April 28th 2016

I keep talking about Basho but the reason, as far as I know, is that Basho is the only Japanese poet whose collected writings have been translated into English. Perhaps unusual, as far as poets go, is the opportunity to read him working out the best way to express an idea.

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the color of wind
planted artlessly in a garden
bush clover
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kazairo ya / shidaro ni ue shi / niwa no hagi
wind color <> / artlessly in plant (past) / garden of bush clover

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the color of wind
planted artlessly
in an autumn garden
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kazairo ya / shidaro ni ue shi / niwa no aki
wind color <> / artlessly in plant (past) / garden of autumn

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the color of wind
planted artlessly
in a garden of reeds
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kazairo ya / shidaro ni ue shi / niwa no ogi
wind color <> / artlessly in plant (past) / garden of reeds

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Basho: The Complete Haiku, Trans. Jane Reichhold

This to me, poet and writer at heart, is like truffles to a pig. To follow a genius work is always rare; and I’ve always loved reading the sketchbooks of poets or studying the manuscripts of composers. Nothing gives you equal insight into the creative process. A while back  I wrote a post on Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay and, because earlier sketches of the poem existed, was able to speculate as to Frost’s thought process.

But how about Basho? In the first version he ends with bush clover. “Bush clover” was a season word signifying early autumn. One has to wonder whether there was any significance in the bush clover beyond indicating the season. Evidently, Basho was dissatisfied. The choice of bush clover seems to lack conviction—one might say that it’s almost expedient.

In the second version Basho tries the more all-encompassing, and universal, “autumn garden”. Rather than rely on a season word, he simply states the season. Evidently, he was still dissatisfied. Why? My guess is that he found the “imagery” too abstract. What is an “autumn garden” after all? It might be more evocative than “bush clover”, but lacks concreteness.

Basho wants more. “in a garden of reeds” is his third try and with this he produces both a concrete image and beautifully ties the haiku together. How? Reeds are a season word indicating early autumn, but more than that, they are commonly associated with the wind and their/(the wind’s) noise.

  • wind in the reeds (ogi no koe, early autumn). Lit. ‘voice of the reeds’.
So, in this respect, “the color of the wind planted artlessly” assumes a whole new layer when applied to “reeds”. The reeds, in Basho’s final revision, embody the color of the wind and it’s sound and color (we imagine their papery clacking), in a way that the “bush clover” or “an autumn garden” doesn’t. Whereas the first two haiku are mediocre, lacking resonance, the final version proves to be greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Maybe that’s a good way to describe the best haiku—resonance.

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sleepless
····night—the creature’s calling and calling
········unanswered

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For some, it’s what they don’t now that frightens them. For me, it’s what I know.

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April’s
····waning snow—the moon also melting
········to nothing

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Hard to believe, but a little snow still remains of Tuesday’s wintrish storm.

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174 April 28th 2016 | bottlecap