Friday, September 3, 2010

"The scissors hesitate:" Buson by Hass

Buson, known as the artistic or painterly poet among the haiku masters, is a master of precision.  Reading through Robert Hass's renderings of Buson, I've been most impressed by two things: the concision Hass manages to use with Buson, to great effect, and Buson's own intense concentration on the moment.

The later point connects Buson to the verse in a spiritual way  that is often marginalized when considering his work.  Of course, we all share the moment, atheist and believer alike, which is a simple truth.  However, we don't all necessarily live in it or celebrate it and, though the present moment is one of the tenets of fine haiku, in I didn't expect it to manifest itself to quite the degree it does in  Buson's work.

Some of what I've selected from Hass's translation are frequently anthologized pieces and I won't apologize for that; they are selected by many an editor for good reasons.  Yet, still, there a number of poems perhaps not quite as familiar.  That was certainly the case with me.

       I go
you stay;
       two autumns.

 While reading up on critical approaches to haiku, one tenet proffered the question: "Where does the poem resolve, in the mind of the poet, on the page, or in the mind of the reader?"  Certainly this haiku isn't spiritual in the Buddhist sense but there is deep emotion here.   There will be two different autumns because the two people of the poem will be in two different places.  The idea that even the season itself will be different accentuates the distance between the two friends or lovers.  6 words, one large parcel of loneliness.

      The cherry blossoms fallen-
through the branches
      a temple.

This is the painterly Buson who is so often mentioned.  With the blossoms gone, the temple appears.  There is a spiritual quality to this, ennui or sabi, if you will.  The season passes, impermanence is heightened, yet, even at that, something is offered by way of a solution.  Is there an acceptance here of the need to move away from attachment to attain the end of suffering?  Or is it just another pretty picture?

      Autumn evening-
there's joy also
      in loneliness.

I've highlighted this particular haiku because, though one may sketch in all manner of naturalistic details to fill out a picture, the main argument here to me is philosophical.  Autumn has come, winter is coming, the season of death, yet still there might be joy.  What is the joy in loneliness?  It is something most of us have felt and, though elusive, that joy, it is of great import.  

       on the temple bell

Perhaps Buson's most famous poem (here's a post on it from way back - actually, there were two), the image is powerful, because, I believe, of the implication and not the allure.  Again, the word temple conjures a spiritual mood.  The sleeping butterfly recalls Lao Tzu's dreaming butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming of Lao Tzu?  Here the moment is captured a little bit more effectually than, for instance, in "Cherry blossoms fallen."   The problem with the later may be the tense of the rendering.

      Flowers offered to the Buddha
come floating
      down the winter river.

This is painterly, indeed, and the image may overwhelm the message, yet still there is a message.  It is the passage of time and seasons, as the flowers of spring and summer flow down in winter into the river that, in a way, reminds me of Issa's wonderful insects on a branch, floating down river, singing.

      Not a leaf stirring;
      the summer grove.

This is, as rendered, is a potent piece. The minimalist approach puts all the weight on the swing or gate word, frightening, which modifies both the opening and closing line, and, standing alone, as one imagines the speaker in the forest, becomes very powerful, indeed.   Fear is not often the subject of classical haiku and rightly so.  Normally, the exact same scene is sketched quite differently, a quiet, serene country scene.  Here, though one's attention is riveted because it is too quiet, and the narrator's animal instincts take over.  Negative as it is, still, it is one of my favorite Buson haiku.


      Escaped the ropes,
escaped the nets-
      moon on the water.

This is, perhaps, too imagistic but, having  lived a long time by the sea, it does have a certain romantic appeal.  Dipping a little beneath the surface, one discerns a classic theme of human being versus nature and, per usual, human loses again, as the moon escapes.  Yet, the poet captures the moon, among other things, and all is not lost.  Or not.

      Before the white chrysanthemum
the scissors hesitate
      a moment.

This may be my favorite of Buson.   The pause is physical and intellectual and emotional - a beautiful picture, if conjured properly in the mind, about to become un-beautiful in the next moment.  Still, the lesson of death is repeated, and beauty, too.  Desire is the cause of all longing, all suffering.  Yet, we repeat the cycle no matter how many times we learn the lesson.

      People visiting all day-
in between
      the quiet of the peony.

