Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2005, vol 3 no 2

Haiku in Context
A column by Robin D. Gill  

The Peon and the Peony
or, eight of the many notions about just one flower

Note 1 ~ To save space, all the poems are shown in single lines with slashes.
Note 2 ~ If your browser can read Japanese, the Japanese for all poems may be found at this link.

1. The Big! or, . . . naïve impressions

Of Issa's 20,000-odd haiku, at least 84 concern the peony. Of these, only one of Issa's peony poems is known well enough to be considered famous, both in Japan and abroad.

kore hodo no botan to shikata suru ko kana  — issa (d. 1823)
(this amount's peony with/and, gesture-does/doing child 'tisØ)

"The peony is this big!" / the child's arms / outstretched   (trans. David Lanoue)

"It's this big!" / Tiny stretching arms /  Form her peony.  (trans. Joy Norton)

How do you imagine the child: Boy or girl? Eyes round with wonder or squinting with glee? Issa does not indicate the sex of the ko. David's translation is about all that can rightly be said––but, after reading Joy's poetic explanation — "Little boys may have their fish stories but little girls tell tales too. While trying to show us just how big the peony was, a little girl stretches herself into the truth by becoming just as big, majestic and beautiful as the flower itself" (in Five Feet of Snow, Issa's Haiku Life)—I could not resist paraversing her girl:

"It was this big!" / the girl's fish story / is a peony.

Issa's second most encountered peony ku takes the measure of the flower with a type of fan called an ôgi which is about ten inches around (in the summer Issa generally had his stuck in his belt) thus indirectly indicating its large size, while Fukaku (d.1743), who dates back to Bashô's time, relying upon his mind's eye, depicts a whole tatami mat (about 3x6 feet) "swallowed up by" a peony! But I prefer the next, by Buson, to both, for it not only adds a dimension, the third, but demands we imagine what is described.

meshiwan ni ippaigiri no botan kana  — buson (d. 1783)
(supper/rice-in one-[bowl]filled-up's peony 'tisØ!)

a rice bowl / filled to the brim / one peony

my bowl / completely full / one peony

Note: these bowls are one's main service, far larger than the tiny things oriental restaurants fill with rice in the USA. Buson's 3000-odd haiku include 28 peony, many of which are well-known in Japan.

usotsuki no yo no naka ni naru botan kana  — kyoroku/kyoriku (d.1715)
(lie/fib-making/makers' world-among-into-become, peony 'tisØ!)

it becomes / a world of tall stories / the peony

peonies bloom / and the world is full / of liars

But I also like the indirect way Kyoroku brings out both the size and the color of the flower in a more abstract way. In Oraga Haru (my spring=new-year), Issa mentions a practical joke involving a fake colored paper flower at his monjin (disciple/student) Nabuchi's Peony garden. The butt of the joke was the trendy competition creating novel peonies year-to-year, but may have been justified by an allusion to Kyoroku's poem.

ushi no yô na hachi no naku botan kana  — issa (d. 1823)
(cow/ox-like bee/wasp's cry/crying peony tisØ!)

a big bee  / that sounds like a cow   /  by the peony

like an ox, / the bumble-bee booms  / the peony

like a cow / the bee buzzes . . . / the peony    (trans. David Lanoue)

I have seen and heard this. As I talked to a neighbor by her peony, the largest bee I have ever seen came to visit it. The hum of the mighty bee (called a bear bee = kumabachi) was actually lower than the moo of most cows! My heart fell into my stomach. So, to me, a huge bee means a huge flower. The verb was a problem. The Japanese naku covers everything from a roaring wind to a squeaking mouse, but for a bovine metaphor. . . Old English can say "booing" for "lowing" so I considered it and then changed it to boom.

mina-sama no okoe no kakaru botan kana  — issa  (d.1823)
(everyone+honorific honorific+voice's fall-on peony 'tisØ!)

the applause / of one and all shower / the peony

the peony / showered by bravos / of all sides

The phrase used in the middle 7 syllabets was commonly used for the applause given during kabuki. It was not a deafening all-at-once cheer as we might imagine but individual comments such as one might hear at, say, a bull-fight. The polite "~sama" may also indicate the high quality of the audience.

botan saite atari ni hana no naki gotoshi  — kiichi (d.1933)
(peony blooming, around flowers' not such-as)

the peony's here / and no other flowers / can be seen

peonies blooming, / the last cherries might as well / not exist

A prose translation sticking close to the original would be "the peony has come into bloom and it's like there are no flowers around." The lack of any indication of "other" that logic dictates regardless of tongue is puzzling. Blyth, explaining his translation (close to the original), writes: "An Occidental poet will have this experience in regard to a woman with whom he is in love. When she enters the room, all other women cease to exist for him." [my italics] Even Blyth's allegory requires an "other." There is a way out of this: my second reading has the hana refer to the late-blooming cherries. The peony is barely a summer flower – in renga (early haikai) it was considered a spring flower – and does actually overlap the last cherries. Other flowers are also a weak choice because in the tradition of Japanese literature, including haiku, flowers not in trees, unless specifically indicated as such, were generally identified with the Fall, not the Spring or the Summer. One ku (of many) demonstrating this:

hana no kumo korite botan to hare ni keru  — jiba?/sanemuma? (17c?)
([cherry]blossom-cloud/s congealing/congealed, peony-with clear+emphatic)

the blossom clouds / congeal and,  peony!  / it's clear! 

Blossom clouds is standard trope for cherry blossoms. The scattering "clouds" of cherry petals come together, if it were, to make their successor, the peony, completely clearing the sky in the bargain. The name (botan) in the original serves as psychological mimesis for an instant, almost thunderclap-like happening. At the same time, the disappearance of the clouds matches another conceit, the peony as sun. Conceit? If a metaphor unlike a simile needs no "as" or "like" to be understood, a conceit is a notion of something so well established it need not be stated at all to be inferred by readers in the know.


