Category: 1800s

Batting 10,000: David Lanoue and Issa

Anyone who’s been hanging out around here for a while knows that I am a great admirer (OK, a rabid fan) of the classical Japanese haiku poet Issa, who lived and wrote at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. I am also a fan of Issa’s prolific and talented translator David Lanoue, whose amazing database of Issa’s haiku is one of the greatest resources haiku poets have at their disposal. So I feel I must mark here on the blog the occasion of David’s translation of his 10,000th Issa haiku (which, believe it or not, is less than half the haiku Issa ever wrote). I can’t even wrap my mind around the effort required to complete 10,000 skillful translations, and that isn’t even close to all David has done with his time since he started this project in, good God, 1984.

According to David, number 10,000 will be his last, although he’ll keep revising previous translations. I hope he’s sitting down in a comfortable chair right now, having a cup of tea (that is, after all, what “Issa” means) and feeling pleased with himself. He deserves a rest.

One of the numerous great features of David’s database is that it includes enlightening and frequently entertaining textual and biographical notes on many of the haiku, including this final one, so we get to learn that

the priest
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

is remarkably similar to another haiku Issa wrote six years earlier:

the mountain hermit
in no mood to eat them…
flitting fireflies

It’s interesting to speculate on what was going on here: Was the second haiku a deliberate rewriting of the first? Had Issa simply forgotten that he had written a similar haiku all those years ago? Or did he think of the second haiku as being a completely new poem, the substitution of “priest” for “mountain hermit” sufficiently distinguishing the two that both could stand on their own? Knowing Issa, I tend to lean toward the last option. He was all about specificity. Two different guys may have the same attitude toward the fireflies that are getting in their face, but they’re still two different guys. Those two haiku are no more the same poem than Shakespeare’s love sonnets are all the same sonnet.

*

There’s a lot of stuff on David’s site to explore besides the haiku (and just exploring the haiku could take you a lifetime). While noodling around it recently I discovered two highly enlightening essays on Issa by two poets, Carlos Fleitas and Gabriel Rosenstock. The best thing would be to read them in their entirety, because they are not only informative but wonderfully written and wise and will give you a greater understanding not just of Issa but of the nature and possibilities of haiku in general. But I’ll just quote a few brief passages here to whet your appetite.

Carlos Fleitas discusses the possibility that Issa’s life history profoundly affected his haiku poetics:

“The series of tragic events in the course of his life contain, for the most part, one very special quality that stands out. This is the fact that they are all surprising, unexpected, and brutally sudden events. In this sense, the deaths of highly significant figures in his life from his infancy on provide a recurring theme in his destiny. These events might have shaped a certain characteristic I find in the poet’s haiku. I’m referring to the brusque and unforeseen character of the poetry’s resolution in the third line. If this is indeed a characteristic of haiku, in Issa it appears emphasized and magnified. How different this is from Basho’s poetic concept that develops without bumps—almost glidingly—so that the third line provides continuity, not harshly contrasting to what came before, but rather an effect that is flowing and harmonious.
“… Issa would seem to have been “hurled” into everyday life, instead of being introduced gradually to its most crude aspects. This is why in his works we encounter not only the beauty and rapture typical of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but also elements far removed from the expected. Lice, piss, the body’s decline…emerge as aspects of phenomenological reality that live, side by side, with lotus, moon, and tea.”

— Carlos Fleitas, “Carlos Fleitas on Issa

I think that many people are put off by these qualities in Issa’s haiku — their earthiness, their jarring transitions — but for Gabriel Rosenstock, these elements are part of Issa’s “universal spirit,” one which embraces every element in the world, forcing an awareness and acceptance of reality that are connected to his Buddhist beliefs. Rosenstock tries to cultivate something of Issa’s spirit in himself:

My Romanian grandson, Seán, visited us recently and I introduced him to all my friends, including a dog turd. Flies had gathered. ‘Say hello to my friends, the poo-flies!” I said to him. He was somewhat astounded by my circle of friends but I think he got the message.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

Reading Issa’s haiku, for Rosenstock, is more like a spiritual than a literary experience:

I find myself being transformed by reading favourite haiku. It’s not easy to describe. As I said above, it’s more than a mood. It’s not like being injected with a mood-altering substance. It is really an awakening.

