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
Octopus pot— evanescent dreams of the summer moon — Basho, Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko Yamamoto
I’m somewhat wary of reading too much into a particular translation nowadays, so I decided to check out the kigo of this poem from Basho. In fact there are several translations of this haiku at Gabi Greve’s https://worldkigodatabase.blogspot.com, my preferred resource for kigo. As with much of Basho’s work this seems to have several meanings in the context of Japanese society. To me, however, L2/3 suggests the end of the life of this octopus but also the approach of the end of the summer fishing season, as well as the end of the summer itself for another year. ‘Evanescent’ touches on the fading colours of the octopus, and the circular pot mirrors the moon above the ocean which is perhaps foretelling this particular demise. The octopus is such an intelligent and alien organism it seems strange that it can be hoodwinked so easily. To me therefore it has a sad tone, and I do feel it’s a shame we harvest them in this way.
As this week’s winner, Mark 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!
late flowering the last bee disappears down a bright funnel — Ian Turner, Blithe Spirit 23/4 (2013)
This Post Has 22 Comments
“Evanescent’ is from the Latin ‘evanescere’. Latin-derived words in English tend to be posh/ ‘high-falutin’, rather than common. What would Basho, a haikai poet after all, not a waka poet, choose?
Unfortunately, perhaps, my first contact with the word ‘evanescence’ was an much-repeated Alka Seltzer advertisement on radio and tv, in the 50’s. . . the association is indelible. All those fizzy bubbles!
hakanaki yume o
natsu no tsuki
octopus trap !
transient dream (dir.obj.)
summer ‘s moon — (literal translation, Barnhill)
fleeting dreams under
summer’s moon — Barnhill, Bashō’s Haiku, 76, #295
an octopus pot —
inside, a short-lived dream
under the summer moon –Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, 201
under the summer moon –Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature, 184
fleeting dreams beneath
a summer moon — Shirane, Traces of Dreams , 9
A trapped octopus—
one night of dreaming
with the summer — Hamill, The Essential Bashō, 73, 124
The octopus trap:
Under the summer moon. –Blyth, Haiku, vol. 3, 41
The summer moon. –Aitken, A Zen Wave
Thanks Lorin, always interesting to see a spread of translations of the same poem.
Thanks for these translations. Whichever adjective is used, the octopus is doomed.
Jane Reichhold’s translation in her ‘Basho: The Complete Haiku’ is:
an octopus jar
the short-lived dreams
of the summer moon
For me, the word ‘evanescent’ is a stumbling block in the translation used. It is a word that draws attention to itself and so goes against the grain of (and I paraphrase) ‘write about the moon, not the bejewelled finger pointing at the moon’.
The translator’s work is a matter of taste for the reader – after all, there is no ‘right’ version unless the author speaks up!
I agree Sandra, ‘evanescent’ is too cumbersome a word. Jane must have known that.
I agree that ‘evanescent’ is not commonly used but it’s a beautiful word, don’t you think? Does not it’s beauty also contrast with the ultimate fate of the octopus? I don’t know how well it translates the original, however.
Although I am usually on your side of the argument in this type of thing, here I don’t feel that ‘evanescent’ is overly ornate. It does more than ‘short-lived’, or ‘brief’ or ‘fleeting’ which I have also seen used, as it includes an element of fading rather than suddenness. For me, the image of the octopus’ colour flaring before ultimately fading is a key to the poem. As to which translation is best I would need to go back to the original text.
But Mark, the octopus squeezes into small crannies, bottles etc. instinctively, by nature, to rest , to sleep. . . they feel safe from attack in such places, and they are safe from their rivals and age-old predators, so they wouldn’t be sending out distress or hostility patterns (the moving colours under the skin) They ‘dream’ they are safe, through the night. But they’re not safe from the cunning descendants of monkeys, who figured out how to use the squid/ octopus instinct against them and made cosy clay pot ‘bedrooms’ for them to squeeze into. Only when they’re rudely awakened would the colours come into play, and fade. . . as they do with squid caught on hook & line, and hauled onto a pier.
Yes that’s a good point, I don’t know much about octopus physiology. I heard a story about researchers in a marine laboratory whose food was going missing. It turned out that when the coast was clear an octopus in the lab next door would leave its tank, squeeze through a crack in the wall and raid various lunchboxes before returning.
A book of Basho’s work On Love and Barley, translated by Lucien Stryk (1985) the kigo is different. In this version the haiku reads:
Octopus traps –
summer’s moonspun dreams,
We remain with transience though. I’d like to compare this haiku to another of Basho’s, also to do with octopus:
The second is the harsher of the two as it focuses more insistently on human needs put above that of another living being. Both equally saddens.
Ah a shame, I am not allowed to post the comment even with all web links removed. Ah well, let the octopus dream on. 🙂
It was more than 140 characters, and even 280. 🙂
It was only 467 words, and even when I split them up as 2x 230 words sans links it didn’t like me. Ah well, one for my archives. 🙂
Speaking practically, how does Ian Turner know it is “the last bee”?
The bee may “disappear down a bright funnel” as far as the viewer is concerned, but I’m betting that bee comes back out and flies away to it’s hive. I would, if I were a bee, what with cold weather coming on.
Dear Judith, that’s a good point – perhaps you could expand it as a commentary to the Contact Form above?
Greetings! A new approach with a new interpretation.
“‘Evanescent’ touches on the fading colours of the octopus, and the circular pot mirrors the moon above the ocean which is perhaps foretelling this particular demise. The octopus is such an intelligent and alien organism it seems strange that it can be hoodwinked so easily. To me therefore it has a sad tone, and I do feel it’s a shame we harvest them in this way”.
Do submit a comment on this week’s haiku which I have chosen – I am having to sit on my hands this week!
Greetings! Certainly, I shall submit a comment on haiku chosen by you.
When I say ‘submit a comment’ of course I mean ‘submit to the Contact Form above’.
Greetings! yes, ‘ submit to the contact form only.’
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