Friday, August 27, 2010

"Even in Kyoto ... I long for Kyoto:" Bashō by Hass

Last week, I mentioned that I really connected for the first time in a resonant way with Bashō via some of William Howard Cohen's unusual translations from the 1970s.  I've continued reading the haiku translations of Robert Hass after doing a recent post on his renderings of  Issa.  I thought this week, I'd marry those two posts and look at Hass on Bashō.

Until recently, I'd never properly warmed up to Bashō, yet he is a favorite of many of the folks who write me regularly.  I went through the nearly 100 translations that Hass provides and come up with a scant 12 that I really like.  That being said, the ones I like are very fine, indeed.  I see that previously from David Landis Barnhill's collection of 700 Bashō poems, I selected 35 I enjoyed very much, so the math seems comparable. From Jane Reichhold's complete Bashō book, I enjoyed 45 from the 1000+ she translated.   From Hass's selection:

       Even  in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
       I long for Kyoto.

I love this haiku.  It has a certain post-modern quality that gives it a great contemporary appeal, yet describes a very essential truism about the nature of life.    This is a poem about memory and nostalgia and, probably more importantly, it addresses the second of the 4 Noble Truths: "the origin of suffering is attachment."   What is felt here is the sweetness, the very humanness, of the pain caused by attachment.    This may be my very favorite Bashō poem.

       First day of spring—
I keep thinking about
       the end of autumn.

Again, memory plays a big part in this haiku.   Truly, spring and autumn share many qualities; but for the direction of the wind, one is hard put to tell which season is which on any given day.  And, of course, the wind doesn't know what month it is.  How often in describing beautiful weather in autumn we mention blustery weather in spring as and vice-versa.  Still, what is the poet exactly thinking about the end of autumn?

        The jars of octopus—
brief dreams
        under the summer moon.

The oddness of the two elements of this haiku - an octopus in a jar and brief, disturbed dreams - are what unites the imagery.   The oddness is the meaning and, as such, encapsulates  the oddness of life itself.

       It's not like anything
they compare it to—
       the summer moon.

Pure, unadulterated Zen in spirit, if not in execution.  Talk about the finger pointing at the moon!  This one tells the reader in no uncertain terms that there is no finger.

       As the sound fades,
the scent of flowers comes up—
       the evening bell.

I've been thinking a lot about this haiku, so much so that I believe I will be using it in the introductory haiku class in October I'll be conducting.  What I've been thinking about this I can sum up in one word: vibrations.   That's not what all the critics tell me I should be thinking but I'm thinking it anyway.

       A cicada shell;
it sang itself
       utterly away.

How lyrical can it get?  Anymore lyrical than this?   I doubt it.  The ennui of life perfectly sketched, emphasizing how beautiful sadness might be, if perceived a certain way at a certain time.

       Year after year
on the monkey's face
       a monkey's face.

Another ku that has a post-modern feel, combined again with a Zen feeling, both in philosophy and in execution.  This time the reader cannot see the man behind the curtain.   This poem also recalls for me personally the story I recounted in last week's post about suddenly seeing human faces as having overwhelmingly animal characteristics.   

     A wild sea—
and flowing out toward Sado Island,
     the Milky Way.

The visual image is at once surreal, overpowering, and lyrical.  Yosano Akiko has a beautiful tanka about the Milky Way - the collection of her work, The River of Stars, refers to it - and there are a number of other haiku in this tradition.  Issa, I believe, has at least one ("A clear view / in the soup kettle / ... Milky Way," translated by David G. Lanoue).   In this rendition of Bashō's haiku, since the sea is wild the Milky Way can't be a reflection.  More likely it is so wild, that the sky and sea seem to be one.  Perhaps it is a clear night before a storm or a clearing one just after.

       A caterpillar,
this deep in fall—
       still not a butterfly.

Is this a strikingly modern haiku in its implications?   If a reader insisted that this was senryu rather than haiku, it would have a different resonance than perhaps originally intended, but a significant resonance none the less.   