Once again, philosophy and art meet each other halfway.  The poem, perfectly balanced on the fulcrum of its second line, eventually tilts toward the silence that is its resolution.  Without noise, there is no silence, so we are truly "in between."  What tilts it for me, you ask?  Well, the poem might be rendered "The quiet of the peony - / in between / people visiting all day."  In meditation, it is silence which informs the sounds of life and all its complications.  Truly, it is the balance we need; there is no yang without ying.  Pretty as one might find the poem, its message is every bit as potent as its beauty. 

The poet, like everyone else, needs no church or temple to be religious.  The way which may be walked is not the eternal way. 

      A tethered horse,
      in both stirrups.

This is, indeed, too, painterly, yet it is exactly that quality that appeals to me.  There seems to be only image, evocative as it is, without underlying spiritual or philosophic motive.  What I like here is exactly what I like when seeing a great painting or reading a piece of flash fiction.  I imagine the ride through nasty weather, in any emergency or an important meeting or a lover's tryst, the long discussion in a warm lodging while the horse patiently waits and all the color is gradually removed from the scene.  This is at once what Buson is most criticized for and what he is very best at.  Does it have the appeal of the layered, probing work of Bashō or emotive, resonant poems of Issa?  Surely not.  Does it have it's place in the world of poetry in general and haiku specifically?

Most definitely so.

                              Early spring ...
      In the white plum blossoms
night to next day
      just turning.  

The last Hass rendering I'll pass on, this is another coupling of stunning image with a perfectly conjured moment.   This very specific light, caught in this very specific moment, in the texture particular to white plum blossoms, is perfection itself.  As to the moment: what is better, to live the moment and the moment only or simply to talk about it?  As far as spirituality goes, there is no Zen.  There is no plum blossom.  There is no light.  First, there is no mountain.

Then there is.

Buson, I have been seduced.  Mister Hass is to blame.


This week's featured poem from the Lilliput Review archive comes from #135,  published in January 2004.  Let's make that this week's two featured poems: enjoy.

The Zen Review
seeks poems that focus clearly
on nothing.  Avoid references
to nonexistent past and future.
Present tense only, please.
We value poetry that depicts truth
about time, captures the essence of breath.
Overstocked with poems about sore knees,
monkey minds and one-hands clapping.
Peggy Heinrich

Landing Road
Old pine trees
line the road

so many tongues
for the wind 
Michael Kriesel

when the nightingale
moves into the pine...
voice of the pine
translated by David G. Lanoue 



Charles Gramlich said...

Before the white Chrysantheum, the scissors pauses."

That's a nice one.

Oleg K. said...

Of the immortals, Buson's been my least favorite, but your post is giving me pause. My favorites of the ones you've chosen are "flowers offered..." (a haunting image that is at the same time a whole 'nother place) and "the scissors hesitate" (the last line is almost superfluous, there could just be an ellipses after hesitate and it would knock me over just the same).

The "two autumns" haiku...I think it's by Shiki, not Buson. At least that's what I've seen elsewhere. Is there a dispute about this poem I don't know about?

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


You're reaction to Buson via Hass' renderings was similar to my own. I'm glad some of these connected - they certainly did with me.

The "two autumns" haiku is on page 81 of "The Essential Haiku" in the Buson section. For this book, Hass only translated Bashō, Issa and Buson.

Do let me know if you've seen it attributed to Shiki elsewhere.


Oleg K. said...

Hi Don,

I first heard about this haiku because of the "Two Autumns" Reading held in San Francisco recently ( But when I noticed the way Hass attributed it when I read your post, I did a small Google search and it's also attributed to Shiki on these sites:
- (pg 17)

Strangely, here it seems to be attributed to Basho:

Interesting. I wonder if there are other well-known haiku whose authorship his been bungled like this.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Well, Oleg, this is getting mighty interesting. It looks like one of the sources you sent along has a citation for volume 2 of the 4 volume Haiku by Blyth, which I have at home, so I'll check it.

I'm also going to run this by Charlie Trumbull, who runs the Haiku Database Project.

We may end up with a post out of this! More soon,


Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I hope to have more for you on this soon, but it seems that there is a real chance that the answer is that both poems are correct. Charlie is currently on the road and perhaps he will be getting back with more info once he returns.

Intriguing, indeed!

I'll keep you posted.

Oleg K. said...

Looking forward to it.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Just coming across this discussion now. The "two autumns" poem is definitely by Shiki, not Buson. I explore the misattribution at length at The problem started with Blyth (although he later corrected himself), and was perpetuated by other translators, notably Henderson and Hass, among others. But the poem is definitely Shiki's.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Michael, thanks so much for this. Interestingly, I just ran across the Shiki attribution in a Stephen Aldiss translation in The Art of Haiku this morning.