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RELATED TOPIC:
BASHÔ'S NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH

RELATED TOPIC:
CHIKAMATSU MONZAEMON (1653-1725)

RELATED TOPIC:
SAIKAKU (1642-1693)

RELATED TOPIC:
TOKUGAWA JAPAN

 
BASHÔ, MASTER OF THE HAIKAI
AND HAIKU FORMS

Interpreting Haiku
Basho Video Clip

Donald Keene :: The haiku is so very short that often it is very difficult to understand what it means. Sometimes it's possible to get two different interpretations of the poem. This, to a poet, would not be a bad thing. To have more than one interpretation increases the richness of it, the possibility of stimulating the person who reads it.

Haruo Shirane :: This is a very famous poem, "Akebono ya." Akebono ya means "early dawn":

akebono ya
shirauo shiroki
koto issun

in the twilight of dawn
a whitefish, with an inch
of whiteness

Haruo Shirane :: You see the sun is just coming up. Shirauo is "little white fish." Shiroki koto, whiteness itself. Issun, just half an inch. And we have here akebono ya, "early dawn," and the ya is the cutting word, so that sets the scene. It's as if we draw a line, and we enter into the picture, and then what's characteristic of the haiku, it draws a big scene, a large vast scene — here it's dawn — and then it focuses in on a little detail, and that little detail is the little fish, and it says shirauo — and here, this is that one line, shi, coming all the way down here. And then shiroki koto, the whiteness of half an inch.

And part of the power of the haiku is this ability to focus in on a little detail in a large setting. Another aspect of it is temporal, in that it has the ability to kind of suggest a vast, long period of time, but also to catch that little moment when the light is flickering, when the frog is jumping into the pond.

And the fish is so small, it's translucent. It says "white," but white here means really translucent. So, it's the play off of the faint white light of early dawn and the transparency of the small fish, and it's up to the reader to bring those two together somehow. The poem never tells you what the relationship is between early dawn and implicitly the sun coming up. It doesn't even tell you about the sun, it says simply "early dawn." And the little fish, it doesn't tell you what the little fish is doing or where it is. That's all left to your imagination.

So each commentator says, some people say the fish are caught in a net, some commentators say the fish are lying on the sand. Some people say that he [Bashô] has come across the fish as he's walking. And all of those interpretations are legitimate, and they're part of the art of haiku — that it elicits different kinds of interpretations and also forces the reader to jump across. It's kind of like a lightning-rod effect. You jump between the two parts of the haiku, trying to bring them together. And it's only you who can do that.

People get together to compose haiku, to talk about it, and the haiku, because it has a seasonal word, is the snapshot. It commemorates that particular meeting you had.

The Japanese have been kind of satirized for carrying cameras around, but before the camera, it was the haiku. So you climbed the famous mountain and you composed the haiku. And that meant that you had been there. And you pulled out your diary and you read that poem and it reminded you that you were there or you could send that haiku to your friend to show that you had been there.

kirishigure
Fuji wo minu hi zo
omoshiroki

in the misty rain
Mount Fuji is veiled all day —
how intriguing!

First poem from a translation by Haruo Shirane. Second poem from Makoto Ueda, Bashô and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, p. 102.