Saturday, December 12, 2015

Carpe Diem #878 the journey continues: an eyebrow brush; such stillness

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Today's episode will bring us further into the deep north. We will read a few haiku from Oku-no-Hosomichi, the most famous haibun ever written. It's written by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) and it tells us the story about a journey he made through the northern part of the southern island of Japan, Honshu. Before this haibun was first published Basho revised it several times. It was published after five years of revising and through that revising it became one the most famous haibun ever.
As you all know haiku describes a moment as short as the sound of a pebble thrown into water, so it is very short moment and ... revision was not done as you and I have learned, but ... haiku can describe the same scene after the described moment several years later. Revising your haiku takes time, but it can give you certainly satisfaction, because maybe you choose new words, or you use less or more words. The words you choose while revising can even make the scene stronger and the feeling you had at the moment you wrote your haiku.
It is no shame to "revise" your haiku ... it can make your haiku stronger and more in balance. As you all know I am writing haiku since the late eighties and as I read back the haiku which I wrote at the start of my career as a haiku poet than I would certainly "revise" several haiku. Let us look at a the very first haiku which I wrote in English:

a lonely flower
my companion
for one night

I would question the use of "lonely"  - that is a human feeling you are giving to a thing. You may feel lonely when there is only one of you (do you?) but the flower is not alone if you are there!

a single flower
my companion
for one night


a single tulip
my companion
for one night

A Single Tulip

has more connotations. . . even some sexual with single / unmarried and tulip / two lipped!  And so this very first English haiku I wrote finally became:

a single tulip
my companion
for one night

© Chèvrefeuille

This revision makes the haiku stronger, more in balance and even a more deeper double (sexual) meaning.

Okay ... this "preface" to another episode of "Narrow Road" was just for explanation that revising haiku, as Basho did for five years, before he published his "Narrow Road" can be great and it even can help you to improve your haiku skills ... at least "revising" haiku (especially my own) did improve my haiku skills.


Credits: an eyebrow brush is the image drawn by safflower blossoms
an eyebrow brush
is the image drawn by
safflower blossoms

© Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold)

There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. After arranging to stay with the priests at the foot of the mountain, I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was no sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

shizukasa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe

such stillness
piercing the rock
cicada’s  voice

© Basho (Tr. Jane Reichhold)

I wanted to sail down the River Mogami, but while I was waiting for fair weather at Oishida, I was told that the old seed of linked verse once strewn here by the scattering wind had taken root, still bearing its own flowers each year and thus softening the minds of rough villagers like the clear note of a reed pipe, but that these rural poets were now merely struggling to find their way in a forest of error, unable to distinguish between the new and the old style, for there was no one to guide them. At their request, therefore, I sat with them to compose a book of linked verse, and left it behind me as a gift. It was indeed a great pleasure for me to be of such help during my wandering journey.


A wonderful stage I think, but there is a lot of discussion about that second haiku "such stillness". How can the voice of a cicada pierce the rocks? There are a few explanations for "such stillness" which I love to share here with you, that is by the way the reason why I also reproduced the romaji translation of this haiku.

The Ryushaku-ji temple is a mountain temple with long paths through dark, old cedars and rocky pathways. The number of steps down, for example, from the summit to the main building of Risshaku-ji count out to 870. The crags there are of volcanic rock and rather porous. There is a possibility that Basho is speaking about a sense that these rocks mute the sound of the cicadas in comparison to how they sound in the forest.
Credits: Ryushaku-ji Temple (Yamadera)

A poem by Tu Fu says, "Cicadas' voices merge together at an old temple." Basho further enhanced the poetic beauty of the scene by introducing the image of rocks absorbing the voices. --Moran (1713-1779, haiku poet and chief priest of Myoho Temple in Shimousa)

Not a single sound was heard at this quiet place, except the voice of the cicadas that was so forceful that it seemed to seep into the rocks. --Sanga (Haiku poet who wrote a book on Basho in 1793)

If my sensibility is reliable, there should not be many circads here. -- Mizuho (1876-1955, tanka poet and classical scholar)

I disagree. The whole mountain is filled with the cicadas' screech. -- Watsuji (1889-1960, philosopher and scholar, an "intellectual leader of his generation")

In the word shimiiru ["to seep / stain into" -- Wallace] we sense motion in stillness, and stillness in motion. Basho, with his consummate art, captured this oneness of motion and stillness in a short poem. -- Ebara (1894-1948, scholar of renga and haikai at Kyoto University) (Source: here)

A lot to contemplate about I think. It was really a joy to create this episode and I hope that it will inspire you to write haiku, tanka or other Japanese poetry form. Here is my attempt to catch that silence in the second haiku also:

leaves rustle
the brook babbles
silence ...

© Chèvrefeuille

This episode is NOW OPEN for your submissions and will remain open until December 15th at noon (CET). I will try to publish our new episode, 
summer rains; admirable, later on.


  1. Superbly constructed analysis - I do enjoy such posts! So interesting discusion. I am sure if a group of us were sitting at a temple near a brook, the conversation generated by such haiku could go on for hours, quite peacefully..

    1. Think so too! This is such a great post, I really enjoyed the thoughts on what the stillness could mean...