Between dream and metaphor: haiku of Yosa Buson

Whenever I have to bang out a bunch of haiku, I like to read from the masters for inspiration. I’ve been avoiding translations which I suspect to be very good, such as Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku, because I’m afraid they will make me lazy. The best way to read Japanese haiku, as far as I’m concerned, is with the aid of a literal English translation by someone like Harold G. Henderson or R. H. Blyth, so I’ll be forced to refer to the Japanese text and, if present, the syllable-by-syllable interpretation. I’ve forgotten most of the Japanese I studied in college, but at least I remember the basics, such as how the grammar works and how to use a kanji dictionary. Attempting to translate poetry is one of the best ways I know to fully engage with it. Today I thought I’d preserve not just my attempts, but also some of the thoughts that got me there.

Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is generally considered one of the four greatest writers of what we now call haiku (the others being Basho, Issa, and Shiki), and he was a brilliant painter and sketch artist to boot. Though ambiguity has always been prized in Japanese poetry, Buson took it to the limit in some of his haiku. Others, of course, are entirely straightforward. Here are a few of each.

***

Nashi no hana tsuki no fumiyomu onna ari

The blossoming pear—
a woman reads a letter
in the moonlight.

*

Is it live, or is it metaphor? Other translators tend to make this a bit more instrumental and say “by moonlight,” but the grammatical structure suggests that letter-reading woman is to moon as blossom is to pear tree.

***

Shigi tôku kuwa sugusu mizu no uneri kana

A distant snipe.
Rinsing off the hoe,
how the water quakes!

*

The association here may be with the circling, diving courtship display of a common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) at dusk, or simply its zig-zag flight when flushed. The verb uneru means to undulate, meander, surge, swell, roll, etc.

***

Kura narabu ura wa tsubame no kayoi michi

Behind the warehouse row,
a road busy with the back-and-forth
of barn swallows.

*

This is Hirundo rustica gutturalis, a different subspecies but substantially the same bird familiar to Europeans and North Americans.

***

Yado kase to katan nage dasu fubuki kana

“A night’s lodging!”
and the sword thrown down—
a gust of snow.

*

Buson really makes the little words work hard. The Japanese particle to attributes the opening phrase to someone — we’re left to imagine who — while at the same time introducing the down-thrown-sword gust of snow.

***

Me ni ureshi koi gimi no sen mashiro nari

As utterly blank as it is,
I can’t stop looking
at my lover’s fan.

*

The archaic mashiro means “pure white,” but the contrast with the norm — brightly painted fans — is clearly in play here. And though we might not share the premodern Japanese attraction to pure white skin, our fashion photography suggests we still understand the sexiness of a blank expression.

***

Enma-Ô no kuchi ya botan o hakan to su

The King of Hell’s mouth:
peony petals ready
to be spat out.

*

The King of Hell in popular East Asian Buddhist iconography is always shown with an angry, open mouth. Is Buson looking at a statue of Enma-Ô and imagining a peony, or vice versa? I picture an aged, pink peony blossom in a state of partial collapse.

***

Kujira ochite iyo-iyo takaki o age kana

The diving whale—
how its tail keeps going
up!

*

Iyo-iyo means both “increasingly” and “at last.” There’s probably a better way of conveying that dual sense in English than what I’ve gone with here.

***

Kari yoroi ware ni najimaru samusa kana

Fitting the borrowed
armor to my body—
Christ it’s cold!

*

The last line is not, of course, a literal translation of samusa kana, but in modern colloquial American English, it’s hard to imagine exclaiming about the cold without deploying at least a mild curse.

***

Sakura chiru nawashiro mizu ya hoshizuki yo

Cherry petals
in the rice-seedling water,
moon and stars.

*

Another conjunction that’s not entirely a metaphor, but could be if you wanted.

***

Ichi gyô no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su

All in one line, the wild geese,
and the moon in the foothills
for a seal.

*

Nature as calligraphic painting.

***

Asa giri ya e ni kaku yume no hito dôri

Morning fog—
the road full of people from
a painter’s dream.

*

Fog, mist, haze: the East Asian landscape painter’s way of collapsing time and distance.

***

Tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochô kana

On the temple’s
great bell,
a butterfly sleeps.

