Honoring Japan Through Poetry

by AynCates on November 21, 2013

in Poetry

Many of us have Asia in our mind now and I have been attempting to come up with a prayer or poem that even begins to touch the magnitude of what has occurred and is occurring in the world. I finally gathered some of my favorite haiku and decided to share it in honor of the Japanese. These simple yet powerful words remind us of the profound presence of the natural world that we all share and need to treasure and protect.

Arts and letters flourished in the Edo Period, (17th-18th Centuries) and it was at this time that became a refined art. Make sure to scroll down and read the skillfully crafted poetry by many great Japanese masters. Haiku is the shortest traditionally accepted form of Japanese poetry consisting of 17 syllables and divided into three lines of 5-7-5. There are usually two essential requirements in haiku: there must be a reference to the season in which it is written and there must be a short emotionally charged word which halts the flow of the verse for a moment and in doing so adds power and dignity to the poem.

Haiku has a restricted subject matter. R.H. Blythe1 is a scholar who helps the reader come to terms with the complexities of haiku by breaking the traditional form into five main categories: the first type arouses at least one of the five senses, the second captures pictures of life, the third type is a simple self-portrait, the fourth category expresses compassion, while the fifth includes romantic verse. I have chosen a few examples of each type by the Japanese masters, and translated by R.H. Blythe, to demonstrate the technique of writing haiku. Blythe concentrated on capturing the essence of the poets’ images and startling sensations rather than adhering to the syllabic structure.

In the following haiku, the poet has employed one of the five senses. This assists us in recalling a similar image within the framework of our own lives:

Morning cold
The voices of travellers
Leaving the inn.

-by Tan Taigi (1709-1771)

On the point of scooping up the water
I felt it in my teeth,–
The water of the spring.

–by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Along the sea-shore
Fall the waves, fall and hiss
Fall and hiss.

–by Hirose Izen (1646-1711)

The above haiku express the time of year in which they are written. Taigi’s poem begins with ‘morning cold’ suggesting that it is late autumn or early winter. The second poem by Basho suggests springtime. The third poem by Izen is slightly more vague, but the word ‘fall’ used three times hints of autumn. The first verse triggers the sense of sound; the voice of the travellers is audible. However, there is also a tactile sensation aroused by the adjective ‘cold.’ The second poem expresses another familiar tactile sensation: the burning feeling we have when biting into ice cream or consuming a cold drink too quickly. The third poem explores sound and vision once again with the pictorial image of waves breaking onto the shore. The repetition of the words ‘fall and hiss’ reproduces the natural echo found in nature, the regular drumming of the waves. The following three haiku depict images of human life:

The bright autumn moon
sea-lice running
over the stones.

–by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

In the dawn
whales roaring:
A frosty sea.

–by Kato Gyodai (1732-1793)

In the winter storm
The cat keeps on
Blinking its eyes.

–by Yaso (17th Century)

All three verses illustrate human life with powerful yet unambiguous images. Issa’s poem reproduces a picture of the bright harvest moonlight on the beach where sea-lice are lit by moonbeams. The verse is successful because the images flow into one another producing a finished illustration of nature. Gyodia’s verse depicts the movement of the rising of the sun, the whales within the sea, the wind that carries the sound of the roaring, and finally the chilled or frosty water. He has employed our five senses to heighten artistic observation. The last poem by Yaso produces a powerful impression of a cat half blinded by the icy wind. In all of these poems we must come to terms with the inevitability of the cycles of nature. Ordinary observances of life can be heightened when viewing the poem as metaphor:

In the spring rain,
The pond and the river
Have become one.

– by Buson

Buson depicts the rain, pond and river merging into an allconsuming sea during spring flooding. But the image has a deeper symbolic meaning. Water, symbolizing the life force, leads us to believe that all of humanity, like the water, is part of the circle of existence. What happens to one person influences all of humanity. What occurs in one ocean, impacts all oceans. Although we are not forced to delve into the metaphor, we are asked to examine both the simplicity and complexity of nature.

