This podcast follows our spring 2020 online workshop, which looked at a selection of three haiku, chosen by Alan Cummings. You can access the translation materials and read all the submissions on the workshop page.
Clare Pollard: Welcome to the Modern Poetry in Translation podcast. I’m Claire Pollard, the editor, and today I’m speaking to Alan Cummings, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at University of London by first met when he was translating for one of the poetry translation centres, wonderful workshops. He works on early modern Japanese literature and theatre. And amongst his many translations is a haiku love, a beautifully illustrated anthology for the British Museum. I highly recommend if you’re interested in this form.
This spring, Modern Poetry in Translation launched an issue called ‘Dream Colours: Focus on Japan’. And we were generously sponsored by an IF:Book award to run an online workshop on Japanese poetry when the issue came out. The stipulation of that award was that we do some things slightly different, and explore the possibilities of digital and online poetry.
It was spring, it was lockdown. Instagram was wall-to-wall blossom, people were looking for things to do and new skills to try. So we decided to invite Alan to set a workshop based on Japanese haiku that referred to the season spring. And we invited translations not only into English, but into any other medium, from audio to animation photographs to sketches. I’m very pleased to say we have the best response to one of our workshops yet with over 60. So thank you, everyone who submitted.
So Alan to begin with, would you be able to tell us a little about the form haiku?
Alan Cummings: Yeah, haiku – it’s the best known form of Japanese poetry in the West, I guess it’s famous, if anything, it’s famous for being intensely short. So in Japanese, it’s just 17 syllables and they’re divided up, well, it’s a little tricky because in Japanese normally you would see them written just as one line. But there is a sense that they do exist in three connected units. So if you’d like in English, they often become a three line, 17 syllable poem. So the syllable count for each line is 5-7-5. As a form, it’s a relatively late developing form in Japanese because the central form of classical Japanese poetry, from the eighth century onwards, is a form known as a Tanka, which is a 31 syllable poem 5-7-5-7-7. But there were always kind of drinking games that people liked to play where that 31 syllable form would often be split up into two pieces into a 5-7-5, which you notice is a haiku essentially. And then the seven seven, and people would get drunk together and they would take turns to kind of compose these together. So somebody would compose the first three lines. And then somebody else was supposed to add a seven seven to that. And it’s that kind of quite light, form kind of drunken form of poetry, a collaborative form of poetry as well, that haiku then develops out of in the 16th and 17th century onwards.
Haiku was intensely popular in Japan’s early modern period. So from the 1600s, up until the mid 19th century, particularly of course, famous poets like Basho, and Basho is really like a pivotal figure in the creation of haiku as a serious form of poetry. Pre-Basho, haiku is still quite ribald. It can be quite erotic, it can be quite comic and grotesque. But Basho tries to change haiku into something much more elevated and something much more serious and it’s his form of haiku becomes really the centre ground.
And haiku is still, you know, there are thousands of people who still compose haiku. In Japan today, if you live somewhere in Japan, often the local neighbourhood there will be somebody who will run a haiku circle, people will get together once a week with a little group, you can host together, and maybe you’ve been given a theme to work on for that week, and you come in with something, or a few things you’ve come up with, and then people will, will read them and the teacher will will correct them or make suggestions.
And yeah, there’s still you know, there are haiku TV shows where people can send in their poems. There’s still a lot of, a vast amount of, kind of publication of haiku in Japan as well. So it’s still, you know, it’s an old form, but it’s still a very, very central form in Japanese literary culture today.
CP: Thank you so much. And can we perhaps talk through the three haiku that you set as part of the workshop which were all from that kind of golden period 18th 19th century? And so the first was there a blossoming one, wasn’t it?
AC: It was a blossoming one. Yeah. So, you know, picking spring as a theme, it works because classical haiku is always structured around a theme. People would be given a theme to write to. And almost always there are kind of natural themes, and natural images in the haiku. Traditionally, it roots itself in a season are very particular part of a season through what’s known as a ‘kigo’ or a seasonal word, which you know, that you can buy kind of books of kigo in Japan that will kind of divide up any sort of natural image you can think of any sort of plant or animal or types of clouds or types of leather.
