Sunflower haiku (5th of February 2012)

sunflower, haiku, basho
Across the road
from a field of sunflowers:
a sunflower.

(Basho, English translation from HAIKU, An Anthology of Japanese Poems, Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto, Shambhala publications Inc, Boston, 2009)

Which is the real sunflower? That one in the field of sunflowers or the one across the road? In the English translation of this haiku the answer is clear - the one across the road. Namely, the sunflowers in the field are not real sunflowers, they are a field of sunflowers, i.e. they form an entity in which a sunflower is only an attribute, not the subject. Across the road from (that) field of sunflowers (is a real) sunflower.

I wonder whether the same linguistic interpretation can be applied to Basho's original (see the note at the bottom of this post). If it can, then his haiku glorifies individuality, outsiderness - only when the sunflower is across the field of sunflowers is it the real sunflower, only when we separate from the mass we become what we are by ourselves (the sunflower), and we cease to be what the mass is and what it defines (the field).

haiku, sunflower, detail

Eastern cultures are often perceived as uniform, feudal, cultures which subdue the identity of an individual for the sake of the "interest" of the group or tradition. >> Basho's haiku demonstrates that we shouldn't think about East in this way. Perhaps there are many fields of sunflowers in the East, but there are also sunflowers there!

While I am writing this, a number of examples come to my mind. For example, a phenomenal movie by Akira Kurosawa (a sunflower), >> Drunken Angel whose protagonist fights with all his strength against bad aspects of Japanese tradition and that which is traditionally considered to be good and desirable. The protagonists is, by the way, a drunkard, but also a person of exquisite qualities. A drunken sunflower. I am sure that Kurosawa was hated and scorned in Japan for that movie.

I am also thinking about >> Ryunosuke Akutagawa whose collection of short stories I recently read. A man of supreme intlelect who despised humans, including himself. He committed suicide when he was 35 years of age, leaving behind one of the strangest and the most inspiring letters I ever read. A sunflower.

sunflower, haiku, basho

And I shouldn't, of course, forget about Li Tai Po or >> Li Bai, who was a wanderer like Basho, and one heavily drunken angel. Here is his poem Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day translated to English by Arthur Waley (taken from Wikipedia):

Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day

Life in the World is but a big dream;
I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
So saying, I was drunk all the day,
Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.

When I woke up, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
A lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.

Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
And as wine was there I filled my own cup.
Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
When my song was over, all my senses had gone.

There is an interesting sentence in the Wikipedia article on Li Bai which says: "Li Bai was noted for his mastery of the lushi, or "regulated verse", the most formally-demanding verse form of the times: however, he was especially noted for his successful violations of its strict rules."

sunflower, haiku, basho

I don't like stereotypes about nations and cultures. The grandeur of individuals inevitably breaks them, but the problem is that different cultures do not know enough about each other, and they especially do not know about individuals from different cultures, i.e. the sunflowers that are across the road from a neighboring field of sunflowers.

In fact, the sunflower across the road is often ignored, underestimated and hated by its "own" field. They hate his guts.

sunflower, haiku, basho

This is the sixth in the series of posts on haiku. Here are the previous five:

NOTE: "Inserting" meaning to haiku poem can be a bit sliperry. Here is what John Cage said about that (from Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, Routledge, New York, 2003)

CAGE: And I think haiku poetry is somewhat without intention. I think it may be that the author, if not without intention in writing a haiku poem, has a plurality of intentions, more than one.


CAGE: In writing a haiku poem, which as you know is just five, seven, five syllables, there are so few ideas present. An example is: "Matsutake ya / Shiranu ko no ba no / Hebaritsiku", which is "Mushroom / ignorance, leaf of tree / adhesiveness." That's all there is in the poem. And it's by Basho. And what does it mean? R. H. Blythe translates it: "The leaf of some unknown tree sticking on the mushroom."

KOSTELANETZ: He inserts a lot of syntactical connection that is not present in the original.

CAGE: He has to; he is obliged to. Now we don't know what Basho meant. It cold be, "Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking to it."

KOSTELANETZ: There are all kinds of connectives the translator or reader can put between Basho's words.

CAGE: Many.
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Last updated on 5th of February 2012.