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re:Virals 155

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

 
     no moon at month’s end:
     a thousand-year cedar
     in the grip of the storm

          — Matsuo Bashō (trans. Keith J. Coleman), Presence 35(2008) 

Lucy Whitehead aims for a comprehensive reading:

I thought this was a wonderful choice of haiku. As it’s by Basho, I decided to see how my reading of it as a Western woman in the 21st-century might differ from how it would be read in its original cultural and religious context. I was also interested in what it might have meant to Basho.

My reading of it from my personal experience began with considering the implication of a moonless night: ‘no moon at month’s end’. Immediately, this suggests an absence of light and an emphasis on darkness, setting up the mood and theme of the haiku. The thousand year old cedar gripped by a storm is a very striking and powerful image. When I read it, I cannot help but visualise a giant, ancient tree being blown around by heavy winds and threatened by lightning.

To me, it suggests those dark, tumultuous times in life when you are in the grip of your own particular kind of storm. That tree must have weathered countless storms, continuing to grow despite adversity. It suggests great strength and endurance despite challenge and difficulty, and as such it is an inspiring image. At the same time, the question occurred to me, as I’m sure it does to most people in such situations in life, is this the storm that will damage or break the tree? There is still that uncertainty, that fragility of life.

I also thought that the tree with its deep roots could have been an image of Basho’s Zen practice—in particular, the ability to stand firm in the midst difficult experience and whatever life throws at you and even bend with the wind as I imagine the tree was doing. He was, in fact, on one of his long journeys when he wrote this poem. It is from his first poetic journal Nozarashi kikou (野ざらし紀行), The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton, a journey he embarked on in late September 1684 (Makoto Ueda, 1992, Basho and His Interpreters, Stanford University Press, p94; as recorded in Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966, trans Nobuyuki Yuasa, p54, Penguin Books). The haiku that begins his account of this journey is itself quite dark and involves the image of wind.

Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart

(Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p53)

In the context of such a journey, I wonder how easily natural phenomena become metaphors for one’s experience? How many of us write in this kind of context nowadays? For me, the haiku above that starts his account of this journey throws light on the cedar tree haiku. When read together they resonate with each other and suggest something of Basho’s own emotional experience. His mother had died the year before and part of the reason for the journey was to visit her grave (Ueda, 1992, p94) and in fact only a page after the cedar tree haiku he writes a beautiful poem of grief about his brother showing him his ‘mother’s frosty hairs’ (Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p55).

Finally, I wanted to understand the haiku more in its cultural and religious context in case there was something that I was missing without it.

“Basho wrote this hokku when he visited one of the Grand Shinto Shrines in Yamada on October 8, the last day of the lunar eighth month” (Ueda, 1992, p108). On the commentary on the same page, Tosai goes on to explain the significance of the structure of the shrine to the haiku. He explains that “The Inner Shrine is worshipped as a sun deity; the Outer Shrine, as a moon deity. With no moon, the invisible deity seemed even more august, and the poets looked up to the cedar tree as her holy manifestation”. Basho was visiting the Outer Shrine when he wrote this poem (p108). There are other commentaries, but what I thought was interesting was that without the cultural and religious context of this haiku the link between the absent moon and the fact that he was in a shrine that was worshipped as a moon deity would be completely missed (could the absent moon in the context of a moon deity shrine also be a reference to his missing mother and thus the storm his grief?).

In terms of this translation, I thought it worth noting that in other translations the word ’embrace’ or ’embracing’ is used (抱く – daku) instead of ‘in the grip of’. I think the words have slightly different meanings and implications for the relationship between the storm and the cedar tree and even for the tone of the poem. It is interesting what a difference one word can make.

Finally, here is what Basho wrote (in two different translations) in the sentence before the haiku:

“The wind coming from the pine trees of the sacred mountain pierced my body and filled me with religious awe” (Ueda, 1992, p108).

“As I stood there, lending my ears to the roar of pine trees upon distant mountains, I felt moved deep in the bottom of my heart” (Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p54).

Petru Viljoen notes the intransient nature:

The tree is not expected to survive the storm. The ‘no moon at month’s end’ alerts us to this effect.

