A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

Scattered Showers

bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa
bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa

A passing cloud like a stray dog relieving itself – scattered showers

行く雲や犬の駈け尿村時雨
yuku kumo ya / inu no kake bari / mura shigure

winter 1677

Weather Report from the Edo Waterworks

Five years after Matsuo Basho moved to Edo, he found himself working as a clerk at the Waterworks Department to support himself. As an aside, Basho joined Nishiyama Sōin, founder of the Danrin school of haikai (haikai no renga), who came to Edo from Osaka in 1675.

The style was witty wordplay bordering on the vulgar.

Winter’s Drizzle

Without hat
While winter drizzles
Well, well

笠もなきわれを時雨るるかこは何と

kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nanto

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Winter’s drizzle

In northern Japan, the winter drizzle 時雨 that continuously falls in late autumn and winter is a familiar sight. Here in the Midwest, in March, the rain falls to a steady beat. The farmers bless the coming of the rain, a sign of a good year to come.

Like a drifting cloud, Basho has no preconceived notion of where he’s supposed to be or go, or what he is supposed to wear.

What prompted Basho’s haiku?

This haiku is from Matsuo Basho’s book Weather-Beaten Journey (1685). The book opens with Basho’s quote of a Buddhist priest, “Traveling a thousand li, I bring no provisions, under the midnight moon, I enter the land of nothingness.”

Hat, no hat, winter’s drizzle, where am I to go, what am I to do?

Notes on translation

笠 bamboo hat
雨 rain
時雨 winter drizzle
るる continuously
かこ the past, try not to dwell on the past
何と whatever, what, when

 

winter rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi
heavy rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi, wikiart

 

First Snow on Shin Ohashi Bridge

初雪や
懸けかかりたる橋
の上に

Hatsu-yuki ya
kake-kakari-taru hashi
no ue ni

First Snow
falling on the unfinished bridge,
Oh, if only on top

わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand

“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”

After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”

The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”

The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”

After a moment, the disciple nods.

Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable

Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.

Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.

Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.

Hiroshige Atake Shin Ohashi  bridge Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art
Hiroshige Atake, Shin Ohashi bridge, Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art

Lost in translation

Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.

The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top

Robert Hass:
first snow
falling
on the half finished bridge

This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.

One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).

Understanding and knowing

One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.

First Snow and Daffodils

First snow and
the daffodils leaves bend
to nothingness

First snow
the daffodil leaves bend
barely

初雪や
水仙の葉のたわ
むまで

hatsuyuki ya
suisen no ha no tawa
mu made

The prompt

Today we call them prompts. A word or a phrase that elicits a response.

snow-cabin

The prompt is followed by an attempt to sketch a scene in a few words. The goal is to capture the pure essence of an action or emotion. Matsuo Basho and his disciples used such devices to write haiku. From Basho’s frequent use of 初雪や, hatsuyuki ya, or “first snow and” in Basho haiku, we learn that snow was often the subject. There are for example first snow and the great Buddha, first snow and the crow, and many others, including the one above about daffodils.

Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho

Daoism teaches us the paradox of the Way – those who know do not need to speak to show that they know.

How to say a lot in a few words

Haiku are meant to be self-explanatory. Like a sunset or a rainbow, the smile of child, the smell of spring, the first snow of the year when the daffodil has already bloomed.

If not, they should be rewritten. For this reason, Basho often rewrote haiku if he found that it was misunderstood by the common people that he associated with. I apologize for using the term “common people”. It is not a term Basho was likely to use. He was the great equalizer, recognizing that we all have value, that we are all struggling to understand the life we live and find our way in this world.

Knowing the unknowable

Having said that no explanations should accompany a haiku, I will nevertheless try to explain this one as I see it. Others have, sometimes ad nauseum, why not me?

First of all, it is important to understand that “first snow” means the first snow of the lunar New Year. Better to think of this as an early snow in March, one that accompanies the blossoms of the cherry trees, or the flowering of daffodils. When winter has been to soon forgotten…

Next, understand that, although Basho has only spoken of the leaves of the daffodil and not the flower, he is intending both. We learn this from a painting Basho later made to go with the haiku, on that displayed the white daffodil flower drooping in the white snow.

Finally, we are presented with the Kireji (切れ字, “cutting word”), the final three characters, むまで, mu ma de, literally “to the utmost”. The conundrum, which Basho intended, is that a literal translation does not capture the true meaning. Basho uses the character  む, mu, which is intended to be an indefinable nothingness.

How Zen…

Words do not help.

Instead we are left with the vision – daffodils struggle with the weight of the snow bent until blossom and snow become one.

osterglocken-daffodil

First Snow, Great Buddha

First snow and
there stands the great Buddha
a pillar of strength

初雪や
いつ大仏
の柱立

Hatsu yuki to
Itsu daibutsu
No hashiradate

snow-cabin

The Great Plains in March

It snowed last night in early March. Not an entirely unusual occurrence on the Great Plains, but unwanted to those who long for spring. The morning was gray and bitter cold. Even the dog would not go out willingly or for long. My calico cat stood at the door, looking about, then turned and ran away.

Todai-ji Temple

When Master Basho visited the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, he found the monastery in disrepair. There in an uncovered courtyard, he found the statue of the Great Buddha exposed to the wind and the snow, standing upright.

The meaning of Basho’s haiku is, seemingly elusive. It snows and there silent and stoic stands the Great Buddha in the midst of the snow and cold.

Why not go inside?

Matsuo Basho describes Buddha as “Pillar-like” (の 柱立, standing like a pillar, 柱). Society is supported by principles in the same way that a building is supported by upright pillars and columns.

buddha-snow

We can not fathom the Way, just as we can not fathom the mysteries of Nature. The master of the Way fights neither his own body, nor Nature. The forces of Nature are greater than one person. We must adapt to survive.

Master Basho instructs us by example. The Great Buddha does not complain when it snows, nor should we. The virtuous are upstanding.

 

Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple), located in the city of Nara, contains the Great Buddha Hall which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. At the time of Basho’s visit (1689-1670), the Buddha was still without its head and cover.

Lessons from the Dao

― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37

 

The Tao never does anything,

yet through it all things are done.

 

If powerful men and women

could center themselves in it,

the whole world would transform

into its natural rhythms.

People would be content

with their simple, everyday lives,

in harmony, and free of desire.