A camellia;
It fell into the darkness
Of an old well.

–by Buson

The camellia flowers are found in eastern and southern Asia and are loved by many Japanese gardeners. Buson’s well could be perceived as a sensual image, perhaps a brief re-telling of the creation myth and perhaps a symbol of man’s fear of the power of the feminine. A bloom falling into darkness could also illustrate the tragedy of wasted youth. As we see, haiku has many different levels. Buson again examines the predominance of nature in his next verse:

The short night;
The peony opened
During that time.

–by Buson

After realizing that a delicate flower can blossom in the span of a single night, Buson seems to be captivated by the power contained in each and every moment. In some way both the nighttime and the blossoming flowers seem eternal.

The third category of haiku is the human portrait. These poems are to some extent autobiographical:

Just simply alive,
Both of us, I
And the poppy.

–by Issa

Lying with arms and legs outstretched.
How cool,–
How lonely.

–by Issa

Turn this way;
I am also lonely,
This evening of autumn.

–Buson

Issa’s two poems express delight in being ‘simply alive.’ Buson’s verse emphasizes the importance of love and romance.

The fourth type of haiku expresses human compassion: Issa wrote this after watching the ‘night-hawks’ (a term used for the lowest type of prostitute) returning home under the cloak of darkness.

Hail-stones on the ground;
The ‘night-hawks’ come back home
In the moonbeams.

– by Issa

Blythe points out that these courtesans were denied passage out of their enclosures, which suggests that they only travel in their dreams, fantasies or moonbeams. Ryoto has sympathy for these women:

These violets
How the courtesans must want
To see the spring fields!

-by Oshima Ryoto (1718-1787)

Buson seems to understand that profound truth is found in simplicity:

The harvest moon;
Calling on the master of the house,
He was digging potatoes.

– by Buson

The fifth category of haiku is the romantic verse. The following poem was written by a courtesan:

Should I die of love,
O hototogisu
Cry at my tomb!

-by Oshu (18th Century)

This poems breaks away from the traditional nature poem, however, the longing within the poem evokes compassion. Basho’s haiku is more is more pictorial:

A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly,–
The sky of autumn.

–by Basho

Basho’s delicate poem explores the sweetness of the unknown. Through its simplicity it reaches the pinnacle of romantic verse. Buson has yet another approach:

Autumn evening;
Life has its limits,
But its moment too of leisure.

– by Buson

This poems is linked by many levels of meaning: the time is an autumn evening, the poet realizes that he is mortal, and yet life broken into moments is in some way never ending.

As we can see, haiku vary enormously. But writers of haiku have discovered that the way to a genuine understanding of existence is often found through observations of nature. In this structure the essence of the world as we know it is ordered into a form that gives meaning to our otherwise chaotic, limited existences. These verses exude serenity even while recognizing both the tragedies and the pleasures of life. The compact style of the haiku in some ways makes other forms of arts appear anarchical. The most famous verse in the haiku tradition was written by Basho:

The old pond;
The sound-of-a-frog
Jumping-into-the-water.

–by Basho

Much has been written about this poem. In summary it has achieved great acclaim for isolating sound from the other senses. Only a master who has explored the mystery of the cosmos can write a poem such as this. We celebrate Japan by honoring these great poets and by adopting something of their culture and sharing it with the world. Here is my attempt at emulating the noble ones who have come before me.

PICTURES OF LIFE HAIKU by Ayn Cates Sullivan

The snowy white owl
In the shadow of the moon—
The trees are dancing.

The grey horse canters
In the silent falling snow—
No path to follow.

The dandelion
Breathes its seeds into the air,–
Flying descendants.

A cat on warm stones
Washes brown fur with her tongue.
Nature shines on her.

The breeze taps wind chimes
Strands of ancient music sound,–
A poet is born.

These poems appear in my first book of poetry, Tracking The Deer, published by Envoi Poet Publications in Wales, UK, 1991.

Many blessings to Japan and all of Asia. May all beings be led, guided, directed and protected during this time of change and transformation.

With love,
Ayn

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