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A Discussion about the "Old pond" Haiku by Basho
There was the thought that maybe it would be helpful if we could discuss a well-known example of a haiku, so that memories could be refreshed on some of the finer aspects of the form without having to send readers off to other sites. I hope this essay gives you pleasure and light.
furu ike ya kawazu tobi komu mizu no oto
an old pond
This haiku, by Basho, was said to have occurred when Basho’s Zen master, Boncho, was visiting him. According to legend, the master had asked Basho a koan-like question (meaning a riddle with no answer) and Basho, instead of searching for an answer, replied with “a frog jumps into, the sound of water.” This could have happened as Basho was living, at that time, in a cottage-hut his students had built for him on the marshy ground where another river joined the Sumida, at the edge of what is now Tokyo. So he was living in a vicinity with lots of frogs.
If you are counting syllables:
Basho begins with an image that sets the scene for his poem. This is a good technique. Turn the first and last lines around and see how wisely he saved his “punch line” for the end and how necessary this is.
Since the Japanese use the same word for singular and plural (as we do with sheep, fish and deer), we assume, in English, that there is only one frog. However Basho drew a picture, called “haiga,” of the scene and there is only one frog in it which seals the case. Always check your own haiku to see if you can use the singular instead of the plural.
Frogs then and now are often thought of as “lowly creatures” but Basho’s spiritual and intellectual development, to conceive of the idea of how water and sound are alike, allowed him to use this image to carry across his idea. It would have been more “elegant” to write of the bush warbler, but haiku allowed him to speak simply of common things to carry elegant ideas.
Notice too how the first and third lines (I call them lines because of the way we typeset the three parts of Basho’s poem) relate. This is using the associative technique. The old pond and the sound of water are one thing, very alike and when you think of them together you come to a new understanding of each of the images.
Over the century since this was first translated into English, the versions have varied widely.
Since these books were so widely read and admired, you can understand how and why so many haiku were written in this style and what a shock it is for some, yet today, to realize the brevity and plainness of a haiku.
Kenneth Yasuda, who did so many translations and a book on how to write haiku, wrote:
It seems he was more interested in using 17 English syllables than correctly translating the poem. Again, he led so haiku many enthusiasts in a wrong direction.
The wildest version comes from Lindley Williams Hubbell:
Allen Ginsberg tried:
In the interest of brevity, we end with James Kirkup’s:
Notice also that while we call this verse a “haiku” Basho called it a “hokku,” the beginning verse for a renga. And there is a following verse:
ashi no wakaba ni kakaru kumo no su by Kikaku
This is called a “tan renga” (tan=short with ren=linked-ga=elegance, music or verse). There are a few people writing in English who make a specialty of this form. You will notice it is exactly like the tanka except that the tan renga is always written by two persons.
All of which brings us around to tanka, which we can discuss the next time.
Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2010.
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