Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3

A column by Robin D. Gill

One Haiku About the Moon

This is not what I promised for the Fall issue. Unfortunately, family circumstances required me to leave my apartment and library and decent internet connection for a month in the country.

[click on each image to enlarge it]

So, instead of offering a poorly prepared article on controversial ku—Chiyo's morning glory, Shiki's 14 or 15 cockscomb flowers, etc.—I will share the web-group posting (with some words changed and added) that prompted RW to ask me for a column, this one. The haiku in question is not a controversial one.

It all started with a posting by Sarah at her limited web-group for discussing the haiku of Chiyo (d.1775) that introduced "her haiku about a man sleeping on the street from Woman Haiku Master" as:

back streets' snoring
and today's full moon
bright, bright

I checked the translation by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi in Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master (Tuttle:1998) and found the last line was slightly different:

(both) bright.

I wondered if Sarah had deliberately improved things; but, in her next posting, she attributed the difference to poor reading glasses. I who have transcribed things wrong on many occasions understood. You might also say the translation by Donegan and Ishibashi was asking to be misread: how often are poems translated with parenthetical explanations in them? The reason for this odd "(both)" is that the bright (akarushi) in the original pertains to both the snores (ibiki) and the moon (tsuki). This they explain in terms of "bright" being a pivot word that modifies what comes before and what comes after, but they fail to point out that because the cheerful connotation of "bright" is stronger in Japanese than in English, it sounds perfectly natural in the original, whereas it requires a metaphorical treatment to be understood in English, e.g.:

uramachi no ibiki akarushi kyo no tsuki     —Chiyo

(back-town's snore/s bright/cheerful [,] today's moon)

Snores as bright
as the backstreets tonight:
What a moon!

Sarah's vision of "a man sleeping on the street" shocked me, for I imagined Chiyo walking through the poor part of town much as her contemporary Buson did with his similar poem (minus the snoring) and, thus, heard a cheerful chorus of snores emanating from many households. My further supposition was that the upper class and the clergy would be ashamed not to be out viewing the (Buddhist) moon, while the laboring folk in this part of town could sleep in peace (without guilt):

In poor-town
they snore so cheerfully:
Tonight, the full moon.

I bounced this off a Japanese haiku friend and she saw it as I did, which is to say imagined the snores emanating from inside the dwellings and not from anyone sleeping in the street. Like me, she too hears a chorus of snores, but says she is not sure if it comes from many people or a single virtuoso, a one-man band. She also emphasizes the peaceful feeling.

In moonlight
how peaceful the snores
of poor folk

There is a benefit to having the "tonight" - I find it hard to use the original's "today" for the moon - even though we assume that much unless told otherwise; but the last translation reads well without it. Still, I am afraid that someone who is not broadly read in Japanese might miss something: where that peacefulness comes from. My friend, whether she is conscious of it or not, has surely read about how the moon as the "light of the [Buddhist] law" was a pacifier. She may even have vague memories of stories about wild boar being on their good behavior and sleeping rather than decimating harvest-ready fields when the moon was full (Perhaps the boars knew hunters could see to shoot them, but that is not how it is explained). In the Occident, the full moon may have been associated with spooky tales, but in the Orient, the moon made people breathe more easily. Chiyo may not have become a nun until late in her life, but this positive view of the moon and moonlight was broadly shared by laymen.

The full moon:
Tonight one can almost
see the snoring

For this last translation, I dropped the modifying bright=cheerful/ly (whether translated as an adjective or adverb) altogether: my assumption being that Chiyo was mostly thinking of the brightness, describing her surreal nocturnal experience. But I feel there may be more.

This moonlight:
Even the snores of the poor
please the ear!

No matter how this poem is translated, it is not as breathtakingly perfect as Chiyo's "moon-viewing -- / after coming home / nothing to say" (trans. Donagon and Ishibashi) - this masterpiece should be, but is not as well known as her morning glory ku - but I trust my multiple translations help show what riches may be hidden in that bright moonlight. But we are not through yet. I mentioned Buson's poem. Here it is in my translation:

tsuki tenshin mazushiki machi o tôrikeri     —Buson (d.1783)

moon heaven-heart/center[straight above]: poor/wretched-town[obj] passing through[+emph.]

the full moon
overhead, i pass through
a poor town.

