Another Rainy Day

Edo, Autumn, 1678, Matsuo Basho, then called Tosei, age 35.


雨の日 や世間の秋を 堺町

ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

A rainy day, in Autumn the world awakens in Sakai-cho

Sakai-cho, Edo’s Kabuki Theater District, Utagawa Hiroshige

Leaving Edo

He has not yet become Bashō, 芭蕉, the poet who compares himself to the fragile and useless Banana plant. That is yet to come when, two autumns later, Matsuo Basho would take the somewhat surprising step of leaving Edo and crossing the Sumida River to Fukagawa to live in a cottage beside a Banana plant, 芭蕉.

For now, Basho enjoys Kabuki Theater. Rain doesn’t matter. Perhaps it heightens the surreal quality of the plays.

Kechi, Kansas, Autumn, 2021

More than three centuries have gone by since Matsuo Basho wrote his haiku.

Today, in 2021, pubs and micro-breweries have become the gathering place for friends and couples who want to talk about the day’s events, about the World.

It is another rainy day in Middle America. It is early September; the summer’s heat has given way to cooler days and nights. The author of this blog takes a trip to Kechi, a small Kansas town outside Wichita. He is accompanied by his wife and dog, Lucy, a small dog, a mix, mostly Blue Heeler. The three of us sit on the patio under trees strung with lights, sample the beers, listen to music, and forget our worrries.

Suddenly, it starts to storm. Lucy runs inside and shakes off the rain. Bashō no yōna, the author of this blog, and modern day Basho disciple, says this:

A dog knows
To Stay out of the Rain
And Sakai-cho

Beer stops Pouring
When it starts Raining

At the Old School House in Kechi

Notes on Translation

Before becoming Basho, Matsuo Basho took the pen name Tosei, 桃青, meaning “green peach” inferring that he was not quite ripe.

世間, Seken, literally the World, Society, as opposed to the individual. According to the Buddha, there are two worlds, the internal world and external world. Through meditation, one understands one’s thoughts and feelings, and finds one’s ‘inner world’.

境町, Sakai-chō, literally border town. It is somewhat unclear whether 境町, Sakai-chō is a place within Tokyo’s Nihonbashi District, or it merely borders it, a special district where Kabuki Theaters were allowed. Often these theaters began in Tokyo where prostitutes plied their trade. Other worldly in this sense takes on a sexual connotation. Though frowned upon by the ruling authorities, such districts were allowed. William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men similarly had to obtain a royal license to perform.

Gabi Greve has given us a thorough discussion of Nihonbashi in her thoroughly wonderfully blog.

Previously translated as Rainy Day and Seken no Aki.

Historical Context

England 1678, John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress, an other worldly allegory of man’s journey through life. Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and culturally isolated from Western societies.

A Crow Renku

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.

Natsume Sōseki

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

からすとんでゆうひにうごくふゆきかな

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

枯朶に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

Having listened to both haiku, Bashō no yōna, tries to keep the renku going, adding:

from countless 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 for crow. Soseki uses からす, karasu, から (kara, “caw”, imitating the crow’s caw, plus su. “bird”). Both mean crow.

A Crow Upon a Withered Branch

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

Kareeda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ Aki no kure

枯枝に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

detail of image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Autumn 1680

Matsuo Bashō has by the autumn of 1680 now achieved fame. Moreover, he has just moved from Edo across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa neighborhood where he lives in a simple hut with a new banana tree, a gift from a student. A bridge had yet to be built across the river.

At the age of 36 Bashō was experiencing what we would call a Mid-Life crisis, he was cut off, dissatisfied, and lonely. In a couple of years he would begin his epic journey to the North. But for now, he took up the practice of Zen meditation, but it seems not to have calmed his mind.

This haiku has more than 30 published and hundreds of online translations. Why so many variations? Why so many attempts?

Zen

The answer, I suppose, lies in Zen’s ineffability. For Zen’s essence is to understand directly Life’s Meaning, without being misled by language. Life is what we view directly, no more, no less.

Bashō sees a crow perched upon a withered branch. It is autumn, more precisely, an autumn evening as the dusk settles in and darkness descends. The air is still or perhaps there is a gentle breeze. Then a crow stops upon a withered branch. Its crow and tree become one color against the ever deepening blue of the evening sky.

Bashō, like the crow, stops for a moment. And in that suspended moment this haiku is formed.

The Crow, , Karasu

Do I need to say that the crow is a bad omen? In Japan, there is a belief that if a crow settles on the roof of a house and begins cawing, a funeral will soon follow. Did the gloomy Bashō foresee his own death? Did Basho in his own unique way presage Yates who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” Is there not a little of Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven to be heard tapping at one’s door?

A melancholy thought, for which I have little to add other than that I love the repetition of the “k” throughout the haiku which must bring to mind the cawing that Bashō must have heard.

