Hackberries

hackberries falling,
fluttering wings of grey starlings,
a brisk morning wind

榎の実散る椋の羽音や朝嵐


e no mi chiru
muku no haoto ya
asa arashi

Matsuo Basho, date unknown

While hackberries don’t make much of a splash, starlings can create a stunning spectacle, first with their loud morning chattering and then when they all rise at once.

Notes on Translation

e, enoki 榎, the (Asian) hackberry tree; chiru 散る, fall, scatter

muku , grey starling; haoto 羽音, the sound of wings, fluttering wings

asa arashi 朝嵐, literally morning storm, referring in this case to a windstorm

Yummy

The hackberry tree is a native Kansas species, a tough cookie that can survive prairie fires, It has small tough berries that are a source of food for birds. Several websites including earththplanet.org say “All “hackberry berries are edible and highly nutritious.” The taste, to me, is bland, and better left for the birds. Pioneers in Kansas ate them in a pinch. And hackberries were found in the tomb of Peking Man, dated to be 500,000 years old!

This haiku is like a hackberry, without much meat, unless I am missing something.

Stone Mountain

Ishiyama

At the conclusion of his trip into Japan’s northern interior (Oku no hosomichi), Matsuo Basho rested for awhile in Ōtsu, on Lake Biwa. Places to visit include Ishiyama (Stone Mountain) whose temple, Ishiyamadera, is built on a massive formation of white stone called wollasonite. (Basho is buried in nearby Gichu-ji temple, also in Ōtsu.)

石山の石より白し秋の風
ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze


whiter than stone of
Ishiyama
— autumn wind

Matsuo Basho, Oku no hosomichi, Autumn 1689

Shiroshi, white. In Buddhism, the transience of human life was so associated with the dew carried by the autumn wind in the early morning is called white dew — Shiratsuyu. White is also associated with purity. Ishiyamadera, the temple, is where Murasaki Shikibu began writing The Tale of Genji on the night of the full moon, August 1004.

The following year, Basho returned and lived within the grounds of Chikatsuo Shrine (adjacent to Ishiyama) in what he called Genju-an (the Unreal Dwelling). Thinking of his own mortality and because hail (arare 霰) is white, he composed this haiku.

石山の石にたばしる霰かな
Ishiyama no / ishi ni tabashiru / arare kana

showering stones
on Ishiyama
— hailstones

Matsuo Basho, Winter 1690

Matsuo Basho had four more summers and three winters to live.

Ishiyama, 石山

Lightning

Lightning

1688 – Genroku

England was experiencing its Glorious Revolution. Europe was beginning its Age of Enlightenment. Japan was at peace. It was the era of Genroku 元禄. The reigning emperor was Emperor Higashiyama (東山天皇), but true power lay in the hands of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (徳川 綱吉), the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty.

Basho’s study of Buddhism inspired the following haiku. Lightning (稲妻 inazuma) being both enlightening and ephemeral.

稲妻を手にとる闇の紙燭哉
inazuma o / te ni toru yami no / shisoku kana

lightning —
a paper candle
in the darkness

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1687

Note. Paper candle, an ancient means of lighting, a torch.

By the mid-1680s, Basho’s fame was established. He had left Edo for Fukagama where he lived in a simple cottage. There he taught his students and received guests. A disciple gave him a banana plant (basho) as a housewarming gift. And it was this tree that grew beside his cottage that became the symbol of the poet — fragile and, one might say, useless.

あの雲は稲妻を待つたよりかな
ano kumo wa / inazuma o matsu / tayori kana

that cloud —
lightning is waiting
to visit

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1688

In late spring and summer of 1689, Matsuo Basho journeyed to Japan’s northern interior, following a route that took him along the eastern coast, crossing to the west coast, then traveling west and south to Osaka, returning to Edo and the Basho-an in late fall to work on what was to become his best known work (Oku no Hosomichi).

稲妻にさとらぬ人の貴さよ
inazuma ni / satora nu hito no / tattosa yo

lightning —
to one who understands
life is precious!

Matsuo Basho, Winter 1690

Note. Tattosa 貴さ, noble and precious. Yo よ, adding emphasis.

