I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories
asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana
Being Matsuo Bashō
Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.
A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.
Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.
tade kuu mushi sukizuki
Notes on translation
Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character 虫 mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.
In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,
Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am
朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.