Notes

  1. I see that I watched this crow stopping on his withered branch before, September 19, 2019.
  2. For the semantically punctilious, much depends on the translation of とまりけり, tomarikeri. Perched, alighted, arrested are all possibilities. “Stopped” seems best to me.
  3. For an academic discussion of various English translations, see A CROW ON A BARE BRANCH: A COMPARISON OF MATSUO BASHŌ’S HAIKU “KARE-EDA-NI…” AND ITS ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, by Elin Sütiste of Tartu University in Estonia.

I must take to the road again

Shall I call this an end or simply a repose.

It is now November. The sky is gray, the trees are bare, there is a cold wind that chills, leaves once red and gold, now yellow and brown, flutter in the air then gather for they know Winter is near.

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks, Futami

September 1689, Ogaki

In September 1689, Matsuo Basho has completed his Journey to the North, ending in Ogaki on horseback. His friend Rotsu accompanied him, Sora, his companion on much of the journey, rejoined him. Basho continues, “we all went to the house of Joko, where I enjoyed a reunion with Zensen, Keiko and his sons, and many other old friends who came to see me by day or night.

On the 6th of September, it was time to part and take to the road again. Life moves on, and so, he left for the Ise Shrine, for he wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine (Futamiokitama Shrine). As he stepped into the boat that would take him across Ise Bay he wrote:

As clams
Divide into Two
(Separate in Futami)
In Autumn

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

So too, I take to the road again. Not a farewell my friends, a repose.

Previously posted September 26, 2019.

Autumn, How Will it End?

1694, Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month

An Autumn evening (sigh)
Breaking down
How will it end – (an angry) talk?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Translators, like Nick Carraway’s character in The Great Gatsby, never totally agreeing, trying to make sense of Matsuo Basho’s haiku. This however provides hours of fun and never-ending chatter, for when it comes to the sense of a poem, in Zen, there is no right or wrong.

How will it end – In pleasant chat or angry talk?

Three alternative translations

In the autumn night,
Breaking into
A pleasant chat

Matsuo Basho’s Autumn haiku poems

this autumn night
brought to naught
by our storytelling

WKD Haiku Topics

Autumn’s night
Struck and shattered
By a genial conversation

Basho’s Haiku by Jeroen van Zanten

How Will it End

Context provides clarity.

1694 – Basho is traveling again for the last time, going from the house of one friend to another. In the year 1694 (Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month), shortly before his death, he arrives at the home of Shioe Shayo in Osaka. Old friends gathering, reciting haiku, and talking of the olden days.

One month later, on the 12th day of the tenth lunar month, he peacefully passed away.

Notes on Translation

秋の夜を 打ち崩したる 咄かな
Aki no yo wo/ Uchikuzushitaru/ Hanashi kana

Line one. 秋の夜 を Akinoyo wo, An Autumn night. The final character imparts the idea of a sigh or emphasis.

Line two. 打ち崩したる Uchikuzushitaru, most translation agree that this conveys the meaning “breaking down into”. I imagine an evening that began as a Renga party where a group of poets each contributed a verse under the direction of a renga master, Matuso Basho. Each verse a haiku that contained three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Eventually all games come to an end, breaking down into congenial chatter and sometimes anger.

Line three. 咄かな Hanashi kana. Basho leaves us with a bit of a mystery. After three centuries, Hanashi comes down to us as a talk, a story and a chat. But the character when repeated becomes a loud voice (onomatopoeia), especially in an angry way; like tut-tut or tsk-tsk. The final two characters かな kana express wonder.

If the evening ended in anger and disagreement, I imagine Basho sitting there, a bit groggy from the wine, shaking his head, sadly thinking, this is how it ends. Thankfully, I am in the minority on this point of view. A month later, on his death bed, Basho is pictured, at peace, surrounded by friends.

The Autumn Wind

“Ignore the faults of others and be ignorant of your own virtues.”

Should I to say a word
My lips turn cold
In the autumn wind.

mono   ieba / kuchibirusa   samushi  / aki  no  kaze

物いへば唇寒し龝の風

Autumn 1691

On his return to Edo in the autumn of 1691, Bashō took up the task of editing his journal that was to become The Narrow Road to the Interior (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi), which was published in 1694. He had a great many visitors and wrote to a friend, “I have no peace of mind.”

Silence is golden!

Autumn Wind – aki kaze

From East to West
Oh, the Feeling is One
Autumn Wind

(Autumn wind – a cold, biting wind that brings rain and loneliness)

higashi nishi  / aware sa hitotsu / aki  no kaze

東西    あはれさひとつ      秋の風

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Autumn 1688

This is a repeat post.

Written by Matsuo Bashō in the autumn of 1688, on hearing of the death of Mukai Chine 向井千子, the sister of Bashō’s friend and disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来. She too was a poet who died at the young age of 25.  Higashi is Bashō in the East (Edo, the east capital) – nishi is Kyorai in the West (Kyoto, the western capital, and Nagasaki, his far western home).

Kyoto is home to two Buddhist temples, Nishi Hongan-ji  and Nishi Hongan-ji.

Notes of translation

Bashō’s introductory greeting, higashi nishi, parallels the traditional greeting made in Kabuki theater, Tozai, tozai, “to” meaning east, and “zai” meaning west. Aki no kaze is the biting cold autumn wind that brings loneliness.