Dozens and dozens, hundreds of things can be a key role but those keywords and become feel like the key around which people people write.
So, with spring of course, you know, Japanese culture is always particularly fond the seasons where there is the maximum amount of change. So in Tanka poetry as well you get, you get the most amount of poetry is written about spring and autumn because those are the moments of transition where you can see the seasons changing.
So yeah, those traditional anthologies, they always have a lot of spring poems a lot of autumn poems. But obviously with spring then cherry blossoms you think Japan you think spring you think cherry blossoms you know those, those are going to be one of the one of the big images and you know, cherry blossoms in Japan. They always carry a certain kind of semantic weight to them that there’s there’s a lot of meaning that gets attached. You know, they’re pink, they’re beautiful and I guess you you know that there are very short lived we kind of we noticed that here as well, you know, there’s something that are at their peak, you know, for a week or so, in April, maybe 10 days. But it’s also a time of year where you can get, you know, a sudden shock or you can get a windstorm, you can get even snow sometimes. So this was the things that kind of can disturb the pinkness and the floweringness of cherry blossoms. So cherry blossoms of Japan always have an association with ephemerality. This idea that nothing is constant, nothing is permanent. We’re kind of, we’re connected to this, this this kind of moment of transition and, and change. And cherry blossoms also got associated very, very clearly in Japan with ageing and death, as well. You know, those kind of those, there’s the human implications of, of the ephemeral.
So, so cherry blossoms are a big one. We could have just very easily had had three poems that were just about cherry blossoms, but that seemed a little boring. So I just went with one of those. Do you want me to read that? That first one?
CP: Yeah, if you could read it, that’d be beautiful.
AC: Yeah. So okay, so the first the first one is by an Enomoto Seifu, who’s an 18th 19th century Samurai poet.
And she begins to kind of write from around about the 1750s. And her kind of her production of poetry also seems quite connected to personal events in her life because we know that after her death, her husband she seems to be able to write a lot more poetry. You think what is going on there? Was she looking after him for a long time? Was she too busy cooking to be able to write poetry? Who knows? But so the poem by her I’ll read it in Japanese first:
Chiru hana no | moto ni medetaki | dokuro kana
And I provided a very literal translation for that with some notes:
Beneath, lying happily
CP: Wonderful, thank you. And you say in your notes she wrote that at a time of famine as well?
AC: Yeah, I mean this is one of the interesting things about haiku, I guess we often think about them as being quite divorced from human reality. We kind of think of them as being very more rooted in the natural world. But there’s always kind of an overlap, because of course, they’re written by human beings who were living in the world. So there is always an emotional undercurrent to them as well. And yeah, at the time she was she was writing this particular poem, there was a pretty substantial famine in Japan and you know, famines at that time, they tended to hit the rural areas most heavily, so that that kind of image of of a skull or a skeleton light under, under the cherry blossoms, you know, it’s a it’s a beautiful one, but it’s also, it’s also quite a disturbing one if you think about that contemporary reality.
Interestingly, it’s also another one that kind of links back to Japanese literary history. I guess we have Hamlet and his skull, you know, Yorrick’s skull, all that kind of stuff. But Japan also has kind of poems going way back to the eighth, ninth century, which are by poets travelling and there’s one particular poem, about a poet coming across a body by the side of the road. And then he writes this, this meditation on that particular corpse, kind of thinking about, you know, were you a traveller, did you have an accident, something happened
to you or your family still waiting at home hoping you’re going to come back, totally unaware of what’s happened to you? Ao there’s a very famous, there’s a kind of a long meditation between like that, like that idea of travelling and death. Ao that that image of the skeleton and nature is is it speaks to contemporary reality of Enomoto Seifu but it also speaks to literary tradition as well.
CP: I think it spoke to a lot of readers too in this pandemic year. Okay, let’s move on to the second haiku then.
AC: Yeah, so the second the second haiku is by Yosa Buson, and Buson of course he’s one of those huge names in in early modern Japanese haiku history. If you think I guess, you think top five, you think Basho and then you probably think think Buson somewhere in that list.
