Mind, Mouth & Page – (Introduction to Haiku)

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

AG: Haiku is like a real brief snapshot, usually consisting of two images, unconnected, except by the mind of the reader and the writer. So it’s sort of like whatever generalization is made, is obvious in the little tiny poem itself, it doesn’t need a generalization, it’s just two facts put together. And one of the most interesting of the haiku writers is a fellow named  Issa, I-S-S-A,

I think, 17th century, who is just like William Carlos Williams. He’s the sort of Japanese haiku Williams – “New Years Day/ my hovel/ the same as ever” – “A beautiful kite/ rose from/ the beggar’s hovel (Issa again) – “The first drink of the year/ I kept it a secret/ and smiled to myself” (Chiyo-ni) “It was such a fine/ first dream/ they said I had made it up ” – At this time [early 1950’s] (Jack) Kerouac was reading haiku also. I was, too, trying to write little haiku – “Drinking my tea/ no sugar in it/ no difference” (because all the Zen people around me were saying, “Don’t put sugar in your tea”. Kerouac wrote (this was 1954, ’55, I guess) “Useless, useless/ the heavy rain/ driving into the sea”. He also wrote “In my medicine cabinet/ the winter fly/ has died of old age” – “Tilling the field/ the cloud that never moved/ is gone”. (Buson). “Bringing them up/ They call the silkworms /”Mister” (that’s Issa again). There’s a very little pretty-sounding bird called the uguisu – “It’s first note/ the uguisu/ is upside-do)wn” “The uguisu/ poops/ on the slender plum branch/ People take off on that thing” – “Ah!/ the uguisu/ on the rice cakes on the veranda (that’s Basho) – “The sparrow shits/ upside-down/ Ah! my brains and eggs” (that was my variation on that) – “A swallow flew/ out of the nose/ of the Great Buddha” (that’s Issa also – (out of) the Great Buddha statue). (And) one of the most powerful of Issa (very similar to (Williams’) “Who shall say I’m not the happy genius of my household?”) – “The moon over the mountains/ kindly shines/ on the flower thief” – “Tilling the field/ he wipes his snotty hand/ on the plum flowers” (Issa) – “The sound of someone blowing his nose/ with his hand/ the plum blossoms at their best” (Basho) – “Peach blossoms/ but the ferryman/ is deaf” (Chiyo-ni) – “The cow comes/ moo moo/ out of the mist” (that’s Issa again) – “The octopuses/ in their jars/ transient dreams under the summer moon” (A Chinese apothacery, a Japanese apothecary, or perhaps a fish-store maybe?) – “The octopuses/ in their jars/ transient dreams under the summer moon” (also Basho) – “A wild sea/ and stretching out toward the island of Sado/ the Milky Way” (that gives great space, to begin with) – “A wild sea/ and stretching out toward the island of Sado/ the Milky Way” – “The moon and flowers/ forty-nine years walking about/ wasting time” (Issa) – “The rains of May/ here’s a paper parcel entrusted to me/ long ago” (Sampu) – “A frog floating/ in the water jar/ rains of summer” (Shiki) – “Summer rain /A crab crawling out/ of the stone wash-basin”. And by Ryokan – “On rainy days/ the monk Ryokan/ feels sorry for himself” – “Naked/ on a naked horse/ through the summer rain” (Issa – it’s just complete there, the one sensation) – “A flash of lightning/ between the trees of the forest/water appears (Shiki) – Basho – one of the most celebrated haiku is from a Zen point-of-view, or a no-mind point-of-view, or a watching point-of-view (but not analyzing), now – “How admirable/ he who doesn’t think life is fleeting/ when he sees the lightning flash”. Shiki – “Coming out of the bath/ the wind blows on the nipples/ Coong on the verandah” – The uguisu, the bird, remember?, a celebrated sound, a very mournful, plaintive, sound – “I am at Kyoto/ yet at the voice of the uguisu/ ” longing for Kyoto” (I paraphrased that in a poem – “Back on Times Square/ dreaming/ of Times Square” – Basho – “Fleas, lice/ the horse pissing/ near my pillow/ Everything is going well/ in the world/let another fly come on the rice” (Issa again, Issa is sort of like the humanist among them) – “In a corner of the old wall/ motionless/ the pregnant spider” (that’s Shiki) – “Oh snail/ climb Mount Fuji/ but slowly, slowly” (that was Issa) – “Spider webs/ are hot things/ in the summer grove” (Buson) – “There is no trace/ of him/ who entered the summer grove” (Shiki) – “The snake slid away/ but the eyes that stared at me/ remained in the grass” (Kyoshi, that fellow). It’s kind of a nice thing, it’s not very sharp but…”The master emerges/ from the depths/ of the evening glory” – “From the back door/ the bamboo grove is reflected/ in the cold broth” (a little cold broth cup, looking out, seeing the reflection). So that observation (the bamboo grove reflected in gthe cold broth), that’s sort of eyeball kicks, in a sense, but it requires meticulous watching in order to make a haiku, or in order to remember what you saw for a haiku, in order to realize what you’re seeing. Meticulous watching to realize what you’re seeing without analyzing it , but simply seeing the reflection of the bamboo in the cold broth. Like Williams’ recollection of the water freshening – standing there waiting for the water to freshen.

Student: It’s like Kerouac in that celebrated passage looking at the bumper of a car in the cafe and seeing the reflection of people walking by.

AG: Yeah, he does that for twenty pages or so and it’s an amazing thing. He simply noticed that there was a whole phenomenal world in the reflections of… a polished car fender was it?