       The dragonfly
can't quite land
       on that blade of grass.

Here is a moment, a series of contiguous moments actually, so perfectly captured through minute observation that it may only be described as immensely beautiful.  This is as painterly as Buson - actually, it is beyond painterly, it is cinematic.

       A group of them
gazing at the moon,
       not one face beautiful.

This poem has an Issa quality about it.  On the surface, it is about a group of people at a moon viewing party. Somehow, there seems to be something very attractive about the lack of beauty in Bashō's companions.  Is the moon's face, too, ugly?

       Ripening barley—
does it get that color
       from the skylark's tears?

This last is a favorite of mine - a striking image, a philosophical inquiry or, perhaps, a scientific one.  It reminds me a bit of one of Bashō's most famous, and one of my favorite, haiku.   For me, both show a very practical side to the concept of reincarnation.

The summer's grass!
all that's left
of ancient warriors' dreams.


This Friday feature poem from the archive is from Lilliput Review #137, May 2004.  It is a haiku that may remind you of a little something:

bent by a butterfly ...
broken dream
Jean Michel Guillaumond

garden butterfly--
the child crawls, it flies
crawls, it flies..
translated by David G. Lanoue


PS  Get two free issues           Get two more free issues


Frank Parker said...

Good morning, Don,
When ever I see haiku that mentions Kyoto I think of this poem by our friend David Gitin:


in the company

all night

of a horsefly

--David Gitin

Anonymous said...

David Gitin goes back
long time
in-to things ..... precisely

so too you do Frank

full moon
paying attention
to my every word

cheers, Ed

Charles Gramlich said...

It's probably just me, but to me many of the best haiku have a melancholoy quality.

Ed Baker said...


I suspect that they appear "melancholy" to you is due to the turn away from the 'animistic and the magical
Nembutsu which was flourishing among the masses/the 'riff-raff'
to a Pure Land orthodoxy

on April 13, 1321 (accor Shiren wrote
about that many Nembutsu priests and priestesses
of the lower class/(haiku) poets all!attended banquets to perform their Nembutsu singing, dancing, poetry-reciting, and thereby, together with the blind musicians and dancing girls, entertained the guests.*


losing all of this ... erotica... to the Pure Land Orthodoxy sure did support a dirges-tic melancholy that we yet suffer from.

* see Ichiro Hori's "Folk Religion in Japan"

page 127

Anonymous said...

dear don and all

a great fave basho for me

fleas, lice
a horse pissing
by my pillow

hass has that 'peeing,' a poor choice imo. another trans. uses 'piddle,' which is just ridiculous.

basho remains for me the classical haiku poet of the widest range and the most mature/zenlike voice. the range one reason he's compared to shakespeare.

yrz, tenzing

Frank Parker said...

Yes and thank you, Ed.
You can listen to David reading his new book, The Journey Home (due out late fall from Blue Wind), on my web site:

Frank Parker said...

tenzing - I agree with you completely. I much prefer your translation too. My favorite Basho:

between the moon coming out
and the sun going in
the red dragon flies

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for the kind words and tip to the David Gitlin audio. The Kyoto haiku recalls Issa's on the fly, the man, and the large room (which always sounds to me like the start of one of those jokes ...)

Another "full moon" beauty, Ed ...


That feeling of melancholy is actually a large part of the Japanese aesthetic. The concept of wabi-sabi incorporates that feeling of melancholy and sadness in the overall acceptance of the transience of all things. Here's a quote from the above link:

"Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature."

Like Ed said ...


I am coming around to your way of thinking about Bashō. Certainly, along with his strengths are Hass's weaknesses in rendering work. So many of the translations depend on Blythe, which again has its pluses and minuses. His notes freely admit what he is about when notes are supplied. Ultimately, I think Hass's approach can be instructive for a novice like myself.

Frank (again): Thanks for the haiku ... I don't know this one and it is intriguing, indeed.

D G said...

