Friday, September 17, 2010

Haiku: The Poetry of Nature

A few years back while in London, I purchased a beautiful little haiku book at the British Museum simply entitled The British Museum: Haiku.  You will see, however, that the title of this post is Haiku: The Poetry of Nature and you would be correct to wonder why.

The reason is simple: when the book was published here in the U.S. it was retitled.  In addition, it was given a new cover, as pictured above.  Here is the volume I purchased in London:

So, all you marketing wizards out there: what's up with this?  I've thought about it and it just breaks my brain and, frankly, for awhile caused me some considerable confusion.  Why confusion?   Well, while browsing at the library, I ran into the 1st copy pictured above and spent some lunch hours pouring over the poems and incredible illustrations from the British Museum collection.  I jotted down some notes to consult the copy I knew I had at home so I could pull together some things to share in this post.

The trouble was when I got home, it took awhile to find the book with a different title and different cover, amidst all the piles thereabouts.  When I found what I thought was the book (I wasn't sure because my notes only referred to poems and not editor etc.), I only knew I had the exact book when I read this distinctive and insightful opening sentence of the introduction:

One can know the main facts about Japanese haiku without having much feeling for them; and one can feel quite deeply about haiku without knowing many facts - intuition sometimes supplies important insights. 

A great opening for a decorative, gift-bookey looking item, with gorgeous British Museum reproductions.  Who'd a thunk it'd have a spine (sewn, too)?

In the acknowledgments by editor David Cobb it is noted that many of the translations are by R. H. Blyth, some of which Cobb and his partner, Sakaguchi Akiko, received permission from Hokuseido Press "to edit [them] to a more contemporary standard of layout and punctuation."  This carefully prepared statement says nothing about changing the words of Blyth's translations, which may be some consolation for traditionalists.  Blyth's indenting has been abandoned with all the poems left justified.  In addition to Blyth, 7 other translators are represented in the collection, including 5 poems rendered by Makoto Ueda, with the remainder translated by Cobb.   

Of the 71 poems presented, I noted 19 or so for further inspection.  Why the or so?  Sometimes, when I'm not sure, I simply put a question mark so I'll return to the poem to see what I think later.  In addition to the poems, every page has a facing classical artwork, some running over onto the poem page, taken from scrolls, wood block prints, and books. The paper is heavy, the binding sewn, as noted above, and the colors of the prints are fine.

Two poems on the same page, facing a triptych woodblock illustration entitled "A Picnic on the Beach" demonstrate the care and precision that went into this volume:

on the ebb tide beach
everything we pick up
is alive

spring loneliness -
it falls short of the surf
this stone I toss
Suzuki Masajo

Both of these poems address the kinds of thoughts the ocean evokes.  The first has deeper philosophical implications; it reminds me of a wonderful Peggy Heinrich haiku I reprinted recently ("ebb tide / turning to look back / at my footprints"), both poems being reflections of past and possibly future things, in the present moment.  Not quite the "being there" of the Buddhist moment but it is being everywhere in the momet, if you will.

The 2nd haiku treats another common feeling at land's end, the sense of loneliness and the feeling of being very small in the larger context of things.   I'd almost prefer the poem without the first line, though in either case it reminds one of the basic sadness that seems to underlie all things.

A little further in comes another poem which has a similar subject as Suzuki Masjo's:

alone in the spring -
hurling a javelin, and the
walking after it
Nomura Toshirō

Anyone who has played any competitive sport on their own knows this feeling.  There probably is nothing more solitary than hitting a baseball alone and chasing it, or throwing a ball up in the air continually with no one there to catch it but yourself.  The feeling reminds us very sharply what we are missing.

The theme of loneliness pervades the collection:

a summer shower -
a woman sits alone
gazing outside

The following is an unusual poem that pushes the limits of traditional haiku - I'm really not sure at all what the poet is after:

buckling in the heat
where the A-bomb burst
a marathon
Kaneko Tota

The whole poem rides on whatever it is that is buckling. Certainly the reader knows what the buckling is an allusion to. Is it a runner the narrator sees or the narrator herself who buckles? Is it an illusion, as heat shimmering off pavement, creating an appearance of buckling, recalling that other buckling? I'm at a loss but the mood is both mysterious and haunting.

