Friday, February 18, 2011

"Some Business in Another World" - The Little Treasury of Haiku, Part 3

"Black Crow for New Year" by Totoya Hokkei @ the Brooklyn Museum

This is part 3 of a rather longish review of a relatively compact little volume of poetry, The Little Treasury of Haiku.  One of the translators of the second great wave of haiku in English, Peter Beilenson, while occasionally wordier than might be desired, has proved himself to me to be a premier translator of Japanese haiku.  This volume has provided more engagement and enjoyment than many an anthology and for that I am certainly thankful.

Following on parts 1 & 2, the finale, part 3:


That white peony . . .
Lover of the moon trembling
Now at midnight

There is a lot one might imagine in Gyodai's scene: perhaps it is a lover of more than the moon that waits or perhaps the it is simply the white peony that trembles.  The image, or double-image, of peony/moon is lovely.

Now this old poet
Emerges from the purple depths
Of the convolvulus

Chora seizes upon the moment of reverie, a moment that in fact may go on for minutes or hours so, really, the moment seized is the exact one after reverie.  The morning glory has seduced many with its charms; the purple depths of otherness, of the creative mode observed or conjured, is infinite.

Hands upon the ground
Old aristocratic frog
Recites his poem

Sokan, too, visits the source of all creativity, reminding us of what the true poem is really composed.  Or, perhaps, it is Master Frog that does the reminding.

Before the sacred
Mountain shrine of Kamiji . . . 
My head bent itself

The sense of spirituality in haiku, haiku as a way, is very close to the surface of these poems.  Issa tells us that his body senses even before his mind the sacredness of certain moments in certain places.

"Magic Theatre, For Madmen Only."   How lost Mr. Haller was, and we may all be, in our minds ...

Now take this flea:
He simply can not jump . . . and
I love him for it

Another poem by Issa, this one brimming with his huge compassion for tiny things - as is often the case, Issa sees something of himself in the flea's predicament.

Squads of frogs jumped in
When they heard the plunk-plash
Of a single frog

I'm not sure how good this poem is but I simply had to include it because it feels like such a logical extension of Bashō's most famous haiku.  Here if we imagine, as Issa would, that the frogs are human-like, than what a homage we have to the great master who "jumped" first, and to that moment that we all replicate with our tardy leaps.  Wakyu seems to be smiling with this poem.

With the new clothes
Remember . . . the crow stays black
And the heron white

This second poem by Chora feels in many ways more like a proverb than a haiku, something certainly not all that common in the form.  Often one might derive a proverbial sentiment but the execution is more subtle.  Perhaps it is the translation; in any case, it is a fine reminder for all and sundry, be it fine verse or no.

In lantern-light
My white yellow chrysanthemums
Lost all their color

In this first of two haiku by Buson, the artist's eye sketches the very quality of light itself, no mean feat when his brush on this occasion is steeped with words.  Buson snares the single tick of eternity nearly perfectly every time.

Morning-misted street . . .
With white ink an artist brushes
A dream of people

This 2nd by Buson, takes the quality of light even further - white ink on white canvas to paint a dream.  Mr. Warhol would have appreciated this one, its very uniqueness coming as it did long before the imaginative acts descended into the repetitive stunts we so often see in the post post-modern world.

"He takes an empty canvas and sticks it on the wall, wall ..."

Buson's brush is loaded with ink ...

At Nara Temple . . .
Fresh-scented chrysanthemums
And ancient images

The contrast Bashō highlights is the now and the ancient - what seems to be a clash really resolves in oneness, the flowers are eternal and the images transitory when held to the light just so.

Chanting at the altar
Of the inner sanctuary
A cricket priest

Issa's humor accomplishes the same sort of seeming conflict of images, with the same result; the cricket, of course, isn't a priest on one hand and the other, of course, very much is.  The Buddha essence of cricket chanting would humble most of us anyday.

On these rainy days
That old poet Ryokan
Wallows in self-pity

Here is the core of meditation; to see oneself for what one really is.  Once consciousness is raised, back sliding is rare.  Humor in this poem, as with the previous Issa poem, is an important tool.

Roadside barley stalks
Torn by our clutching fingers . . .
As we smiled farewell

Smiles belie the clutching as humble manners conceal deep-felt emotions.  The barley stalks are not all that suffer in Bashō's perfectly wrought moment

3 Death poems:

Suddenly you light
And suddenly go dark . . .

Full-moon and flowers
Solacing my forty-nine
Foolish years of song

If they ask for me
Say: he had some business
In another world

Three beautiful death poems draw this volume to a close.  I can't imagine anything finer and more precise than Chine-Jo's haiku.  The critical word that unites the short life of the firefly to the narrator is "fellow."  We are all one in that and how few words she takes to sum up the mystery of all things.  Chine-Jo was one of Bashō's ten leading pupils, a fine woman haiku poet.

Issa brings irony and self-deprecation to this death poem - his other, a bath when you're born, a bath when you die, how stupid, being more famous - yet he manages to let us know what is most important to him, no matter how foolish.

Sokan also brings the humor in his poem, sounding almost like the humorous epitaphs one finds on older gravestones. Still, we might ask, what could that business be?

For a petite little volume of older English translations of classic haiku, I can hardly imagine A Little Treasury of Haiku being more pleasurable.  There were lots more poems than the handful I've highlighted that are well worth a read through or two.  If you see this brief book on  a used bookstore shelf sometime (or would like to pick up a reading copy for under $5), grab it up. 


This week's featured poem comes from Lilliput Review #138.  5 poems from this issue have previously appeared in two different posts; here's a sixth that stands with the best of any ...

Pigeons in the square
as always.  How could one bear
to live for ever?
David Lindley

amid weeping dewdrops
pigeons coo
"Praise Buddha!"

translated by David G. Lanoue


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature.  Here's how.
Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 90 songs
Hear 'em all at once on the the LitRock Jukebox


Charles Gramlich said...

I really like the line "a dream of people."

Fred said...

A fine selection from my favorite haiku collection. I'm now working on my second copy, as my first fell apart.

Theresa Williams said...

...really good to see one by Ryokan:

On these rainy days
That old poet Ryokan
Wallows in self-pity

How many of us can be this honest about ourselves? Thanks, Don.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


That is a line that just grabbed me too ...


That says it all. Thank you again very much for tipping me this way.


That's the truth. With a capital T.


Anonymous said...

thanks and a PLUS your link to the Brooklyn Museum..

now I know where Stone Girl (now) resides):


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

kokkie-san, there she is!