In the summer of 1694, Matsuo Basho was 50 years old. He left Edo for the last time, spending time in Ueno, his birthplace, and then Kyoto, where he spent time as a student, before going to nearby Otsu by Lake Biwa.


稲妻や顔のところが薄の穂
inazuma ya / kao no tokoro ga / susuki no ho

lightning —
in place of faces
pampas grass
1694 — summer

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1694

Note. Miscanthus (susuki, commonly called pampas grass) — ever changing, from fresh green shoots in early spring to the long lasting shimmering seed-heads of autumn, a reminder of the fleeting nature of the seasons.

稲妻や闇も方行く五位の声
inazuma ya / yami no kata yuku / goi no koe

lightning
deep in the darkness
the sound of a heron

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1694

Note. The heron (crane) is a divine bird traveling between heaven and earth.

inazuma ni satoranu hito no tattosa yo, 稲妻にさとらぬ人の貴さよ

For Those Who Can’t Get Enough

Inazuma — etymology. 稲 ina, meaning “rice plant”, plus‎ tsuma, meaning “spouse”. Deriving from an ancient belief that lightning mated with (fertilized) rice plants.

Compare Basho’s haiku with the Diamond Sutra (a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese during the Tang dynasty):

So you should view this fleeting world:
As a drop of dew or a floating bubble in a river,
As lightning flashing in a summer cloud,
As a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

Diamond Sutra, Chapter 32

Practice

morning after morning
you must practice to proceed
— a cricket

朝な朝な 手習ひすすむきりぎりす

asa na asa na / tenarai susumu / kirigirisu

Matsuo Basho, before 1680

Practice, practice, practice

The subject of this haiku, the almost insignificant cricket (kirigirisu, きりぎりす), and its need to practice to move on, suggests that it was written before 1680. Before 1680, Matsuo was an up and coming haiku poet with some disciples and still known as Tosei, the unripe peach, and not as Matsuo Basho. He acquired this name only after much practice and leaving central Edo for the Fukagawa District and his simple cottage with the banana tree.

Asa na asa na, morning after morning just keep at it. Eventually, it will come. But probably not for the short lived cricket.

For those who like conjecture, Buddhism suggests that Enlightenment must be earned, thus for the cricket to advance beyond being a lowly cricket it must practice (tenarai). Tenarai may refer to one of the chapters of the Tale of the Genji, a story of a commoner wanting to rise. Susumu meaning “to proceed” or “advance.” In the Tale of the Genji, the hero leaves the Imperial Court and goes to seek the advice of a recluse, which may have inspired Basho’s move from Edo to Fukagawa.

There is a similar thought expressed in the Latin phrase, Ars longa, vita brevis, or”skill takes time, life is short.” There is also the old joke that the tourist asks in New York — “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

tenarai susumu, 手習ひすすむ, practice to proceed

Morning Glories

Here we have the 39-year-old Matsuo Basho, living now in Fukagawa, in the 2nd year of Tenwa, 1682, with itchy feet who begins to wander away from Edo, the capital.

I am a fellow
who eats breakfast
gazing at morning glories

朝顔に / 我は飯食ふ / 男かな
asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

Matsuo Basho, Summer, 1682

A Literary Wanderer

Asagao (朝顔, Morning Glory) is one of the fifty-four chapters of The Tale of Genji (a 12th century tale Basho was familiar with). In this tale, Gengi wants her, but Asagao, an imperial princess, shuts herself up in her residence, much like Basho distancing himself from Edo and his students for his simple cottage in Fukagawa.

So was Basho now a wandering Genji, love struck, gazing at some distant asagao?

The American poet, Walt Whitman possessed a similar sentiment when it came to knowing what he was seeing:

“A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

Metaphysics dealing with the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, of knowing.


asagao, 朝顔, morning glories

fuh·ged·da·boud·it

あら何ともなや昨日は過ぎて河豚汁
ara nan tomo na ya kinō wa sugite fukutojiru


oh well, nothing happened / yesterday has passed / eating pufferfish soup

Tosei (Matsuo Basho), Edo, 1678

Forget about it, Pufferfish

Written in the 5th year of Enpo, 1678, when Matsuo Basho was 34 years old. Then known as Tosei (Unripe Peach), young Matsuo was living in Edo’s Nihonbashi District, famous for the bridge of the same name, its Noh theaters, a famous fish market, and many cafes where aspiring haiku poets like Tosei sampled their wares.