It never fails to amaze me that I go from book to book, anthology to anthology, concerning haiku and still there is another "unread" Bashō poem:

the beginning of poetry:
the song of the rice-planters
in the province of Ōshū

The reason for the quotes around unread is that I've read the complete Bashō via Jane Reichold and I don't recall this one.  Hardly surprising, I guess, since there are so many radically different renderings of classical poems but, still, you'd think I'd have even a tiny clue.  In any case, I really like this haiku for many reasons, not the least of which is that this thick-minded Westerner now senses the visceral reason for the many rice singing haiku of Issa.

Duh, my dad said!

Here's a couple of mosquito poems one each from Issa and Bashō, both translated very well by Mr. Cobb:

mosquitoes by day
the Buddha hides them all
behind his back

at my poor hovel
there's one thing I can offer -
skinny mosquitoes

The first one I don't recognize at all, the second I believe to be a haiku that has been translated many different ways previously.  I like them both, the first making a big picture point, the second a little more personal.  The next poem by Bashō is one that almost everyone translates, but this simple, stripped down version by Blyth is
still the best:

the moon:
I wandered around the pond
all night long

Longer versions of this poem tend to emphasize the moon's journeying as well as the narrator's all-night rambling - the implication is there in the simple version and anything additional is really superfluous.  The colon says it all, performing the function of the cutting word in the original Japanese and very clearly emphasizing the comparison conjured by the poem's dichotomy.  Just a perfect little poem with cosmic qualities that are at once lyrical and scientific.

grasshopper -
do not trample to pieces
the pearls of bright dew

Issa recounts in haiku lots of instances of saving grasshoppers, ants, and flies from being trampled so here is an ironical turn. Thinking on Issa's other two poems about dew recently highlighted in a post and how dew seems to represent the ephemeral nature of life, there is much resonance in this little piece, again masterfully translated by Blyth.

I can hear those 4 volumes of Blyth's calling me as I type.

bush-clover flowers -
they sway but do not drop
their beads of dew

he says a word,
and I say a word - autumn
is deepening

The first haiku reminds me of Issa's poem "as it falls / the peony lets drop the rain / of yesterday," or if stated in the proper order, Issa's should remind us of Bashō's. In one case the precipitation doesn't drop, in the other it does. Though these pieces are imagistic and beautiful in their own right, they also remind us of the interconnectedness of all things. Beyond that, Kyoshi's poem is deeply moving, rendered as it is by Makoto Ueda. In this case, everything hinges on the single word autumn, in its placement and its implications. There is almost a sense that the word said and repeated is "autumn," though admittedly that seems a stretch. Still, if that isn't the word(s), its meaning and implication is clearly what the topic of conversation is about.  A beautiful, stunning haiku, certainly.

low over the railroad
wild geese flying -
a moonlit night

This is a poem about movement, about travel, and, I imagine, also about sound, perhaps as it fades into the distance.  There is a blending, perhaps, of the two sounds as they move away.  Mr. Blyth is a master translator and, like a master painter, sketches in a few brief brushstrokes a world entire.

Here's a Buson piece I've missed previously:

the beginning of autumn:
what is the fortune-teller
looking so surprised at?

Indeed.  We are right now at the beginning of autumn in the Northern hemisphere and we know what that means.  There is a fine humor here, though the macabre is not very deep below the surface.

no escaping it -
I must step on fallen leaves
to take this path
Suzuki Masajo

Some of the previous poems prepare the reader for the full implications of this poem.  Autumn is the season of ending, the season of dying, and we all must walk on fallen leaves to do what we are doing and arrive where we all arrive.  "No escaping it."

These 3 haiku follow one upon the other:

a sudden squall
and the bird by the water
is turning white

the angler -
his dreadful intensity
in the evening rain!

the sea darkens -
the voices of the wild ducks
are faintly white

The first and third poems are familiar but the placement of them together really underscores their difference as much as their similarity.  "A sudden squall" has Buson's painterly quality, while "the sea darkens" utilizes the technique of synesthesia I touched upon in a recent post on Issa, which adds a whole other dimension to the scene.  The intensity of the storm in "the angler" dovetails nicely with the fisherman's own intensity and conjures the picture rather than paints it, which would be Buson's usual approach.  All three together like this remind the reader of Japan's island culture and dependence upon the sea.

this one eye sightless
but on that side also
I polish my glasses.
Hino Sōjo

Curious about Hino Sōjō, I did some poking around and there wasn't much except the occasional poem here and there.  There is a Wikipedia article, but only in German.  Using the google translate function, you get this horrific piece of work:

      Google translation from German to English of Wikipedia article:
Hino Sojo was born in Ueno, Taito, Tokyo township.