2. The Chinese! or, . . . the roots

A rose may be a rose but it is not the same thing to people coming from different cultures. To Japanese, the rose (bara) represents Occidental culture with its overwhelmingly powerful perfumes, outlandishly bright-colored clothing, ballroom dancing by bold chest-out, nose-high men and women, romantic love expressed clearly (using the word "love" (ai), unthinkable in traditional Japan), etc. The rose to us shares some of this romance, but it is a familiar rather than exotic flower. Likewise for the peony. It cannot be the same for both of us. To us – No, I will skip our side in this . . . To Japanese, it is more familiar than the rose, but still exotic for its Chinese connections.

kara-oto mo sukoshi iitaki botan  kana  — kanchô   (1773)
(chinese-sound even, a little say-want, peony 'tisØ!)

the peony blooms: / i feel like making some / chinese sounds

i'd like to say / something in  chinese / to the peony

my peony: / i'd like to treat it to / some chinese

the peonies bloom: /  i wish i could speak / a little chinese

is that rustling / the peony saying something / in chinese?

Buson has a similar ku which specifies what he would intone for his peony as eibutsu no shi, a titled Chinese poem about specific natural subjects. I prefer the vaguer expression of the unknown poet, though it was a bit too vague for easy comprehension. The last reading came from a Japanese friend, M, who is a good haiku poet but not familiar with old Japanese. Unfortunately, I am afraid I was unable to receive expert opinion needed this time.

ichi rin ni ikku taranu botan kana  — ryumin (18c)
(one blossom-to/with one-verse suffices-not peony 'tisØ!)

what peonies! / one poem per flower / will not do

one poem / per blossom is not enough / for a peony

Any cultured Japanese reader will immediately recall the so-many-poems-per-bottle (or per-cup?)-of-drink idea of a certain Chinese poet. This idea appeals to all who love humor and Issa takes it to the limit with a swig of sake for every pull on his hoe in his 'mum garden. And, to my mind, though I cannot well express the reason, it helps us to better feel the concrete reality of the poet's art and the culture from which it grew. When I read a ku like that of Ryumin (a name meaning literally Dragon-sleep), I do not just think What a magnificent plant with each flower on it worthy of a poem! but: Thank you, China! While the riff-raff of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) made fun of pig-tailed Chinese as girlie-men and called them dirty for eating pork, etc., the haiku poets remembered their debt to the poets of the Middle Country.

morokoshi no kumo o tsukamu haku botan  — sôko (c1777)
(chinese/china's clouds[obj] clutch/grab/s white peony[subj])

white peony /  each blossom a clutch  / of chinese cloud

it clutches / the clouds of old china / a white peony

To the Japanese, Chinese clouds were not just clouds. They were magical fluffs of auspiciousness that could be seen on Chinese paintings adding depth to the magical mountain peaks. This blossom, then, is not just white, but propitiously so. And, in this era of Seclusion, it was as close as the poet would get to China.

shishimai mo seyo ya botan no hanamizake  — tokugen  (1647)
(lion-dance even/too do-let's! peony-blossom-viewing-sake)

drinking as we /  view the peony: why not /  a lion dance!

let's do a dance / a lion dance for we drink / viewing peony!

shishimai no sukoshi todomaru botan kana — sanji (c1759)
(lion-dance's  little-bit halt/ing peony 'tisØ!)

the lion dancers / pause for a moment: /  peonies!

Lion dancing came to Japan from China.  It was performed to bring good luck and, not surprisingly the costume of the King of Beasts generally has the King of Flowers, the Lucky Peony (we will get to these conceits soon enough) depicted upon it. The two were said to go together, like deer and autumnal leaves or the uguisu (warbler=nightingale) and the plum blossoms, etc. Sanji's ku is subtle and fine in every way. Tokugen's older haikai was meant to be risqué. Such antics (not visiting lion-dancers, but drunken shenanigans) would be most improper for this flower not only haute culture but civilized.

botan-mi ni usuzuri to yoki karacha kana  — tôrin (d.1719)
(peony-viewing-to/at/with light-print is good, chinese-tea 'tisØ!)

for peony blossom viewing / a pale kimono is good / and chinese tea 

The drunken carousing of cherry blossom viewing would not do. As another poet put it, "the sound of the shamisen goes flat with the peony" (shamisen no ne ni wa hariawanubotan kana – mokudô, d.1723) Another found a compromise:

cha ni youta furishite-kurenu botan kana  — chisoku (d.1704)
(tea-to/by drunk[inebriated] behavior/apearance-doing[+graciously] peony 'tisØ!)

pretending  / to be tea-drunk / peony viewing

the feeling of / being drunk with tea / thanks to peony

pretending  / to be drunk on tea / a peony

The poet probably means that the guest is pretending to be giddy as a compliment to the host of the peony-viewing. Perhaps we can get into the subject of drinking another time. Suffice it to say that drinking by any other name is not drinking any more than a rose is a rose or a peony is a peony. The second reading pushes the grammar a wee bit. The third is possible because the grammar allows either unstated human subject/s or the flower/s to be subject's. It suggests either the bright red peony (for almost half of Japanese turn red with only a sip of drink) itself, or a woman of the pleasure quarters, called a peony, who, as all women who served men, knew how to pretend. Be that as it may, peony-viewing was an anomaly, a festive occasion that was not raucous.

hanayaka ni shizuka-naru mono wa botan kana  — gyôdai (d.1792)
(flowery/gorgeously quiet-is-thing-as-for/?  peony 'tisØ!)

something /  colorful but quiet / peony-viewing


3.  Burning Red! or, . . . looking for metaphors

Part 4 and 7 will return to China and make clear the meaning of the peon in the title of this HIC episode II. Part 1 covered the attribute of size, we will now pick up with the second attribute of the peony, color.

shiranu hi no kagami ni utsuru botan kana  — kikaku (d.1706)
(know-not's mirror-in reflect/ing peony 'tisØ!)

unknown flames / reflecting in the mirror: / it's the peony!

