Sunday, May 10, 2015

Five Classic Cormorant Haiku

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:

Art by Katsukawa Shunsen

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

      Morning twilight;
In their basket, the cormorants
      Asleep, exhausted.    

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
Grown old,
      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

       My soul
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

so fascinating
        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...
cormorant fishermen

trans. by David G. Lanoue


PS  Click to learn how to contribute to Wednesday Haiku

1 comment:

Bart said...

A very fine extra treat here on a Wednesday Don. I've watched cormorants dive for fish on numerous occasions on my visits to Maine & find them graceful & fascinating. I've heard of their use in fishing before but never had it explained so poetically.