Considering Sōseki’s「京に着ける夕」”Kyō ni tsukeru yūbe” as a haibun

In the first part of Natsume Sōseki’s account of a visit to Kyoto in the spring of 1907, the author and his hosts run their rickshaws ever further north. At the same time, Sōseki and his thoughts rush onwards across the psychological terrain of memory and conjecture, a palimpsest of his summer visit many years before with his poet friend and mentor Masaoka Shiki, of his current early-spring visit without him, and of the cultural and literary associations of Kyoto he has accrued over a lifetime. Even when he is at last in bed at his host’s residence in the woods of Tadasu no Mori, near Shimogamo Shrine, his mind is still in motion:

In the middle of the night, the eighteenth-century clock on one of the staggered shelves in the alcove above my pillow chimes in its square rosewood case, resonating like ivory chopsticks striking a silver bowl. The sound penetrates my dreams, waking me with a start; the clock’s chime has ended, but in my head it rings on. And then this ringing gradually thins out, grows more distant, more refined, passing from my ear to my inner ear, and from there into my brain, and on into my heart, then from the depths of my heart into some further realm connected with it—until at last it seems to reach some distant land beyond the limits of my own heart. This chilly bell-ring perfuses my whole body; and the ringing having laid bare my heart and passed into a realm of boundless seclusion, it is inevitable that body and soul become as pure as an ice floe, as cold as a snowdrift. Even with the silk futons around me, in the end I am cold.

A crow cawing atop a tall zelkova tree at daybreak shatters my dreams for the second time. But this is no ordinary crow. It doesn’t caw in the usual mundane way—its call is twisted into a grotesque cackle. Twisted too its beak, into a downward grimace, and its body hunched over. Myōjin, the resident deity of Kamo, may well have imposed his divine will to have it caw like that, so as to make me all the colder.

Shedding the futons, shivering still, I open the window. A nebulous drizzle thickly shrouds Tadasu no Mori; Tadasu no Mori envelops the house; I am sealed in the lonely twelve-mat room within it, absorbed within these many layers of cold.

Spring cold—

Before the shrine,

The crane from my dreams

[Original haiku: 春寒(はるさむ)の社頭に鶴を夢みけり]

The fact that this piece consists of prose narrative concluding with a single haiku, and hence is technically a haibun, means we can see it as a tribute to Sōseki’s haiku mentor, who had died four years before. One of the work’s strongest themes, loneliness, is perhaps counterbalanced by a note of optimism in the 季語 kigo of the concluding haiku, the crane, which is associated with winter. The crane is a migratory bird that comes south to Japan to overwinter but then heads north again in spring. Sōseki’s Kyoto remains inescapably cold during his visit, but it is the cold of early spring. Here, at the end, the crane has roused itself, as if from the author’s dream, and stands before the shrine ready to be on its way. Winter is coming to an end, and taking its place is the promise of regeneration. Even as he complains bitterly of the cold, and of the parallel loss of his warm friendship with Shiki, Sōseki is perhaps also acknowledging the healing power of time. If the crane represents Shiki’s spirit, Sōseki is acknowledging that it once spent time with him as the corporeal Shiki, but will now move on, as too must Sōseki.

(The above commentary and translation are adapted from my book Translating Modern Japanese Literature, which was published in 2019 and is available from the publisher, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, or on sites such as Amazon. If you are interested in obtaining a copy at a discount, please contact me directly at donovanrichardn [at] hotmail.com.)

Secrets Shared

Back in May 2005, Hailstone had once organized an internet kukai (haiku tournament) in real time using phone/fax/email from Osaka, hooking up with Martin Lucas’ Roses group in Manchester: perhaps a world first?

7 June 2020 saw Hailstone’s first live online meeting – a rodokukai (reading meet) on Zoom, hosted by David McCullough in Kyoto. Thirteen were present at the two-hour meet, with another four contributing work (one from Florida, another from Mexico). It was good of Genjuan judge, Sean O’Connor, to get up and join us from Ireland at 7:30am! Using the share-screen facility, we were all able to see the work as it was introduced: this included haiku sequences, senryu, haibun, and haipho. The theme, chosen by Tito, was ‘Secrets and Discoveries’, a rich vein to mine from our lockdown days, when many were finding new meaning in things natural and close at hand.

