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Haiku -- Matsuo Basho

It's about time I did something Japanese, so...
(Poem #23) Haiku
old pond.....
a frog leaps in
water's sound
-- Matsuo Basho
translated by William J. Higginson.

This is the most famous and most commonly recited haiku in Japanese;
most Westerners, though, are utterly bewildered by it. I confess that I
can't make out what it's about either, so I'll content myself with
sending you a whole bunch of extracts from various sources.

About Haiku:

Haiku is a poetic form which takes nature in each season as its theme
and expresses inspiration derived from nature. Since the natural world
transforms itself swiftly and since inspiration is fleeting, they must
be caught in words quick, short and precise. The traditional rules for
haiku are that each verse uses seven or eight words, a total of only
seventeen rhythmical syllables (5-7- 5), including a season word. In
diction haiku values simple words over obscure and difficult ones.

Students learn Japanese Haiku in Japanese language class usually during
the fall term of high school. They study the great Haiku poets of the
past 300 years. In Matsuyama they study the modern poets too (1993 was
considered the 100th anniversary of modern Haiku poetry and 1994 is the
300th anniversary of Basho's death). The opportunity to write Haiku in
English is a novel idea for many Japanese. In a second language, the
rigid rules of form and specific words can be relaxed.

The best Haiku is clearly written; without metaphor, personification and
other literary devices. Simple, clear images written in their shortest
form possible but arranged so the words last as long as possible in the
mind is the power of Haiku. It can be easily understood from the direct
words, but these words often contain a stronger message that has to be
searched for. A significant image is produced. Haiku speaks in parables
of life.

About today's poem:

Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694) was a leading haiku master and is known
throughout the world.

On a misty rainy day he was walking alone. It was very quiet around an
old pond of mossy water, then a frog just leapt into it making a little
sound. The momentary action and the lingering sound reminded him of the
wonder of a moment and eternity. He composed that famous haiku:

     furuike ya
     kawazu tobikomu
     mizu no oto

In this haiku, 'ya ' is a technical haiku-cutting word (kireji). It does
not have specific meaning but it is used to arrange Japanese syllables
and express subtle or sometimes deep feelings and an exclamation or an

[you can think of 'ya' as being equivalent to 'stop' or 'behold' in
English - t.]

An essay:

'On ants and poets'

When ten poets each endeavour to write about an ant, the result should
be ten different ant haiku. If any of these haiku resemble another, the
poet has only been observing the ant superficially or has based their
haiku on their preconceptual image of an ant. Let us look not at our
ants but rather into them. Surely the ant will speak to us. Ah!! Now
quickly write down what caused that feeling of discovery. This is your
ant and yours alone. Your "ant" must now be expressed in a fixed poetic
form. In Japanese a count of 17 syllables (5,7,5) is used. This
expression should be in your own words, as they come naturally to you.
If your haiku has captured a Truth, there is no need to decorate your
poem with flowery words. One should, however, keep in mind some of the
main characteristics of haiku.

1. To state without stating. In order to say ten things a haiku presents
only two. Due to its length, every word is of the utmost importance.
2. A haiku is like a cross-section which gives the observer a new
perspective and restimulates their thoughts on the object as a whole.
3. When juxtaposing one must be careful that the two elements do not fit
together too well. Their relationship must be "surprising".
4. Seasonal words (kigo) are very important to haiku. However in the
modern world where the seasons have lost much of their omnipotency and
where we wish to share our haiku internationally a more relaxed stance
on kigo may be called for. Kigo need not necessarily place a haiku in
any particular season but could rather be included simply to relate the
haiku to the natural world.

One cannot make good haiku simply by going about one's life in a
day-to-day fashion. It is necessary to hone one's senses to the world
around one and take an interest in all things great and small.

 -  Yoko Sugawa

And another essay (written in the most wonderful Japanese English):

What a short life cherry blossoms have! The miserable April rain and
wind blew them off, and now fresh green willows are whispering with
azaleas on the water of the castle moat. Here comes early summer. In the
blue sky, carp are swimming. Wonderful weather! It will soon rain.
Everything is changing in this world, but still how small we remain. As
long as we are alive, we have to recognize the transience of our life,
then we experience a moment that something attracts us, and when we see
changing nature, when we watch people, maybe, sometimes, we want to
express that feeling or impression. It is that moment when we can
compose a Haiku.


31 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Tanawade Vandana said...

There is another very beautiful translation for this haiku.

'In the old pond
A frog jumps in...
With a splash!'

And yes it is about 'The momentary action and the lingering sound that
reminded the poet of the wonder of a moment and eternity.'


wordfield said...

Sorry! I should have sent this in plain text:

*The translation at the top of the page is from
The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach
Haiku, by William J. Higginson with Penny Harter,
published by Kodansha International and copyright
© 1985 William J. Higginson. Used by permission of
the translator.
Please note: Since I worked about 8 years
perfecting this translation, I do feel some
proprietary rights in it. Anyone wishing to quote
it on the Web--or anywhere else--is asked to
contact me and obtain permission first.

Best wishes,
Bill Higginson
William J. Higginson
P. O. Box 2740
Santa Fe, NM 87504 USAtel & fax
[broken link]

Bieler Jack said...

Allen Ginsberg did a musical translation of this haiku on his album,
"First Blues." It is a blues rag with Ginsberg's characteristic
irreverence, humor, transcendent philosophy, and soul-ripping
honesty. The Bashou foundation verse in his rendering:

The Old Pond
A Frog Jumps In

This converts the literal "sound of water" to onomatopoeia, which hits
you in the face like a splash and grabs the moment. I think it is actually
an improvement!

Ginsberg studied the structure of poems, especially William Blake's, and
imputed the melodic structures that would be appropriate for them. He
said of the "Songs of Innocence and Experience" that they likely were set
to music originally. Many of his musical reconstructions can be found on
"First Blues" and other recordings.

Jack Bieler
Teaching Assistant, Naropa Institute, Summer 1981

Anonymous said...

Старый пруд...

My Rus translation

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