Which of you owns that red moon, children ?
That is the entirety of a poem by Kobayashi Issa. It has the magic of successful haiku. It makes a pinpoint in the wall surrounding us and lets in a flood of surprising images and thoughts. I by now have my own story sprung by these few words. Issa reaches a village at twilight, sits near the well to drink and wash, the children gather at a safe distance to watch the stranger. There is a tree nearby and a hill, and following it rising up the slope with one’s glance one finds the red rusty moon in the sky to which he points and asks the children whose toy is that ?
I have read two opposite interpretations of this. 1) we realise that the toy and the world belongs to us all or 2)that we are always trying to own things we will never ever be able to even touch. But I am sure these are only two out of many possibilities. The important thing is the hole it makes in our assumptions. So, for me, no expert in haikus, I think that the feature which makes some more memorable than others is the surprise element. You never know where the hole is going to be and when it comes it opens up a view you never knew was there. I can’t think of any Western imitation haiku which manages to do that- which is almost obvious – because on the one hand there are people writing within a tradition, like a hand inside a glove and it will always be finding new ways of moving it; and on the other hand you have people reproducing the movements they have seen from the outside, who can only copy what has been done before.
Issa is also the most human of the Japanese poets I know. Some writers are great but I would not have wanted to meet them, others like Issa I would dream of having a conversation with. Issa seems to quickly be inside the feelings of every one and every animal he crosses. Here are some examples:
Her row veering off/the peasant woman plants/toward her crying child
In a dream/my daughter lifts a melon/to her soft cheek
Visiting the graves/the old dog/leads the way
In spring rain/a pretty girl/ yawning
Don’t worry spiders/I keep house/casually
(versions from : The Essential Haiku – edited by Robert Hass)
If you like Issa, there is a wonderful website which has hundreds of his poems, searchable by keyword and category, showing the Japanese original, a phonetic transcription of the Japanese and an English translation. You can sign up for a haiku a day in your e-mail which also includes a commentary on the translation.
Writing about a thousand years earlier in China, Jia Dao wrote a much quoted poem about looking for a hermit or a master on a mountain top. The Chinese literally is “Pine-under ask boy/says master pick herbs go/only know this mountain among/clouds dense not know place.” I think you really need to have a word-for-word translation for Classical Chinese poems as well as a more standard versit on. It is very difficult to render them in English without adding on lots of words, which is a lot like adding pints of water. Their ultra-compressed energy gets completely diluted and they lose the spring inside which keeps them taut. And I refrain from saying anything about the attempts which have been made to put them into tame Victorian rhyme, even by eminent scholars. I was going to link this poem to the one Issa by saying that it foreshadows the mood of haiku, but it is unfair to imply that such a wonderful poem is in a way a transition towards anything else and in fact the approach of the poem is quite different from haiku. It is more an expression of the unseizability of the world.
An even earlier Chinese poem is Fishhawk from the诗经 Shī Jīng (variously translated as Book of Songs, the Classic of Poetry or the Book of Odes. And of course the title of the poem has been translated in various ways. I have found Fair, fair,’ cry the ospreys, The quacking osprey and then I stopped looking (Though I think that you will agree in a moment that whoever translated this as the quacking osprey had never heard one). The title I use and the translation is taken from Stephen Owen’s Anthology of Chinese Literature (over a thousand pages and the translations are all his !). I quote what he has to say:
The Classic of Poetry (Shī Jīng) is a collection of just over three hundred poems from the Zhou Dynasty (1020-249 B.C.). Although the collection reached something like its present form around 600 B.C., the oldest pieces may date from as early as the tenth century B.C. […] Confucius (ca. 552-479 B.C.) made special comment on “Fishhawk” in his collected sayings, the Analects (III.20): “He said, ‘Fishhawk’ is delight without wantonness, sadness without hurtful pain.”
This by the way is the sound of a fishhawk.
Now tell me if that is quacking.
I think that somewhere in Four Quartets (but I may be completely wrong) Eliot suggested that we must repeat things we know in order not to lose them or forget them. So much of literature is devoted to the task of rebuilding its edifice, reiterating things which people realised during Homer’s time or the Zhou dynasty, reminding us of the precious notions which the tide of life keeps washing away from the beaches of our minds. Sometimes it seems that there is nothing else one can do, everything surely must have been said. But every now and then someone says something no one has ever said before. I think that Emily Dickinson’s poem After Great Pain is an example of this. I don’ t think anyone has expressed the effect of loss in quite this way. And I can’t believe anyone can read this without remembering a time when they have abandoned themselves like lost Antarctic travelers.
[…]much of his best work Pessoa attributed to his heteronyms, de Campos, Reis, and Caeiro, who were partly born as a prank on Mário Sá-Carneiro (1890-1916), an avant-garde poet from Orpheu. Álvaro de Campos, an engineer, represents in the spirit of Walt Whitman the ecstasy of experience; he writes in free verse. Ricardo Reis is an epicurean doctor with a classical education; he writes in meters and stanzas that recall Horace. Alberto Caeiro, who called himself a shepherd, is against all sentimentality, and writes in colloquial free verse. Caeiro had two, disciples, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos. According to Reis, “The life of Caeiro cannot be told for there is nothing in it to tell.” Pessoa once informed that Caeiro died from tuberculosis in 1915. After meeting him on March 8, 1914, Pessoa began to write poetry. In ‘I never kept sheep’ Caeiro said: “I’ve no ambitions or desires. / My being a poet isn’t an ambition. / It’s my way of being alone.” Each persona has a distinct philosophy of life. Pessoa even wrote literary discussions among them.
There is also a fourth semi-heteronym, Bernardo Soares, the closest to Pessoa himself. And it doesn’t stop there, someone calculated that overall he created 72.
In this poem, Pessoa writes Há só cada um de nós, como uma cave. Which I found translated as “There is only each of us like a cavern”, which sounds good but I find “cave” meaning “cellar”, so I put “cellar” in, though it sounds worse and I am ready to be corrected.
And then, there is this poem by William Carlos Williams. I don’t know why this is a great poem, but it is and I can see a film which only frames all the feet, just the feet, going up and down and up and down all the way to everywhere and back.
I think that is enough for now, I shall add other notes from time to time.
(Red Plum and Moon is by Utagawa Hiroshige – Picture of Osprey by Louis Agassiz Fuertes)