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re:Virals 123

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

     harvest moon—
     I circle the pond
     all night
          — Matsuo Bashō 
            (Tr. D. Lanoue) 

Hansha Teki gets illuminant:

This haiku brings to mind the memory of a peak experience from my youth. At the time I was looking after oyster beds in a very remote area located on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour in New Zealand. There was no artificial light to lessen the impact of each night’s darkness.

On the night of a startlingly clear harvest moon I rowed my dinghy out onto the calm moonlit waters of the bay. In that light, accompanied only by the water lapping against my drifting boat, I experienced a private, lonely, personal illumination or revelation, akin to religious ecstasy. Time and space lost meaning while I became filled with a feeling of being at one with self and creation, effortlessly and fully alive, fully in control of all my faculties, free of fear and doubt, brimming with a creative overflow of being so completely at one with the present moment. Energy and warmth seemed to emanate from the centre of my being to the rest of my body.

Was the night of the harvest moon in 1686 on which Bashō hosted poetry gathering at his hut a night like mine? He and his party too took a boat out onto the water. They rowed to a quieter part of the Sumida River with the intention of composing haiku evoking the moonlit scene around them. I suspect that Bashō remembered his spring poetry gathering earlier the same year at which he composed his peak experience frog haiku. Is this why the river became worded as a pond? “Circling the pond” also suggests to me the image also of wolves circling their prey. Is the poet seeking to re-experience his “mizu no oto” moment, the moon’s illumination?

meigetsu ya / ike o megurite / yomosugara
bright-moon ! / pond circling / all-night
(Autumn: harvest moon. 1686.)

harvest moon—
I circle the pond
all night

(tr. David Lanoue)

I am drawn to personalise the haiku thus:

illuminant moon—
circling the pond
through the night

Editor’s note:

The word for word translation of “meigetsu” used by Barnhill (and cited above by Hansha Teki) uses the expression “bright-moon.” Just for clarity, I’ll add that the first kanji “mei” can mean a variety of things, among them: noted, distinguished, reputable, and so on. The second kanji, “getsu,” is the moon. This renowned moon is, of course, the brightly shining harvest moon.

Jeanne Cook shares her lunar musings:

Did this night pass quickly or slowly?

Sometimes one views the beautiful and does not want to take one’s eyes off the object. One does not wish to miss any of the fleeting beauty, even if it may feel a bit too prolonged. The attention wanders; one gets tired. Basho alludes to the challenges of moon viewing in this haiku:

Clouds now and then
give a soul some respite from

(tr. B.L. Einbond)

Or in another translation:

Lovely moon on high—
but when clouds obscure it
necks enjoy the rest

(tr. William Cohen)

Given such human frailties, the all-night circling of Basho could have seemed very long indeed.

Yet the translation of Harold Henderson gives a clue that maybe the night didn’t seem that long at all:

Harvest Moon
around the pond I wander
and the night is gone.

He provides a literal translation of yo-mo-sugara as “night-already-over.” This doesn’t sound like a long night, but one that went quickly, over almost as soon as it began.

A “night-already-over” gives us a clue to yet another approach to the seeming duration of this haiku. The “moon” is the subject of an entire chapter in Zen Master Dogen Kigen’s (1200-1253) classic work Shobogenzo. Dogen quotes the Buddha:

“the true dharma-body…like the empty sky…manifests itself in various forms, like the moon in water.”

The phrase “moon-in-water” presents, according to Dogen, the “actual, nondual (ultimate) reality of moon-water itself—its essential ‘thusness/suchness.’” Perhaps we may deduce the total dissolution of time as Basho views “moon-in-water” in a “night already over.”

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken

A haiku by Buson also suggests a liberating enlightenment:

escaped the nets
escaped the ropes—
moon on water

Perhaps Basho’s night, circling the pond, was experienced neither with time going slowly nor with time going fast, but rather, as a night of non-duality, a night of timelessness.

As this week’s winner, Jeanne 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 123:

   after it has fallen
     the image haunts the mind— 
     a peony flower
          — Yosa Buson 
          (translated by Makoto Ueda)
Original Japanese, with romanization: 
     ちりて後 おもかげにたつ ぼたんかな
     chirite nochi omokage ni tatsu botan kana

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