(Study/scholarship as-for, ass from exiting/emitting firefly [exclamatory particle])
All this study—
it’s coming out your ass,
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.
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
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
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
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
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—
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
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?
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.