BASHŌ FLOWERS

Some of you long-time readers here may recall that when I moved to this new location, I planted a Bashō — a hardy banana (Musa basjoo).  It is the plant from which the Japanese hokku/haikai writer took his pen name.

Since then it has grown amazingly tall.  I was looking out my window a few days ago, and was surprised to see a giant bud hanging from it.  I was very curious, having never seen a banana bud before, so I have kept watch.

Now the bud has opened so the flowers are visible.

Here is a closer look at the small flowers near the top:

From what I read, I can expect the very tall stalk to die when the flowering cycle is completed, but it has sent up shoots that are now nearly as tall as the main stalk, so they will continue to produce the same huge and very long and pleasantly green leaves that are so shading in summer, and so satisfying to see from beneath as the sun illuminates them.

 

David

LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern blows out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

MISATTRIBUTED TO BASHŌ: BAI JUYI’S “EVENING RAIN”

Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.

bananaleaves

In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:

EVENING RAIN

An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Announced by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:

RAIN AT NIGHT

A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

1.
A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

2.
Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:

baijyiyeyu

Now, with my own banana trees newly in the ground, I can add my own related hokku:

(Spring)

Pattering on the leaves
Of the just-planted banana —
The first raindrops.

David