Blossoms (and Blossoms, and Blossoms, and Blossoms)

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ki no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

– Basho (1654-1694)
1690
Season: Spring
Kigo: Cherry blossoms

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Under the cherry-trees,
On soup, and fish-salad and all,
Flower-petals

– R.H. Blyth, 1950
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Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms.

– Makoto Ueda, 1970

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Under the cherry–
blossom soup,
blossom salad.

– Lucien Stryk, 1985

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From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

– Robert Hass, 1994

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I spent part of this semester completing a class assignment by developing a structure for a database of classical haiku, using XML and related markup tools. Don’t get too impressed. It’s pretty primitive. And at the moment it contains fourteen haiku. And I don’t have any real enthusiasm for spending the hundreds of hours that would be required to expand and refine it enough to make it at all useful.

But I do think it would be really, really cool if such a thing existed. As you can see from my example above, there’s the Japanese (romaji) version of the haiku, accompanied by numerous translations (love, love, love comparative translation), and information about the season and kigo associated with the haiku, which can easily be indexed using markup tools. I can’t even imagine how useful and fun that kind of database would be, if it had enough haiku in it.

But barring some really bored person coming along with a fondness for both haiku and data entry (do such people exist?), this dream will probably not come to fruition any time soon. But I felt like I had to get some kind of real-world satisfaction out of this project, so here’s one of Basho’s more delightful spring haiku for you to enjoy, in all its delightful versions. (I’m kind of fond of Lucien Stryk’s translation. You?)

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first apples
sniffing for the lost scent
of blossoms

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November 15: Basho and me

I was inspired by some recent blog posts by Margaret Dornaus of Haiku-Doodle and Bill Kenney of haiku-usa to try writing riffs on classical haiku. I started with a list of favorite haiku by Basho I had jotted down while reading Makoto Ueda’s Matsuo Basho: The Master Haiku Poet. Then I tried to distill each of these down to some universal theme or structure or atmosphere — to figure out what it was about them that made them seem so great to me. And then for each of them I tried to write a haiku that echoed in some way the spirit of what Basho wrote, while coming up with some new insight or image that was entirely my own.

This exercise was seriously fun and exciting, and I am definitely going to repeat it. Some of the haiku I wrote are clearly just versions of Basho’s haiku; some of them seem to me like they are different enough from what Basho wrote that they could stand alone. I wouldn’t try to publish any of these, at least without acknowledging Basho’s influence, but I do think I learned a lot about how many ways there are to write a successful haiku (even if it’s only Basho’s haiku that are actually successful :) ).

Basho’s haiku below are in regular type; mine are indented and in italics. The Basho haiku are all Ueda’s translations, except for the last one, which (as indicated) is by Jane Reichhold.

1.

At night, quietly,
A worm in the moonlight
Digs into the chestnut.

every morning
new holes in the leaves
someone’s night shift


2.

The sound of an oar beating the waves
Chills my bowels through
And I weep in the night.

 

winter morning
hearing the car start
my tears start


3.

The sea darkens
And a wild duck’s call
Is faintly white.

 

dark clouds gather —
the calls of songbirds
light in the distance


4.

Loneliness —
Sinking into the rocks,
A cicada’s cry.

 

frustration —
the stream rushes by
pounding the rocks


5.

A pile of leeks lie
Newly washed white:
How cold it is!

 

white onions
on the cutting board —
winter chill


6.

The daffodils
And the white paper screen
Reflecting one another’s color.

 

the forget-me-nots
and the sky —
an echo


7.

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled —
Autumn wind.

 

don’t tell me
what to say —
rising heat


8.

Autumn deepens —
The man next door, what
Does he do for a living?

 

winter approaches —
I try to learn the names
of the neighbors


9.

The squid-seller’s voice
Is indistinguishable
From the cuckoo’s!

 

the infomercial host
and the crow —
same voice


10.

Chrysanthemums’ scent —
In the garden, the worn-out
Shoe sole.

 

the scent of apples
left in the orchard
your torn sweater


11.

A bush warbler —
It lets its droppings fall on the rice cake
At the end of the veranda.

 

nuthatches—
shitting all over the sandwich
I left on the patio


12.

A white chrysanthemum —
However intently I gaze,
Not a speck of dust.

 

no matter how long
I stare at hydrangeas —
pure blue

13.

after the flowers
all there is left for my haiku
wisteria beans

(tr. Jane Reichhold)

 

after the leaves fall
nothing to write haiku about
until it snows

Oh yeah! My books!

I forgot to show you the haiku books I bought at Foundry Books over the weekend. I’m very excited about them…

Issa: Cup of Tea Poems

by Issa, translated by David Lanoue

The fascinating preface of this book begins, “…Issa … is at once the most profoundly devout and down-in-the-mud silly of all the great masters of Japanese haiku. … [He] approaches the natural miracles of this world evenly, showing the same reverent awe and artistic excitement for plum trees in full bloom and dog crap covered by a light snow.” True that…that’s what I love about Issa.

Lanoue goes on to discuss Issa’s “liberating, iconoclastic, democratic” vision and thoroughly dissects what he sees as the critical influence of Issa’s Pure Land Buddhist beliefs on his poetry.

These are quite literal translations, written in one vertical line, one word to a line, reflecting, of course, the original format of the haiku in Japanese. Lanoue’s rationale for this format is that this allows the reader to follow the revelation of images in the haiku in the same order as the original poem. Issa’s haiku are often set up to have punch lines or surprises at the end, and less literal translations can ruin this effect. An example:

snow

melting

village

brimming

over

kids

I am having so much fun reading this. I highly recommend it if you don’t read Japanese but want to get some sense of how haiku might read in the original. Or if you just love Issa and can’t get enough of him, like me.

The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho

by Makoto Ueda

I haven’t read this yet, but I’m very excited to because Basho is the seminal haiku poet (as well as a great renku poet) and I don’t know nearly enough about him.

This is a 1970 biography and critical appraisal by a Stanford professor which contains tons of the haiku and excerpts from the renku. Here’s one of my favorites that I just came across while browsing:

Will you start a fire?

I’ll show you something nice –

A huge snowball.

The book looks information-packed but very readable. Thre’s even a map at the beginning (love maps!) of Basho’s various journeys, which he famously wrote about at length.

When I actually get around to reading this (I hope soon) I will give you a more thorough rundown.

The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan

by Abigail Freedman

Another one I’m really excited to read. It’s the memoir of an American diplomat in Japan who joins a haiku group and gets a thoroughly Japanese grounding in the writing of haiku and, in the process, learns quite a bit about Japanese culture.

Just paging through, I see lots and lots of really wonderful haiku (given in both English and Japanese) — some classical and some contemporary. Here’s a great one (by an elderly man being tested for cancer):

into my kidney

a tube pierces

ah, the summer heat!

I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the haiku scene in Japan — even though we are developing our own strong traditions, I think we English-language haiku poets have a lot to learn from the Japanese still. So many of their haiku seem so much fresher and more imaginative than most English-language haiku.

Again, I will give you a more thorough report on this book once I’ve actually read it. It’s on the top of the pile on my nightstand, so with any luck you won’t have long to wait.