Understanding Haiku : A Beginner's Guide PART IV
Journey With Haiku Masters...
|A statue commemorating Matsuo Bashō's arrival in Ōgaki|
In this section, I am sharing with you some of the best of the Haiku, over a period of six centuries given in the book “The Classic Tradition of Haiku”. To make it more interesting as well as comprehensible, I am re-producing the notes of Faubion Bowers as given below each Haiku, for the underlying meaning. Secondly, where required I have added a little bit of history associated with the same, so that you appreciate the beauty of those concise and powerful words in much more holistic way. I am sure, that by the time, your ‘Journey With The Haiku Masters’ you will be able to relate more to the powerful and amazing Japanese style of poetry – HAIKU.
Note: In square brackets – [ ] abbreviations of the names of the translator for that particular Haiku is given. Their full name with abbreviation is given at the end, for your reference.
Despite some snow
The base of hills spreads with haze
The twilight scene [EM]
This is perhaps the most famous Hokku (Historically haiku stem from 12th century Renga – literally ‘linked verses, where opening 5-7-5 stanza is called Hokku), written in 1488 by Lio Sogi – the paragon of Renga masters
Socho (1448 – 1532)
For what reason can it be
That you should seem so dear
Apart from you
Who else appeals forever
And holds my love [EM]
At certain point in Renga, love or yearnings had to be touched on before moving to other pre-designated topics of poetic converse. Master Sogi here poses a riddle: why do I love when already I love? Socho caps his master’s verse cleverly by referring to the enigma of infidelity. (Socho became a priest at 17 but despite a vow of celibacy, formed various liaisons with women who bore him children)
O Moon! – If we
Should put a handle to you,
What a fan you’d be [CHP]
Uchiwa is a flat fan, round fan as opposed to ogi or sensu, the folding fan, which a japanese lady invented in the 12th century.
Matsue Shigeyori [Ishu] (1596 – 1670)
Hey there, wait a moment,
Before you strike the temple bell
At the cherry blossom [DK]
In Japan, the lifespan of a cherry flower is only three days and poet Ishu (a disciple of Teitoku and first teacher of Onitsura) fears the bell’s reverberations will cause the petals to fall sooner then they should.
Yasuhara Teishitsu (1609 – 1673)
Look at that! And that!
Is all I can say of the blossoms
At Yoshino Mountain [DK]
Basho called this ‘The finest hokku ever written’. Mt. Yoshino, a large hill in Southern Japan, has four groves of 100,000 white mountain cherry trees. For three days in early April, the hill billows with intense whiteness. Not the irregular six syllable first line (Kore wa kore wa) Teishitsu was one of the five stars / or disciples of Teitoku. Teishitsu destroyed all but three of his 3000 Haikai poems, leaving us with less than 30 of his words.
“Tis the cuckoo –
How much so ever Gods ye be! [WGA]
Hototogisu, translated as Cuckoo, wood thrush and sometimes even nightingale, is virtually synonyms with Haiku. It sings day or night, particularly in bright moonlight, even when flying. The song is a strong but mournful cry – coo – coo – coo, uttered twice. It is said to die after 8008 times. Hototogisu is also know as the bird of time, messenger of death and bird of disappointment and flies back and forth from this world to the next.
Is my mind elsewhere
Or has it simply not sung?
Saikaku was Soin’s pupil at the age 14 and was an exemplar of erotic writing and a pioneer of popular fiction and detective stories in Japan. A Haiku master, legend has it he once composed 23,500 verses in 24 hours. This is his earliest known stanza which refers to Confucian axiom “If one’s mind is elsewhere, one will look but not see, listen but not hear.” As well as the rarity of the Hototogisu.”
Yamaguchi Sodo (1642 – 1716)
A view of greenery,
A wild Cuckoo,
The first bonito [EGS]
One of the most famous of all haiku. Unusually it includes three seasonal words (Kigo). It tells of the trio of splendid summer enjoyments for eye, ear and tongues. Bonito or skipjack is a small, greatly relished tuna, especially when it first comes into season.
A raven has perched –
Autumn dusk [WJH]
Basho is the most significant writer in Haiku History. He was designated a God in the Shinto pantheon in 1793. Basho’s first masterpiece (1681) and probably the Japanese poem most influential on the English language. It inspired Imagism, notably Erza Pound’s renowned 1914 poem, “In a Station of the Metro” and, in 1917, Wallace Stevens masterly “13 ways of Looking at a Black bird,” a series of Haiku derivations in English. Karasu is an ominous bird, different from a crow, rook or a black bird, as it is variously translated. Basho drew three pictures to accompany this Hokku. One shows seven ‘crows’ on a branch while 20 others are wheeling in the sky.
