Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Moon Flowered

Along with the calligraphy or brush writing of Japan that I found in library books many years ago and felt so drawn to, there were also the brief three line haiku poems that somehow, even in ignorance of their depth still captured my heart. I was moved by the sudden and momentary awareness on the poet’s part of a fleeting scene picked from the humdrum setting, the queer and unexpected observation of something as prosaic as a hat or dried field, a sitting bird, or buzzing mosquito. In the case of a seventeen syllable haiku poem the ordinary made luminous is its essence—observation colored by a skillful expression finding resonance in the reader’s experience. And in some ways my rushing off to live and work in Japan is owed in large part to the sensitivity I discovered in those poems.

Despite its apparent simplicity and brevity, haiku is not an especially easy poetic form to grasp without contemplation. While it is true that many of the short poems do strike an instant chord in the reader’s mind, most of them remain clouded by the constraints of form, rules and tradition. I will admit that I am inexperienced in the form as it is practiced in English and cannot say much about haiku poems written originally in that language. There are many who practice the writing of haiku in English and I would say nothing whatsoever to criticize or disparage those efforts; it is a worthwhile pursuit, and one that has produced a number of well-received collections.

Though the rule is broken by many Japanese writers of haiku, the traditional form is three lines of 5-7-5 syllables working out to seventeen in full form. To take a well-known example: fu-ru-i-ke-ya / ka-wa-zu-to-bi-ko-mu / mi-zu-no-o-to by Matsuo Bashô is composed of three lines totaling seventeen syllables. In English the poem is something like: Old pond / a frog jumps in / sound of water and in any language is a difficult example to fathom—though it does illustrate the traditional form. The picture above shows the poem written in Japanese.

By any standard, Matsuo Bashô is considered Japan’s favorite and most studied haiku poet. He was born in 1644 and lived a short life of only forty-nine years, but in that time completely reshaped the concept of the haiku form. In his twenties he wrote poems that strongly impressed his contemporaries, by his thirties he was considered a master and sought as a teacher, and by his forties tired of that, he embarked on a series of journeys, walking the roads of Japan recording his impressions in travel journals filled with haiku poems. He is revered today as an iconic figure in Japanese literature and no student in Japanese schools is unfamiliar with his name and at least a few of his more famous compositions.

I have chosen a handful of my own Bashô favorites to include here. The translations are by Robert Hass, and come from his book, The Essential Haiku.

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

Withered bones
on my mind,
a wind-pierced body.

You’ve heard monkeys crying—
listen to this child
abandoned in the autumn wind.

The oak tree:
not interested
in cherry blossoms.

The winter’s sun—
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow.

A cold rain starting
and no hat—

A cicada shell;
it sang itself
utterly away.

In the fish shop
the gums of the salt-bream
look cold.

A field of cotton—
as if the moon
had flowered.

This last example is the poet’s death poem:
Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

1 comment:

  1. Not a form of writing I have tried. Descriptive brevity is often a plus but some seem a bit too truncated for my tastes--although I love this one:

    A field of cotton--
    as if the moon
    had flowered.



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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America