Actually, I believe sabi is the lonely/sad part of wabi-sabi, deriving from the same root as sabishii, "lonely, sad, disconsolate". Wabi refers to the simple/rustic element of the Zen-influenced aesthetic, if I understand correctly.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I think you are spot on ... I should have more precise in what I sad. I guess I was thinking that when the concepts are combined, they incorporate aspects of both elements.

Thanks very much for the note.


Theresa Williams said...

Basho is my favorite of the haiku poets because of the loneliness in his poems. I finally got all of the Blythe volumes and was reading in volume one that loneliness "is in the painful things that happen when we are happy." It's this spirit of existing that has remained with me since I was a child. How soothing to find it in Basho's poems and know I am not alone in this way of observing the world. Fine post, Don. Thank you.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


I think your comment touches on what Charles sensed, what I was trying to say, and what DG summed up so well.

Glad you liked it. On a side note, two back issues went out in the mail to you this morning. Your suggestions are posted on the Near Perfect list.


Theresa Williams said...

By the way, I, too, vote for "pissing." Much more honest, funny, and pleasing to the ear. Not to mention that the word "pissing" actually sounds like the act itself.

Now to share two of my favorite Basho haiku:

The hollyhocks
lean toward the sun
in the May rain

I love this one because of the sadness of rain, the happiness of the sun, and how the hollyhocks instinctively know what to do in the moment.

Coolness of the melons
flecked with mud
in the morning dew

This one has everything: the concept of impermanence (dew), the joy of the cool melons (and anticipation of life-giving refreshment) and the sad intimation of death, returning to earth (flecked with mud). Ah, so beautiful, it makes my throat ache!

Theresa Williams said...

Don, thank you! I am looking forward to the back issues!

Ed Baker said...

I have a phun book:

"Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers"

"[...]the author. Leonard Koren was trained as an architect but never built anything - except an eccentric Japanese tea house - because he found large large, permanent objects too philosophically vexing to
design. Instead he crated WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, one of the premier avant garde magazines of the 1970's. [...]."

I have never seen a single issue of this magazine, though I was greatly influenced by Tonto's
Kemo Sabe
and a hearty
Hi Ho Silver

Ed Baker said...

pee est..

heressssss WET!

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


The hollyhocks is one of my favorites, too - here's Lucien Stryk's version, from a post back in 2008, that I like very much:

June rain,
hollyhocks turning
where sun should be.

Your reading of cool melons has just lifted the poem right up for me, thanks for that.

Ed, here's lots of that book you are talking about for folks to dip their big toe into ...

Theresa Williams said...

I like Stryk's version even better. :-)

Art Durkee said...

If memory serves, Sam Hamill's translation uses "pissing" or "pisses."

For myself, Basho is one of the most profound and resonant poets of all time, in haiku, in haibun, in whatever. Basho's sense of the ephemeral nature of existence (the sabi of wabi-sabi) is at the root of all his writings; and in this he was profoundly influenced by Zen, which he studied. Basho continues to profoundly influence me; whenever I go on a road trip, a copy of (Oku no hosomichi) "Narrow Road to the Interior" goes with me. Every time I re-read one of Basho's travel journals with haiku, I get more out of it: which is the very definition of great literature.

I feel little connection with Buson, because for the most part he's painterly and surface-oriented. Pretty images, indeed, but unlike Basho the images don't draw me deeper down towards that silent river of contemplation that lies under the surface of things.

My favorite Issa poem (in Hamill's rendering here) is:

This world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet. . . and yet. . .

For me, that wraps up all of Issa's poignancy into one poem.

Anonymous said...

In the octopus jar haiku the "jar" that is referred to is actually an octopus trap. One catches octopuses by lowering a jar into the sea. The octopus makes it a comfy home until the fisherman pulls the jar out of the sea. So, the image isn't as strange as it might seem--it is simply describing the comfort that the octopus is experiencing inside the trap--enjoying fleeting, summery dreams--before it is abruptly yanked to the surface.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, A ... here's what the Japanese trap/jars look like ...