And he’s, you know, he was somebody who was following in the in the footsteps of Basho even kind of emulating one of Basho’s famous journeys around Northern Japan. And this is this is quite an unusual little poem so I’ll read I’ll read it for you.
harusame ya | koiso no kogai | nururu hodo
And the literal translation of that:
spring rain –
beach’s small shells
to moisten enough
CP: Lovely and you had a lovely note about the spring rain, a very specific sort of light and replenishing.
AC: Yeah, so that word that they use for spring, right next to the two characters, they do just mean spring and rain. Harusame refers to a very kind of light drizzly spring rain that you can think of as something that’s replenishing or revitalising in nature.
CP: Beautiful. And then the third one.
The third one is by a slightly later poet and she’s born Sugita Hisajo in the late 19th century, 1890, and she’s born in southern Japan. And she has kind of like a scandalous poetic career, including getting kicked out of her poetry circle for reasons unknown. There was always a lot of kind of torturous, torturous relationships between particularly female poets and their usually male poetic mentors. There’s a lot of stuff going on in those kind of poetry circles at that time. But her poem, then, in Japanese:
chō oute | haruyama fukaku | mayohi keri
And the literal translation:
butterfly chasing –
spring hills deeply
CP: And you said something really interesting about this, which is that nouns are not specified as being singular or plural. So it’s up to the reader to decide whether that’s assuming a single butterfly or a whole cloud of butterflies.
AC: Yeah, this is one of the peculiar peculiarities of Japanese. Japanese manages just to have two tenses. But with nouns, it doesn’t. It doesn’t gender nouns, and it doesn’t it doesn’t do singular or plural either. And also, one of the things that Japanese struggle with when they start speaking English, is that they can’t think of the difference between singular and plural. But also the difference between a definite and indefinite article because that doesn’t exist in Japanese either. Whether such ‘a’ thing or whether it’s ‘the’ thing.
But yeah, so that it could be it’s up to you to decide whether you’re imagining a single butterfly or a huge or huge cloud of butterflies, and likely in the same way, one spring mountain or multiple spring mountains.
CP: Really interesting. Thank you.
Okay, so let’s talk about some of the choices. And first we should just mention some of the amazing translations we had across media. We had kind of beautiful watercolours, sketches, quite a few video poems, a Lego translation by Silas Gordon, with a kind of Lego skeleton under a blossom chair, which I particularly loved.
And the two that you gave special mentions to – which is Julia Carla Rossi‘s game. That was fantastic, wasn’t it? Yeah, unbelievable. A mini game using a kind of bitsy game engine that you can interact with. Do check out on our website, if you’re listening. It’s got a three colour palette which kind of references the haiku three line structure, I thought was just really, really smart piece of work.
And another special mention was the Josephine Corcoran’s collage – a collage poem and included kind of blossom that fallen off a tree and headlines about PPE didn’t it. So that really again responding to that that first haiku blossom in the skull, I think was something a lot of people particularly noticed in this in this lockdown spring.
AC: One thing I thought was really interesting about that is that you know, even traditional Japanese poets like Basho they worked across multiple genres, Basho for example is known for travel prose, his kind of intermingled poetry with prose. Do we have a good word for that? I don’t think we do. But his travel journals which have prose poems written as specific or inspired by specific places. So there’s lots of haiku port to write that kind of prose, which they call hai bun. So that even like the high bit of haiku is, you know, this, this, it’s an idea that it’s a way of looking at the world or thinking of the world. And there’s also a lot of haiku poets who are artists as well. So there’s a whole tradition of what are called haika. So like haiku inspired, usually kind of ink painting style painting. So that idea that haiku is a way of kind of thinking, thinking about encapsulating or theorising the world that you can take across different media. That’s you know, that’s something that was there at the time in Japan. So I was really excited to see some of those. And the collage was right on and the Bitsy game was amazing. I’ve really enjoyed both of those.
CP: Thank you. And then your choice for haiku 2, to the spring rain haiku – by Madeline Campbell?
AC: This is the spring rain haiku, and Madeline Campbell’s translation is, I guess, it’s a dialect translation. I’m not from Scotland, unfortunately, because I think it’s a Scottish dialect poem:
a light smirr quenches
wee cockles on thae sand beds
giftit by yon spring
CP: That’s lovely.
