Tag Archives: haikai

Letters 2: Bashô 1690

The image shows a kana variant for まいらせ候

Part of my occasional Letters series. This one is from Bashô to his disciple Ukô 羽紅, who was married to one of his most famous disciples, Bonchô 凡兆. One of the things that’s immediately striking about this letter is that it’s written largely in kana (syllabary) in deference to Ukô being female. There are some other interesting points, but read on.

To: Madame Otome
From: Bashô

PS Please take good care of Miss Sai. I also send my appreciationr to Yoshi for her kindness over the years.

The other day Kaseirô 加生老 and Kyorai stopped by for a visit, and while it was a great effort for them do so, I was sorry they had to leave, feeling unbounded happiness. I am spending the winter hidden away deep in the mountains. When spring comes, I hope I may come to visit you again. It is difficult to express in words the unforgettable kindness you have long shown to me. The clothes were well-made; I am sure I will never be cold. Please do not worry about me. Please look forward to the spring in good health.

surely you keep
the kettle boiling for tea
night after night —
how I miss our three pillows
side by side in the sleeping room!


1) In premodern Japan, women made the clothes their husbands and children wore. From this letter, we learn that that Bashô (who did not marry) had clothes made for him by the women in his male disciple’s families.
2) Bashô is famous for his hokku, but here he expresses his appreciation in a waka. Like the kana, I presume this is a courtesy to his female recipient.
3) The print version of the letter I am using, 注解芭蕉書簡集 (Annotated Bashô Letters Anthology) by Abe Kimio 阿部喜三男  (1952) uses the fabulous ligature for “mairase sourou” (I go), see below. I don’t think there is Unicode for this character.

Ligature mairasesoro.gif

Tricky epistolary forms:

尚〻(尚尚) PS
御みまひ (they) came for a visit
御大儀 an inconvenience (for them)
ぞんじまいらせ候 (I) thought/felt
御めにかかり申すべく候 (I) intend to meet (you)
申しつくしがたき候  it is difficult to exhaust (my) expression (to you)
御こしらへ (you) made
御座あるまじく候 (I think) it will probably not exist…
御きづかい被成まじく候  (if you) please do not worry about (me)

Letters 1: Buson 1751

The first in an occasional series of translations of letters. Let’s start with some practice. This is review, but I read it such a long time ago it’s like looking at it for the first time.

To: OOya Yohachi, OO Sawaragichô, Kyoto.

Kindly use the above address. Paste this letter on your wall. Do not forget.

Please get some works of calligraphy by Hirabayashi [Seisai] 平林静斎: either as single phrases, or as two or three couplets. I would like to hang them in the studio here. Other than that,  I have had an urgent request from a person of taste. I hope that, thanks to you, one way or another I may get two or three of these. It is a once-in-a-lifetime request. Please permit me to send as a token of gratitude a painting of Daikoku. I have gone for sightseeing to various places all around Kyoto, and spent a pretty interesting time. Some time ago I visited Fushimi and stayed there for a while.

When I think of you going out for night dancing I laugh to myself. I write haikai occasionally. I am still pretty busy, and there hasn’t been any time to pause.  For the next a couple of years as I become more familiar with the place, if there is anything interesting I will let you know, so please look forward to it. More than anything, without fail, I ask your help with Hirabayashi’s work. I really, really can’t wait to receive it.

Watching mandarin ducks

all the glamor has been used up
by the mandarin ducks —
winter trees

oshidori ni bi wo tsukushite ya fuyukodachi

     There is a lot more to say, but I omit it here. How is Denkô 田洪 in Yûki? I miss the place.

Second day of the eleventh month (1751? to 桃彦?)

Tricky epistolary forms:

御登可被下候 おのぼせくださるべくそうろう Please send [to the capital]
被差置  さしおかれ [Please] affix it
御もらひ可被下候 Please get/receive
申度候 I want [to do something]
拝裁奉願候 はいたいねがいたてまつりそうろう I humbly ask to benefit from you doing [this]
相下可申候 あいくだしもうすべくそうろう Please allow me to [do something]
仕候 つかまつり I do/make [whatever]
罷有候 まかりありそうろう [just plain old] ある
奉頼候 たのみたてまつり I humbly ask
相待申候 あいまちもうし I am awaiting/looking forward to

The source is Buson no tegami 蕪村の手紙, Tomotsugu Muramatsu 村松友次, Taishūkan Shoten, 1997, ISBN-13 9784469220780

I also used this nice webpage from ブログ俳諧鑑賞, http://yahantei.blogspot.com.

Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” II

Continuing on from the previous post. I found this paragraph also quite in line with what haiku aims for:

The task of making a home in nature is what Wendell Berry has called “the forever unfinished lifework of our species.” “The only thing we have to preserve nature with” he writes, “is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.”  Calling a place home inevitably means that we will use the nature we find in it, for there can be no escape from manipulating and working and even killing some parts of nature to make our home. But if we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the things and creatures around us—an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild”—then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all. just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies. As Gary Snyder has wisely said, “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be.” To think ourselves capable of causing “the end of nature” is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us.

Unfamiliar with Berry and Snyder? Both are American writers and environmental activists. Berry’s side job is farming; Snyder is a bit of a wandering poet-scholar-saint, or is certainly inspired by such people.
I am pleased that Cronon calls attention to nature as something that is inescapable, not somewhere apart or somewhere to go. At their finest, haiku poets would agree, and indeed many, I imagine, find solace in linking their subjective, emotional experiences with the moods and shifts exterior to themselves. Haiku doesn’t let you forget that there is nothing pristine and untouched. (Sorry about the double negative.)
This leads off in various directions–poetic and not. I’ll stop here, though. It’s just some ideas.

(Wendell Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco, California: North Point, 1987), pp. 138, 143. Gary Snyder: New York Times, “Week in Review,” 18 September 1994, p. 6.)

Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” I


I am considering adding William Cronon’s essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” to the syllabus for my course on nature and culture in Japan. I’m interested in hearing students’ comments on it, particularly on how much it helps us think about historical Japanese views of “wilderness” in Japan.

Wilderness — Creation — Change — 造化

I am particularly interested in this sentence:

[Wilderness] is entirely a creation of the culture that holds it dear, a product of the very history it seeks to deny. Indeed, one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang. In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history.

Not, I daresay, a description of the way natural phenomena are used by haikai poets. Kigo 季語 (season words)/kidai 季題 (seasonal topics) are inevitably conventionalized, not raw and wild. While it’s not wrong to say that haikai — and waka and renga, for that matter — allude(s) to “nature,” it’s always processed, pre-digested. One might argue that haikai poets sought no flight from history in “nature,” since their nature was really a collection of words. Or maybe they did, in a way, believing that accurate deployment of words erased the time that had lapsed between theirs and that of past poets whose work they admired.

It also occurs to me that Cronon makes a nice case for a perfectly haikai view of nature here:

He could be defining 田園詩 “fields and gardens” poetry; a genre of Chinese verse that has a lot in common with the aims of many modern haiku poets. Here is the venerable Professor Stephen Owen giving a short introduction to the famous Tao Qian 陶潛 verse “Returning to dwell in gardens and fields.” (日本語+中文+日本語の動画は此方).

To be continued in the next post, Wilderness (soon).