The tree has lived a 1000 years. Basho lived fifty. It befell him to witness the demise of the tree in his lifetime.

As it was growing, so was Japan. The tree survived many wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, invasions, famines and plagues. It saw the Japanese script become independent from Chinese.

A 1000 years old and it wasn’t to see the end of the month.

Radhamani Sarma gets metaphorical:

Here is my humble take on haiku interpreting the pivotal image (a thousand-year cedar), both literally and as a metaphor. we have to infer in line one that there is darkness prevailing in the forest for there is no moon. What follows in the second and third line is the disaster of a heavy
hurricane, blowing the thousand-year cedar with its clusters of green leaves to and fro. The poet envisioned the thousand-year-old cedar tree in the clutch of storm; the tree’s strength unbending, trying its best before being uprooted, or fighting until the gale recedes. It is like an exorcist driving away the spirit.

The poet might be interpreting, metaphorically, a family tragedy in which a brother or sister is in the grip of death or ruinous disaster, but who nevertheless fights until the end. The first line (“no moon at month’s end”) might be alluding to the waning stage, or last journey, of man. Also, no moon, no shining, only pitch dark now, may be implying a wealthy person, prosperous until now, financially broke down and torn asunder by debtors.

virus2
As this week’s winner, Lucy 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 155:

 
     Octopus pot—
     evanescent dreams
     of the summer moon

          — Basho, Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko Yamamoto (2009) 

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Damn… I messed up with those italics, beginning with this: kireji/> !!! Duh.

    That’s what comes of musing too much while one writes when there’s no way to edit.

    .
    – Lorin

    1. And I was so impressed you could use code that worked in these posts too!
      .
      I should have put my response into a word.doc first, and also remembered to use the dots to separate phrases.
      .
      .
      re:
      I guess I was addressing the confusion that will gather like a snowball, that Basho didn’t write haiku, and didn’t write it in English. Of course he was the forerunner, although there were others that were collecting ‘unused’ hokku for the group participation renga (and then renku) parties.
      .
      .
      I mean that when a verse is posted on social media, in English, without any reference to the translation into English having been created by a different author, that people new or newish to haiku will start to pre-suppose Basho wrote haiku, not hokku (or haikai verses) and either only in English, or he was able to be bi-lingual.
      .
      It would have been more logical if he could write in Dutch, but he only fluent in Chinese and Japanese which is fair enough. 😉
      ,

  2. Two fascinating links:
    Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary
    By Makoto Ueda
    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kmdWOrsYBgMC&pg=PA108&lpg=PA108&dq=no+moon+cedar+tree+storm+basho&source=bl&ots=aXkvrkJbr9&sig=lXVuVHTp0TmOTNa0KV6JYVXKBRw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj_7dje2pfdAhUqK8AKHQgdAOEQ6AEwB3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=no%20moon%20cedar%20tree%20storm%20basho&f=false
    .
    I highly recommend getting this book, if possible, alongside at least half a dozen other books on Basho, as each complement each other. I’ve got many as they came out, so if too much on one online site check out Ebay; Abebooks; Book Depository etc…
    .
    .
    The other link:
    .
    University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
    Basho – Example 1 of a Paper on Basho
    — last modified Apr 03, 2011 07:37 AM
    .
    Tara Mortimer, English 244
    David Barnhill, 3 May 2005
    .
    The Creative: Entering and Accepting Nature
    https://www.uwosh.edu/facstaff/barnhill/244-assignments/basho1

  3. To me this (particular translation) doesn’t foretell the falling of the tree – quite the opposite, I think it’s going to take more than this storm to significantly damage the cedar. So the poem is perhaps about resilience in the face of pain or grief. Also we know that the moon is up there somewhere.

    1. Hi Mark,
      .
      re:
      .
      no moon at month’s end:
      a thousand-year cedar
      in the grip of the storm
      .
      — Matsuo Bashō (trans. Keith J. Coleman), Presence 35(2008)
      .
      .
      You said:
      .
      “To me this (particular translation) doesn’t foretell the falling of the tree – quite the opposite, I think it’s going to take more than this storm to significantly damage the cedar.”

