, –Steve 

One Response to “Reflection 249: Basho Again”

  1. […] Reflection 249: Basho Again « CONSCIOUSNESS the inside story […]

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