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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Friday, December 07, 2012


Dconstructing Haiku

Dconstructing Haiku by timtak
Dconstructing Haiku, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
While agreeing with the layering "vortex" of images in Ezra Pound's interpretation of haiku, I go further to propose a deliberate subversion of interpretation by the use of layered optical or aural images to produce an "interpretive illusion" from which the reader is freed. In haiku poetry, the reader is fed three images, one of which is shown to have been a product of interpretation - the dreaded sign - and thus the reader is returned to the veracity of the image and the purity of the experience. Haiku, in their own small way, encourage us to experience this purity - a minuscule satori, enlightenment - by suddenly divesting us of the misinterpretation that they encouraged in the first place.

Here are some specific examples from the first few in this net selection of 100 famous Haiku (in Japanese).

As already discussed possibly the most famous Haiku is
Furuikeya, Kawazu tobikomu, Mizu no oto
An old pond, frogs jump in, the sound of the water.
We are presented with a view of an old, and presumably over-grown, murky pond. The poet then assumes that a frog, or many frogs, have (probably) jumped into the water. This second phrase - frogs jump in - is pure interpretation. In the third phrase we are reminded, in quite shocking fashion, the grounds for second assumption: the sound of the water. The poet had provided an interpretation - that frogs had jumped in - and then shown it for what it was. All that has occurred in truth, in the immediate purity of the experience, was a view of a pond, and the sound of the water. From the image, the frogs -- dread signs that they were -- completely disappear, for they were never there in the first place. Plop!

In the poem
May rain, Collected quick Mogami River,
is quite straightforward in telling us that there may not be any rain at all, only the river which has collected the rain and is running rapidly. The way in which the "quick" falls between the second and third phrase, at first appearing adverbial (to mean fast collection) but finally we realise is probably adjectival referring to the fast river, adds to the switchback, satorific, "vortex" of the poem. Bashou was looking at the river all along, but took us to an interpretation, which while in part true, was not the reality of his experience: a view of a river. As a Buddhist Bashou would not have needed Heraclitus to remind him that a river is all we are ever looking it, though we see so many things collected in it.

Shizukesaya, Iwa ni shimi-iru, Semi no koe
Silence Soaks into the Rocks Sound (or, rather, voice) of Cicadas,
Here it is all too clear that the initial "silence" is not silence at all. It is an interpretation of the monotonous summer sound-scape, the deafening (you need to listen to this if you have not lived in Japan) truth of which we are returned to in the last phrase.

Looking at a field of summer grass, at the site of a once great military castle in Hiraizumi, Bashou writes
夏草や 兵共が 夢の跡
Natsukusaya, Tsuwamono-domo ga, Yume no ato
Summer Grass  Soldiers(') Remains of dreams
The usual interpretation is that the summer grass is all that is left of the the once lofty aspirations of the soldiers. I think that this interpretation is correct, but there is also another. The "ga" (が) or apostrophe (') in my translation can be read as linking word meaning that the dreams are of or possessed by the soldiers. But it also can be read as a subject marker, which is not used in English, hence the apostrophe is in brackets. Taking the "ga" to be a subject marker the final clause comes as a shock because instead of the soldiers being active subjects, or there present, we see that only their field of dreams remain. Further, almost as if the solders have been killed in the middle of the poem, it seems to me, gazing at the field, Bashou himself let his imagination run free, so the "dreams" are not only those of the soldiers but also the dreams Bashou himself who imagined (dreamt) the soldiers. Indeed the summer grass itself may have looked like legions of soldiers. In strong support of this hypothesis is the fact that Bashou wrote the word "kusa" or grass with the non-standard (even for Bashou, even in the same book) ideogram "艸" (Matuso, 1997, pX) which looks a little like soldiers standing in a line. I.e. Bashou realises, and makes us realise, that he has dreamed up solders from his image of the grass, to the truth of which he returns us. Like all the best haiku however, the poem has no incontrovertible interpretation. Basho could be talking about the dreams of the soldiers, or his own dream of soldiers, but we do know, all he sees is a field of grass. Bearing in mind the fact that Basho deliberately edits his poems for poetic effect, I would not be surprised if he thought this one up well before arriving in "the deep north." In any event, it was well worth the journey.