Some peoples' brains only provide the final product; others, do an instant print-out, if it were, of the mistakes by which we approximate ourselves to what is what. If you have the second type of brain, and find it easy to believe Kikaku, it is a great haiku, for it does not say, How may I describe the brilliant color of the peony?, but just happens to show it. For all I may go on and on about the dense layers of meaning filling the body of old haiku, nothing beats the accident, the gift. The more of these gifts you notice and accept, the more great ku you will make. And yet, in retrospect, we have a metaphor, the flower as a flame. Kikaku is one of the top ten old poets, but I do not have the money to buy collections of his poems with the commentaries needed to read many of them, so I fear I must short-change him. But all of Buson's poems, like Issa's can be had, with commentary (some too sketchy, however) for $50 or so. More Buson:

gitetsu   giôkyû shumon o hiraku botan kana  — buson (d.1783)
(ant-hill //  ant-king-palace-gate[+obj.] opens peony 'tisØ!)

the crimson gate / of  the ant palace opens: / it's a peony

a red peony / the gate of the ant kingdom / opens wide

Buson fuses the fable of a wealthy Ant Kingdom with its underground palace and an "ant hill" (the words preface the original) by or under a peony, by turning a blossom into a gate (or blossoms into multiple gates). We know the "gate," i.e., the heart of the blossom, was heavily traveled because one of Buson's other ant+peony ku specifies a "two-way road" created by the mountain (large black) ants and a ku by his contemporary, Yayu, observed laggard ants being clutched within a peony closing up for the night. The scintillating red, heightened by the white glare of high-noon evokes the fable and its magical mood and the vice versa.

enô no kuchi ya botan o hakan to su  — buson (d.1783)
(emma-king's mouth!  peony[+obj] spit-would-do)

yama's mouth! /  it's about to  spit out / a peony

King Emma, or Yama, is a terrifying Deity in charge of Hades. Unlike "our" Devil, he is not evil. Rather than tempting men to do bad, he judges them for their sins and leads the demon brigades applying the punishment deserved. The inside of his mouth is always painted bright vermilion and his tongue curled up like it is ready to lash-out (or simply to reveal that his demonic muscularity extends even within) in fury. That was my naïve impression, but, actually, pain might be a be a better word for it, as he must himself endure a mouthful of molten copper three times a day because torturing people is bad even though he does it for the best of reasons: to discourage us from sinning and for justice. (Think about it, Christ only got crucified once. This Emma endures worse every day for our sake. Now that, Mel Gibson, is passion!) There is debate whether this famous ku is about the statue, found at many Buddhist temples, or the flower. Grammar favors the former, but I would argue that Buson suddenly imagined Emma's mouth while gazing at a red peony. That is to say, the flower is the subject though the poem does not make it so. Because Buson prefaces it with a phrase about Buddha's writhing tongue like a red lotus being spit out (Japanese religious folk-lore is full of sutra-related tongue-sightings I may relate when this is expanded into a book), I suspect symbolic significance (see part 7), too, but none of the Japanese annotations I have seen ever mention any!

aka-botan oran to sureba moen to su  — seibi (d.1816)
(red-peony break/pluck do-if, burn-would do)

reaching down  /  to pluck a red peony /  it flared up

Like Kikaku's fire in the mirror, this is either a terribly clever ku, or something experienced if only for a moment, in which case it is a masterpiece. Since I am inclined to give poets the benefit of the doubt, I think it the latter, but admit I am reminded of a ku posted by a haiyû (haiku friend M, mentioned already) last winter, where she blew on a rose until it burst into flame (either poem would make a great flip-book!).

hyaku-ryô no naki tama moyuru botan kana  — kitô  (d.1789)
(hundred ryô [big unit of money] lacking soul burns peony[subj.] 'tisØ!)

a soul burns / without the do-re-mi / this peony

a soul without / a thousand pounds to burn / the red botan

Incineration was the funereal ideal, but it was too expensive for the vast majority of Japanese. Soul in Japanese does not necessarily mean what it does in English. There is some spirit and heart here, too.

hi no oku ni botan kuzururu sama o mitsu  — katô shûson  (d.1993)
(fire's depth/inside/beyond-in/at peony crumble/ing appearance+obj [I]saw)

in the heart / of the fire i see how / peonies crumble

within the blaze / i saw a peony / crumbling

deep within / the fire i see peonies / crumbling

peonies crumbling / i've seen you before / within a fire

This is like the Emma tongue ku of Buson. It is ostensibly about a fire, but the verb is as vague about its tense as it is sure about what the poet sees/saw and could be a memory set against a garden with blooming peony. If the peony is only seen in the tongue or in the fire, the ku would not be a botan ku, or "peony haiku". But it would be all the more complimentary to the blossom, for being used as a metaphor, rather than described by one, is proof you have made it. (Note: M-san, first read it to mean the peony was actually burnt and seen through=beyond the flames, but after seeing my reading felt it better but more like a shi = lyrical poem = than a haiku. I hope to get more comments from experts. Personally, I like my fourth reading and hope it was the poet's!)

(Note: there are also white peony haiku, and quibbling color haiku, but, something had to be trimmed!)


4. The King is in!    or, . . . a moral example

The plum is noble and magnanimous for blooming early in the cold to avoid unseemly competition; the cherry is either courageous to drop its bloom so quickly or a faithful Buddhist for not remaining attached to this world. What, then, is the third big flower of the year, the peony? (I am talking tradition. Personally, I think the dogwood is a big thing.) We shall soon see.

na irai so hana no ô-sama narikeru zo  — shôzan (d.1801)
(not-to-worry! flower's king+honorific [you] are+emphatic)

why so nervous?  / are you not the king / of flowers!

tremble not! / you are, are you not, / the flower king!

