Wednesday, April 20, 2011

`Not Chosen for His Grave Out of Mere Whim'

Among the books I read to the kindergarteners was Bashō and the River Stones (2004), written by Tim Myers, with illustrations by Oki S. Han. Part folktale, part shaggy-dog koan, Myers’ story describes what happens when a shape-shifting Japanese fox tries to cheat the poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) out of his cherries. I had to come up with more subtitles than usual – yamabushi, kitsune, haiku, wa – but the kids liked the fox’s sneakiness and Bashō’s preference for river stones over gold coins. When the magic wears off and precious metal turns back into rocks, Bashō is delighted and writes a haiku in celebration. It’s Myers’ poem and rather clunky:

“How many years have
these stones loved the river, not
knowing they were poor?”

We talked about haikus, greed, learning lessons, and ways to write a good story. Best of all, I introduced them to Bashō. Even the Japanese kids in the class had never heard his name, though one girl was pleased I knew about a great Japanese writer. “Americans don’t know anything about Japan,” she said with great seriousness, and I agreed. After Dante and Zbigniew Herbert, Bashō is probably the foreign-language poet I read most often, with Baudelaire trailing laps behind. Myers hints at the attraction, and at what the haikuist shares with Thoreau, in his “Author’s Note”:

“Bashō dedicated his life to seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, hearing, considering, and appreciating in the most intense way possible, with his whole being.”

Much of the poet’s work, in various translations, is available online. In particular, visit the industrious Ken Knabb’s Bureau of Public Secrets, a veritable library of treasures and nonsense (Guy Debord and the Situationists). A good place to start is his gathering of thirty-one translations of Bashō’s best-known poem, the frog haiku, including this straightforward rendering by Donald Keane:

“The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.”

Knabb also collects nine English translations of the opening paragraph of Bashō’s great travel diary, Narrow Road to the Interior. Elsewhere, I found a translation of “An Account of Our Master Basho's Last Days,” written by one of his followers, Takarai Kikaku (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), who writes:

“Our master had a particular love for scenic places. His grave is graced by Mt. Nagara and Mt. Tanokami and the waves of Lake Biwa that come right up to the temple gate. The boats going out leave their traces on the water, reminding us of the short span of our life. Deer on the woodcutters’ paths, wild geese flying over farm houses, the moon shining over the lake — all these add beauty to his grave. It seems to me that this site was not chosen for his grave out of mere whim.”

2 comments:

e'clair said...

What a beautiful post, especially as it hints at that certain kind of poverty that is needed for true wealth.
...and speaking of Basho, I sneaked in his "Real poetry is leading a beautiful life," into my MA thesis, which is to say that beyond the scholarly lingo is something so much more profound and meaningful, that better teachers hint at, like the Delphic oracle that suggests...

Cynthia Haven said...

Clunky, maybe. But I like it, anyway.

Thanks for this, Patrick.