苗代や短冊形と色紙形  (子規) photo by Tito

The rice seedling beds: / some the shape of tanzaku,  / others like shikishi (Shiki)

April shutdown: / solitudinous silence (Ursula Maierl)

opossum, too / exits / its sheltering abode / to cross the green lawn (Sydney Solis)

up a hill in early morning / stretch to grasp at the sky – / song of bush warbler (Akihiko Hayashi)

Onion stalks / outgrown by weeds… / the field in motion (Branko Manojlović)

haipho by Hitomi Suzuki

morning sun / shines in through / the pine and the maple (Noriko Kan)

anxious times – / the cries of newborn lambs / throughout the night (Sean O’Connor)

Frogs croak, begging for rain / Humans, secluded, pine for others – / Invisible corona virus (Reiko Kuwataka)

All the dreams I have / Secret under the strawberry moon – / Midsummer night hills (Masako Fujie)

Today— / tongues of deer / curl around / fallen magnolia petals (Tito)

Every morning you greet me, / Periwinkle (日日草) — / embodiment of Japanese name (Kyoko Nozaki)

Today’s fourth online class – / beneath buttoned-up shirt, / my cut-down shorts (Richard Donovan)

haipho by Akira Kibi

Music of baby sparrows / Resounds among the buildings — / The silent city center (Mayumi Kawaharada)

Red lanterns turn on / in barren, silent streets — / longing for shamisen (Peter MacIntosh)

my cup of tea / this is how you learn / to keep silent — / one sip at a time (Sergio Negrete)

Beneath the sparrow’s egg / a scrap of moss — / distant birdsong (David McCullough)

Persimmons – part 6

. Among haiku poets, both ancient and modern, I think it was Shiki who loved persimmons the most. Let me quote the following passage to prove this point. It is from his work entitled “Two Persimmons”. Shiki calls it a novel and uses the third person singular for the main character, but to me, it is a piece of haibun, in which the author describes his own experiences:

Soon his sister stood up, shaking threads from her knees. She wanted to take a tray of the remaining persimmons to her sick brother, the master of the house.
“Is that all that remains,” her brother asked her, casting a sidelong glance at the persimmons.
“Yes, this is all. You ate so many of them yesterday,” she answered. There were only two persimmons on the tray.
He was a great lover of food, and especially liked all kinds of fruit. But, above all, he loved persimmons.

. He must have decided to save the two remaining persimmons till he had finished his work as reviewer of haiku. When he had done so, he wrote the following poem:

Three thousand haiku to read —
Finishing them all, I eat
The two persimmons.

. I think Shiki is implying how hard his reviewer’s work was, and also how quickly the persimmons disappeared eating them at such a pace.

. Shiki indeed has many poems about persimmons, but the following is perhaps the most famous:

A bell rings out while
I’m eating a persimmon —
Horyuji Temple.

. Personally, I find it a bit difficult to understand. If the haiku simply describes a time sequence, then perhaps it is not such a great poem. Among scholarly commentators, there is one who says that it should be taken as a poem of greeting to Soseki, who had written a similar poem. Another points out that Shiki was so ill during his visit to Nara that he probably never actually went to the Horyuji Temple. I do not find these comments very helpful for the interpretation of the poem. For me, there must be some meaningful relationship between Shiki’s eating the persimmon and the ringing of the temple bell: otherwise, the poem falls apart. The only connection between them that I can think of is the sense of satisfaction. Shiki adored persimmons, and whenever he ate one he found pleasure; while the temple bell brought him pleasure of a different sort. I think we could say that one was a physical pleasure and the other spiritual. So I take this haiku to be an expression of both physical and spiritual satisfaction. Incidentally, the poem has a short preface saying, “I rested at a tea shop near Horyuji Temple”. In an essay elsewhere, he also comments:

For a long time persimmons have been neglected by poets. I had never thought of combining persimmons and Nara, but was overjoyed when I found this possible. It was a new combination.

I believe that this combination was in fact an old one, for Imperial Palace Persimmons have traditionally been grown in Nara.

. To the end of his life Shiki remained an admirer of persimmons, and the following poem should be used as his epitaph. It is indeed prefaced “After my death”.

Let it thus be known:
A great persimmon eater
And haiku lover.