Fuhgeddaboudit,” they sometimes say in north Jersey and New York. It means the thing is not worth one’s time or energy. Forget about it.

Fugu soup (河豚汁, fukutojiru) is made with pufferfish. Pufferfish, blowfish, it is all the same, unless you get the poisonous part. The popular fugu soup is typically prepared tableside, hot-pot style, with cabbage and leeks. Best to eat in winter. Symptoms of poisoning take a little time. So, if you wake up the next morning and feel the same as you felt the day before, you’ll be happy, thinking last night’s worries were ridiculous.

Forget about it.

Fugu Soup with Pufferfish, 河豚汁, fukutojiru

Random Thoughts

Matsuo Basho, I suspect, like most writers wrote down his thoughts on tiny pieces of paper and stuffed them into his pockets. Sometimes pulling them out, polishing the words, writing them down in a better form, publishing them. The ratio of random thoughts to published poems likely being similar to our view of an iceberg floating in the Arctic waters.

Sometimes one has one’s own random thoughts.

Random thoughts — of some importance,
but never written down,
are soon forgotten.

Bashō no yōna, December 2022

Anniversaries, birthdays, and Christmas, I’m often a day behind.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Haiku

Christmas Day, 2022

How do you write Japanese haiku on Christmas Day?

You layer up, wear a silly knit cap to amuse your daughter and son-in-law. They call you a “cone head” while guffawing. You put on thick mittens and add a scarf about your face. You leave.

Off you go to the park to face another day. There is beauty in the silence of the morning. Sunlight on snow, an icy breeze, the cold air you intake. There is something reassuring about another runner passing by. Something delightful about two kids trying to sled on hill that is not much more than a gully.

Sounds like fun
The crunch of snow on frozen leaves
— A Winter’s Run

Whoosh, whooosh,
Whoosh, whooosh, …
Footfalls in the snow

It Snowed last Night
The World is white,
This Christmas morning

Bashō no yōna, Christmas 2022

Merry Christmas!

You Be You

Being You

Your English teacher told you, your mother told you, no doubt, you’ve heard it a thousand times, a thousand ways,

“Be yourself and nobody else.”

Be yourself
everyone else
is already taken

Oscar Wilde, 19th c. Irish playwright and poet

The five month long journey into Japan’s northern interior, a trip that one day will become Oku no Hosomichi is over. Matsuo Basho will now spend his time editing his notes and haiku. A restful trip to Lake Biwa and the Ishiyama temple breaks up the monotony. Students still seek his advice.

don’t copy me,
like the second half
of a split melon!

我に似るなふたつに割れし真桑瓜
ware ni niru na futatsu ni wareshi makuwauri

Matsuo Basho, Summer, 1690

makuwa uri 真桑瓜, a sweet melon like a musk melon or cantaloupe.

Ecclesiastics says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” And English teachers say, “It has all been said, it is how you say it that makes the difference.”

Isn’t it ironic,
a translator saying,
“don’t copy me.”

Bashō no yōna
makuwa uri 真桑瓜, a sweet melon

Let it Rain!

Winter 1689

Let it sleet, let us freeze, … friends forever!

On the completion of his trip to the northern interior of Japan which was to become the famous travelogue Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho took time to visit with friends and take a side journey to visit his birthplace in Ise Province. A poetry performance (renga) was held at a tea house near the castle in Iga-Ueno where Basho was once a servant.

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

We at the inn,
Even tho’ it’s bitterly cold,
— Let it rain!

Hitobito wo/ Shigureyo yado wa/ Samuku tomo

Matsuo Basho, Winter, 1689

Notes on Translation

I have reversed the word order in Basho’s haiku and turned down the thermometer to bitterly cold.

To each of us at the inn, let it rain, even if it’s cold. The poets who have gathered for a renga are sitting and shivering in silence, immersed in the beautiful world of haiku. The rat-a-tat-tat of the sleet on the roof and the freezing weather creating an atmosphere of pure wabi, Buddhist term to express an emotion of subdued austere beauty.

shigureyo しぐれよ, the imperative verb form for rain, literally, let it rain. shigure, a winter rain-shower. It is a kigo for winter, and a metaphor for shedding tears.