*

“Bell” is of course entirely inadequate. The English word conjures up a clanging or tolling thing with a clapper, nothing like the booming bronze behemoth meant here. Tomarite — “stopping,” “lodging” — seems redundant in translation.

This butterfly is the Buson equivalent of Basho’s ancient ponderous frog. So many interpretations, so much weighty critical analysis! How can it possibly sleep?

***

Utsutsu naki tsumami gokoro no kochô kana

Not quite real,
this sensation of pinching—
a butterfly.

This haiku is notoriously hard to pin down: is the sensation one that a human feels, holding a butterfly by the wings, or is it — as the grammar seems to suggest — the butterfly who feels this not-quite-real sensation? Personally, I favor a third view: that the sensation is the experience of a human on whose finger a butterfly has landed. Butterflies can cling quite tightly — I don’t think it would be a stretch to use the verb tsumamu for that — and when they then begin to mine the grooves in your finger for salt with their long proboscis, the sensation is very strange indeed.

***

Asa kaze no ka o fukimiyoru kemushi kana

Morning breezes
play in the hair
of a caterpillar.

*

As with the temple-bell butterfly haiku, there’s an extra verb here (miyoru, “can be seen”) that really doesn’t need to be translated. Even without it, the poem is all about perspective.

***

Kin byô no usu mono wa dare ka aki no kaze

Whose thin clothes
still decorate the gold screen?
Autumn wind.

*

Painted on the screen, one wonders, or draped over it? I think this is another haiku that merges world and painting. Autumn wind typically conveys loneliness in Japanese poetry.

***

Shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri

(final deathbed poem)

The night almost past,
through the white plum blossoms
a glimpse of dawn.

*

Buson in fact died before dawn, so this glimpse, too, is an artist’s vision, poised between dream and metaphor.

Landscape With a Solitary Traveler, by Yosa Buson (courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)
Landscape With a Solitary Traveler, by Yosa Buson (courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

16 Comments


  1. Dave, this may be my favorite of all your posts – fascinating to watch(read) translation as it occurs.
    “Ichi gyô no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su” nature as calligraphy struck a very deep chord with me – it is something I aspire to with my photography. See the “Natural Calligraphy” gallery at http://gentlelens.com
    Thank you for sharing so much beauty with the world….a most generous soul!

    Reply

    1. Hi Patricia. Good to hear this resonated so deeply with you. Your photography is calligraphic indeed — a very impressive body of work. Thanks for calling our attention to it.

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  2. Wow. Fabulous. I love translation-with-commentary, especially for poetry: the story of how you get from original to translation is endlessly fascinating to me, often the richest part of the process. That people so often throw it away is a mystery to me. People throw away broccoli stalks, too, the sweetest part: I’ve never understood that, either.

    Reply

    1. Well, maybe I’ll have to make a habit of it from now on. I think I’ve been greatly influenced by Dana Guthrie Martin, and the qarrtsiluni issue she edited with Nathan Moore where we included all those process notes. It got me thinking I could include some notes and not risk turning the blog into just another purveyor of literary commentary.

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  3. Kin byô no usu mono wa dare ka aki no kaze

    Whose thin clothes
    still decorate the gold screen?
    Autumn wind.

    hm. this is making me rethink abandoning the study of japanese. could the “gold screen” be worded any differently? or could it refer, somehow, to the autumn sky? because then you would have the triple meaning of “thin clothes” as those last remaining leaves, and also as the remnant of some event whereby they were tossed/ lain over the gold screen, and also the merge into painting…? it still fits with the autumn wind/loneliness idea.?

    Reply

    1. Well, I thought about trying to find another word for byô, but “room divider” was the only alternative that came to mind. I don’t mind straying from the poet’s exact words a bit: the “blank fan” haiku, for example, literally said “the eye delights in” rather than “I can’t stop looking at.” But I don’t want to put in anything that isn’t there — that’s my general rule. I think you’re right that the gold color of the screen is meant to be taken as a sideways autumnal reference, but I’m not sure we can realistically make any more of that in the translation. And I’m not sure we need to. Have to leave something for the reader to do, after all.

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  4. sorry-what i should have said is that this is a fascinating post, and it made me want to take part.