In China, all life was divided up into tribes with kings. If we know that the lion is the king of beasts, they know who is the head of the fish, the fowl and, yes, even flowers. The peony has many names and "king of flowers," was only one of the best known of them. The ku by Shôzan, the joker of 18c haiku is, to my mind, very good, for it captures the trembling of the heavy blossom on the slender limb as it plays the Chinese conceit. Note, also the strange negative request is not some sort of Japanese creole as "not to worry" suggests, but a stilted ancient form found in the oldest collection of Japanese poetry, the Manyôshû (8c).

waga mi no hosou naritaya [narita ya?] botan-batake  — onizura (d.1738)
(my body's thin became?[become-want?]!  peony-garden)

finding myself /constrained as i walk /  a peony garden

afraid to move / an arm and leg, the poet / in the peonies

a peony garden: / i find myself watching / my manners

i start feeling / i could use some fattening up / a peony garden

Here, too, I need an expert opinion. M-san goes both ways with the verb (and the last reading is one of hers) and I doubt that is possible.

mono iwaba hito wa kienu-beshi haku-botan  — raizan (1716)
(thing say-if, person-as-for vanish-ought-to, white-peony)

that white peony / a single word and  /  you'd be gone

a white peony / if you were to speak / you would vanish

a white peony / if it were to speak / man would vanish

were it to speak / poof! we'd be gone / white peony

those who talk / deserve to disappear / a white peony

The last reading is by M (in my crude Englishing) who thinks my magical idea is so much hocus-pocus, but I still want expert opinion – by which I mean, someone familiar enough with a pre-18c Japanese literature to know if there were or were not any disappearances for talking at the wrong time.

waga mono o kiru ni oku-suru botan kana  — baishitsu (d.1852)
(my thing[belonging]+obj cut-to, fear-do peony 'tisØ!)

what a peony! /  i am afraid to cut / what is mine!

afraid to cut / my very own blossoms: / a peony

though mine / i hesitate to pluck / the peonies

trembling to cut / my own peony

bifuku-shite botan ni kobiru kokoro ari   — shiki (d. 1902)
(beautiful-dress-doing peony-to obsequious-be mind-have)

half a mind / to put on fine dress / for the peony

half a mind / to dress up and bow down / to the peony

half a mind / to dress up and curry / the peony's favor

Though the word "king" is not used in Shiki's ku, it is clear we are talking about Royalty. Despite Shiki's reputation as an exponent of photo-realism, he constantly played with old conceit and expressed feelings (especially what-if type wishes) very well. Of course, the Peony was not only seen as a king. One poet who apparently shares my taste for women who are, like Tinker Belle, embonpoint, looked very closely at the bloom and forgot about royalty:

botanbana wa shishiai no yoki onna kana  — hakuô/jiô  (c1694)
(peony-blossom/s-as-for, meat-appearance's good/pretty woman 'tisØ!)

the peony blossom: /  a woman beautifully / fleshed out!

the peony flower: / it's a woman with plenty / of meat on her bones

Pardon the rude haiku; but isn't it good to find a man with such a passionate eye for plants?

shitataka ni mizu no uchitaki botan kana  — kaken (d.1829)
(soundly, water's splash-want, peony 'tisØ!)

you want to / splash them with water / the peonies!

that peony! / i want to dash cold water / on her face

Here, too, we are not talking about royal magnificence, but too much beauty for the poet to take. Indeed, he may have been taken aback by a parade of courtesans. Issa and others would have protested this ku, for the peony blossom proper, not being overly proud does not deserve such treatment. To wit:

hikuku ite fûki o tamotsu botan kana  — taigi (d.1771)
(low be/sit wealth-nobility[obj] maintains peony[subj] 'tisØ!)

it stays low /  and keeps its nobility / the peony

keeping low / keeping its wealth and rank / the peony

the peony / low yet not without / its silver spoon

That is to say, this flower may be fortunate and magnificent, but it does not try to lord it over us:

onozu kara zu no sagaritaru botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(self-from head's-lower/ing peony 'tisØ!)

of itself /  lowering its head: / the peony

the peony: /  it bows its head all / by itself

The morality implied by Taigi is made explicit by Issa. Too bad both ku are so boring. Issa did, however, eventually create a good peony morality ku (it will be in part 7) by adding more layers to it and Taigi saved his by pairing it with this:

tsuchi e te o tsukaneba misenu botan kana  — taigi (d.1771)
(ground-on hand/s[obj] place/reach—not-if, shows-not peony[subj? obj?] 'tisØ!)

bow low / if you really want to see / the peony

hands on the ground / if you'd have an audience / with the peony

if you don't / put your hands on the ground / the peony / won't  show itself

hands on the ground / if you would be let in / to see the peonies

There must be a better translation, but I trust you can see how this, together with the ku about how the blossom though noble keeps low, appeals more than either poem by itself. To know true nobility, we must bow down with it. Yet the hands-on-the-ground implies the posture of a formal supplicant. I like to imagine (with no evidence whatsoever) that Taigi wrote this for the host of a tea ceremony, for the hut doors were low down so all who entered had to bow low.

miro tote ya botan no fûki patto chiru  — issa (d.1823)
("look!" as-if[to say]  peony's wealth-nobility patto [mimesis] drops/falls/leaves/dies)

as if to say  /  just look! the peony drops / its riches

Some blossoms dry in place and must be headed, some fall entire, and some give up their petals to the wind. The large peony petals tend to plop down one, two, or three at a time. To Issa, it looks voluntary. Amazing, a wealthy being divulging itself of its own riches! Yet, Issa could also chuckle and write:

ôbotan bimbô mura to anadoru na  — issa  (d.1823)
(large-peony poor town as/and/because disdain-not)

oh great peony / don't disdain / this poor neighborhood!  (trans. David Lanoue)

grand peony /  don't you look down on / a poor town!

don't disdain / our poor neighborhood / great peony!

Thinking of the visual effect in a center-balanced 3-line poem, I put in my two-bits; but Lanoue's translation is perfect as is.



