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椋, 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
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.
The cuckoo is considered a lazy bird, a clever bird, whose rhyming call gives it its western name — kyo, kyo. Cuckoos are brood parasites, meaning their young are raised by other birds.
Therefore, much like a poet.
There is also the familiar story of the warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu who said:
Oda Nobunaga: 鳴かぬなら殺してしまえ時鳥 nakanu nara koroshite shimae hototogisu, if the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi: 鳴かぬなら鳴かしてみしょう時鳥 nakanu nara nakashite mishō hototogisu, if the cuckoo does not sing, coax it
Tokugawa Ieyasu: Nakanu nara naku made matte miyou hototogisu 鳴かぬなら鳴くまで待ってみようホトトギス if the cuckoo doesn’t sing, wait until it does.
Soon after completing his epic journey to the northern interior (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho remembered his student days in Kyoto and wrote:
Even in Kyoto, one yearns for the cry “kyoo-kyoo” and the cuckoo Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu 京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥
Matsuo Basho, 1690
Here is a sampling Matsuo Basho’s haiku beginning with 時鳥 and ほととぎす and its variations — hototogisu (cuckoo).
hototogisu / ima wa haikaishi / naki yo kana the cuckoo sings and the world has no poets 時鳥鰹を染めにけりけらし
It is a common belief that the cuckoo vomits blood. Bonito or Skipjack Tuna are a popular fish in Japan with a deep red color.
hototogisu / katsuo o some ni / keri kerashi the cuckoo stains the Bonito fish I suppose 時鳥鰹を染めにけりけらし
hototogisu / kie yuku kata ya / shima hitotsu a cuckoo flying to an island becoming one thing ほととぎす消え行く方や島一つ
hototogisu / koe yokotau ya / mizu no ue the cuckoo flies, singing, stretching out, on the cold water lies 郭公声横たふや水の上
hototogisu / maneku ka mugi no / mura obana a cuckoo invited by barley and its waving fronds 郭公招くか麦のむら尾花
hototogisu / matsuki wa ume no / hana sake ri the cuckoo and plum flowers in June, both have bloomed 時鳥正月は梅の花咲けり
hototogisu / naku naku tobu zo / isogawashi The cuckoo, crying, singing, flying, oh, so busy ほととぎす鳴く鳴く飛ぶぞ忙はし
The following haiku makes sense if one imagines that Basho’s writing box (suzuri-bako, 硯箱) has the image of a singing cuckoo on the lid.
hototogisu / naku ne ya furuki / suzuri-bako the cuckoo singing in a tree and on my writing box 杜鵑鳴く音や古き硯箱
The following haiku is unclear to me. Is the cuckoo in a patch of irises five feet wide, or perched on a five foot tall iris? The later 18th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) drew a picture of a cuckoo flying above a tall iris suggesting the later.
hototogisu / naku ya go shaku no / ayamegusa a cuckoo crying above a five-foot iris. ほととぎす鳴くや五尺の菖草
hototogisu / ō takeyabu o / moru tsuki yo a cuckoo in a bamboo grove on a moonlit night ほととぎす大竹薮を漏る月夜
In 1689, on the journey north (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho visited the waterfall Urami-no-Taki, so named because one could walk behind the cascading falls. The rhyming words “urami” and “ura omote” coming to mind. The suggestion, I suppose, that one has a private face and a public face. Sometimes we have to hide to see reality.
“For a while I hid under the waterfall at the start of the Summer Retreat.”
hototogisu / Urami-no-taki no / ura omote a cuckoo as seen behind the waterfall, back and front ほととぎす裏見の滝の裏表
For additional Basho haiku on the cuckoo and alternate translations and comprehensive explanations see:
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.
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.
Even in Kyoto Longing for Kyoto Hearing the Cuckoo
Even in Kyoto Nostalgia for Kyoto – the Cuckoo
By Japanese reckoning it was the era called Genroku (元禄, meaning “original happiness” or perhaps “the beginning of happiness”). It was the third year of the reign of Emperor Higashiyama, 113th emperor of Japan.
That spring Matsuo Basho had completed his trip that would become in time his most famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Journey to the Far North. Not wanting to hurry back to Edo, where Basho had lived and written for the last 46 years, he decided to stay in Kyoto for four months in a modest hut called Genjuu-An 幻住庵, located on the grounds of the Chikatsuo Shrine.
Summer was approaching. In Kyoto’s trees, now full of green leaves, one could hear the plaintive cry of the cuckoo, “Kyoo-Kyoo.” Basho recalled his early days a student in Kyoto.
Matsuo Basho was 56 years old. Basho’s own death came in 1694.
Japanese and Pinyin
京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥 Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu
Notes on translation
京 Kyoo, Kyoto, appearing at the beginning and repeated to imitate the sound of the cuckoo bird. Some say the birds call, “kyoo-kyoo,” is the cry of the dead longing to come back.
なつかし natsukashi, a feeling of nostalgia, a joy for the remembrance of the past. I have used longing.