      .
      I tend to agree. The hokku starts with a seasonal reference (obviously not kigo, but kisetu) it shows for me an amazing and knowingly ancient tree in a fresh storm. An interesting comparison.
      .
      re kigo:
      .
      “After haiku became a fully independent genre, the term “kigo” was coined by Otsuzi Ōsuga (1881-1920) in 1908. “Kigo” is thus a new term for the new genre approach of “haiku.” So, when we are looking historically at hokku or haikai stemming from the renga tradition, it seems best to use the term “kidai.” Although the term “kidai” is itself new—coined by Hekigotō Kawahigashi in 1907!
      .
      Itō, Yūki. The Heart in Season: Sampling the Gendai Haiku Non-season Muki Saijiki, preface in Simply Haiku vol 4 no 3, 2006.
      https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/omeka/files/original/c7bea4d53c1ed337b7b361bb2bfe0794.pdf
      .
      kisetsu (season, seasonal aspect)
      .
      .
      Mark said:
      .
      “So the poem is perhaps about resilience in the face of pain or grief. Also we know that the moon is up there somewhere.”

      .
      .
      Yes, Basho would have thrown in various techniques including metaphor etc… Although it’s direct kidai (poetic and natural history feature of nature) it could be both saying it’s bleep bleep dark night out there, and there is a great storm and a great tree happening, as well as saying other things.

  4. Thank, Alan.
    I must confess I get a little bit confused as to precisely what the distinctions are between what you’ve referred to as “hokku form” and “haiku genre”.

    1. You are not alone Danny! 🙂
      .
      When Shiki used a rarely used term called haiku it was at a time of great Western influence, for good and for bad reasons. Whilst hokku is very Japanese (with Chinese background, maybe even Korean) haiku was part Western (sketching from life/in plein air etc…).
      .
      I just don’t think Basho wrote in English, or haiku in English. 😉
      If you are on Twitter, or even Facebook (which I’m not) you will see many posts of haiku written by Basho just in English (no English translator mentioned)
      .
      Hence part of a longer project:
      https://the13alphabet.wordpress.com/2018/08/05/why-haiku-is-different/
      .
      Alan

  5. Great to have some hokku instead, just to compare the form of hokku and the genre of haiku! 🙂
    .
    I wrote this a while back, inspired by so many Basho or Buson verses, but called haiku, and in English, and no author of the English translation noted. It was if those classic haikai/hokku writers wrote haiku (1890s onwards) and mostly in English.
    .
    Why haiku is different:
    https://the13alphabet.wordpress.com/2018/08/05/why-haiku-is-different/
    .
    One big difference between the hokku form and the haiku genre is that there was that great transition between the medieval world still hanging on into the 19th Century, and the new and promising new era of the 20th Century with technological innovations, a new working class, urbanisation, and fast reliable travel, unlike the dangerous mule or horse journeys that Basho and merchants etc… had to endure.
    .
    I look forward to properly reading all the commentaries this evening!

    1. Hi Alan,
      I’ve just read your essay, ‘Why Haiku is different’. It’s an interesting piece, and it’s true of course that the world changes over time and of course, so do the norms of poetry (haiku or otherwise).
      .
      It’s also true that post-Shiki, what was once called hokku was retrospectively termed haiku . . . that is, the short Japanese verse with a cut marker/ kireji/>. This, I believe, was because Shiki wished to completely disassociate the practice of writing haiku (formerly hokku) from renku, for which he held no respect. ‘Hokku’ remains as the name for the first verse of a renku, whereas pre-Shiki, it applied to all such verses, whether they headed a renku or not (as in Basho’s verses in his books) such as the one so well commented on by Lucy Whitehead and others)
      .
      But I think your
      “. . . haiku, unlike hokku, constantly evolves,. . . “ Alan Summers

      https://the13alphabet.wordpress.com/2018/08/05/why-haiku-is-different/
      .
      might mislead some readers. Did not Basho’s hokku “constantly evolve”? There is plenty of evidence that it did.
      .
      (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet.”)
      .
      “. .. in one of his few direct statements on the unchanging and the ever-changing, Basho wrote:

      “It is said with regard to Chinese poetry that from the time of Han to that of Wei, for over four hundred years, there have been many talented poets, and the style of poetry has changed three-fold. The way of Japanese poetry has also changed from generation to generation. Haikai changes from year to year; each month it becomes something new.”
      Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Haruo Shirane
      p265
      .