5. Cats and Mice . . . what's in a name

When it comes to the number of names one seasonal theme boasts, the overall champion is an animal, the cuckoo, most commonly called hototogisu, with scores of names. Shiki, whose name is one of them, used at least 10 of them in his scores of cuckoo ku. For plants, it is the peony with well over a dozen.

neko no yoru wa nezumi no na nari hatsukasô  — yoshinori/kisoku? (1659)
(cat's approaching-as-for mouse's name is: twenty-day-grass)

cats approach / because of its mousy name / twenty-day grass

neko jigasan // yudan su na nezumi no na mo hasukasô — yayû  (d.1783)
(cat- self-draw-praise // negligence do-not mouse's name too twenty-day-grass)

poem with a cat //  you had better / take care,  peony, with / your mousy name

The preface means that Yayû has brushed his haiku for, or on, a picture he painted of a cat, probably with peony in the background. "Twenty-day-grass" (hatsuka-sô) was a common name for peony based on the length of time it was in bloom. Short-lived mice of the type now used in labs are still called hatsuka-nezumi, or twenty-day-mice. Mouse, like grass, can also be pronounced , so . . . Most of the mousy peonies involve puns – too much trouble to re-create.

neko no sakari sugosu na isoge hatsukasô  — teitoku (d.1653)
(cat's heat passes, don't rush twenty-day-grass)

twenty-day grass  /  rush not!  a cat's heat / is soon over

the cats will not / be long in heat so rush not / twenty-day grass!"

I am not sure I get this poem. Don't cats eat less when they are in heat, in which case a mouse ought not to wait? Or does Teitoku mean that cats in heat tumbling through gardens will wreak havoc on the low-lying blossoms? If so, it is a damn good poem. All I can say for sure is that one tends to precede the other:

neko no sakari sugite botan no sakari kana  — ichimatsu/isshô (c1666)
(cats' heat passing/passed peonies'heat 'tisØ!)

after the cats / come into heat the peonies / come into heat

The loves of cats are a Spring theme. Peony is early summer. There is a a ku where the peony comes into heat, i.e. flourishes, after the cherry. Cats are often painted with the peony. It is hard to say if that has more to do with the mouse name or the cat-as-substitute-for-the-lion.

neko no kurui ga sôô no botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(cat's craziness/heat equivalent/appropriate's peony 'tisØ!)

the peonies: / they really resemble / cats in heat

a perfect match / for the crazy cat...  / peony    (trans. David Lanoue)

While both sakari and kurui mean "in heat" and convey the intensity of the color of the bloom, the latter, used by Issa, refers to cats so love-crazed they stop eating and their voices crack. We think of the sexuality of the blossom overflowing with stamen (Issa has ku on this "thread-shit" so we know he noticed) which ends up with pollen all over its petals. Ransetsu expressed this indirectly by a ku that lined up the peony with the first-bonito frenzy. This was a fish that had men going crazy and could make men get high, but that is another story. Issa might also refer to the diagonal movement of the blossom-heavy limbs reacting to breeze. My reading and David's are both possible. M thinks of the cat actually sparring with the big moving blossoms – closer to David's? – but I feel it more likely that when Issa speaks of craziness he means it in the kigô sense of being in heat. I still await expert opinion.

jô sashite botan no sakari mamoru yo kana  — tôkei (d.1820)
(lock inserted peonies' heat guard/ing night 'tisØ!)

the gate locked / peonies in heat are / guarded at night

locking the gate / at night i guard the heat / of the peony

I think this the funniest of the cat-peony, though, if truth be told, the blossoms close up somewhat at night. The reality behind the ku is revealed by Taigi's ku "meeting up with / my stolen peony / the next year" [nusumareshi botan ni aeri akuru toshi — taigi (d.1771)].

neko no suzu botan no acchi kocchi kana  — issa (d.1823)
(cat's/cats' bell/s peony/ies there-and-here 'tisØ!)

the cat's bell / here and there among / the peonies

Cats love any new cover; as soon as the peonies provide it, you may find (or not find) them hiding there.

gôen no botan ni neko no me bakari nari  — shiki (d.1902)
(rear-garden's peony/peonies-in/at cat's eye/s only-are/become)

under a peony / in our back-garden  /  a cat's eyes

only the eyes / of a cat from within / the peony

in the peony /  our cat or rather  /  its eyes

To me, Issa's and Shiki's ku, both pure poems in the sense that there are no allusions or allegories whatsoever, are still improved by the existence of a traditional relationships between the peony and the cat.

senkô-ni nemuru-mo neko-no botan kana  — shikô (d.1731)
(incense-in/to sleeping, still, cat's peony 'tisØ!)

r.i.p.  // joss burns  /  by "the cat's peony" / for the cat

One of Bashô's most unruly disciples, the Zen priest Shikô has a bad reputation for writing overly logical=clever haiku and is generally disliked because he was hard to get along with (once he even staged a funeral to see who cared about him!). But, who cannot love the above ku?


6.  The Life-cycle . . .  from dew to drop


Perhaps because there already was a "dew-grass" (tsuyu-gusa), none of the Japanese names for the peony specify the moisture which many poets find in the blossom. Gine starts off the life cycle:

ao muite uro no chichi nomu botan kana  — gine (c.1775)
(above-facing rain-dew's breast/milk[=obj] drinks peony[=subj.] 'tisØ!)

looking upward / it nurses on rain and dew / the peony

This ku is not as bad as it appears. We learn the bud points upward (it really does) and begins to open in such a way that it holds dew in its mouth. And the blossom grow lush with the fold-like creases of a fat, which is to say, healthy, baby until,

hana no tsuyu botabota botan no shizuku kana  — keiyû (1645)
(blossom's dew/nectar drip drip peony's drops 'tisØ!)

the blossom dew / dropping bota bota / from the botan

blossom nectar / the peonies overflow /  bota bota botan

Dew and nectar are one in Japanese.  I know growing bamboo can exude so much you hear it drip on a rainless night. Since I have not lived with peony, I am afraid my explanation must stop with pointing out that using the plump-sounding name of the blossom for the mimesis brings out the abundance of the moisture and its source.

