Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poetic Musings: Contextualized Reading of Buson’s Frog Haiku

Written in the Japanese tradition of honkadori, 1 Yosa Buson’s frog hokku opens up a window into the lamentable situation of the eighteenth century haikau community.

Soo no ku o osoite                      Inheriting one of our ancestor’s verses

furu ike no                                   the old pond's
kawazu oiyuku                             frog is growing elderly
ochiba kana                                 fallen leaves 2

First of all, semantically speaking, the above poem is made up of two parts that are separated by a kireji (cutting word), kana. The first part is that in the old pond there is an aging frog, whose honi (poetic essence) is “suggestive of spring,… [implying] vigor and youth.” 3 The second part introduces the reader to the scene fallen leaves, whose honi refers to winter. 4

Secondly, technically speaking, Buson employs the puzzle-solving technique to hold the reader in suspense in the first part of the poem (a supposedly youthful and energetic frog is getting old), and he solves the puzzle in the second part through shifting the scene to a winter setting where the seemingly disparate elements of the poem suddenly make sense: the frog is approaching old age, hibernating under fallen leaves that cover the ice in an old pond. 5

Thirdly, according to the headnote that mentions “one of our ancestor’s verses,” Buson makes a honkadori to Basho’s most memorable hokku.

Furu ike ya                    the old pond
kawazu tobikomu          a frog jumps in
mizu no oto                   the sound of water 6

By using Basho’s old poem as raw material and the device of alluding, Buson re-shapes the old poem and makes the intention and technique of re-shaping itself the object of appreciation. 7 In doing so, Buson creates a startling twist on the accepted meaning of the old poem, which is the skillfully Basho-esque use of “haikai imagination” described in Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams. 8 Connotatively speaking, Buson laments that Basho’s frog, which is suggestive of spring, has no strength to jump into the old pond, and just grows old, buried by the fallen leaves that are associated with winter. 9

Finally, read with the knowledge that Buson’s hokku is a parody of Basho’s, it is reasonable to read Buson’s poem as commentary on the pitiful situations of the haikai genre of his day: “That is, a statement of frustration and dissatisfaction with the popular neglect of Basho’s teachings. In other words, a once energetic and youthful animal -- Basho’s poetic legacy -- is now dormant and aging in the frozen barrenness of the contemporary haikai community.”  10 

-- An excerpt from Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival by Chen-ou Liu

First Published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011
Reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011

lotus pond...
a bloated frog
belly up

Note: For more information regarding Basho’s frog haiku, read Poetic Musings: Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku


  1. Robert Spiess's following haiku seems to allude to Buson's:

    ice covers the pond:
    frogs with barely beating hearts
    burrowed in the mud

    -- Some Sticks and Pebbles (2001)

  2. Buson also wrote another frog haiku

    jumping in
    and washing off an old poem --
    a frog

    Buson's frog haiku functions as a poetic meta-commentary on Basho’s. He praises that Basho’s frog washes off its old associations with classic poetry. It's well-explained in Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams, p15)

  3. And then there's this, composed by Jan Walls and Donna Fleischer for the blog, word pond:

    A frog looks around / leaps into ancient waters / word pond ~ J Walls and D Fleischer
    Ever thanks, Chen-ou Liu, for your writings, and your erudite NeverEnding Story. – Donna

    1. Dear Donna:

      Your poem has brightened my day.

      Thanks for sharing.