Saturday, October 09, 2004

97. Haiku - The Pond and the Frog

The most famous haiku in Japan was written by Matsuo Bassho back in the 1600s:

furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

In English (forgetting 5-7-5):

an old pond
a frog jumps in
sound of water

Like, what???

This is the thing with haiku that takes a while to understand: there are NO similes, there are NO metaphors, and there is a very sparing use of adjectives and other qualifiers. It's poetry cut down to the bone. In simple terms, the poet presents two distinct visual images and the third line obliquely explains and/or hints at the relationship between them. The reader is left to make the connection.

Haiku are not just 5-7-5 blank verse arrangements: they are (for want of a better comparison) Hegelian: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis -- except that doesn't quite explain them either. There are lots of conventions involving season-words. Polite middle-class haiku are produced on a regular basis by conventional middle-class Japanese: they are technically impeccable and rely a great deal on seasonal plants and flowers. They are also very predictable and boring poems. The great haiku poets wrote from within the Edo Period and early Meiji, from the late 1600s to the early 1900s. There has been nothing like them ever since.

Why is this poem of Bassho (quoted above) so loved and respected in Japan? I'll try to explain.

An old pond -- this represents the unchanging eternal world.
A frog jumps in -- this represents actions in the here and now by living creatures.
sound of water -- the frog hits the pond, in this single momentary action the temporary (mortal being, including human life) comes in contact with the eternal (nature, spiritual eternity).

Is this for real? Maybe you have to be a Buddhist. But the haiku are definitely for real: image, image, zen moment.

Make of it what you will. In closing I will leave you with an American reaction to Bassho's famous poem (I wish I had thought of this by myself but I didn't):

An old pond
A bullfrog sits on a rock
Waiting for Bassho.

Ah, yes, the power of the media. Don't forget to vote!!