April 12, 2016

Monday, April 7, 2014

Source Poems: Basho's Cicada Shell

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Today's guest blogger is librarian and poet Diane Mayr. Diane's blog is Random Noodling. Diane was the winner of our February Pantone Poetry Project challenge. You can find the project wrap-up, and links to Diane's colorful poems, at this post.

Diane Mayr and Skippy
When Less Is More

Back in the 90s, when I first became seriously interested in haiku, I wanted to read everything I could find on the topic. One book, which I saw many references to, was Haiku by R.H. Blyth (there's a remembrance of Blyth here).

Haiku is a multi-volume set of poems, translated by, and commented on by Blyth. Boy, was it hard to find!  It took me a long time before I found a set of reprint paperbacks, and I paid a bit more than I should have to finally get my hands on it. (Considering the prices I see for the individual volumes in 2014, I will say, however, I ended up with a bargain!)

The set is amazing, and one of the poems I read in volume 3, Summer - Autumn, has become a touchstone. It was written by Basho. (Blyth formatted the poem using capital letters and end punctuation, but today writers don't often format it that way.)

      The shell of a cicada;
It sang itself
      Utterly away.

This poem spoke to me like no other poem has before or since. The idea that a creature could sing itself into oblivion, and the expression of that idea in ten simple words (16 syllables), to use an old hippy-days expression, blew my mind! 

Blyth wrote this bit of commentary:

This is the cicada's Zen.  In actual fact, of course, the cicada is not dead, it has cast its skin.  But Basho, indifferent to the scientific truth of the matter, and taking the empty shell of the cicada as a symbol of its extinction, perceives that the cicada sings with all its mind and heart and soul; no "looking before and after" spoils the eternal present of its complete and full existence.

Since I first read Basho's "shell of a cicada," I have come across a number of other translations that pale in comparison, and, if I had read them first, the poem would have gone in and out of my consciousness within seconds. 

(Although this haiku is not included, I found an interesting look at translations of other Basho poems in “Selected Hokku by Basho with Multiple Translations.” Also of interest may be One Hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English by Hiroaki Sato, which has a hundred variations of one of Basho's most famous poems!)

A second touchstone haiku, and one I often use in explaining haiku, is by Raymond Roseliep.


It is a sterling example of less is more. A complete scene has been painted in three, that's THREE, words! It is what I try to do with most of my writing--eliminate the unnecessary. (I must confess, though, it's not easy! I'm so, very, guilty of using some words, which are totally not needed. It is really hard to break myself of the habit--it's quite a bad habit, I know. I just can't write without junk words!  But I digress...)

One might ask why a writer should be so terse? There are probably a dozen reasons, the most important one in 2014 is that a reader's time in precious! I would also say it is the job of the poet to leave something for the reader to bring to the poem. For instance, with Roseliep's haiku, in my mind it's morning and I've awakened to snow outside my window. Before me is the possibility of a "snow day," which would make all my plans for the day wiped from the slate. You, on the other hand, might see the snow glittering under a streetlamp.

Here's a response to Basho's poem:

she freaks out
at the gas pump
--cicadas emerge

And this is my response to Roseliep's:

April 2014

Matsuo Bashō
Portrait of Basho from the Library of Congress
After years of writing poems, Diane Mayr finally admits to being a poet--an admission she considers frightening!  A public librarian for almost 30 years, she also writes books for children, and spends too much time on social media.  (She is now working on labeling herself an artist, but it's going to take a bit longer.)

Previous posts in this series:


Tabatha said...

A couple of things about this wonderful post...

I love "The shell of a cicada;
It sang itself
Utterly away."

And I was struck by "if I had read [other translations] first, the poem would have gone in and out of my consciousness within seconds." -- what a vast difference a translation makes! What a responsibility a translator has!

Diane Mayr said...

Thanks for sharing your space with me/us this month, Laura! I appreciate the opportunity to proselytize about haiku!

Tabatha, I have great admiration of people who translate poetry. It's hard enough being a poet in your own language, but being a poet in more than one is a gift!

Diane Mayr said...

Oh, and only the last of the last piles of snow remain after this past weekend. At last!

Irene Latham said...

Love that pic of Diane and Skippy! I also love reading the effect of a poem on a person. Diane's passion sure comes shining through. And like Tabatha, I am sort of in awe of the translator too.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Laura, what a terrific series this is. (And two days in a row with cats in the pictures - which we would only expect with Diane, of course - my ancient office kitty May approves.)

Diane, you know I'm a big fan already, and I love reading how this particular poem siren-called you further into haiku. I came to it only a few years ago, and likewise turned stones to track down those Blyth books! Thanks for always generously sharing your inspirations and your exquisite writing.
[& here - have some Southern coastal sunshine for that last patch of snow...!]

Author Amok said...

As I told Diane, I am glad to have haiku represented in our series. It's a rich form. Some classical haiku, like the Basho poem Diane writes about, once read -- never leave the reader. What power an undiluted image holds.

Linda B said...

I am reading a child's book about writing haiku that you suggested first in some post or other, Diane, and found Wabi Sabi. Reading this raises the expectations very high, but I am working on the haiku, studying what you & others like Robyn share. This is so illuminating, to see what is the past that has touched you profoundly. Thank you for your story, and thanks, Laura, for your idea. Already a good month of beautiful sharing!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Fabulous! <-- no extraneous words

And here's mine, for Diane:

Cat's call
Haiku lessons run
deep, not long.

(Please don't ask me what it means or I'll be outed as a fraud!)

Anonymous said...

Right on to what's been said about haiku here. I picked up Sam Hamill's translation of The Narrow Road to the Interior while on a solitary month-long road trip, and he did wonderful work with Basho. Some of the haikus contained have really stuck with me and remain a source for me. Every word feels rich.

Speechless before
these budding green
spring leaves
in blazing sunlight

Patricia VanAmburg said...

I really enjoyed your post Diane--especially your point about translation.

Author Amok said...

Thanks, Linda. I'm glad you're enjoying the series (me too!) Wabi Sabi is one of my favorite recent picture books. Read my interview with the author here:

Renee LaTulippe said...

I admit I don't know much about haiku, but that cicada haiku may have brought me over to the other side! And then the snow haiku! Just lovely. Thank you for enlightening me, Diane.