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re:Virals 179

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

     Almost as high 
     As the crumbled statue,
     The heated air shimmering
     From the stone foundation. 
          — Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966). 

Garry Eaton envisions a mirage:

First of all, a big shout out to Danny Blackwell for his efforts in making this Haiku Foundation feature work, week after week!

A broken or crumbled statue in art is almost universally recognized as a symbol of human imperfection, so it’s not surprising to find one in a Basho haiku. What makes this haiku unique, I think, is Basho’s brilliant observation of the heat shimmer rising from the pedestal of one such monument. Similar to mirage, heat shimmer is another atmospheric phenomenon that can illustrate impermanence, and Basho places it just so, making it subtly suggest an apparition of the original subject, composed of heat and light, quickly come, and quickly gone.

Nancy Liddle feels inadequate compared to the master:

When I first read this, only recently new to Basho, it affected me with the apparent simplicity of the image. Now I find it’s very hard to use my own words correctly to respond to it clearly, to say what I actually want to say adequately. And Basho used 17 sound units only. The day is hot, the place holds a crumbling stone statue, the air in the grounds is heated again by the stones of the Buddha statue, more so than by the earth.
The air is made alive and moving by the heat emanating from the crumbling but still forceful statue — so that the air is transformed and also the statue is transformed into spirit — the statue’s soul is seen as the spirit hovering around it. And two wanderers are the witnesses. Basho travelled with companions. So, a decrepit statue is breathing and two travellers are standing in awe. And the message is secret but for this haiku.
My words are clumsy against the master’s. And yet I hope I understood at least a little of this haiku in the first instance. And the answer to that is “probably not”.

Lorin Ford finds merit in Yuasa’s translation:

Those of us who don’t read Japanese must rely on translations, but which to choose when there are several translations? No doubt there are more, but along with Nobuyuki Yuasa’s, I’ve found these two:

Original Bashō:
jooroku ni kageroo takashi ishi no ue

Almost as high
As the crumbled statue,
The heated air shimmering
From the stone foundation.

(Tr. Nobuyuki Yuasa)

sixteen foot Buddha:
heat wave rising
from the stone base

(Tr. David Landis Barnhill)

Reaching almost to
the broken statue’s height,
heat waves rise from stone

(Tr. Sam Hamill)

In Oku no Hosomichi (Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel) Bashō introduces this haiku with an account of his visit to the site of the ruins of a specific 12th century Buddhist temple which had been razed by fire. The details in Sam Hamill’s translation, “Green moss covered the tall Buddha, leaving only his sublime face exposed. A statue of the founder stood alone among broken pedestals . . .” complies with Nobuyuki Yuasa’s and seems to be historically correct, so we can disregard the Barnhill version which seems to inaccurately show the great Buddha statue as ‘broken’ or ‘crumbled’ rather than that of the temple’s founding priest.

In Bashō’s original, kageroo 陽炎 (heat shimmers) is a kigo for ‘all spring’, according the Dr. Gabi Greve. (She adds, as footnote: “In American English, they are sometimes called “heat waves” or “heat haze”.) Bashō ‘s deft touch (filmic, long before the film industry was born) is that these rising heat shimmers cannot but bring to mind by association the rising flames of fire that had ravaged the temple long ago. The historical past becomes, for a moment, superimposed upon the present. This effect comes across in both the Nobuyuki and Hamill translations.

Which do I prefer? The shimmering air, that phenomenon which always seems to me to be on the verge of becoming a mirage, does it for me much better than “heat waves”, which in my region simply means extended periods of very hot weather. As I became used to Nobuyuki’s rendering of his translations over four lines I appreciated the clarity of detail. In a delightfully unconstrained, hard-hitting essay Kenneth Rexroth wrote:

“Nobuyuki Yuasa, like almost all Japanese translators, expands and explains in translating. This is usually disastrous. In his case it is done with dignity and taste and by and large is illuminating, not degrading.”

Christina Pecoraro muses:

In four short lines, strategically placed, the master haiku poet Matsuo Bashō captures the drama of the collapse of a colossus. The story he evokes, which Victorian poet Shelley will later recount in his poem “Ozymandias,” predates 17th century Basho by hundreds of years. Like Shelley’s famous sonnet of that title, it takes us back to ancient Egypt and the Pharaoh god-king Ramses II.

Giving voice to the immense figure replicating Ramses, Shelley writes:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In its intact state, the same giant statute that Bashō’s haiku brings to mind emerges from a “stone foundation.” The word “high” which Bashō places in the first of his four lines signifies not only the physical measure of such a one, but his perceived greatness. Rendered in stone, this immortal god-figure is thus thought to be further immortalized.

That such a one can end up “crumbled,” then, astounds. For crumbling speaks of vulnerability, of downfall, and even of disintegration. It is, in fact, the very antithesis of what such a monument to might was fashioned to be.

In Bashō’s stunning rendering, the vacant hugeness which is left though, is not empty. It is shockingly filled by a veritable tsunami, not of sand or water, but of “heated (desert) air,” the waves of which can be seen and felt or readily imagined. But note: the fact that insubstantial “air” should replace the once solid stone figure, and that its “shimmering” should reach “almost as high,” these are perhaps the cruellest cuts of all.

What it tells, it seems to me, is that illusions of grandeur—including our own— are destined ultimately to meet a like fate.

If there is a saving factor in Bashō’s haiku, perhaps it is this: when all else shatters and turns to dust, our own “foundation,” will remain. That, at least, cannot be obliterated. Or can it? But that is musing for another moment.

Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă feels the wabi-sabi:

I’m sure the reader can see the ruins of a temple covered with moss where the statue of a very important deity (Buddha), though crumbled, still stands erect and attracts attention; the glory of the past has clearly disappeared but unexpectedly seems to shine forth as in former days due to the ‘heated air shimmering’ that gives the image a special aura and brings to my mind the Fata Morgana mirages. It’s interesting to notice too that the glittering air cannot exceed the height of the effigy on the platform/pedestal. What does it mean? Nothing is above a God/deity. Even the light. We can also speculate that the ‘heated air shimmering’ resurrects the spirits of the ancestors and connect them with us.
The wabi-sabi fills the atmosphere within the poem and one can feel the presence of Basho, who travels, observes and writes down attentively offering us brief snapshots, genuine charcoal sketches of a lost world.
The ‘stone foundation’ in the last line invites us to reflect on the irreversible passing of time and on the legacy of the past.

As this week’s winner, Lorin 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 179:

     The old rooster crows . . .
       Out of the mist come the rocks
        and the twisted pine
          — O.Mabson Southard, American Haiku 3.1 (1965) 

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. For me the magic is in the word: Almost

    and if we see all the translations that Lorin has pulled out of the books and her magic hat …there is always the element of comparison.

    Almost, the composition says, which means never really as high. Just about there but not as high.
    And then there is the elemental aspect of shimmering air which is diaphanous and not as concrete as the stone foundation or even what is left of the statue.
    I keep asking myself, if this is what Basho has observed and noted, how do we read it, which part of the self am I looking into for an answer.
    And the only one answer I gain is: almost

    So if the crumbled statue is as high as the shimmering air cannot reach past, what was the height of the statue when it was intact?
    Even the statue is as impermanent as the
    shimmering air… concrete though it was
    is everything just a matter of time? Is everything a matter of perspective?
    And the inner self answers again: almost


  2. *
    Almost as high
    As the crumbled statue,
    The heated air shimmering
    From the stone foundation.
    — Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966).
    I appreciate Lorin Ford’s comments regarding alternative translations (and also the link to Rexroth, whom I had never been exposed to). In the spirit of alternative translations, I tried to come up with a haiku alternative that I might have written, upon viewing the crumbling statue:
    a captive of hell
    the samurai devoured
    bite by bite
    Food for thought (pun intended ;).

    1. Thanks, Princess. 🙂 I think it’s especially important to note that this verse of Basho’s was clearly not intended as a hokku, a ‘stand-alone’ poem, but to be read in context of the preceding prose, a ‘travel diary’ sketch in prose. . . taken together, what is now called a haibun’.
      Glad to introduce you to Rexroth. He’s known for his translations of tanka, his own poems and his essays/opinions. The feminist side of me would like to throttle him for statements such as:
      “The haiku of Basho, the prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai, are very definitely bourgeois art, which doubtless accounts for their great popularity with Midwest housewives.
      “Certainly a tradition which can admit to its canon of “greatest poems” a monstrosity of sentimentality like “Led to the flower viewing by his nurse, the little blind boy,” runs the danger of being totally assimilated to the flower arrangement and tea ceremony classes on which female American exurbanites waste their husbands’ money.”
      At the same time, I applaud such clear warnings to us as writers on the haiku path. Rexroth was a thinker and prods us to think for ourselves, too. 🙂
      – Lorin

      1. Hi Princess and Lorin,
        reading others works and commentaries is always inspiring. Your composition too is a work in that direction, Princess K…

        Lorin, I read it with a chuckle and did not let the culture beagle or get all flustered up …KR is what KR is, you said it right, he is a prodder … I love his work despite the …
        thank you for posting the response and the link and the mention of further reading

        1. 🙂 Pratima, I very much appreciatet your responses, We certainly do need that sense of humour when reading the opinions of even very accomplished other s.:-)
          – lorin

  3. Dear Garry Eaton,

    Greetings! In your analysis, i find the following interestingly admirable.

    “Similar to mirage, heat shimmer is another atmospheric phenomenon that can illustrate impermanence, and Basho places it just so, making it subtly suggest an apparition of the original subject, composed of heat and light, quickly come, and gone”.

  4. re:Virals 178:

    Almost as high
    As the crumbled statue,
    The heated air shimmering
    From the stone foundation.

    — Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966).

    Very much privileged to comment upon the haiku of Japanese Zen poet, Matsho Basho; needless to mention,that all haiku lovers and practicing haiku would know Basho. possibly during his travel,the poet experiences the hot billowing air blowing so high, he is unable to move steady,with the heat rising as high as the crumbled pieces or one may conjecture the debris in the construction site.So far the literary meaning goes this way.

    The first two lines:

    Almost as high
    As the crumbled statue,

    reach a high /fall cadence, setting the contrast in tone, one gets the visual image of first, the height of the statue, then the same height of crumbled pieces-in high /crumbled statue/ the past and present situation betokened. One gets the comparison of the voicing OZYMANDIAS, taking us to the metaphor of impermanence of life.

    In the next two lines, connectivity is established between the mound of heaps of crumbled statue,and the equally rising hot air in the quay or stone foundation, shimmering. Perhaps he feels the heat in the journey.

    Another inference is a riotous/anti-social/anti-religious group might have indulged in destructive act of demolition or violence; hence the hot air shimmering not merely from the mound but also from the anger of passersby.

    His own quotes amplify much on his observations/experiences on travel.

    “This travel writing gets a high-reputation as the finest and perfect among Basho’s travels, and it is considered as one of the best traveling works in the history of Japanese literature. The sentences are so refined. The sentences and haiku poems interact with each other to form a poetic world. In addition, he saw the facts of the journey as a material of literature. In order to aim for completion as a literary work, he developed an idea without sicking to whether it was fact or not.”

    Here is my next choice for next week

    1. hi Radhamani,
      yes the past ties with the present beautifully, I almost did not notice that until i read your response, …how much goes unnoticed in a reading and tG there are other responses to learn from …

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