A frog leaps in
Water’s sound. [WJH]
This one is Basho’s most quoted Hokku, considered the apogee for manifesting ‘eternity in tranquility’. Zen adepts take it to be symbolic of ‘instant wisdom’ (Satori). The last two lines were composed first, in 1682. Kikaku, the disciple, suggested the first line should read yamabuki, since these mid-spring wild yellow roses were then blooming near the fishpond outside Basho’s hut, and in classical poetry ’frog’ and ‘yamabuki’ were a designated combination.
Sleeping at noon
The body of the blue heron
Poised in nobility [EM]
Earl Miner sees this verse as a symbol of enlightenment. The bird dreams of a higher reality and yet, when noon passes, it will be recalled to the temporal world.
Where stalwart soldiers
Once dreamed dreams [MU]
Harold Henderson called this ‘the most discussed haiku in the language’. It was written at Takadachi Castle where Lord Yoshitsune fought valiantly but vainly against his jealous brother’s army in the twelfth century. The battle site was overgrown with weeds. Basho wept at the memory of vanquished Yoshitsune and the vainglory of past heroism. Donald Keene sees the genius of the poem in its astonishing patter of ahs, oohs and ohs with only one e:
Natsukusa ya / tsuwamonodomo ga / yume no ato :: a-u-u-a-a / u-a-o-o-o-o-a / u-e-o-a-o
What a beautiful moon! It casts
The shadow of pine boughs upon the mats.
Kikaku was the most admired of the ‘Ten Philosophers’ or ‘Ten Wise men’ as Basho’s favorite disciples were called. He was 14 when he joined 39 year old Basho’s inner circle. The above haiku is considered by the scholars to be his master piece, for indicating the intence brightness of the full moon (Harvest moon) casting soft shadows on the straw-grass mat (tatami) flooring.
Shida Yaba (1663 – 1740)
After I’ve swept and tidied up,
Adown fall some camellias. [BHC]
Camellia, a winter flower, falls all at once, not petal by petal. Haiku poets likened it to a bead being severed by a samurai sword.
Kagami Shiko (1665 – 1731)
How I envy maple leafage
Which turns beautiful and then falls! [AM]
With first frost, maple leaves change color – become beautiful then fall – unlike the decline of human being.
Uejima Onitsura (1661 – 1738)
Although I say,
“come here! Come here! The fireflies
Keep flying away! [HGH]
Onitsura was one of the four greatest Haiku writers. He lifted haikai, which had been in devline both before and after Basho, from ‘the level of a party game… (he) elevated it from a low-culture form to high culture,’ according to Cheryl Crowley. Onitsura was little younger then Basho but just as famous. The above poem is his first, written at the age of 8.
To throw out the bathwater
Sound of insects [CAC]
Onitsura is best known for this Haiku – this is showing a sensitive deference to nature. Gyozui is an outdoor, hot water bath commoners took in their gardens during the heat of summer. By introducing a melancholy symbol of autumn, the chirruping of cicadas, the poet is saying goodbye to one season and accepting the next.
Oh! Flower gazers, who have decked
The surface of their skeletons! [BHC]
Underneath finery, all men are the same,’100 bones and 9 orifices’; their lives, too, are as brief as a cherry blossom’s.
In the garden, see
Near us, blossoming whitely,
The camellia-tree! [HGH]
A zen priest posed Onitsura an unanswerable question (Koan), such as “what is the sound of on hand clapping?” When he asked Onitsura, “what is Haiku?” he replied with above well known verse. IN Buddhism, whiteness leads to absolute purity or enlightemnet (Satori). White not black, is also the color associated with death.
Kago no Chiyo (1703 – 1775)
While I was musing on my theme,
Repeating “cuckoo,” day has dawned. [AM]
Kago no Chiyo is one of the most popularly beloved haiku poetess although until recently, scholars had reviled her as pretentitious, sentimental and provincial and didactic. As a young girl, she asked a well-known poet for lessons in Hokku. He assigned her the most common, yet most difficult subject ‘Hototogisu’, and then reudely went into the next room to sleep. At dawn, she handed him the above ‘perfect’ verse. The master was humiliated by a child.
When a woman’s skin
is revealed. [PD &YI]
She finds her naked skin as white and translucent as soft petals of the evening-glory flower.
Chasing dragon flies
Today what place is it
He has strayed off to? [EM]
Japanese boys catch dragon flies by attaching gum to the tip of bamboo pole, like a fishing rod. This haiku, one of the most moving in literature, was written by Chiyo after her only child died at the age of nine.
A hundred different gourds
From the mind
Of one wine [RHB]
When Chiyo asked to enter a nunnery the Zen master, who considered poetry ‘a worldly attachment,’ asked her how haiku could be Zen-worthy (i.e. have a thousand meanings from a single thought). The master was humbled by the excellence of this haiku, and accepted her into his order.
Yosa Buson (1716 – 1783)
Springtime rain: together
Intent upon their talking, go
Straw-raincoat and umbrella [HGH]
One of the four greatest haiku poets. At the age of 22, he became Hajin’s pupil and was active in the ‘Back to Basho’ movement that restored haiku to legitimacy after a period of 50 years decline. The above is Buson’s most noted haiku, but it is a mystery. Who are they? Two men? A man and a woman? What they are saying? Mino (straw rain coat) are worn by country folk, and Kasa (Umbrella) are carried by sity people. The discrepancy adds to the puzzle of two unlikely people sharing the same rainy moment.
The evening breezes –
The water splashes against
A blue heron’s shins. [DK]
Donald Keene calls this haiku a ‘tour de force’. Buson himself felt he had at last attained his ideal with this stanza.
Peony petals fell
Piling one upon other
In tows in threes [EM]
Most Japanese high-school students can recite this Hokku, though few can explain its meaning. Fallen petalsk seemed to Buson as gorgeous as the full blown flower.
|Issa lived in this storehouse on his last days. |
(Shinano, Nagano, Japan)
Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827)
Once more in vain the stepchild bird opens its beak. [MB]
Issa was the third of four greats of Haiku. Issa literally means ‘one tea’ indicating that life is as empty as froth on a cup of tea. Issa’s mother died when he was 2 years old and his notoriously wicked mother often punished him by withholding food.
See that peasant! She plants toward her crying child. [MB]
Many scholars consider this to be the ‘greatest poem in the Japanese language.’ The mother, busy transplanting rice seedlings, dare not stop working, but her row of rice shoots becomes crooked as she is pulled by anxiety toward her baby’s crying, who she has laid on the grassy ridge between the rice paddies.
The world of dew
Is a world of dew, and yet
And yet… [DK]
This is Issa’s most famous Haiku. Written a month after the death of his daughter in 1816.
Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 1902)
I bite into a persimmon
And a bell resounds –
Shiki is considered the father of the modern Haiku and last of the historic four great haiku writers. This one is most famous of his 18,000 haiku he had written. Horyuji is the oldest extant wooden bulding in the world – a Buddhist temple and monastery founded at Nara in 607 A.D. Scholars still puzzle over the ambiguity of the poem: the ‘then’ of the temple’s antiquity; the ‘now’ of the persimmon; the momentary ‘bit’ and the long lasting ‘eternity’ of a huge temple bell’s tolling.
I am sure there are atleast
Fourteen or fifteen stalks [DK]
This is considered Shiki’s masterpiece. Cockscomb are a blazing, fire colored plant with stalks that grow to a height of two feet, tall enough to be seen at the veranda edge by Shiki lying on his pallet. They cluster together so tightly that counting them is difficult. To most readers the pathos lies in the contrast between the dying mand and the sturdy life outside.
I was a persimmon eater
Who liked Haiku [BW]
Although Shiki put the word ‘HAIKU’ into common parlance, here he used the now out of fashion word Hokku.
*** END ***
Text curtsy “The Classical Tradition of Haiku”
Image curtsy Wikipedia as linked with the corresponding author’s name.
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a) The views in the article are mine, where ever not mentioned otherwise. I have tried to give, as far as possible, all the sources of the text and images that I have used in the article, if I have missed out someone or something, let me know. I will amend the same.
b) I don’t claim to be an expert in Haiku (actually I don’t limit myself to the rules of classical Haiku hence I mostly call my writing in this genre as Haiku-T). This article intends to give a general idea about Haiku for the beginners as well as sharing of my thoughts about it. Those who are serious students of Haiku should either check with Haiku Society of America or the local universities.
ॐ नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya
Thus Spoke Zarathustra - Nietzsche