AC: It is, isn’t it?
CP: The wee cockles! I love the wee cockles.
AC: Yeah, I was I was thinking about about that particular poem and one of the things I thought was key to it was, was the fineness of the rain it seemed to be important that it is that very specific type of drizzly kind of rain, because, reading the poems that there are a lot of people who had who had kind of more dramatic types of rain. I think kind of, more dramatic types of beaches as well. Because the other thing about this poem is that it’s like if you look at the Japanese line is quite repetitive:
harusame ya | koiso no kogai | nururu hodo
So it’s tiny shells on a tiny beach, which are engaging with this tiny light fine…
CP: The smallness is important.
AC: Yeah. So the smallness I think, I think, seemed really important than that one. And yeah, the wee cockles. So I thought was precisely…
CP: Then the Sugita Hisajo haiku, the butterfly chasing – you chose Elaine Morris’s version for this?
AC: I did. I think I think this one was for me the hardest one to judge. Because there were a lot of translations that for some reason, I think, they ended up being quite similar. That there’s, I think the, you know, the abandon in that poem, that kind of sense of losing yourself, in the spring, there seemed to be something that kind of resonated in a very, very similar way, with almost everybody who submitted to the translation for that particular poem.
I think it’s maybe one that resonated with that particular moment back in back in April, as well, where we were we were all locked up, and then suddenly, finding that the natural world could could suddenly mean something again, it could be something that you could lose yourself in, in that particular moment that we were that we were stuck in there. I know it seemed to provide a way out, but yeah, look, the translations for this one were very, very similar but Elaine Morris’s, her translation:
lost in wonder–
You know, it’s very succinct. I really like that central ‘lost in wonder’. It’s an amplification, but it’s an amplification I think that works really beautifully with the symmetry of that particular poem. Grammatically in Japanese, often haiku, they will there are two different types of haiku I think you see in terms of the grammatical structure. You’ll see ones that are kind of split into two bits. Basho, very often, his first line will be one unit, and there’ll be a, you know, there’ll be a hyphen or there’ll be a colon or something there to kind of show up a split.
And then the last two lines will be another unit. So you see that kind of structure quite often. But the other structure you’ll see is where they function as just a single sentence. And this is one that functions as a single sentence. And there’s something about that getting lost in in wonder where you can even apply grammatical logic to your thoughts. There’s something about just kind of flowing with wherever the butterflies are taking, with wherever the words are taking.
So yeah, I really liked Elaine Morris’s, but I think that that was one that seemed to resonate in a very similar way with almost everybody who sent in a translation for it.
CP: And finally, your overall winner. That haiku you want us to give a special mention to was a translation by John Wall of the first haiku. That blossom-skull haiku, that so many people seem to respond to so deeply.
AC: And that’s the I think that’s the one that seemed to kind of inspire the most the most other types of submissions as well as translation. There were translations into lots of other media with that one. I think it’s pretty easy. It’s very easy to see why.
It’s that skeleton, isn’t it?
So yeah, John Wall’s translation:
beneath falling blossom,
With that one, what I really wanted to see was a contrast between emotional stillness, because it seems to be important that the skull is lying there sitting there, and then you have not just the cherry blossom which is up in the branches in the tree, but it’s in motion it’s kind of coming down towards the towards the skull. So that there’s something about that motion-stillness that I think is important. And the other thing I really liked is that is that last line where the skull comes as a shock because you don’t expect to see skulls in poems which are about cherry blossoms.
CP: And joy because he’s bumped the kind of joy, the happiness, up into the first lines as well so it makes it more of a painful twist in a way, doesn’t it?
AC: But yeah, I thought that that captured you know the motion and stillness but then also the shock that he kept with that last line.
CP: Thank you very much Alan, for talking about haiku with us and sharing your kind of thought process and, and what you enjoyed in those translations. And thank you so much for your generosity and all the time you spent.
AC: It was a joy to do and it was a joy to have to read all of the responses that people had to these to these particular poems, and it felt like something that it could only have come out of that particular moment that we were in, back in April.
CP: Thank you for listening. And to find out more, please visit www.modernpoetryintranslation.com