samukaranu tsuyu ya botan no hana no mitsu  — bashô (d.1694)
(cold-not dew! / peony's blossoms' nectar)

dew that / isn't cold: this nectar / of the peony

for once, dew / that is not cold! / peony nectar

In Japan, dew stereotypically chills us to the bone, both because it is experienced at dawn in the fall and because it reflects our mortality. But the peony blossom maintains its moisture until it grows warm, even if it is not red. Bashô's ku is good because we cannot tell whether it is pure sensation or philosophy. But, as is often the case for Bashô, it is also made-to-order. The occasion, a new home for his relative with the pen name tôrin, or "peach-neighbor." It is appropriate for reasons we shall see in part 7 and, perhaps because one name for the peony was "neighbor-grass!"

hôhyakuri amagumo yosenu botan kana  — buson (d.1783)
(directions-hundred-ri [unit of distance] rain-clouds approach-not peony 'tisØ!)

the peonies do not allow / the rain clouds a hundred leagues round / to approach them (trans. Blyth)

the peony does not allow / the rain clouds a hundred miles round / to approach it

the rain clouds / banished from the country: / what a peony!

Once the peony comes into full bloom, a dry spell was apparently not uncommon. This is attributed to its brilliant sun-king like presence, a presence emphasized by the "hundred leagues," a Chinese-style hyperbole. Or, am I being too general and should instead, following Blyth, imagine "with defiant eye" a stand-off between the brilliant blossoms and "the encircling banks of thunder clouds piled up on the horizon"? (Actually, I am being too fair: another version of the poem, based on a different implicit metaphor = sucking up all the moisture = has the rain-clouds exhausted (tsukite), so Buson clearly depicts a completely cloudless sky and not what Blyth imagined though that, too, is fine!).

ichirin no naka ni fû aru botan kana  — seia (1768)
(one blossom's within, wind/character/style  is/have peony[=subj] 'tisØ!)

each blossom / has a character of its own / the peony

At first I was thinking "wind" (kaze) the literal meaning of the Chinese character I ended up reading "fû" instead. One of my mistranslations:

the peony / each flower moves to / its own wind

Then, I explained it, thus: "Every plant has its characteristic movement, its dance. One way of depicting it would be to trace the paths of the blossoms in space. In the case of the peony, you would find a great amount of seemingly disparate diagonal movement on the part of the various blossoms. The effect is to give each individual blossom a strong individual presence. Or, am I misreading? Could the point be that the individual blossoms are so profusely petaled that one can become engrossed with the effect of a breeze on those petals, i.e., their fluttering and folding back, etc.?" While poetic, both my readings were wrong. Even glimpsing at the blossoms standing still, each is complex enough to boast more true individuality than is common with a flower. I will leave it in this section where it entered with that wind, though it really belongs with the first.

chiru botan kinô no ame o kobosu kana  — issa (d.1823)
(falling/dropping peony yesterday's rain[obj] falls 'tisØ!)

dropping peony  / yesterday's rain / is spilled

yesterday's rain /  spilled together with /  peony petals

crumbling peony / is that yesterday's rain / spilling with it?

Young Issa's Japanese (a verb followed by the emphatic kana) is awkward, to say the least, but the observation, his first on the peony, is good. M thinks there may be some you-can't-take-it with-you philosophy in it, but here, for once, I go for the straight reading.

hitoe chitte hito odorokasu botan  — baishitsu (d.1852)
(one layer/petal falling, people/person[obj] surprises peony[subj])

the peony / dropping one petal makes / us start

one petal falling / makes a man start: / peonies

This, by Issa's long-lived contemporary, might share something with Buson's famous ku with those two or three fallen, overlapping petals. With apologies, I skip it, for I would prefer a longer treatment than possible here. Let me just say that the counter used for the petals suggests Buson treated them like metal, so Baishitsu's poem, though ostensibly a plain observation, may refer to it indirectly.

gatta gatta to kuzureteshimau botan kana  — kyôni (1763)
(tumbly/with-jolts crumbling[+finality] peony[subj] 'tisØ!)

sloppily / collapsing, the peony /  falls to pieces

hakubotan aru yo no tsuki ni kuzurekeri  — shiki (1902)
(white-peony one-night's moon-at/to/by crumble[+finality])

the white peony / at the moon one evening / just crumbled

My translation for the first ku may itself be a bit too sloppy, but the poem seems conceptually solid enough. The blossoms fall apart as lush things should fall apart rather than dry up or blow away. The middle line in the second follows Blyth, whose genius came up with the "at."

ogoso ni mo hikazu sadamete botan kana  — somaru (d.1795)
(grandly-even day-number fixing/determining peony 'tisØ!)

magnificently / choosing its day to go: /  the peony

choosing even / its lifespan, the luxury of / going botan!

This refers to the secondary name, twenty-day-grass, while it uses the common name, botan, as a mimesis for dropping dead instantaneously. I know it probably a head-trip haiku, but if you imagine the poet marking off the days . . .


7. The Lucky, or . . . blossom as talisman?

I have never been a big fan of flowers. I need what a cat needs, greenery to peek out of and movement to stimulate eyes that seldom leave the room. For that reason, I grow tall grass from wild bird-seed and set it by the window to catch the wind. But reading about the peony in Issa's journals, I became aware of a different way to experience flowers: as talisman. The idea appeals to me.

fuku-mo-fuku daifuku[ôbuku?]-bana no botan kana  — issa  (d.1823)
(prosperity-too-prosperity big-prosperity-flower-of-a-peony 'tisØ!)

lucky, lucky /  you large and  lucky / peony, you!

lucky, lucky / large flower of luck / my peony

lucky, lucky / luckiest of flowers... / the peony!   (trans. David Lanoue)