時鳥hototogisu, The cuckoo bird. Basho leaves us with the image of a cuckoo bird and nothing more. Nothing else was needed since the cuckoo was a frequent subject of poets.
this lodging has a door unknown to the call of the kuina (water rail)
this lodging is not even known to the kuina’s knock
this hut can the water rail find its door
kono yado wa kuina mo shiranu toboso kana
この宿 は水鶏も知らぬ 扉かな
Late Spring and early Summer, 1694
“Tyick, tyick, tyick,” who is that knocking at my door? Death would come knocking for Matsuo Bashō, but not until until November.
In the spring of 1694 Matsuo Bashō set out on his last journey to visit friends, making a trip home to his birthplace at Ueno, to Kyoto where he spent time as a student, and around beautiful Lake Biwa visiting shrines.
This haiku was supposedly written to Kosen (Fujimura Izu?), a Shinto priest who lived on the outskirts of Otsu, and, we may presume from the haiku, in a marshy area near Lake Biwa. The house was so remote it was unknown even to the marsh bird, known as kuina in Japanese, translated into English as a water rail.
The courtship cry of the kuina is a tyick-tyick-tyick, like the sound of one tapping (tataku) on a wooden door. The breeding season dates from late March into June.
Arriving late and greeting his host, Kosen, Matsuo Bashō might have apologized by composing this haiku, explaining that he heard the familiar tyick-tyick-tyick of the kuina bird, but couldn’t discover its secretive nest, i.e. his host’s lodgings somewhere along the shore of Lake Biwa.
The sound of “kono… kuina… kana” imitates the kuina’s call to its mate.
Shiranu 知らぬ , not knowing, as in the proverb, Shiranu ga hotoke (知らぬが仏), meaning ignorance is bliss, literally, not knowing is Buddha.
On the 25th day of the tenth moon, Matsuo Bashō, now 43 years old, is ready to set out on another journey. This time he would travel south and west, to the regions of Iga (his boyhood home), Ise, Aichi and Nagoya, Yoshina, Nara, and Suma.
The account, called Oi No Kobumi (Knapsack Journals), would not be published until 15 years after his death.
From Nagoya it is 70 miles or so to the Atami peninsula, and another 30 miles down the promontory to Cape Irago. Today, the peninsula is home to the Mikawa-Wan Quasi National Park, and some of Japan’s most beautiful sandy coastlines and spectacular Pacific Ocean views (above image Google Maps).
Bashō was going to meet Tsuboi Tokoku (坪井杜国), who had been exiled for financial speculations, from Nagoya to the rocky promontory. Hobi (Hobicho) the tiny village where Tokoku lived was a mile or two from the end point on the cape. One can picture a tired Bashō standing at the very tip of the cape, spotting a hawk circling above, when happily Tokoku appears.
Tokoku would die three years later while Bashō was still compiling the memories of his journey.
Poetry by its nature is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. This is even more true of haiku, which often intends to surprise. Tokoku could have been the solitary hawk that Basho was in search of. Or, it could have been that Basho was the hawk, happy to find Tokoku. This seems to me the more likely interpretation. After the meeting, Tokoku would join Basho for part of Basho’s journey.
It is a stretch, not a long one, and perhaps just coincidence, but I wonder if the Iragosaki is a play on words with Irago and Sake, rice wine. Various sources allude to Tokoku’s financial speculations as a grain merchant. Perhaps it involved Sake.
Notes on translation
Taka hitotsu. A combination of taka 鷹, meaning hawk; and hitosu 一, meaning one or solitary.
Mitsukete ureshi つ見付てうれし, a combination of the verb mitsuke, to find, and and adjective/adverb ureshi, happy, happily
Iragosakiいらご崎, Cape Irago, Iragomisaki, 伊良湖岬. Saki translates to rough, or cape.
WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, gives Tokuko’s age as 34 at the time of his death. It explains that he was a grain merchant in Nagoya, before his financial disgrace, moving to the tiny village of Hobi (Hobicho), on the Akami peninsula.
the hawk’s eyes now, dim that it is dark, so the quail sings
鷹の目も今 や暮れぬと 鳴く鶉
taka no me mo / ima ya kurenu to / naku uzura
Early in 1691 Matsuo Bashō stayed for a time in Saga (southern Japan, near Nagasaki), with his disciple Mukai Kyorai, who like Bashō had been born into a Samurai family. In late fall or early winter, he returned to Edo to stay in his third banana hut. The anthology, Monkey’s Raincoat (Sarumino猿蓑) is published.
Another Hawk haiku
In 1678, on a visit to the Atsumi peninsula and Cape of Irago (Iragosaki), Basho wrote this haiku:
By a stroke of luck, I saw A solitary hawk circling Above Iragosaki (Cape Irago)
taka hitotsu mitsukete ureshi Iragosaki
Notes on translation of a Quail Sings
Line one. Taka no me mo, literally the “Hawk eyes now”.
Hawks have excellent eyesight. They can see 8 times better than we be-speckled humans. But like humans, the hawk’s vision dims in the night. And the quail hiding in the tall grass during the day, waits until it is dark, to sing.
Line two. Ima ya kurenu to. Ima, now, Kurenu, that it gets dark, also meaning to come to an end. The hawk’s hunting must end for the quail to sing.
Line three. Naku uzura. The quail (uzura), it sings, it cries, its voice resounds now that the hawk is in its nest. Naku also means to sob, which is what the hawk must me doing.