Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Buson and Billy Collins: the Butterfly and the Moth

In prepping for this week's Billy Collins poetry discussion, I ran across a poem of his that is something of a meditation on a haiku, although that might be stretching the concept a bit. As an introduction to it, here's a poem by Busôn:

                 on the temple bell

Probably, and justifiably, his most famous haiku, it took quite sometime before my dull, dull mind heard the bell ring and I realized how it literally resonates. Over the years, I've read many versions of this and this is the simplest and, in my opinion, the best.

Now Mr. Collins:


Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it at the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

Billy Collins

There are some things I like about this poem, other things not so much. The title, "Japan," for me is a bit of a conundrum, but perhaps, as is frequently the case with Collins, it's just a launching point. At first I was puzzled by his use of moth instead of butterfly, which robs it of an allusion to Chuang Tzu's famous work:

"I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. "

Most versions go with butterfly, but I did find one that used moth, specifically a moon-moth, so there you go. As usual, when confronted with a puzzle, I turn to Master Issa:

on the flower pot
does the butterfly, too
hear Buddha's promise?

Issa translated by David Lanoue



Greg said...

i've read "Japan" somewhere else online and thought it was so-so, but i think the more i read it the more i like it. i think the use of moth instead of butterfly somehow makes the poem less "poetic," more accessible. not sure how, though.

John Grochalski said...

perhaps Collins simply got mixed up between butterfly and moth in the writing of the poem. but the use of the moth, lighter than a butterfly and not nearly as visually appealing, lends the poem a sort of common weight. i'm so-so on Collin's poems at times, but his often talked about accessibilty certainly gives his work an odd appeal.

Anonymous said...

her "moth" is doing-it s-job

as, nearly every word in this poem is (doing "it s job"

so maybe Billy should have used farfalla? same
three syllables/beats as "butterfly"

moth! boom... and all that "moth" connotes in mind

"moth" is the 'right' word/image my

variegated | mind

and to the piece is 'true'

... if you 'get my drift'

(there is also a farfalla press...

they interviewed me

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks Greg, Jay ... and Ed.

More on this in a followup post ...


york2frisco said...

It's my favorite Billy Collins poem, and the best portrait of digesting and appreciating haiku I've ever read. The specifics of the particular haiku featured in this piece can be debated ( as most things in haiku too often are )but they are inconsequential to the essence of this poem ... experiencing haiku.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

york2frisco, thanks - experiencing haiku is what it's all about ...