Fuku means both wealth and happiness. "Fortunate" is not a bad translation, but the word itself sounds boring. So "lucky," which is a bit skimpy on both meanings, must do. Fuku repeated suggests fukubukushi meatiness, plump=rich, fat & happy appearance. This connects with the traditional conceit of the peony as the fûki-no-hana and fûki-gusa/sô (names, again), or flower/grass=plant of wealthy nobility. We will tie these together soon and see why "lucky" is the right translation despite the shortcoming just noted and the fact that Japanese might use other words (kichi/kôun/en etc.) to directly address luckiness. First, however, just note how the ku sounds: Read daifuku or ôbuku, aren't you reminded of abracadabra! (Is there, perhaps, a shamanistic song Issa borrows from? Here, too, there is room for scholarly research).

fûki-gusa mo kaze ni binbô-yurugi-gusa  — ninshi  (c1656)
(wealthy-noble-grass-too, wind-in poor-shaking-grass)

the noble-grass / in the wind has the shakes / of a poor man

This is an accurate description of peony blossoms in a light breeze. And, 350 years later, I can attest to being chided for jiggling my legs because it is called binbô-yusuri (slightly different verb, but the same as ~yurugi) and is thought to bring poverty! Here is where the connections are made. In Japanese, what is called "poor" or "wealthy" is thought to bring the same. An undated old ku by someone whose name translates as "slight-smile" demonstrates what I mean: "his ear-lobe / resembles the peony / its owner" (mimitabu mo botan ni nitaru aruji kana — bishô) A large, fleshy earlobe was called a fuku-mimi, or "prosperous/lucky-ear" and thought to ensure its owner good fortune. So, we can see that when Issa cleverly played on the meatiness of the peony as big-prosperity, he also implied it brought good luck. A 1704 ku less directly then Issa has a man who comes to borrow money gazing at a peony (kane kari-ni kite nagametaru botan kana sanrin). Somewhat later, a ku by Taigi (d.1771) claimed that praising a peony would grant one the fulfillment of ten wishes (jû-nen), but these refer to enlightened Buddhist thought experiences not the crass wishes most of us might imagine. Issa seems to be the first to come right out and directly address the peony as the flower of good fortune. I think it might be because he thought meatiness in all things, including women, was desirable (or, at least Tanabe Seiko, a prolific rotund novelist claims that much in her huge historical novel about Issa!) while most, more wealthy poets, being less hungry, failed to make that connection.

te mo sate mo te mo  fukusô no botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
([meaningless exclamation] lucky peony 'tisØ!)

my, oh, my / what a lucky-looking / peony is this!

dear, dear, / what a fat, happy face it has / this peony!  (trans. Blyth)

no matter how / you look at it, a fat and / happy peony

Blyth's "dear, dear" and "fat and happy" are exquisite. However, I wonder if the 21c reader can make the jump from "fat and happy" to lucky features, or imagine an abundance of fleshy folds as the welcome mark of affluence to come. It is as if Issa is thinking, if I praise and haiku you, peony, will it rub off on me?

fukusuke ga chanto suwatte botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(lucky-boy is properly sitting, peony 'tisØ!)

a lucky boy / sits right properly / my peony

lucky boy / sits right plumply / a peony

my peony / a lucky boy sits / as he should

This is Issa's cleverest peony ku. The original Fukusuke – fortune-guy, lucky-boy – was a large-headed model (ceramic or wood) of the Chinese God of Prosperity, invariably seated; but shortly before Issa wrote this poem, there was a fad for – or a plague of – door-to-door salesmen of good luck, i.e., wassailers (?) who danced wearing large masks of Fukusuke until you paid them off. Issa mentions their visit in his journal a couple years before the above poem appears. If you recall, the peony sat very low for the "king of flowers." The dancers, jumping wildly about were inappropriate to true good fortune and nobility, which is placid. The botan seems to work very subtly here as mimesis for sitting down. So Issa praises the peony, criticizes a practice of his time and plays with a saying about ideal beauty standing, walking and sitting, where the "sitting" is identified with the peony, in this simultaneously simple yet complex poem.

fuku no kami yadorase tamau botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(prosperity-god, lodge [+elegant honorifics] peony 'tisØ!)

the god of fortune / and luck dwells here . . . /  a peony!  ( transl. David Lanoue)

lady luck /  has come to dwell . . .  /  a peony! 

fuku no kami kudarase tamae botan saku  — issa (d.1823)
(prosperity-god, descend [+elegant honorifics] peony 'tisØ!)

good luck / himself has descended / peony blooms

the god of fortune / and luck is now in . . . /  our peony blooms!

Both poems/versions use an archaic respectful grammar and at first, I (mis)read them as "may the god / of good luck dwell / in my peony!" My Japanese friends did not go along with that, and I gave it up. But rereading the second, I (and no one else, so far) came to feel it deserved separate treatment. I feel it stresses the coming into bloom itself more than the first version. Lady Luck, however, is pushing my luck, for the peony being Chinese, the male Chinese God of Luck/Fortune/Prosperity (the one character covers all these things) is proper to it; but we might note that the Japanese had a Goddess of the same, Benzaiten, and the association was made by at least one contemporary of Issa, Odano Naotake, a renowned Western-style painter, for he depicts an urn of red and white (lucky colors for Japanese) peony in front of Shinobazu Pond, vaguely showing the island in the middle, whose famous landmark happens to be a shrine devoted to this very Goddess. To read haiku, it helps to read pictures and vice-versa.

botan made kahô no usuki wagaya kana  — issa  (d.1823)
(peony-until, reward's thin[little] my-house 'tisØ!)

even the peony's  /  good luck wears thin . . .  / my house!  (trans. David Lanoue)

my house / where even the peony / is dirt poor

A fine translation taking advantage of a chance coincidence involving the connotation of "thin." Another Issa ku has the unlucky flower of fortune tangled up in poverty vine. . . Like Lightning Slim (or his Blues song, anyway), who was blessed with only one kind of luck, bad, Issa had far better connections with the God of Poverty than the God of Prosperity. We may pick up on that in the Winter, for Issa used the Gods-are-out Month as an excuse for haiku'ing his "good companion," as he once called the God of Poverty.

