Saturday, January 26, 2013

Poetic Musings: Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

The old pond;                                  Furu ike ya
A frog jumps in —                           kawazu tobikomu
The sound of the water. 7                 mizu no oto

First of all, at the denotative level, Basho’s haiku simply says that there is an old pond, that a frog jumps into it, and that the sound of water is heard. Semantically speaking, as is typical of haiku, his poem is made up of two parts through the use of the cutting word, “ya:” “the old pond” and “a frog jumps in --/ the sound of the water.” The tension is thus created by the collocation of these two parts: the sharp contrast between the static image of an old pond, evocative of stillness and loneliness, and the lively image of an energetic animal that jumps into the pond and makes the water sound. 8 This tension leaves something for readers to ponder, furnishing both meaning and imagery for themselves. 

Based on linguistic knowledge of the target language and on literary literacy, a textual analysis of this sort, generally speaking, would give readers a sense of pleasure in understanding this poem, but it would not answer the questions I posed above. There are a lot of poets who write good haiku that leave something unsaid for readers to ponder. However, I don’t see any differences that would be made if Basho changed “frog” to any other amphibian creature or any creature that can dive into a pond. So far, my questions posed above are not answered.

Secondly, at the connotative level, Basho added an extra layer of meaning or surprise by using a kigo, kawazu (frog), in an unusual way. With its circle of associations, kawazu provided a special pipeline to the reader, increasing the complexity and capacity of the poem. 9 For example, there are some 140 poems classified under the section titled “ponds” in Fubokusho (Selected Poems from the Land of the Rising Sun), a standard waka anthology, none of them depicts a frog. 10 More importantly, read in the context of classical Japanese poetry and the haiku poetics, kawazu is a seasonal word for spring used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover. The preface to the first imperial anthology titled Kokinshu describes “listening to the warbler singing among the blossoms and the song of the frog dwelling in the water” 11 as in the following poem:

On the upper rapids
a frog calls for his love.
Is it because,
his sleeves chilled by the evening,
he wants to share his pillow? 12

Instead of giving “the song of the frog,” Basho focused on the water sound of a diving frog. He was the first poet ever to defy the poetic essence (honi) of the frog by emphasizing the “splash” that it makes, working against what one would expect from reading classical waka or renga. 13 In juxtaposing these two seemingly incongruous worlds and languages of ga (elegance) and zoku (vulgarity), Basho humorously inverted and recast established cultural associations and conventions of the frog. In doing so, he created a comical effect: a “parody of classical poetry that refers to the frog as expressive of romantic longing.” 14

A contextualized reading of his poem, like the one I present here, would reveal the greatness of his poem: the psychological impact of the inner tension brought about by the sharp contrast between two parts of the poem and the transformative power of the newness created by parodying established practices and cultural associations. For Basho, his notion of the new “lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.” 15 Throughout his life, instead of writing haiku with new kigo, Basho devoted himself to “seeking new poetic associations in traditional topics.” 16

Basho’s use of parodic allusion that brought to the reader’s mind earlier texts and reworked an old theme in a new setting has enriched Japanese haiku. His frog haiku, which tends to read one-dimensionally by most of Western haiku poets, is two-axis: on the scenic level, the horizontal axis, the poem objectively describes a natural scene, possessing no emotion, but “the sound of water rising from an old pond implies a larger meditative, lonely silence;” 17 on the vertical axis, it is a parodically allusive variation, a haikai twist on the poetic associations of the frog depicted in classical Japanese poetry. As Haruo Shirane demonstrates in his book titled Traces of Dreams, Basho believed that “the poet had to work along both axes: to work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting; to work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world.” 18 

The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku by Chen-ou Liu
First published in Magnapoets, #7,January 2011

moonlit pond...
a frog penetrates

Simply Haiku, 9:2, Summer 2011


  1. My interpretation of Basho's famous frog haiku is written from the perspective of the use of kigo ("frog").

    You can access the full text of my essay at at

    Next week, I'll deal with his haiku from the perspective of the use of cutting (kire).

  2. Below is an excerpt from Haruo Shirane's Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 winter-spring 2000,

    I give one example, by Bernard Einbond, a New York City poet who recently passed away, which alludes to Basho's famous frog poem: furuike ya kawazy tobikomu mozu no oto (an old pond, a frog jumps in, the sound of water).

    frog pond...
    a leaf falls in
    without a sound

    This haiku deservedly won the Japan Airlines First Prize, in which there were someting like 40,000 entries. This poem has a haikai quality that Basho would have admired. In typical haikai fashion, it operates on two fundamental levels. On the scenic level, the horizontal axis, it is a description of a scene from nature, it captures the sense of quiet, eremitic loneliness that is characteristic of Basho's poetry. On the vertical axis, it is an allusive variation, a haikai twist on Basho's famous frog poem, wittily replacing the frog with the leaf and the sound of the frog jumping in with no sound. Einbond's haiku has a sense of immediacy, but at the same time it speaks to the past; it enters into dialogue with Basho's poem. In other words, this haiku goes beyond "the haiku moment", beyond the here and now, to speak across time. To compose such haiku is difficult. But it is the kind of poetry that can break into the mainstream and can become part of a poetic heritage.