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re:Virals 113

Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was

     a wild boar
     comes and eats air
     spring mountain path 
          — Kaneko Tohta, Selected Haiku With Notes and Commentary Part 2:1961-2012. (Translated by the Kon Nichi Translation Group, and Published by Red Moon Press, 2012)

Bob Lucky’s friends cry “Havok”:

Years ago in Kobe a friend’s parents were having problems with wild boars coming down into their garden, with its traditional teahouse, and wreacking havoc. I like the image of the boars eating the air (a Hindi expression for taking a stroll, which has nothing to do with this haiku but still adds to it in some way) because it puts their snouts up into the air rather than down in to the ground, where they tend to root around. In this haiku, in spring, the hunt is on.

Lynne Rees revises:

The translation of poetry has to be one of the most challenging arts. How can someone translate words, syntax, sound, rhythm and connotation from one language to another and be sure of achieving something comparable to the original author’s intention? How does the translator balance commitment to the original text with the necessity of creating poetic effect in the translated one?
I am not a translator. And while my reasonable grasp of French and Spanish might help me produce a passable English translation of a short poem in either of those languages, all other languages are beyond my reach. So it’s the translation of Kaneko Tohta’s haiku that I must respond to.
I appreciate the overall scene the haiku conjures but I’m less satisfied with a close reading: the word choice and syntax.
The second line is staccato: it lacks the more natural rhythm of, say, ‘comes and eats the air’. Although ‘comes and eats’ feels rather prosaic too: is the addition of ‘comes’ adding anything? Would a different verb more effectively communicate the writer’s intention?
And ‘spring mountain path’ feels overly compressed. I appreciate that haiku is a poetry of distillation but, for me, the last line attempts to pack in too much of a seasonal punch and I find myself struggling to ‘imagine’ that mountain path in spring. What’s the weather like? What plants might be there? Is it warm/chilly?
So please forgive me for what I’m about to do, Kaneto Tohta and the Kon Nichi Translation Group.

     mountain path
     a wild boar eats
     the spring air   

But now I can taste the air with the wild boar on the side of that mountain. And isn’t that what we all want to do? Enter a poem and be a part of it?

Joseph Salvatore Anverso cites Snyder:

I at times get squeamish when seeing predators tear at their freshly captured prey on National Geographic Wild. However, as Gary Snyder reminds us in his poem “Spel Against Demons,” “aimless executions and slaughterings / are not the work of wolves and eagles // but the work of hysterical sheep”. Thus, predators in the wild take only what is needed. Now enter our wild boar onto the stage of a wild mountain path in spring. Spring is not only about flowers, but renewed power and life. Birth is after all the birthright of all living creatures. Moreover, as a fellow omnivore, the boar feeds on everything, even the air! Breathing air is also the birthright of all creatures, whether gulping it down like a frenzied wild pig, or inhaling softly like a sleeping baby. Namely, the act of tearing at flesh for sustenance is no more violent than breathing. The boar reminds us of our own dependence on food, water, and air; and it reminds us of something rather uncanny, the violence which goes hand in hand with that very dependence.

As this week’s winner, Lynne gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
re:Virals 113:

     we become
          — Hilary Tann Frogpond 27.1

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. .
    Many thanks for the additional comments Clayton. My own research is lost due to my laptop being stolen, and it sadly it hadn’t been backed up.
    Tohta Kaneko could be called a gendai poet but I feel that’s a simplification especially as he is greatly influenced by classic pre-haiku poets such as Issa. Kaneko witnessed many horrors at the end of the 1939-1945 World War, and post-war horrors in Japan too. As we know, a war in our own country can cause great social changes, and so he both captures this at times, as well as being influenced by Issa and simple nature as it unfolds.
    Although he often appears to break away from a 5-7-5 Japanese structure he is really just skillfully using it as a template, just as a house starts with scaffolding but dispenses with it once the building work is completed.
    I mention Tohta Kaneko’s influence on my own work in NHK TV of Japan’s episode of
    “Alan’s Haiku Journey”:
    The video was kindly made available to Youtube by NHK TV on request by The Haiku Foundation.
    I write both ‘classic’; modern; contemporary; and sometimes ‘gendai’ style haiku, and I feel this is what Kaneko does too. Is there a metaphorical layer to the haiku? Perhaps it is a straight nature poem in the haiku genre, where he was both living close to wild countryside, to farming land too, and wild animals, like humans, need food. The immediate post-war Japan as a land of extreme poverty, and where food was scarce, people have a heightened awareness of other food gatherers.
    Tohta Kaneko uses seasonal references but is not restricted by just using official centralised ‘kigo’ in the classic sense. Here though it may be just a straightforward seasonal haiku using generally recognised seasonal features of the boars coming down to raid farms and gardens.
    Kaneko is a widely known and highly respected ongoing modern poet and philosopher, despite being in his nineties, he does not ‘stand still’ and grow outdated. Here’s a little more:
    warm regards,


  2. In defense of the original translation, the poem is truly quite simple and declarative in Japanese, I would translate this ku as:

    a wild boar comes and eats air—spring pass

    Lynne’s comments do touch on the difficulty of translation regarding kigo, here “spring (mountain) pass” is all one concept and appears after a caesura or “soft cut” via disjunction in the original. So while it may be tempting to split “spring” from the mountain pass, it really is a large deviation from the original to separate these concepts, and re-writes Tohta’s intent. Her translation, re-translated in Japanese would be

    inoshishi ga
    haru no kuuki o taberu

    Here “spring” is modifying the air rather than the mountain path. Lynne’s revision has her entering the boar’s perspective, tasting the air herself, which reminds me of Mountain’s “pig and i spring rain,” which as was discussed earlier on re:Virals, has a somewhat political undertone in the democratic association of pig and human, putting them on equal footing. In that sense, Lynne’s version reminds me of what say, Issa might have written from the same experience of encountering a wild boar.

    In addition to throwing off the teikei (5-7-5) rhythm, the separation of clause and kigo in two distinct parts (fragment and phrase theory) is interrupted in this version, and even in English there is a sense of two conflicting, competing natural images created through “spring air” and “mountain path.”

    I find it interesting that Lynne dropped the second verb, “comes,” which in doing so focuses our attention on the boar tasting the air and brings us into the experience of the animal itself. This is a more empathetic perspective to be sure, and is an interesting change in tone and perspective. Tohta has the boar bursting upon the scene and sniffing the air, perhaps catching a whiff of a human presence; this is the image and experience he is aiming to capture. There is a sense of danger that is heightened by the fact that the character 峠 has a secondary meaning of “crisis climax,”* so for me there is no doubt that in the original a sense of danger and perhaps raw masculinity is evoked. The kigo could be also seen as “spring crisis,” so there’s a bit of wordplay being lost here. Tohta talks about “aranbonbu,” wild, ordinary man, and “nama,” or rawness as ideals that he seeks in haiku, so I see this poem in that context. It has a far more tempestuous tone than the shofu based ELH generally allows for.

    The interesting thing is, I don’t think Lynne’s change in tone and interpretation in English is necessarily a negative, the poem takes on a softer, more feminine and humanistic tone in contrast to Tohta’s vigorous vitalism (which may be more appealing to Japanese than English language audiences).

    This discussion is a great illustration of how much minor changes can alter the tone, perspective and effect a haiku communicates to the audience, and brings up the question of accuracy vs. artistry in translation.

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