fuku kuru to kiite hoshigaru botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(wealth/happiness/luck comes: hearing, want peony !Ø 'tis)

hearing about /  fortune coming, i/he/she/we want/s  / a/these peony/peonies!

you hear that / good luck comes and want / your own peony

Sometimes I hate the way English requires an explicit subject for active verbs and the clarification of number. Please choose for yourself! The haiku is ambiguous in other ways, too. At first, I thought Issa wanted his pitiful-looking peony (representing his own poverty) to hear the happy news of good fortune (prosperity's here / such words would so cheer / our poor peony), but both that and the opposite possibility (that the peony longs for the poet to hear such tidings) are conceptually and grammatically awkward I am told, so the above is, to use the words from "Do You Want to be a Millionaire?" my final answer, at least for now.

jiguruma no todoro to hibiku botan kana  — buson (d.1783)
(earth-cart's rumbling echoes peony[=subj] 'tisØ!)

the heavy wagon / rumbles by; / the peony quivers   (trans. Blyth)

the rumbling / of an eight-wheeler / peonies quiver

somewhere / the rumble of big wagons . . . /  peonies tremble

loh, the peony! /  heavy wagon rumble vibrations

This great poem does not translate well. In English, it is hard to get the rumbling (todoro) to fuse with the hibiku (echo/reverbate) as in the original. The modern poet and critic Hagiwara Sakitarô, who more than anyone else was responsible for the rise of Buson's fortune in the 20c (Sakitarô had an instinct for selecting Buson's best poems even when he misinterpreted them), thought the "earth-wagon" literally meant the turning of the Great Wheel of the Earth. Scholars point out that the term means the great 8-wheel wagons used by the wealthy, mostly for moving (often because of fires). Still, I feel Sakitarô was partly right, for these carts literally moved fortunes. The big blossom on the thin branch was behaving as a seismograph for the wheel of fortune.

ôyô ni ugokidashitaru botan kana  — issa (d.1823)
(grandly move-starting peony[subj.] 'tisØ!)

with a grand aire / launching into movement / the peony

the peony  / begins to move like / a giant ship

the peony / slowly and grandly / starts to stir

the peony bud / unhurried it starts / making its move

Issa may be talking about the slow opening of the mighty buds in which case only my last reading is right. But I feel Issa gazes on a blossoming peony starting to stir in the morning's first breeze and thinks of one of the huge treasure ships of ancient China. As M-san points out, when large things start to move they have their characteristic motion. Then again, Issa might allude to another being that was both called a peony and likened to a treasure-ship in the slang of his day, a courtesan in a parade.

furu niwa ni arikiritaru botan kana  — ransetsu (d.1707)
(old-garden-in hackneyed peony 'tisØ!)

in the old garden /  taken for granted / the peony

An old garden suggests a family with wealth enough to keep a substantial house for generations. Fortune does not just visit, it lives there, though its presence is not necessarily appreciated. To paraphrase the late great Danish Poet-scientist Piet Hein, the trouble with money is that it only belongs to those who don't need it. Issa the peon rubbed shoulders with peony and even brought one to his garden but, apparently, it failed to take. In our unfair world, where talent such as Issa's still rarely brings fortune to speak of and wealth, even that obtained basely, almost always brings more of the same, Luck continues to cast its loaded dice (if I can be permitted a political word, the GOP [Greedy Oligarchic Party] would keep people like Issa and me poor forever). Still, the dream of prosperity, the existence of the magic that was a peony helped Issa maintain his sanity over his largely misfortunate life.



8.  Odds & Ends . . .  

I had intended to introduce a score more poems here, but finding this column is already far too long, must apologize (especially, if I have failed to address a particular poem you might have wanted addressed), and leave you with a two-in-one good ending poem of Issa's and an Occidental peony of my own.

ato no yo no nedokoro ni sen botan kana  — issa  (d.1823)
(after-world's sleep-place-into do-would peony 'tisØ!)

i'll make it / my bed in the next world / this peony

peony blossoms: / that's what  i'll sleep on / in paradise

The usual pedestal in paradise where people were reborn as enlightened beings was . . . a lotus pad. Charles Darwin, on the Beagle, sitting on hard wooden seats for years, dreamed of sitting on "a soft sofa with a soft wife," and Issa, who lived a hard life even if he did mostly sit on tatami, wanted something softer and more luxuriant than the stereotypical Buddhist waterbed.

fukufuku to noraba botan no utena kana  — issa (d.1823)
(soft/plump/fortunate-x2 [=mimesis] ride/climb-up-on peony-pedestal 'tisØ!)

soft abundance / if i could but mount / a peony pedestal

a peony dais / i would mount one / fluffy and full

Here fukufuku cannot be translated as "lucky." Can our strange new world which worships the hard and despises the soft understand the dreams of Darwin or of Issa? (Speaking of dreams, there may be a butterfly allusion, here, for the one that dreamed it was a poet was on a peony, but this, too, must wait.)

inverse danae /  a bumblebee with gold-dust / leaves the peony

leaving peony /  covered with gold-dust: /  zeus bee?

Have you noticed the prodigious amount of pollen and how it spills over the petals? Here, Zeus is seduced by the voluptuous peony, and leaves with a present of gold rather than showering it upon the reluctant object of his seduction. Of course, my poor (yet unfinished) poems owe something to Bashô's famous nectar-laden-bee-leaving-the-recesses-of-a-peony, a thank-you ku for all he received from his gracious hosts (we might have a whole session on greeting poems some time). And, I thank you for reading.


Next time: The Morning Glory and the Cockscomb, or controversy in the reading of haiku.

Note:The publication of Fifth Season and The Cherry Blossom Epiphany have been delayed to complete a short version of the 740-page Topsy-turvy 1585, a book that has nothing to do with haiku. Screen shots of center-balanced multiple translation clusters–a new way to present haiku that does not work with html –and ample information about my previously published books of translated haiku, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! and Fly-ku! (not to mention haiga and other artwork) may be found at Please visit when you have time.


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