      “Masaoka Shiki (正岡 子規 1867 – 1902) took a hardly known term called ‘haiku’ and created a genre around it that continues to be popular today. Throughout this article I will intersperse haiku, to hopefully show how different styles can make up a genre called haiku.” -Alan Summers, “Why Haiku is Different”.
      .
      Did Shiki create “a genre called haiku”? Or did he continue a genre called haikai, as Basho did, as others post-Shiki (including us of the so-called ‘West’ ) have done and continue to do?
      .
      I believe the latter. I’m happy to keep ‘haikai’ as the genre term, ‘haiku’ as the general term for the form (in its growing varieties) and ‘hokku’ to indicate the first verse in a renku.
      .

      – Lorin

      There my be a genre

      .

      1. Hi Lorin,
        .
        re:
        But I think your
        “. . . haiku, unlike hokku, constantly evolves,. . . “ Alan Summers
        https://the13alphabet.wordpress.com/2018/08/05/why-haiku-is-different/
        .
        might mislead some readers. Did not Basho’s hokku “constantly evolve”? There is plenty of evidence that it did.
        .
        .
        Ah ha! Yes! 🙂
        .
        And Basho was the great reformer of hokku, which gives so much to haiku. He had got tired of the earlier jokey hokku he produced as it was all the rage in his early days.
        .
        I guess I was addressing the confusion that will gather like a snowball, that Basho didn’t write haiku, and didn’t write it in English. Of course he was the forerunner, although there were others that were collecting ‘unused’ hokku for the group participation renga (and then renku) parties.
        .
        .
        Just like the sonnet, which is no longer only in Sicilian, or even fourteen lines etc…, Basho knew he had to innovate, and in some ways, enjoyed doing so, with his perilous journeys to isolated haikai groups who had interesting ideas to further develop.
        .
        .
        I feel that hokku, although there is further scope to evolve, is thought of as the classical era that ended with Shiki (although I’d put him in the modern camp, and the haiku camp). 🙂
        .
        As I feel it’s more akin to ‘form’ than just genre alone like short fiction, novels etc… it will always feel like a kind of nature poem with automatic poetic devices including kidai/kisetsu, forerunners of kigo. Whereas haiku breaks off into themes unknown to some extent such as urbanisation, technology, the genocide of our fellow animals, the mechanised innovations of mass killing through warfare and terrorism. The fact, as I know, of a few droplets from a perfume spray bottle that can kill by a single touch, as I live next to the city targeted for assassinations by Russian forces. That the bottle was left in a public park used by children, mothers, others, all non-combatants, and unlikely to be involved in any intelligence warfare. Could hokku evolve to capture all this? Well many of the “New Rising Haiku” movement were arrested by the Japanese Secret Police, where Shiki’s companion/disciple wanted haiku to be closer to hokku, I believe.
        .
        Strange times, and as we know, political leaders are always wary of poetry as it can’t easily be labelled as fake news.
        .
        Alan

        1. “Strange times, and as we know, political leaders are always wary of poetry as it can’t easily be labelled as fake news.” – Alan
          .
          Not even news at all, perhaps:
          .
          “It is difficult
          to get the news from poems
          yet men die miserably every day
          for lack
          of what is found there.”
          .
          ― William Carlos Williams, from ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’
          .
          . . . and here’s my favourite ‘urban hokku’:
          .
          ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
          .
          in town,
          the smells of things
          summer moon
          .
          – Bonchō (Translator: Maeda Cana) from Sarumino (猿蓑 Monkey’s Raincoat) 1691
          .
          (I think we can read ‘smells’ as a polite alternative to ‘stinks’.) Maybe this hokku is an example of the “never-changing” side of things?
          .

          – Lorin

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