(To be continued…)

Hiroshima-Matsuyama Tour

Five Hailstone poets (UM, BM, SMc, AS and T) received an invitation from Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture to take a pilot tour (with Japan Tourist Bureau) to Hiroshima and Matsuyama on 19-21 March, escorted by another Hailstone (NK), who is its coordinator and a resident of the latter city. One of the fixers (KT), also added a haiku. The following report was compiled by T with a little help from me.
Flower-inducing rain 催花雨 saika-u, was letting up as we arrived at our first destination, Miyajima. The great red sacred gate was backed by hills of swirling mist. Composition began in earnest, but …
…………… The Miyajima deer—
…………… it ate my haiku!
…………… …………… (Ursula)
After ourselves swallowing a few grilled oysters, a launch took us back across the Inland Sea and up a river in Hiroshima to a pier near our hotel.
…………… …………… A-bomb dome
…………… …………… Bending iron rod
…………… …………… Bending spring willow
…………… ………………………… (Nori)
Hiroshima is situated on a river delta and is famous for its Peace Museum and its lemons. The next day, after eating lemon-flavoured French toast with our morning coffee, once again we headed off to the Inland Sea, this time under a clear blue sky.
…………… Early spring morning—
…………… Hiroshima’s broad fan
…………… Chills the bay
…………… …………… (Albie)
…………… …………… …………… From the Lemon Coast
…………… …………… …………… To the Orange Shore—
…………… …………… …………… A launch’s wake
…………… …………… …………… …………… (Tito)
Matsuyama is famous for its mikan oranges, for its castle and its contribution to the evolution of haiku poetry. It was the birthplace of Shiki Masaoka, and the pilot tour is designed to bring foreigners with an interest in literature to visit the distant town. On disembarking, we made our way up to the donjon through cherry buds beginning to burst.
…………… …………… Feet dangling
…………… …………… on a chair lift: small boy
…………… …………… once again
…………… …………… …………… (Branko)

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That afternoon, for one blissful hour, most poets soaked in a bath at nearby Dogo Hot-spring, a real treat. In the evening, we were joined by some local haiku poets in a specially created ‘haiku bar’. We had a merry time of airing verse already composed and receiving high-spirited feedback!
…………… …………… …………… Dogo Hot-spring –
……………. …………… ………….. from the taiko* rhythm
…………… …………… …………… vivid colors spark
…………… …………… …………… …………… (Kiki)
On our third and final day, we were greeted by another blue sky. Our first engagement, a tea ceremony introduction, was followed by a visit to The Shiki Museum. Shiki was seen to be a poetic prodigy, whose life ended far too early.
We were then asked to attend a meeting with officials from the city tourist board and the national tourist agency and give them detailed feedback on our experience up to that point. This was accomplished in a constructive but not uncritical way, which we all hope might help improve the envisaged product for JTB.
Finally, we attended the prize-giving of the Matsuyama International Photo Haiku Contest in the hall at The Shiki Museum. Copious inquetes were dutifully filled in, but some of us still managed to enjoy the judge’s comments made by Itsuki Natsui.
…………… …………… Low energy, late afternoon
…………… …………… Shiki’s sad life—
…………… …………… A waft of jinchoge**
…………… …………… …………… (Sally)
* large Japanese drum
** daphne

At the Kakimori Library

click on any pictures to enlarge

On 11 Feb., 2016, Stephen Henry Gill (aka Tito) gave a talk in Japanese at the Kakimori Library (in Itami, Hyogo) entitled  はいくとはいぶん (Haiku & Haibun, deliberately left in hiragana). There was an audience of 80 people, including many Hailstone poets. 「はいくとはいぶん」② IMG_8554-In order to set the context, he first briefly related the story of haiku’s transmission to the West – from Hendrik Doeff around 1800, through Noguchi, Couchard, Flint and Pound in the early 1900s, right up to the haiku society-based, website-based scene of today. The audience had a sheet of haiku examples in two languages to savour. Along the way, Gill talked about certain haibun (haiku-style prose) introducers and pioneers, including Yuasa, Ueda, Cain and Spiess. The work of poets like Ross, Kacian, Higginson, Cobb and Jones was also alluded to, and two English haibun excerpts (in both languages) were also read.

lt. Tsubo’uchi, rt. Gill

There was a talk session afterwards lead by Gill’s fellow Genjuan Haibun Contest judge, Nenten Tsubo’uchi, which attempted to ascertain how truly ‘haiku-style’ the examples of Western haibun provided on the handout really were.  The audience seemed to have been genuinely moved by the way the narrative line and haiku poems were used as mutual counterpoint in the late Ken Jones’ piece, The Spirit Level.

The Kakimori Library holds one of Japan’s gyougamanroku-foremost collections of haiku documents and paintings, including many works by Basho, Onitsura, Buson, Issa, etc.  The current exhibition included the famous sketchbook-diary from Shiki’s last days, Gyouga Manroku.

After viewing the beautiful works in the galleries, some Hailstones called in at the nearest sakagura (sake warehouse) for a drink and meal.

lt. H. Miyazaki, rt. E. Mori