Student: I think it was the bumper.

AG: Bumper?

Student: But maybe I’m wrong.

AG: Uh-uh (no), bumper’s right – “The old man/ had a marvelous sickle/ for cutting barley ” (Buson) – I think the Japanese preserved the umbilical cord as a a memento, wrapped it up (so) – “Weeping over my umbilical cord/ in my native place/ at the end of the year” (Buson) – “One end/ hanging over the mountains/ the Milky Way” (Shiki) – “The moon in the water/ turned to summer salt/and floated away” (Ryokan) – Sodo (more modern) – “The bright moon/ no dark place/ to empty the ash tray” – “The full moon/ A man-servant/ leaving the puppy to die” – “Among the moon-viewing party/ there is none/ with the face of beauty” – “Sampan” is a little boat – this is a moon-viewing party in a little sampan – “The bright autumn moon/ crying in the sampan/ the pond snails” (I guess a fishing boat, a fishing sampan) – “The moon has sunk below the horizon/ all that remains/ the four corners of a table” – “The autumn wind/ there are thoughts in the mind/ of Issa” (that’s by Issa – “The autumn wind/ there are thoughts in the mind/ of Issa”) – “Shake, oh tomb/ my weeping voice/ is the win of autumn” (Basho) – “The dew drop world/ it may be a dew drop/ and yet and yet… (that’s Issa again, coming on with his self) – “The bright autumn moon/ sea lice/ running over the stones” (that’s a totally visual and moving (image). It’s like the moon in a stream turning a somersault and floating away) – “I go/ you stay/ two autumns” (that’s a very famous one by Basho, which is supposedly untranslatable) – “An old pond/ the sound of water jumped into /by a frog” (but he doesn’t mention a frog. (He doesn’t use) the word “frog”, there is (rather) a specific Japanese word for the sound of water-jumped-into-by-a-frog).

Student: I’ve heard it (translated as) “A frog in the pond/ the sound of water”.

AG: Well, see, this is the most famous haiku, and there’s about six million translations. Well, sixty translations.

Student: In English translations, they’re trying to keep to seventeen syllables.

AG: I don’t give a shit about seventeen syllables. Many of these are seventeen syllables, but don’t worry about that. It’s the point of getting an image. Stop analyzing. Clamp your mind down on objects, is the point. It can be seventeen syllables – what is that, five-seven-five?, three lines five-seven-five? – but anyone who gets hung up on counting the syllables is either a genius or he’s going in the wrong direction. If you’ve got it made with your images and you can fit (it) into seventeen syllables, you’ve got something – but the seventeen-syllable thing is very specific to the Japanese language, and there’s all sorts of assonance and end-rhymes, and weird rhymes, and the word kana (filler words that they use, like “huh” or “ah”), “kana”, that are specific to haiku. And if they’ve only got fifteen syllables, they can say “kana“. Like, “The autumn wind/ there are thoughts in the mind/ of Issa kana“. That’s just sort of convention – you can put in “kana“. So don’t worry about the seventeen syllables, just strip it bare, down to the action.

Student: I wrote one about that, which is sort of bare attention, which went – “Writing haiku/ stops/for I’m busy counting/useless syllables”

AG: “Writing haiku/ stops/ busy counting/useless syllables”, that would be alright – “Writing haiku/ stops/ busy counting/useless syllables” – Listen, “Writing haiku/ stops/ busy counting/useless syllables” – That’s all you need. You’ve got all the information there. You leave yourself out of it – “Writing haiku stops – busy counting syllables”. That would reduce it. It would make some sense, because (there) is a mind-jump there. You suggested something there about the whole process of mind. But you’ve got to cut it down clean, you know, so you don’t have a lot of extra babble. But that’s actually pretty good, I thought.

Student: Does the Japanese word “kana” mean anything, or is it just a…

AG: I forgot what it means. I read a whole book on it about two years ago and I think it’s just a conventional word (utterance) like.

Student: “Uh”

AG: Yeah, or “hm” – “Baby mice in their nest/ squeak in repose/ to the young sparrows” (actually, that takes a lot of observation, watching, or hearing, that takes a lot of mindfulness) –

“Baby mice in their nest/ squeak in reponse/ to the young sparrows” (which means there’s a nest full of sparrows here, and there’s a nest full of baby mice, and the sparrows are making their sparrow sound and the mice squeak back)
But about the old pond, the sound of the water jumped into by the frog – all that’s done there is a description of an old pond and a hut, I think, and the word “plop” in Japanese (but it’s a specific verb – or “plop”, I guess – a specific verb that’s only associated with a frog jump. So the word “frog” is not mentioned, but because the guy is sitting there (and actually it’s a monk sitting in meditation – or Basho sitting around in meditation) so he’s not looking around to see the frog. The old pond is his mind, completely still. (Then) all of a sudden the action, in terms of shabda – sound. So he conjours up a frog without mentioning (a) frog, which is the whole. point of the haiku – to conjour up. What is it..? there’s a line of Marianne Moore. She was defining poetry as conjuring up imaginary toads in real gardens. I think she was probably taking off from that old haiku. [Allen continues reading] – “The festival of the weaver..” (That is, I guess, a yearly festival. The weaver is a constellation in the sky, a lady, a girl, and she was in love with a herd boy, which is another constellation, and at some point or other in the year the constellations cross, or the weaver star and the herd boy star cross, and touch, so, once a year they get together) – “The festival of the weaver/ one is writing a poem…

[tape breaks off at this point, to be continued]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *