Part of me resists the austere allure of haiku. American students have been encouraged to write them at least since I was in junior-high school more than 40 years ago. The attraction for teachers and would-be poets is brevity and the seeming ease of crafting epiphanies in 17 syllables, yet I’ve read few convincing haiku written directly into English. They sound forced and mechanical, and often come off as self-consciously pretentious.
The Japanese master, of course, was Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694). I’m reading Bashō: The Complete Haiku, translated by Jane Reichhold (Kodansha International, 2008). The volume includes the Japanese texts of 1,012 haiku, literal translations and “Romanized readings,” and more than 200 pages of notes. It’s a lovely book to look at, hold and read. Here’s one of Bashō’s best-known poems, composed in 1680:
“on a bare branch
a crow settled down
Evening is day’s autumn. The image is visual. One sees a stark silhouette. Crows return to rookeries before sunset and branches are bare in autumn. On first reading I didn’t notice the soft descent of “settled down / autumn evening.” I witnessed this scene, with several crows instead of one, shortly before 5 p.m. Wednesday. It was nearly dark after a day of slow rain, clouds and early fog. The tree was a leafless big-leaf maple down the block. In her note to the poem, Reichhold writes:
“The landing of a crow on a bare branch is similar to the way autumn evenings arrive. The problem for the translator is to find a verb that applies to both the crow and the arrival of an autumn evening. The last line can also be translated as `late autumn’ and still the comparison remains.”
I’ve been dipping into Thoreau’s journals again, sometimes reading an entry for a date corresponding to the date I’m reading it. Here’s part of what he wrote on Nov. 25, 1860 -- 149 years ago today:
“As I go up the meadow-side toward Clamshell, I see a very great collection of crows far and wide on the meadows, evidently gathered by the cold and blustery weather. Probably the moist meadows where they feed are frozen up against them. They flit before me in countless numbers, flying very low on account of the strong northwest wind that comes over the hill, and a cold gleam is reflected from the back and wings of each, as from a weather-stained shingle. Some perch within three or four rods [49.5 to 66 feet – Thoreau was a surveyor and lover of wordplay, and probably knew that “perch” was an ancient Roman lineal measure equal to 10 feet] of me, and seem weary. I see where they have been pecking the apples by the meadow-side. An immense cohort of cawing crows which sudden winter has driven near to the habitations of man. When I return after sunset [!] I see them collecting and hovering over and settling in the dense pine woods west of E. West’s, as if about to roost there.”
Thoreau has a sensibility akin to Bashō’s. Both looked and saw. Both were playful and serious and saw no inconsistency in it. Both mingled prose and poetry. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is Thoreau’s haibun, his Narrow Road to the Deep North. Bashō wrote this—
is it putting to sleep the spirit
of the lovely willow?”
--but Thoreau could have signed it.