Photo by Frédéric Lemaréchal
In book 3 of R. H. Blyth's classic 4-volume Haiku, there are a number of sections on particular subjects, one being cormorant fishing. Cormorant fishing is a method, as depicted above, in which the bird has a snare attached to the base of its throat. When the cormorant catches a fish, it is unable to swallow it and the fisherman extracts it from the bird's throat. The the process is then repeated, over and over again.
This method of fishing, hundreds and hundreds of years old, inspired many haiku. And, as would be expected, most are in empathy with the plight of the bird.
Here are 4 poems by classic masters, translated by Blyth:
and cormorant fishers, too,
Parent and child.
This is a signature Issa poem, focused as it is on the shared experience of bird and human: both are, potentially, parent and child. Issa, who considered himself an orphan from an early age, has compassion which knows no species line. Obviously, the plight of the cormorant is especially emotive for him.
Model from Vatican Museum
In their basket, the cormorants
Shiki goes right to the heart of the matter, the birds' terrible plight: catch the fish, be unable to eat. Hence, the exhaustion - all effort, no reward.
Statue, Eden Park, Cincinnati, OH
The cormorant keeper
Is not to be seen this year.
Buson focuses on the elderly man he remembers seeing who is the keeper and trainer of cormorants. As with Issa's poem, we see the human, in important respects, shares the plight of the cormorant: life's ephemerality.
Frontispiece, Talks about Birds
Dived in and out of the water
With the cormorant
Like Shiki, Onitsura identifies completely with the task of the cormorant and replicates what is a very real emotional experience for those who witness this type of fishing.
The one master missing is Bashō from this particular selection of Blyth translations. I found his translation of the follwoing a bit cumbersome, so here it is, translated by David Landis Barnhill instead:
Artwork by Keisai Eisen
but then so sad:
cormorant fishing boat
Bashō strikes a perfect balance of humanness - the fascination with this 'ingenious' method of fishing and, suddenly, the revelation of its implication, karmic and otherwise. The range of emotion from one mere moment to the next is, in itself, something of an analogy for the human experience.
One note - there are, and have been, different methods of cormorant 'fishing.' Another method does not involve a snare around the neck, but the bird (actually, a number are used at a time) is tethered to the boat, having been trained not to swallow.
Woodblock by Kunisada
the cormorants stare
at them hard...
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