Category: databases

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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February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)

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seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

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This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.

So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.

But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.

Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though.  So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)

I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.

Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree

— Ishihara 石原重方

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ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes

— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

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houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

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three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

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rainstorm–
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow

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lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

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mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

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cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

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on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

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a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time —

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

Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

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.

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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