Walking Japan: Haiku #82

Paying my respects to Hosai,

I offer only weeds.


The haiku for Day 82 is not an original by me, but a translation of a Japanese poem — my first ever. The original was written by the freestyle haiku poet Santoka (1882-1940), a very interesting character who I hadn’t heard of until I was standing on the very spot where he composed this haiku, before the grave of Ozaki Hosai (1885-1926), another free-style haiku poet I didn’t know. Santoka was a walker as well as a poet, completing the 88 Temple circuit in Shikoku, and following in the footsteps of Basho, writing a book about his experience called The Narrow Road to the Interior. Both Santoka and Hosai were alcoholics, and by most measures complete failures in life. But having lived on the road for a few months now, writing haiku every day, I identify with them. One of Santoka’s diary entries:

November 4, 1939. The rain began coming down in earnest and the wind was blowing hard… It blew my hat off, and my glasses went flying too—what a mess! But a grade-school student passing by retrieved them for me—many, many thanks! Rain kept getting worse, wind blowing stronger all the time—nothing to do but stop for the night at Okutomo—but none of the inns would have me. Let it be! is all I say and, looking like a drowned rat, I walk on, Finally can’t go on any longer and take shelter in the lee of a roadside warehouse. I wring out my clothes, eat lunch, stay there for two hours. Deluge!—no other word for it—violent wind lashing it around, sheets of rain streaming sideways like a loose blind. I felt as though I had been bashed flat by heaven—a rather splendid feeling in fact. With evening I was able to make it as far as Shishikui, but again nobody would take me in. Finally I got to Kannoura, where I found an inn that would give me lodging, much to my relief.

And one of his haiku:

Horohoro yōte ki no ha chiru
Fluttering drunk leaves scatter

Free-style haiku are any number of syllables of one, two, or three lines, and without the other requirements of traditional haiku, such as the inclusion of a seasonal word. In many respects, the English haiku that I write are closer to free-style Japanese haiku or senryu than traditional haiku, even though I usually stick to a 5-7-5 or 3-5-3 syllable structure. (Because Japanese syllables are much shorter than English ones, and counted differently than English syllables, the 3-5-3 length in English is considered a closer match to the information content of Japanese haiku.) I like the structure; it gives me something to start with, and often forces me to come up with something better than my first attempt. Good verse is hard to write, and free verse is even harder, I find. Still, sometimes I’ve strayed from the structure — usually because I’m too tired to think rather than because I’m throwing off the shackles and embracing mystical insight. For instance, my briefest haiku yet was written during a typhoon before I fell into exhausted sleep:

a pair of
dry socks.     

My discovery of these free-style poets was suitably serendipitous. A few days ago, I set out from Tonosho Port, on the small island of Shodoshima in the Inland Sea, in search of my next waypoint, the Forsaken Rocks. Having noticed a mention of the house of a haiku poet in a tourist brochure, I saw a sign for the place, and soon found myself standing outside a small building next to a cemetery. I had a great chat in Japanese to the woman who let me in and the only other visitor. Unfortunately, none of Hosai’s displayed haiku and memorabilia had English translations, but somehow I really enjoyed being there. I later discovered a few translations online, including this one:

In a kindling fire I can see all my furniture.

After a while, a microbiologist who wrote haiku showed up, and together we went in search of Hosai’s grave. Standing before the humble marker, the microbiologist explained Santoka’s haiku to me in broken English, and I composed my translation. I’m not sure, but I gather Santoka really did lay some weeds on the grave, as he was too broke to offer anything else. I imagine he was also implying that his haiku were as weeds compared to Hosai. But I’m not sure; my translation is a very free translation of a free-style haiku. It may even be completely and utterly wrong. In fact, I secretly hope that it is, for then it would be an original haiku about me standing before the grave of a master poet and offering weeds!

Let the last words go to Hosai — a man who at one stage had only a pair of pyjamas and a tuxedo to wear, and wore them to work, where one (suitably attired) subordinate described him as “reeking of alcohol beginning each morning.” This haiku of his expresses a sentiment that I, reeking of sweat every morning, can completely understand:

seki o shite mo

even if I cough,
I am alone

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5 Responses to Walking Japan: Haiku #82

  1. mountaingoat says:

    In the teacher room
    Avoiding colleagues, I read
    Some bastard's haiku.

  2. Bill Brent says:

    One reason I like to work for myself: I can usually wear pajamas. 🙂

    I just had the tuxes dry-cleaned, tho.


  3. Alan Summers says:

    Love the account. I followed in the footsteps of Basho as part of a World Haiku Club festival, so I love hearing other people's accounts of Japan.

    I love your haiku! The dry socks reminds me of Santoka. The fire and furniture is also refreshing and original.

    all my very best,

    Alan http://www.withwords.org.uk

    p.s. I was in Brisbane and Ipswich during the early to mid 90s, loved both places! 😉


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