hakutai-no kakaku shingari-ni neko-no ko-mo
the days and months travelers
through a hundred generations
kitten tags along
Trans. by Dhugal J. Lindsay 16
The haiku above is written by Katoh Shuuson (or Kato Shuson; 1905-1993), haiku poet and leader of the humanist school that seeks the truths of human existence through the poetic means of haiku, and who is "known for his scholarly and poetic appreciations of the great classic haijin, notably Matsuo Basho:" 15
On a denotative level, this haiku speaks of two types of movement: one is temporal, and the other spatial; one is portrayed in a metaphorical language, and the other a literal one. The juxtaposition of these two parts of the poem stirs the reader's reflection on temporal awareness and consciousness, and it reminds me of one of the thematic foci described in "Book XI" of Confessions, in which St. Augustine explores the relationship between God's timelessness and his creation's experience of time. Most importantly, the image juxtaposed with the first two lines – the Existentialist statement on time as the traveler – is an innocent, uninvited, kitten, offsetting the unbearable heaviness of its preceding lines and thus creating some sort of a comic-tragic effect. It further stirs up the reader's emotions about and reflection on the absence of human beings in the poem. This haiku is brilliantly written and its suggestive power relies on the thematic gap between the two parts of the poem. It can definitely stand on its own without the reader's extra/inter-textual knowledge.
On a connotative level, the first two lines of this haiku are a direct quote from the opening line of the first haibun in Basho's travelogue, The Narrow Road to the Interior, one that is followed by "and the years that come and go are also travelers." 17 Read in the context of Basho's travelogue, the opening haibun is the most important section of the work that determines the theme, tone, movement, and goals.18 It also describes multiple departures – "the hermit-poet's philosophical departure from a particular way of life and his actual physical departure from the hermitage, a symbol of life he abandons." 19
The haibun was written in the first person perspective, and Basho stressed that "[many] in the past also died while traveling. In which year it was I do not recall, but I, too, began to be lured by the wind like a fragmentary cloud and have since been unable to resist wanderlust, roaming out to the seashores." 20 According to Hiroaki Sato, "many in the past" might refer to Japanese poets, such as Saigyo and Sogi, and Chinese poets, such as, Li Po and Tu Fu, who all died while traveling. 21 More importantly, Basho's opening lines allude to a popular piece, the preface to "Holding a Banquet in the Peach and Pear Garden on a Spring Night," written by Chinese poet Li Po. 22 They are almost a literal translation into Japanese of Li Po's lines, except that " one Chinese term, using the compound tsukihi (month and days, moon and sun, or time) [is] in place of [Li Po's] koin (day and night, light and darkness, or time)." 23 Unlike his contemporaries, such as Ihara Saikaku and Oyodo Michikaze, both of whom used a direct quote, 24 Basho changed koin to tsukihi. It's because tsukihi brings to the Japanese reader's mind "more concrete and vivid images of the moon and sun with all the connotations the two carry in the Japanese poetic tradition." 25 In the haibun, Basho established a poetic-interpersonal relationship with the ancients, one that reveals his sense of rootedness.
Shuuson, unlike his poetic forefather Basho, used a direct quote written in modern Japanese from Basho's famous haibun, and subtly showed the tonal difference between his quoted line and Basho's original. 26 And he wrote his haiku from a perspective of an objective observer. There is no human figure in the haiku. What we see is just a cute kitten unaware of the passage of time, tagging along the procession of the days and months as travelers. The psycho-philosophical impact of the inner tension and thematic gap is brought about by the sharp contrast between the two parts of the poem.
For attentive Japanese readers, Shuuson's haiku is fresh and original in terms of his skillful use of a haikai twist through honkadori that parodies the existential themes of death and of the transience of life explored in Basho's work. When they encounter his poem, they read it slowly, repeatedly and communally. Unlike modern English-language haiku, "which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience," 27 the haiku Shuuson wrote was mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic responses to earlier poems by other poets. "The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem." 28 More importantly, it wasn't until the post-Enlightenment that this non-individualist/communal concept of poetry began to be less known to the poets who were brought up in the Western literary culture. 29 In his influential book, titled The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom particularly mentions Shelley's speculations that: "poets of all ages contributed to one Great Poem perpetually in progress." 30 Like Japanese poets, Shelley viewed poetry as a collective enterprise.
-- excerpted from my essay, titled "Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally," which was first published in A Hundred Gourds, 1:1, December 2011