During studies in law from Kyoto University, he called the common Haiku Society of the University and the third high school to life. In 1924 he graduated and became a clerk. As a haiku poet he was trained at the Takahama Kyoshi literary magazine edited by drew at the age of 21 years of attention, as written by him to Haiku on the first page of Hototogisu reached. 1929, at the age of 28, he was finally included in the fixed circle of the magazine.

In 1934 he published in the journal Haikukenkyū (俳 句 研究, GV "Haiku-research") the haiku Miyako Hoteru cycle, in which he first wedding night of two newly weds, described, and thus sent a shock wave through the world of haiku poetry. It acted Although this is a purely fictional story, but this gave rise to the so-called Miyako Hoteru dispute in which Kusatao Nakamura and Kubota Mantaro practiced sharp criticism Saisei Murō contrast, appeared as counsel.

1935 brought together the three journals Sojo somato from Tokyo, Osaka and from Seiryō Hiyodori from Kobe and founded the new journal KIKAN, of which he became.

He called for a modern form of haiku without words and broke so final season with the conservative Takahama Kyoshi, which excluded him in 1936 from among the Hototogisu.

1949, after the Second World War, Sojo went to Ikeda (Osaka) and founded the magazine Seigen.

29 January 1956 Hino Sojo died as a result of tuberculosis disease, by which he had been since 1946 on his sick bed. 

Besides emphasizing how horrible machine translation is (and providing the occasional howler), this translation does give up some intriguing details.   I am fascinated in his proposal of a poetic form of "haiku without words" (not only no finger, but no moon!). The first garbled sentence is very perplexing - if anybody's got a clue, I'd appreciate it.

The haiku itself, "the one eye sightless," has a quality which gives a glimpse into the quirks of human nature.  There is humor, sadness, and I think a sense of human resilience that makes this poem special.

Overall, this is a collection that may be visited again and again, with some fine translations and excellent art.  Though I don't link to amazon, there are quite a few copies available there for 46 cents and up.  I do link to abebooks and you will find excellent copies there for even less when you factor in the amazon shipping.   Very good and fine copies for $3.97 and $4.00 respectively, beating amazon out by 50 cents.

Definitely well worth the price ...


This week's feature poem from the Lilliput archive comes from #133, October 2003.  Enjoy.

    Oxford Cemetery
You thought because
the trees moved
and the stones didn't
you understood
the meaning of the wind.
Louis Bourgeois

autumn wind--
Issa's heart and mind
translated by David G. Lanoue 


PS  Get 2 free issues     Get 2 more free issues     Lillie poem archive


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Thank you, Don!

You haiku poetry post this morning has made my day.

Wonderful poetry; wonderful commentary.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think my favorite is the grasshopper and the dew. I love poems that speak of nature. Right now I'm reading some of Loren Eiseley's poetry, which always evokes nature intensly.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Very happy to oblige, Conrad. It means a lot to connect.

Charles, Eiseley is wonderful, just a great example of a Renaissance man - a fine poet.

Anonymous said...

"He called for a modern form of haiku without words and broke so final season with the conservative Takahama Kyoshi, which excluded him in 1936 from among the Hototogisu."

my take is that the poet called for haiku w/out kigo or season terms and so suffered a final break with kyoshi's conservative hototogisu group.

the much-revered kyoshi, by the way, has been pretty reasonably outed as supporting the fascist regime during japan's long war--our ww2--and overseeing persecution of several progressive nd antiwar haiku poets. you can google for supporting articles on this.


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

tenzing! You are always bringing it ... many many thanks.


Lyle Daggett said...

The only time I've attempted the Google translator was with a text in Spanish, and did it mainly out of curiosity (I can read Spanish more or less). The machine translation did things like: translating the name of the city of San Antonio as "Holy Antonio."

Great haiku here as always.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Lyle, yes, it would be wrong to even call google translations renderings ... very glad you like the haiku.