— Gabriel Rosenstock, “The Universal Spirit of Issa”

I agree…and on that note I want to end with a sampling of some of my favorite haiku by Issa. These are all David Lanoue’s translations. Thanks, David.

 

today too, today too
the winter wind has strewn about
the vegetables

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

first winter rain–
the world fills up
with haiku

evening–
he wipes horse shit off his hand
with a chrysanthemum

words
are a waste of time…
poppies

my dead mother–
every time I see the ocean
every time…

 

how irritating!
the wild geese freely
call their friends

[David notes that this haiku was written after Issa suffered a stroke and temporarily lost his power of speech.]

 

my favorite cormorant
the one who surfaces
with nothing

from the great bronze
Buddha’s nose…
a swallow!

plum blossom scent–
for whoever shows up
a cracked teacup

weak tea–
every day the butterfly
stops by

the day is long
the day is so long!
tears

a blind child–
to his right, to his left
steady winter rain

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

[David notes: “This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny and Zooey.” Me too.]

you’ve wrecked
my year’s first dream!
cawing crow

banging the temple gong
just for fun…
cool air

this year there’s someone
for me to nag…
summer room

your rice field
my rice field
the same green

one man, one fly
one large
sitting room

morning dew
more than enough
for face-washing

just being alive
I
and the poppy

on the great flood’s
100th anniversary…
“cuckoo!”

rain on withered fields
resounds…
my pillow

the owl’s year
is running out…
atop the pole

in cold water
sipping the stars…
Milky Way

Kyoto, Kyoto
in the heart of Kyoto!
pufferfish soup

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

the distant mountain
reflected in his eyes…
dragonfly

I call dibs
on the red ones!
plum blossoms

don’t sing, insects!
the world will get better
in its own time

365 Poems

Because we are big geeks in our family, this is what my son got for his sixteenth birthday*:

Basically what it is, is an empty box. That I ineptly decoupaged with a bunch of random scraps of paper I had left over from various other inept craft projects that I have unwisely attempted over the years. I know! I’m the world’s best mother, right?

The thing is — because, as I mentioned, we’re all geeks here — once I explained the purpose of this box, my son, instead of giving me a look like, “Now I have plenty of material for the therapy sessions I will require in ten years or so,” said, “Oh! Cool!” And from the way his eyes lit up I could tell he was not just indulging his insane mother while making a mental note to go to college as far away from home as possible.

The purpose of the box, you see, is to accumulate poems. One a day for a year. Not my poems, God forbid — if he’s really dying to read those he can check out the blog, which I have reason to believe he does occasionally when he has nothing better to do, which is hardly ever. No, these are, you know, real poems. By real poets. I’ve been photocopying up a storm from my small but select collection of poetry books, as well as printing things off the Interwebs, and late at night the Poetry Fairy comes and … okay, I don’t really make an attempt to perpetuate that fiction with a sixteen-year-old. I have my limits. But I do put a poem in the box every day (unless I go to a haiku festival and forget, in which case I put three in the day I remember).

The main criteria I have for these poems is that they be: a) not crap; b) poems I enjoy; c) poems I sincerely believe my son will enjoy. I’m not attempting to provide him with the Greatest Hits of English Poetry. (Though I do try to cover a range of eras and types of poetry, just because you never know what will click with someone.) The purpose here is not really educational, except in the sense that everything is educational. (Ask me about my educational philosophy some time if you really want me to blather on interminably.) The purpose is more — to foster joy. Joy in the possibilities of language, the possibilities of imagination, the possibilities of human thought.

This is a kid who has been performing in uncut productions of Shakespeare’s plays a couple of times a year since he was nine, so he knows from great poetry, and he appreciates wonderful language. But I’ve been thinking for a while that he would enjoy a lot of other types of poetry, while being confounded about how, exactly, to sneak in a course of poetry appreciation amid all his other myriad activities. (Oh — he doesn’t go to school, did I mention? Who has time for that, anyway?) Then I thought, “One poem a day. That’s how to do it.” And the box was born.

So the reason I’m bringing this up now — I can hear you sighing in relief as I get to the bloody point already — is that what went in the box today was a couple of Japanese haiku, each in two different translations. Because reading different translations of Japanese haiku is one of my favorite things to do, and I thought my son would enjoy it too. And then I thought that you might enjoy it, too. So here they are.

