Kaneko Tohta has some interesting things to say about the poem:
"Of the three poems mentioned above, I would like to speak a little about the one by Basho. When he wrote "the sound of water," Basho did something new. Until then, Japanese poets had only written about the croaking of frogs. Basho's use of the sound made when the frog entered the water was revolutionary. Indeed, we can call it a present to the world of haiku. In this haiku, the pond - "the old pond" - occupies the most important part. How prosaic it would have been if he had written "the old swamp." And I don't know if anything like "the old sea" exists. Therefore, "the old pond" is a very fitting expression.
By the way, foreigners usually look at the old pond in the poem very philosophically. I don't agree. The old pond is muddy, filled with algae, the water in it hardly ever moving. Not clear, it reflects the sunshine, and there are bugs jumping in it. That is what the "old pond" is like. I insist that with such an old pond, I can hear the splash of a frog. It jumped in somewhere. When I hear this sound, I imagine the old pond. The combination of these two - the old pond and the sound made by the splash - forms the world of the haiku. After this, each reader receives his own image.
The reason this haiku interests me so much is because I perceive animism here. "Animism" is a dangerous expression, but I have followed the dictionary's meaning. I think that Basho feels that each living thing is important and that it possesses a soul. Indeed, Basho's animism appears in "the old pond." Frankly, I want to emphasize his sensitivity toward living creatures."
What strikes me as important from what Tohta mentions is that Bashō did something new, something fresh, something radical/revolutionary, something non-traditional, something unforseen with this poem. Perhaps some at the time asked the question: Why is this hokku? It breaks the rules.
It also seems important to note that this poem is not based on direct experience but a combination of experience and imagination, composition, editing, fusion. From page 140 of Makoto Ueda's Bashō and His Interpreters
, it is noted that it was not a pond but a river Bashō heard the sound. The first line/part was not written. "the mountain roses" was suggested by a student. But he chose "the old pond" for its simplicity and substance. And for the reasons above: for its newness and its resistance to tradition, in order to expand that tradition.
Also, Ogiwara Seisensui, in writing about his concepts of free verse haiku in the early 20th c. writes extensively about this poem. He felt the first line was "superfluous" and "proposed changing the poem to:
a frog leaps in—
the water's sound
Here is his explanation:
What motivated Bashō to write this haiku was the sound of a frog jumping in, nothing more." He felt the poem in just a "two line" form expresses the poet's feeling better. "Seisensui peculated that even a master poet like Bashō fell victim to his own conventional idea of form and conceived a weak first line when he wrote the frog haiku. In Seisensui's view, the poem shows the need for breaking down the 5-7-5 pattern" (Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Poetry
, Makoto Ueda, chapter seven).
Gabi mentioned Hasegawa Kai's discussion of this ku. Kai mentions how this ku "offers us several relevant contemporary topics". His ideas are exciting i think. One: that this ku is a combination of elements, a combination of realities: one of the imagination. The frog/s was/were not seen but heard. The old pond was not there but imagined: "the vision of the old pond arose in his mind". Also: "it juxtaposes two different material dimensions": the objective and the imaginative. "Read in this way, this haiku is not a scene composed of the viewing an object, but rather of listening to sounds, and furthermore, Bashō composed this ku via active imagination (the haiku is not shasei
, an objective sketch) . . . This haiku was written 300 years ago and it has been misunderstood for 300 years" (Poems of Consciousness
, Richard Gilbert, pp 71-75).
On another note, Kai utilizes this ku when talking about kire (cutting) and how it has three cuts, not just one:
/ old pond / frog(s) jump-in sound of water /
at the beginning and the end. The cuts before and after the ku indicating how it has been "cut from ths reality within which we live—form the literal place/environment/atmosphere ("ba
") of literal existence" (77).