Buson tells a fart joke

Gakumon wa...  haiga by Yosa Buson
Gakumon wa... haiga by Yosa Buson (photo by ionushi on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

Gakumon wa ketsu kara nukeru hotaru kana

(Study/scholarship as-for, ass from exiting/emitting firefly [exclamatory particle])

All this study—
it’s coming out your ass,
oh firefly!


I found this gem while looking for a photo of one of Buson’s haiga (haiku illustration, a proto-Manga-like genre he did much to advance) as a possible addition to Sunday’s post. It comes courtesy of Mexican blogger and man-of-letters Aurelio Asiain, who, as it happens, now teaches at the very college in Japan where I spent a formative year as an exchange student back in 1985-86.

This is as close to an outright simile as a haiku can get. Notice that there’s no firefly in the painting, which acts as a kind of commentary on the poem. In the absence of any additional information, one could certainly read this as a poem about a firefly whose diligent study bears fruit in the radiance coming from his abdomen. But the facial expression of the figure in the painting encourages a more Rabelaisian interpretation. Notice, further, the placement of the text in relation to the figure, the calligraphy suggesting curls of vapor. This is a fart joke.

It translates particularly well into modern American English, since “talking out one’s ass” is such a popular way to characterize know-it-all bloviating. Intellectual pursuits had a much higher value in Edo-period Japan, though, where students and scholars were often poetically said to study by firefly light — a conceit that survives to this day:

“Keisetsu-jidadi” which literally translates into “the era of the firefly and snow,” means one’s student days. It derives from the Chinese folklore and refers to studying in the glow of the fireflies and snow by the window. There is also an expression “Keisetsu no kou” which means “the fruits of diligent study.”

So Buson’s insight consists simply in pointing out where on its anatomy the firefly’s light emerges.

We shouldn’t be surprised that such a humorous haiku came from the brush of one of the greatest haiku masters. Humor and earthiness were primarily what distinguished haiku and haikai no renga from the much older renga (linked verse) tradition in the first place. In social terms, haiku poetry represented a middle-class appropriation and popularization of what had been a very aristocratic pursuit. And Japan was and remains an earthy culture; there’s nothing like the split between classical and vernacular views of the body which has afflicted Westerners since the Renaissance. Buson was able to paint equally well in a high-brow Chinese style and in the cartoonish fashion seen here, just as Chaucer included the Knights Tale and the Miller’s Tale in the same work.

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