The usual interpretation of
Araumiya, Sado ni Yokotau, Amanogawa
Routh Sea, Lies down in Sado, The milky way.
is that Basho is seeing the milky way above the rough waters around the island of Sado but to me the first phrase "荒海" is an optical illusion. First of all, from the historic record, and the fact that Bashou uses the word "milky way" this poem was written on the night of the festival of the Weaver stars who are said to cross the milky way to meat each other on 7th of July. This is the first hint to me that something is amiss. Despite adding this "season word," it would be a a little unseasonal for the sea to be rough on a summer night (though an early typhoon is not an impossibility). Secondly, while there are various interpretations of "lies down," taking a straight forward one, it suggests that rather being over the sea, the milky way is on the surface of the water. The natural explanation for this would be that the mily way is being reflected in the sea, a beautiful image appropriate for the romantic festival night. This would further suggest that the sea was flat, for the starts to be reflected, and therefore that the "rough sea" was an optical illusion created by the white light of the stars brilliantly reflected in the water's surface. What initially Bashou saw as white waves, turned out to be the light of stars lying on the water. Again we are fed a plausible misinterpretation to be returned to the truth of the image.

Akebonoya, Shiraushirokikotoisun
Dawn! white fish, its whiteness one inch (or very briefly)
This poem was originally "雪薄し”or thin snow which Bashou changed to dawn, in my view because the optical illusion of seeing thin snow as a white fish was a bit too obvious. In other words the poem started out as an optical illusion where the poet claimed/thought he saw snow before realising it was the flash of a white fish in the water, to the optical illusion of thinking one has seen the first rays of sun on the sea, which turned out to be the flash of white fish. In either case the reader is taken from a misinterpretation to the purity of the image. The substitution of "dawn" for "thin snow" - which both might produce flashes of light - shows the deliberate way in which Bashou sets the reader up. What a trickster.

The excellent poem (which I read now for the first time)
Konomichi Ikuhitonashini Akinokure
This road, no one goes along it, late autumn,
was written shortly before Bashou's death at an inn, when he had already fallen terminally ill. The road in question is thought to refer to the poetic path that Bashou had walked throughout his life. The lack of a road goer or goers is usually interpreted to refer to the solitude of the poetic path, but it may also refer to the breakdown of the ultimate illusion: the poets own absence as realised near death, "late autumn." If so then it is more upbeat than usually interpreted, as it implies a lack of fear of death, since Bashou feels himself absent from his own "road" already. Bashou is so cool.

Skipping the two poems related to death, and moving on to Buson
Nanoyanaya Tsukihahigashini, Hiha nishi ni
Field mustard (flowers), The moon is in the East, The sun in the West
This poem at first confused me since it could so easily have created an obvious interpretive illusion and return to the truth of the image (the pure experience), by reversing the order of the last two lines. Let me explain. Since the moon is unlikely to produce an affect on Buson's field of vision when behind him, I presume Buson is looking East at the moon over a field of mustard flowers, that are illuminated by the setting sun behind him in the West. In other words it would seem that the poem proceed towards interpretation rather than towards the pure image; The poet sees flowers, sees the moon, and interprets that the sun must be behind him.

Had Buson written instead
Field mustard (flowers), Sun in the West, Moon in the East
Then the second line would have created in the reader the impression that the poet was watching the setting sun, but with the final line the reader would be returned to the pure experience, with the realisation that the poet is in fact looking at the moon, and the second line regarding the sun was an interpretation of the setting sunlight falling on the flowers.

However, upon reflection and thinking more deeply regarding the direction that Buson was looking, it is important to ask whether he was looking at the son or the moon. Googling images related to this poem shows views facing both the moon and the setting sun. We are told that this poem was written on Mount Maya in the Rokkou range of mountains overlooking the Koube bay. The field mustard flowers were presumably on the bay (rather than mountainous) side. Since the Koube bay lies to the West of Mount Maya, this suggests that Buson was looking West at the setting sun. In other words, the second line regarding the moon, was an interpretation, based upon the time of day: sunset. The poem does indeed proceeds from image (the flowers) to interpretation, 'the moon (must be) in the East' to the return to purity of the experience, the setting sun in the West.

Reconsidering once again, however, since there is a plain to the East of [the very appropriately named, and conceivably deliberately chosen] Mt Maya, this poem is, like many of those above, left in interpretive abeyance. We know that Buson was looking at a something big and bright above a field of flowers. We know that he can not have been looking at towards both the East and the West, but we do not know in which direction he is looking. No definitive, incontrovertible interpretation is possible. We are left only with the visual experience: the sphere of light above a yellow field. Wow. Buson is very cool too.

Matsuo, B 松尾芭蕉. (1997). 芭蕉自筆奥の細道. (上野洋三 & 桜井武次郎, Eds.). 岩波書店.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.