A crow flies away in the setting sun It is Winter, A tree is shaking, I wonder
Haiku lives on. A good example is this poem by Natsume Soseki (夏目 漱石, 1867-1916), Japanese novelist and haiku poet.
He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, and Wagahai wa Neko dearu (I Am a Cat). But here he gives us a good follow up to Matsuo Basho’s autumn crow on a withered branch — a picture of man, a portent of doom. Basho and Crows. Soseki’s take is different.
It is winter, the crow has departed, the tree is shaking, Soseki wonders.
Do you get it, I wonder?
Dammit, Zen moments shouldn’t and can’t be explained.
There is not much to this poem. There need not be. Or is there?
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow‘ Juliet said. Or as the Buddha says, ‘Au wa wakare no hajimari.’ ‘Meeting is the beginning ofparting‘.
A parting begins a journey
Inspired by a warm breeze and a passing cloud, in the late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho sold his few possession, closed the door to his cottage, and, along with Sora his traveling companion, headed north on what would become a journey of nine months. This trip would eventually become a book that would make Basho famous, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道, meaning “Narrow road to the interior” or “Pathways to the Interior” or something similar. But since 奥 , Oku can also imply one’s heart, it implies an inner search for meaning, a spiritual quest to find one’s true feelings. But that lay ahead.
Basho was dressed in a peasant’s bamboo hat, as protection from the sun and rain. He wore white breeches that came to mid-calf, a blue tunic, and leather sandals, that he would later decorate with spring flowers. Basho, it is said, rode on a small horse, for he is pictured as such, but it is more likely he walked. The horse was a pack horse or a donkey, the kind we associate with prospectors. It carried Basho’s few provisions, a raincoat, a sleeping bag, some money, although, Basho hoped to live off the kindness of those he met along the way for his fame was now well known throughout Japan. Sora walked beside him.
Their trip began with farewells and the chatter of neighborhood children who were no doubt envious of the adventurous travelers. Perhaps, Basho was thinking partings are beginnings, new meetings, new friends.
Of sweet fish and salty fish
For this haiku, Basho chose the Ayu, 鮎 for the children. The Ayu, the small Sweetfish, we might liken to Silverfish, who swim about in schools when the sun appears or large predator fish chase them. Basho and Sora are the old fish, Sakana, 魚, or white fish, quite common. Basho, having had some reservations about the dangers of the trip, perhaps alluded to his becoming bait for bandits.
Sakana is a generic Japanese word for fish, usually salted and served with sake.
As I said, there is not much to this haiku, or is there? “A parting is not an ending but a beginning,” says Bashō no yōna, to those who look forward and not backwards.
別れは終わりではなく始まりです Wakare wa owaride wanaku hajimaridesu
The Captain-General too Makes a pilgrimage to His Majesty in Spring
Kabitan mo tsukuba wakeri kimi ga haru
甲比丹もつ くばはせけり 君が春
Edo, Japan 1678
In Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had brought about an end to the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch who sought independence from King Charles. Protestants from France and Jews from Spain fueled a Dutch Golden Age. Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes philosophized, John Milton wrote, Kepler and Galileo looked to the heavens. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 –1694) would know little about these events for the Tokugawa shogunate had made Japan Sakoku (鎖国, “a closed country” beginning in 1633 and completing the process by 1639. Under the terms of various edicts, Japanese were forbidden to leave Japan, and only the Dutch were allowed to trade at Nagasaki, and then only if the Dutch traders remained on a small enclave in the harbor.
Matsuo Basho did not seem to concern himself much with world events. And there is but one haiku written about the Dutch. In one of his earlier haiku, while he still lived in Edo, working at a government job, before taking on the pseudonym Basho he wrote the above haiku.
Should we attempt to match Matsuo Basho up with one of his European counterparts, the likelihood is Christiaan Huygens, who in the vein of Descartes and Spinoza wrote:
“…nous n’atteignons pas le certain mais feulement le vraifemblable.”
“Nothing, we know certainly, but howl the likelihood.” Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens
The Legend of Mt. Tsukuba
Tsukuba has a well-known history in Japan.
Each year the Japanese make a pilgrimage to Mt. Tsukuba and its centuries-old Shinto shrine which represents a source of blessing for the Japanese people. There is also a legend that accompanies the mountain. Thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked Mt. Fuji for a place to spend the night. Mt. Fuji refused, believing it did not need the deity’s blessings. The deity turned then to Mt. Tsukuba, which, humbly welcomed its guest, offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji though beautiful, it is cold and lonely. Mt. Tsukuba, covered in vegetation, changes colors with the seasons.
Another legend has it that the Japanese people descend from ancient deities who lived here.
Other Notes on Translation
Only Dutch merchants as foreigners were allowed to trade in Japan and only if they remained on an islet named Dejima in Nagasaki. Once each year they were obliged to make a voyage from Nagasaki to Edo to call on Shogun to pay respect.
Kimi ga haru. The master in Spring. Kimi can mean “you,” but also “master,” the Shogun, in this sense.