The "Japanese Poetry" section of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1965/74) translated the same like this:

         The moon passes
In splendor through its central heavens
         And I through wretched streets.

I admire the guts of the translator who elaborated the middle line to develop the contrast of splendor and wretchedness he found and has the moon as well as the poet in motion, but I think the Japanese annotators of Buson's Zenshû (complete anthology) are correct to write:

The moon in the middle of the sky is clear. It is late at night and all the houses in this poor part of town are quiet and only his own footsteps can be heard. Tilted roofs, low eaves and on all of it shines the moonlight creating an eerily beautiful chiaroscuro. Who would have guessed how refreshingly clean a poor town purified by moon-light feels! (my trans.)

In other words, the Princeton Encyclopedia commentator's contrast of moon in beautiful heaven and poet in wretched town is apparently not shared by the Japanese specialists, who have Buson finding beauty below, too. I cannot help wondering whether Chiyo and Buson both react against Sei Shonagon's disgust for wasting moonlight on the poor. It is hard to say. That is a question worth bouncing off Buson and Chiyo scholars (something I have not done yet) who have read broadly in the contemporary literature. My above translation with the comma in the second line is horrible. A couple more tries:

The full moon
i pass through poor-town
directly below

The original speaks of the moon in mid-heaven, which is to say high in the sky and large so it seems to be hanging there. Here, I hope locating the poet directly below works in reverse. Regardless, the emotive power of the ~keri is lost.

Simply sublime:
Passing through poor-town
in the moonlight.

The second translation depends upon a proper feeling for the word "sublime," which tends to be conflated with "subtle" today, whereas it was once most commonly applied to the Niagara Falls or the Alps and should transmit a quality today called "awesome."

With moon in heaven
i crossed poor-town:

Fall is here and, in haiku, that means the moon. But the moon of the Edo era poets is not our moon. I dare say we cannot find poems expressing the reverence for the moon found in Issa's "Captain, / Peeing is Forbidden: / The Moon rides the waves!"* (this ku plays on conventional lists of things forbidden to do) or "Facing Westward / I cannot even pee - / A full moon"** (this ku plays on older poems and Buddhist stories where saints try not to fart toward the West because it is the Pureland Paradise. Also Issa's Zenkôji was, I would guess, to the West of his town.). We can imagine people misbehaving from the effects of too much moonshine, but can we imagine our sins dissolving in the moonlight as another of Issa's ku puts it?***

We no longer distrust the moon as a night power and may even enjoy it, but how many people in the Occident have spread out mats on the ground and watched the moon for hours? The idea of blossom-viewing is not hard for us to appreciate, but moon-viewing?

I have gasped to see an upside-down prop of the moon during a play in Miami. As far as I could see, no one else even noticed it. Most of us do not view the moon often enough or intently enough to remember his/her face. So, we are not only less reverent but less familiar with the biggest thing in the sky. The Japanese moon is a far more significant presence than ours. When we read a ku about the moon such as Chiyo's and Buson's, or any old Japanese haiku that mentions the moon, this must be kept in mind.

Sorry to be abrupt. Despite the Japanese equivalent of "doggerel," tsukinami, containing a possible allusion to poems mentioning the moon, there are many, many good ku on moon-viewing, and I feel terrible about introducing the light haiku by Issa when most of the better ku will be unknown to my readers. Circumstances allow no more.

* Issa = sendou yo shouben muyou nami no tsuki
** Issa = nishi muite shouben mo senu tsukiyo kana
*** Issa = From an Issa ku I cannot locate at my temporary abode.

Columnist Robin D. Gill’s first book of translated haiku Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! has recently been reviewed [] in the five colleges magazine of literary translation, Metamorphoses.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku