Basho's haiku: "Noon doze"
Wall cool against
Yet another translated poem from me, this time from the East. This is only three lines, and is so, so short. This is a haiku.
Most of us probably know something about haikus, that they are a Japanese poetical form, usually rendered (for people reading or writing in English, at least) in 17 syllables, cut into three lines of 5-7-5. But did you know, or were aware, that this form of haiku was actually established only in the 19th century in Japan?
That’s why the haiku (excuse me, but I still have to use this term for it) here doesn’t seem to follow this fixed-syllable ruling, does it? This piece was actually written in the 17th century, and back then it was called a hokku. However, the English translation of this and other pieces collected in a Penguin Classics still stand as haikus, so that they are more palatable to Western reading tastes, I gather.
A bit about the poet:
He is Basho Matsuo, born 1644, died 1694. He was, and, today, is still, considered the greatest master of this genre. Actually, his name Basho was some nickname, for banana, not his real one, which was Kinsaku when very young and, older, Matsuo Munefusa. But the literary world, especially in the West, know him as a single-word entity (like Madonna). Like most of his countrymen in his days he wanted to be a samurai. A bit unusual, but he started writing haikus (or known then as haikai) because his master Sengin also wrote them, taking up another name, Sobo. He later traveled all over Japan, and wrote his haikus. He seemed to have attracted, or collected, quite a lot of students.
Back to the haiku (or hokku):
I don’t know how the actual Japanese of it sounds like. But I can give a good guess, that it could sound as profound and enthralling as the noh number I was listening to on Bjork’s soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, a musical set in Japan. The English translation, by Julien Stryk, should be very close to the original, I shouldn’t wonder.
The first line has so lengthy vowels, drawing out, so lazily, the mid-day snooze. The “n” sounds give a luxuriance in this context, and the voiced “z” gives us the impression of drawn breathing and perhaps some light snoring. They are both stressed words, so you’d read them without haste. This is a hokku, not an actual haiku, I repeat. However it follows some of the rules of the latter (thanks to the Western translator), of having a pause or some punctuation to indicate what would be introduced or revealed next. So, there is such a punctuation, but a comma, at the end of this first line. The next line also has a slow delivery, with two long-drawn vowels in stressed words. And, incidentally, the long vowel in “cool” echoes “noon”, but not very exactly, because normally you seldom take these things into consideration in haikus. Things speed up a little after those two words, with a faster delivery from “against” (unstress-stress), and from a western linguistic point of view of line-endings, there is a run-on here. The last line echoes the last word of the previous line and has also the same beat structure. The latter part of the haiku gives you an impression of someone waking up and feeling the sensation of a cool wall against his feet, doesn’t it?
This haiku still sounds as fresh as the day, the minute, it was written centuries ago. Such an everyday occurrence, so seemingly insignificant, has been turned into a moment of beauty, in visual and sound.