A new house, a house warming gift, a banana pup, the first sprouts, becoming Basho, ばし.
In late 1680, the 36 year old Matsuo Basho withdrew from Edo’s bustling Nihonbashi District, and moved across the Sumida River to Fukagawa, where he took up residence in a simple hut. A disciple (Rika, 李下) gave him a banana pup, which he planted beside the hut and, in time, Basho came to associate himself with the purely decorative banana, which produced no edible fruit. The hut became Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Banana Plant”), and the poet became Matsuo Basho (まつお ばしょう).
What should we make of this simple haiku? It is not a simple love story. If it were, then the banana plant would be the beginning, middle and end of the poem. No, hate intercedes, with the sprouting silvergrass, miscanthus, to use the technical term. Here in the States, Pampas Grass is a more familiar term. Hardy Pampas Grass with its Fall blooming white plumed flowers and many stalks.
The academician and the graduate student are all too inclined to make too much of Basho’s brief dissertation on the banana plant. Is he comparing his solitary lifestyle with that of busy Edo, the banana pup and the crowded clump of grass? Is this a yinyang tit-for-tat where love and hate must cancel each other, and balance achieved?
Or is Basho, like any new gardener, worried that grass will deprive his darling plant of sustenance?
Bashō no yōna replies, “me think one hath parsed the plant too much.”
Basho might have replied in renku fashion, “The meaning is lost in translation.”
Gentler readers, unencumbered, we shall fly about, but not like crows, coming and going, from tree to tree, but as travelers from time and place, from poet to poet. Such is the mystery and beauty of poetry.
Today’s guest poet is Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916). His literary career did not begin until 1903 when he began to publish haiku and renku. He quickly went on to novels for which he is better known. That he was exploring the joy of haiku before 1906 comes from this haiku, written in 1896, probably while in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu .
a crow flies off leaving the winter tree shaking
Coming and Going
Surely, in composing his verse Soseki recalled to mind Matsuo Basho’s haiku, where a crow comes to perch. Soseki has the crow leaving, completing the renku.
on a bare branch a crow has perched in the autumn evening
kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure
Having listened to both haiku, Bashō no yōna, tries to keep the renku going, adding:
fromcountless karasu upon a withered tree – a caw-caw-phony
Notes on Translation
Renku, 連句, “linked verses,” a Japanese form of collaborative linked verse poetry. Basho would often attend such party gatherings. Renku can also be informal and spontaneous.
Basho uses 烏 for crow. Soseki uses からす, karasu, から (kara, “caw”, imitating the crow’s caw, plus す su. “bird”). Both mean crow.
Spring rain – running down a wasp’s nest from a roof that leaks
春雨や 蜂の巣つたふ 屋根の漏り
harusame ya hachinosu tsutau yane no mori
Yesterday, it rained. Today, it rains again. Tomorrow, it is suppose to rain again. I should look around the house to see if the roof leaks. Is it not a fundamental principle of life, Basho asks, that a roof shall leak?
For Matsuo Basho the steady drip of the rain from a wasp’s nest became the subject of this haiku. Does this not remind you, Gentle Reader, of the premise of the television show Seinfeld — “a show about nothing” and everything. Observational comedy like haiku poetry are based on everyday phenomenon rarely noticed. Have you ever noticed? — a wasp nest shouldn’t leak.
To make the point, Basho ends this simple haiku with the Japanese character り, Ri, which in Confucian philosophy attempts to identify an underlying principle of the cosmos — a roof shouldn’t leak, but it sometimes does, but not in a wasp nest.
Notes on Translation
Harusame, 春雨 is Basho’s oft repeated Spring Rain. Hachinosu, 蜂の巣, a wasp nest or beehive. Also, a colloquialism for something full of holes, like Swiss cheese, a knit scarf, and Basho’s roof. Yane no mori, 屋根の漏り, a roof that leaks.
Spring rain If it is rains today It is Spring rain (Harusame – noodles)
春の雨 今日の雨なら 春雨じゃ
Yesterday and Today
Yesterday, I found myself sing along to Phil Collins’ I Wish It Would Rain. Today, it rains, rains, rains. In the Midwest, a spring rain (春の雨, haru no ame) is always welcome except when it rains too much, which is what it is now doing.
Even the worms do not like too much rain, for coming to the surface, Robins find them and feast. For farmers, when it rains too much, it floods, and the seeds of the spring wheat are washed away. That is why most wheat grown in Kansas and the Midwest is Winter wheat.
Sometimes, summer rains sometimes come not at all.
What do we make of Matsuo Basho’s little ditty? Is Basho saying “it is raining cats and dogs”? Is he saying rain is a gift from above? 春雨 being a figurative statement for a “gift from above,” an idea Kansas farmers fully understand. Is that gift from above, “harusame”? Hausame being noodles that look like worms.
Could it simply be, that today 今日, because it rains, Basho is served harusame?
Basho’s disciple, Bashō no yōna, is thinking along a different line of thought, of the birds, of the fishermen.