I hope you can actually read them. They’re by Basho and Moritake. I’m not sure who the translators are because the poetry textbook I took them from didn’t say (bad poetry textbook!).

If you are interested in comparative haiku translation there are lots of great books and websites that feature competing translations — sometimes 30 or more translations of the same ku, such as this page which offers up translations of perhaps the most famous classical Japanese ku, Basho’s furuike ya or frogpond haiku. (There’s a link to it on my sidebar as well.)

Here are two different versions from that page, just to give you some sense of how widely translations can vary:

Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water.

— Lafcadio Hearn

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps . . .
Apart, unstirred by sound or motion . . . till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

— Curtis Hidden Page

Does that blow your mind or what? I think it’s pretty safe to say that the second version takes some, um, considerable liberties with Basho’s verse. The first is pretty literal, which is much more the trend these days (though Hearn was writing in the nineteenth century). Even closely literal translations, though, can vary quite a bit, just because of the effort of cramming Japanese syntax into something readable by English speakers.

Okay, thus endeth the lesson for the day. You can all return to your regularly scheduled lives now, and think fondly about your own mothers, who would never have dreamed of pulling such a stunt on you.

______________________

*That wasn’t all he got for his birthday, in case you are thinking of reporting me to Child Welfare or something. He also got some cool running shoes and new shifters for his bike. And with his birthday money from relatives he bought himself an iPhone 4. We don’t live entirely in the past around here. Though sometimes we think it would be nice to try.

Do You Hate Haiku?

Jim Murdoch from The Truth About Lies wrote, a while back, probably the most well-informed, interesting essay about haiku ever written by someone who self-confessedly hates haiku. You should go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

For those of you who are going, “Eh, who has the time,” I’ll humor you and tell you about it. There is a lot of great stuff in there — haiku-like utterances by Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, quite clear explanations of the difference between syllables and morae and the concept of the kigo, a comparison of several different translations of a Shiki haiku, a discussion of whether haiku written in Scots are closer to the spirit of Japanese haiku than those written in English, an in-depth discussion of a haiku-like poem of his own and whether it is or could ever be a haiku … you get the idea. Did I mention that he hates haiku?

So why? Why does he have such strong negative feelings about something he has obviously studied in such depth and thought about so much?

The answer seems to be that (like everyone else in the world) he isn’t really sure exactly what an English haiku is. It makes him uncomfortable:

“There are modern poets who say unless your poem has this ‘Aha! Moment’ you’re not writing haiku. Others emphasise the experience. And, of course, there will be those who say that as long as your poem has three lines containing 5, 7 and 5 syllables respectively then it’s a haiku. … This is why I hate haiku. It has moved so far away from its roots that a good haiku is more a matter of fluke than anything else … This is not to suggest that short poems cannot be excellent but they’re just not haiku.”

He does admit that perhaps, since he hasn’t actually written any, it might be premature for him to come down so firmly in the anti-haiku camp. But clearly, that lack of consensus on a definition really, really bugs him:

“In all honesty I can’t say, ‘I hate haiku,’ because Haiku’s response would be, ‘But, you don’t know me,’ and that’s why I hate it, it won’t stay still long enough to be known. Maybe once back in the day the Japanese might have come up with a short list but somehow I think the argument about what a haiku can or cannot be has raged since Masaoka Shiki coined the expression at the end of the 19th century.”

And then we really get down to brass tacks — the haiku just isn’t a form that suits the way he thinks or writes:

“I think there’s a lot newbie poets can learn from working with a short form like the haiku. Whether what they produce is haiku is neither here nor there. I’ve never deliberately avoided writing them perhaps because I’ve always written in a condensed way. I think the problem is that they’re just a tad too short for the thoughts I want to express and that’s all.”

All right, the faint whiff of condescension drifting from this aside … this is a perfectly reasonable way to feel. It’s fine not to want to write haiku. Most people don’t want to write haiku. Quite often, I don’t want to write haiku. (Can I go to bed now?) But still … I have a hard time believing that anyone who has delved so deeply into the history and structure of the haiku form really, truly hates it …

How about you? Do you hate haiku? Do you write it anyway? Why or why not? Defend your position.

Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.