15 May 2012

Time in poetry - Haiku

I have been fascinated with haiku for many years. This form of Japanese poetry appeals to my senses. The structure is quite strict; each poem is made of 17 syllables or onji (5-7-5) and tries to depict an impression or an emotion.

In the fields of snow             aoshi aoshi
greenest is the green             wakana wa aoshi
of the new grass                    Yuki no hara               - Konishi Raizan (1653-1716)

Sometimes the emotions they communicate is a sad one like in the two examples below. Both are by Matsu Basho, the first one he wrote just as he left his village for his long tour of Japan; “wondering, sad, if I’d ever return to this cherished village of my childhood. My heart was tight, even if the transitional world is but a dream, my anguish brought me tears.”

The spring is leaving:             yuku haru wa
Birds are crying and tears      tori naki uo no
fill the eyes of the fish           me wa namida            - Matsu Basho (1644-1694)

The second poem he wrote many years later, the subject is a lock of hair from his deceased mother.

If I were to hold it                 te ni toraba
It would melt in my tears       kien namida zo atsuki
Like autumn frost.                 Aki no shimo                - Matsu Basho (1644-1694)

Ah, but do they talk about time ?

Not directly, they are more about a Zen perception of nature, but we can definitely perceive two recurring themes; first a seasonal or cyclical time as opposed to a linear time. In some cases we feel an absence of time a sort of enlightened Zen moment encompassing all time. Second, a spiritual or dream dimension dealing with issues of death and eternity.

Haiku on cyclical time:

In this autumn                        kono aki wa
Why am I so old ?                  nan de toshi yoru
In the clouds, a bird               kumo no tori               - Matsu Basho (1644-1694)

Moonlight:                             shiraume no
The white plum returns          kereki ni modoru
a winter tree                           tsukiyo kana                - Yosa Buson (1715-1783)

returning to see them             kitemireba
in the evening the blossoms   yube no sakura
have become fruits                 mi to narinu                - Yosa Buson (1715-1783)

Haiku on perception and dreams:

Spring rain                             harusame
reflected in bovine eyes         furu to mo shirazu
that do not see it                    ushi no me ni              - Konishi Raizan (1653-1716)

Unseen lark                            furusato no
of my distant home village    mienaku narite
I know you’re singing            naku hibari                 - Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

The butterfly is a recurring theme in haiku and often is an allusion to Chuang Tzu’s dream:

You are the butterfly             Kimi ya cho
and I the dreaming heart       ware ya Sooji ga
of [Chuang Tzu]                    yumegokoro                 - Matsu Basho (1644-1694)

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” Chuang Tzu (4th Century BCE)

Chuang Tzu also wrote the following around the 4th Century BCE:

By and by comes the great awakening, and then we may find out that this life is really an extended dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams—I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. Tomorrow a wise man may come forward to explain it; but that tomorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by.