    Reply

    1. Thanks. Critical engagement with a post is always welcome.

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  5. Well Dave, in Haiku as in so many other matters, you’ve been my initiator. Until I experienced the form here it had been one that I hadn’t read or studied at all. And of course, it’s utterly beautiful.

    ‘The King of Hell’s mouth:
    peony petals ready
    to be spat out.’

    I’ll carry this one with me today on my drive to a dental appointment in Machynlleth! Actually I find the words bewitching and oddly sexy. If I were a film-maker I’d get a lot of mileage out of that image. It also brings to mind a turn of phrase by a Buddhist friend who refers to those moments when a deed intended to harm you doesn’t work out as the perpetrator intended, and brings unexpected blessings instead. She refers to this as ‘Arrows into Flowers’.

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    1. Wow, a haiku virgin! Buson is certainly a good place to start, especially for you as a painter. He was a pivotal figure in the history of haiku, not least because he elevated Basho to his current preeminent status as the originator of serious haiku composition (haiku-writing had been something of a parlor game in the 17th century when Basho was active), and also because he invented the genre of haiga, or illustrated haiku. You can get a sense of the range of his artwork — Chinese-style paintings as well as the more comic-book-like haiga — with a Google image search.

      I liked that haiku too — in fact, my original title for the post was “Peony hellmouth: haiku of Yosa Buson.” You’re right, it is the kind of transition one would expect in an art film. And the poet may indeed have intended the kind of defanging conversion of harm into beauty you suggest. Harold Henderson’s commentary says that interpretors are divided about whether this is a religious poem, or simply one that uses religious imagery. I think Buson meant it to work either way.

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  6. Thanks for this, Dave.

    About Buson’s death poem:
    [Shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri]
    The night almost past,
    through the white plum blossoms
    a glimpse of dawn.

    A long time ago I wrote a short article for a Dutch haiku magazine on Bashô’s death poem, and also mentioned Buson’s there. I remember one or more on the commentaries on Buson’s death poem stressing that he not only died shortly before dawn, but also at the end of winter. So the plum blossoms are the perfect kigo for the onset of spring, but I think they also signify the start of a new phase, because Buson is dying. Sort of like a new spring in a new place: Amidha’s Western Paradise.

    My Dutch rendering of the poem at the time translates something like:

    As of today
    the dawn shines
    plum blossom white.

    Reply

    1. Hi Adriaan – Thanks for the informative comment. Yes, plums bloom at the very beginning of spring in Japan, so it would’ve been a cold night, and his original audience would’ve understood that immediately. I didn’t go into kigo in this commentary because I didn’t want to scare off the average reader by making him or her think that one needs a specialized knowledge to understand haiku. But as with everything, the more one knows about something, the better one can appreciate it.

      I really like your translation! Short and sweet.

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  7. Kujira ochite iyo-iyo takaki o age kana

    The diving whale—
    how its tail keeps going
    up!

    Iyo-iyo here is a rendering of the Chinese po-po.
    Huineng, the sixth Patriarch of Chinese zen used it in the 13th line of his Formless Gatha. Yung Hsi, one of his translators explaines it as “running hither and thither. It’s like waves that intermittently push those forward that are in front of them.”

    Both Iyo-iyo and po-po have the Hybrid Sanskrit word ayavyaya as a source. Ayavyaya means coming-going.
    The Lankavatara Sutra, one of 3 seminal zen-texts has in its 50th Chapter “I do not teach materialism, nor coming-and-going (ayavyaya)”. With these words the author critisizes the materialist Lokayata-trend of Indian philosophy.
    The Sutra on the Unlimited Life of the Threefold Body (transl. Paul Swanson) also speaks of ayavyaya when it says that the Original Buddha neither comes nor goes.

    Buson doesn’t come accross as a zen priest, but as a pupil of haiku masters who knew their zen sources and stock phrases he must have been aware of at least Huineng’s use of po po.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same word, though, unless the pronunciation has changed substantially in the last thousand years. Iyo-iyo is written with this character, pronounced yu4 in Mandarin (which combines it with another character for a word meaning “increasingly, more and more”). Iyo-iyo was a common adverb in Buson’s time, and remains so to this day.

      Reply

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