Today’s poem: Haiku

Haiku is a form of poetry developed during the Edo period that reflected the tastes of the masses rather than those of the aristocracy. As practiced by Matsuo Basho, it attempts to identify human truths through representations of the seasons as seen through nature or human activity. The most important aspect of haiku observed in Basho’s works in his later years is that it had to demonstrate a kind of “lightness” 軽み. It was not supposed to be grand, pompous, self-important–I guess today we’d say, not so full of itself–like the waka poetry of earlier centuries. Here is a poem by Bashィュ on heat and mosquitoes.

牛べやに蚊の声暗き残暑かな

Ushibeya ni
ka no koe kuraki
zansho kana

In the cowshed
mosquito voices are dark
the lingering heat

Ok, ok, zansho really suggests a period in autumn when the heat of the summer lingers. But the imagery is very summer, particularly in rural areas, which I drove through on my way back from Williamsburg. So what are the images and what do they conjure up? Cowshed, suggesting the countryside and the stench of manure; mosquitoes, suggesting heat and humidity; dark suggests the dimness in the cowshed and the inability to see clearly; and lingering heat, put together with all these other things, we have a rather crude, unsophisticated scene: In an attempt to escape the heat, the poet enters a dark cowshed, only to be struck by the stifling heat, pungent with the smell of cow shit. Making matters worse, the buzz of skeeters in the dimness serve to remind us that it is hot and humid. The smell of shit and the sound of skeeters graphically convey the nastiness of a summer-like heat.

And yet, there is a definite sense of autumn beyond the seasonal word, zansho. The second line, “ka no koe kuraki,” suggests the coming of a different season.During the summer, the mosquito is at its peak, abundant and full of energy. However, Bashィュ describes their buzzing as dark, synthesizing sound with his visual perception. While the darkness is obviously the inside of the cowshed, it also intimates that the buzzing is faint: The mosquitoes are fading and no longer have their summer vigor.Therefore, while the poem expresses the unbearable heat of zansho, the use of synesthesia–combining different sensory perceptions–conveys a kind of anticipation: summer has ended and a darker, hence cooler, autumn will soon arrive.

Class dismissed.

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