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:
nakanu nara koroshite shimae hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.
nakanu nara nakashite mishō hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, coax it
Nakanu nara naku made matte miyou hototogisu
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 cuckooMatsuo Basho, 1690
Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu
京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥
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
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
hototogisu / kie yuku kata ya / shima hitotsu
a cuckoo flying to an island becoming one thing
hototogisu / koe yokotau ya / mizu no ue
the cuckoo flies, singing, stretching out, on the cold water lies
hototogisu / maneku ka mugi no / mura obana
a cuckoo invited by barley and its waving fronds
hototogisu / matsuki wa ume no / hana sake ri
the cuckoo and plum flowers in June, both have bloomed
hototogisu / naku naku tobu zo / isogawashi
The cuckoo, crying, singing, flying, oh, so busy
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
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.
hototogisu / ō takeyabu o / moru tsuki yo
a cuckoo in a bamboo grove on a moonlit night
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
For additional Basho haiku on the cuckoo and alternate translations and comprehensive explanations see:
Also see Hototogisu, the longest running Japanese haiku magazine.