Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

A column by Robin D. Gill


lightning bug


One day, as I started copying the thousands, possibly tens of thousands of haiku I wrote here and there inside of whatever I was reading into my computer, somewhere inside of one of Issa's Journals, I found the following kyka, translated as "mad poem," "mad-cap verse," etc. in a short rhymed translation:

gokuraku mo jigoku mo ikite-iru uchi zo
paradise and hell, living while +emphatic
shinite/shinde no ato wa nani ga arubeshi
dying/dead-after-as-for what is/are-ought

heaven or hell one thing is true
you cannot take them with you

by ksui (pre-1800)

Fitting a corny idiom into a mad poem only seems to improve it. I recalled my joy when I came up with the translation. And, after a month of small work on illustrations for a book about a cat who thought too much, typing in my haiku and what not, I was ready for a rest, and it suddenly dawned on me that translating kyka would give me just that, as recreating word-play demands full concentration, and the only way to escape the exhausting hell of perpetual tinnitus (ten years now) is to be utterly lost in thought. I quickly found that no one had really done mad poems – surprising for it is an entire genre – and, putting my two 99% finished books on the back-burner went full-steam ahead. This was a month ago and now I am about half-done and feeling more rested for it. Here is one of the chapters which includes haikai, for I put the mad poems in context.

Bravo to you!
So gloriously horny,
Nippon Ichi!

Gath'ring fireflies in pails
To write your dirty tales

irogonomi appare sonata wa nippon ichi shi

color/eros-liking hurrah! you-as-for japan one!
hotaru o atsume chiwa-fumi o kaku     ittetsu
fireflies+acc. gathering bawdy-tales+acc write

This is not a bonafide but a found kyka, i.e. a snippet of a link-verse sequence I rudely took out of context. Before explaining, a word on the firefly. It was long so popular in Japanese poetry that it had not one but multiple tropes of which the most common are: 1) Fireflies used for poor but diligent students or scholars for reading at night in the summer, as snow was piled up by the window to reflect moonlight in the winter. This idea came from China. Japanese were more likely to gather them up to make a lantern for night-crawling (what lovers did), but that trope did not last as long as the Chinese one. 2) Fireflies as a symbol of the ephemeral. Like all too many lives, the light is faint, unsteady and soon gone. It is a symbol for the wretched lover who hopes to vanish. 3) Fireflies as a plaintive (small and in the dark) symbol of ardent longing, because burning within was linked to desire by a pun: hi, or "fire," is part of the conjugation of the verb for longing, omohi, and continued to be so long after the "hi" in the longing came to be pronounced i.) Japan is what has been called a pun (as opposed to rhyme) culture, and many puns become poetic conceit. 4) Fireflies as the butt of jokes for having lights on that part of their anatomy.

What makes the haikai sequence from a 1675 Osaka Danrin school link-verse jam so delightfully mad is that it perverts the classic trope 1) of fireflies for the advancement of learning with that of desire, and that in its lowest form of pure horniness. And, it is even better when you know that the first part is preceded by, which is to say inspired by, a 7-7 link of brightly blushing young lovers coming together. Because "you" has no singular or plural in English – as is generally true for nouns and pronouns in Japanese – my second-person 5-7-5 above is not wrong and fits the 7-7 that follows, for one imagines someone writing dirty tales by firefly-light is alone. Note how the implied light of the fireflies in the 7-7 part, while making odd, or should I say, mad sense, together with the previous 5-7-5, relates more directly to the previous 7-7. Because associations leapfrogged in this manner as a rule in the Danrin school, it is hard to harvest a stand-alone kyka from it, for they are lost. Only exceptional links such as the above work, barely. So we have a paradox. The literature that may well have the most healthily mad spirit, yields the least individual kyka. Most of the haikai did flow directly from one stanza to another, but the most closely linked ones generally comprised a 14-syllabet lead (tsuke-ku) and a 17 syllabet response. That is the reverse of a kosher kyka and this formal difference explains why they are not found in collections of kyka. Diligent scholars do, however, find some of them and introduce them as early haikai. The first of the following, from the Inu Tsukuba-sh (1539) is selected and translated by Steven Carter (Traditional Japanese Poetry, Stanford UP, 1991). The second, from the Enoko-sh (1633) is mine.

aranu tokoro ni hi o tomoshikeri; ika ni shite hotaru no shiri wa hikaruran

                                                        What an unlikely place
                                                            to be lighting a lamp!

                                                         Just how is it
                                                            that a firefly's behind
                                                               can be made to glow!

shiri no kage nite na o yadoru ran hotarubi o taesa de shitaru gakumonja shigeyori?

His name remains
in the light of a behind
A scholar made

by not letting the flame
of a firefly go out.

Carter's example resembles the naive style of kyka and mine, alluding to a proverbial Chinese scholar, the parody style. I could not translate puns on "light=thanks-to" (kage) or "knowledge=behind" (shiri). Compare their nonchalance – a mark of early haikai and almost all kyka – to the witty yet serious older waka, such as these two in a collection (Goshuish) dated 1086, and even Issa's mad firefly haiku, which I consider a masterpiece en su generis:

The firefly silently burning up from its passion
A far sadder sight than bugs that cry all night

oto mo se de omohi ni moyuru
. . . Minamoto no Shigeyuki

Longing for him, even fireflies on the moor seemed to be
Sparks of burning passion, embers of my soul . . . of me!

mono omoeba sawa no hotaru mo
. . . Izumi Shikibu

I may have played too freely with the second poem by Murasaki Shikibu. There are many translations of it already, so there is no reason not to.

Dirt Farm

the poor soil                                                   who'd ever think
belied by all that oil                                       the soil here so thin to see
what fireflies                                                     those fireflies!

warutsuchi no kuni to mo mienu hotaru kana
bad-earth-country as+emph. appears-not, firefly/ies!

This was it for the chapter, one of a hundred, most of which included recognized kyka, but let me continue a bit further with Issa. Two more

call it a refuge
for all the fireflies in town
– my house!

waga ie ya machi no hotaru no nigedokoro

Not long after I read all of Issa's Journals thirteen years ago, I read the little booklets by various well-known scholars that came free with the set. It made me upset yet happy to read criticism of Issa's overly maudlin anthropomorphic side which cited this and another seemingly more precious ku I cannot locate at the moment, which offered the firefly time to catch its breath. Upset because it was unfair to Issa, and happy because I realized how much I had learned from reading the Journals from start to finish. What Issa was writing about was his circumstances. While most men in their forties had families and children were running about catching fireflies, he lived the only way a poor poet can live, alone. Aside from one light to read by, his house was dark and he was lonely. Rather than just writing poems saying he was lonely and alone, Issa, like any good bluesman, found a way to make his circumstances humorous, but I am afraid not all who read him get it. These ku are what I would call kyku, or haiku-length mad poems.

Come, firefly!
and I'll show you this
waterfall of piss!

shben no taki o miseuzo koyo hotaru

This was composed in happier times, the year after Issa married for the first time in his fifties. We can imagine him outside taking a leak when he notices a firefly nearby, but not near enough. Note that this is neither a mad poem nor a senryu. Though body function and humor are involved (which makes some immediately jump for the senry label), the circumstance is real and personal and that makes it simply haiku.

Robin D. Gill has written and published five books with 8000 translated haiku and senryu, all with the original Japanese, pronunciation and glosses.