Spring rain A gift from above, a gift from below Earth worms
When it doesn’t rain enough
Because it doesn’t always rain, here’s one I like from Taniguchi Buson (1715-1783):
Harusame ya kawazu no hara no mada nurezu
Spring rain — not enough yet to wet a frog’s belly.
Spring Rain. It is explained to me that haru no ame, 春の雨) is the general category of rain that falls in spring (from late February to March) and thus it may be a cold rain that chills the bones and frightens the birds, while harusame, 春雨 is the light but steady rain portrayed by Utagawa Hiroshige above, a gentle rain, a drizzle, the kind one experiences in Seattle or Portland, and along Japan’s eastern coast in spring.
Tsuchiyama—a travelers’ station on the Tōkaidō route connecting Edo and Kyoto, in the mountains just before the road ends at Kyoto, known for its gentle rain, and familiar to Basho who traveled this route often.
My wish, to disappear Under the flowers. Let it be a Spring death, In Kisagari (that changing month), That Bright Moon time of year.
Farewell to February, 2021
Before the month of February has passed, I thought it fitting to add one more poem on the subject of Kisigari.
This poem is written not by Basho, but by Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師, 1118 -1190) a poet of the Heian period who lived to the age of 72. His life as a monk and his frequent journeys inspired Basho’s many journeys.
February is a month often overlooked because of its shortness, but also its in-betweenness, caught as it is between winter and spring. Nineteenth century American poet Henry David Longfellow gave us his thoughts on a February Afternoon, which begin like this: The day is ending, The night is descending; The marsh is frozen, The river dead. Matsuo Basho also gave us some thoughts on February (Kisagari). Both are a bit depressing.
Saigyō’s poem, on the contrary, is more uplifting, at least in the Buddhist sense of regeneration with Saigyō imagining that he is reborn as an early spring flower 花, Hana. The third line is particularly poignant. 春死なむ, Haru shinan conbines the idea of a death in spring and なむ which I understand to be “let it be,” and a reference to the Buddhist concept of Namu 南無.
Kisigari,如月 is the Japanese lunar name for the month of February. It suggests the changing of the seasons, Spring approaching, a month with spring-like days. Sometimes written as Kinusaragi (衣更着, “Changing Clothes”) .
Yesterday, February the 24th, in Kansas it was 70 degrees, two days before that it was 0. What a difference a day or two makes.
I have one final comment to make on Saigyō’s use of の, no through out the poem. This personalizes, for me, the thought. Not being a native Japanese speaker it is just my personal thought.
My wish, to disappear Under my flowers. Let my death be in Spring, In Kisagari (that changing month), My Bright Moon time of year.
願はくは 花の下にて 春死なむ その如月の 望月のころ
Negawaku wa Hana no moto nite Haru shinan Sono kisaragi no Mochizuki no koro
Naked am I Still changing clothes In Kisaragi, doesn’t it storm?
hadaka ni wa, mada kisaragi no, arashi kana
February 2021, it storms
Recent events here in the Midwest reveal that Nature sometimes keeps its worst weather for February. January in Japan is bitterly cold. February, occasionally, will give hints of spring. The February weather changes day by day which explains why the Japanese lunar calendar name for February is kisaragi, 如月, or kinusaragi, 衣更着, which implies the changing of clothes in the anticipation of spring.
Hold on, says Matuso Basho, old man winter is not done.
I am guessing Basho showed up for (or heard about) the Naked Man Festival, Saidai-ji Eyo — Hadaka Matsuri, held in Okayama in February each year. It has been going on 500 years, but in Basho’s time it was somewhat new. The idea of men, nearly naked, hadaka, jostling for a lucky object, hoping to become Fukuotoko, the “lucky man” must have seemed strange.
Thus, it is not hard to imagine Basho saying,
Undressing Removing clothes What, in February, it storms!
Or Basho No-Yona adding,
Dressing today For yesterday’s weather – Strange looks
The lamp oil is freezing, the light is low, I am awakening!
abura kōri / tomoshi-bi hosoki / nezame kana
Baby, it’s cold outside
Last night, the temperature dropped to a chilly -2 °F in western Kansas.
If this were 1870, not 2021, I imagine the early settlers would have had a hard time falling asleep in a sod dugout built into the side of a hill. A buffalo robe would help fight off the cold. Dried buffalo paddies when available were used for fuel. In the above haiku, Matsuo Basho gives us his impression of trying to sleep when the weather is bitterly cold, so cold that the lamp oil and the furnace barely provide light and less heat.
At the same time, he manages to turn it into a moment of enlightenment. Basho’s awakening, 寝覚哉, nezame kana, metaphorically is meant as a Buddhist enlightenment.
Does oil freeze?
I did wonder what the Japanese used for lamp oil — rapeseed is the most common answer. I then wondered if rapeseed oil could freeze. It can. While the freezing temperature may vary according to the type of oil, -10 °C or 14°F will do the trick.
This means that our early Kansas settlers would have had a “awakening” like Basho’s.
For those curious as to the when and where of the poem, when is winter 1685-1687, and the place is Basho’s little cottage in the Fukagawa District outside Edo.