Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
This autumn I’ll be looking at the moon With no child on my knee. — Onitsura (Translation by Donald Keene. Included in Faubion Bowers' The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology, with the following footnote: "Written on the death of his eldest son at age six, in 1700.")
Lynne Rees is moved by Onitsura’s generosity:
Even without the epilogue the idea of losing a child is implicit in the haiku and Onitsura’s use of concrete language and direct statement adds an emotional power that I am sure would have been diluted with a more decorative/indirect approach. Autumn, the moon, a child sitting on someone’s knee: these are images and events familiar to us all and their ordinariness allows us to connect our own experience to the writer’s. And yet their ordinariness is where their power lies; they are rich vehicles for so many ideas.
Autumn is a season of change, of loss, of nature receding. I won’t say ‘death’ as that’s a human interpretation of how we witness and experience this period of decay and decline. But for this grieving father autumn and death will be inextricably linked as he remembers his son and perhaps even imagines the even bleaker season of winter, both physical and emotional, to follow. The loss may be too recent to even consider the implicit ideas that spring carries but they are there, at the edge of our consciousness, and there may be some consolation to be taken from them.
An autumn moon tends to be understood as a full moon and that stark white disc in a dark sky manages to both intensify the emotional loss for me and provide me with some comfort because of its natural beauty. It’s paradoxical, I know, but there is nothing straightforward about the often conflicting process of grief. The image also reminds me of the lullaby, ‘I see the moon, the moon sees me . . .’, another heart-rending reminder of having no child to sing to.
The absence of the child is visceral in the third line. We feel it in our bodies as much as we recognise it with our minds and memories: the weight of a child on our lap, the bouncing movement that engenders laughter, intimacy. There is now only ‘no child,’ and ‘my knee’ may as well be bone separated from its own flesh.
The use of the future tense is unexpected when we are so used to haiku expressing a moment in the present tense (whether that moment is drawn from the past or immediate experience). But it really does feel like the right choice here, as this is not the experience of a moment, but one that marks our past, present and future.
I find this haiku both deeply moving and generous in the sense that it takes great courage for someone to share their loss with the world. But it is in that sharing and understanding of each other’s lives where our humanity lies.
Aparna Pathak talks of lunar longing:
The very first thing that I noticed about the poem is that each line is starting with a word that has letter in capital. It is not very common nowadays to come across a haiku with capitals.
There is no bigger sorrow than the death of one’s child. The very thought of a vacant knee gives me goose bumps. The poet is remembering his child whose demise has created a vacuum that can never be filled. The very first line indicates the mood of the poem where he is thinking about the autumn, followed by the moon — the moon that is shining miles and miles away, the moon that can’t be reached or touched. But the moon is still better placed as the poet can at least see it, unlike his departed child.
Now the question arises of why the poet is thinking about missing his child in autumn only? Well, the autumn moon is also known as the harvest moon, which is supposed to be the biggest and brightest one. And we miss our loved ones more on festivals and celebrations, don’t we?
We all grow up with the stories of becoming a celestial body upon our demise. And we all look up at the sky for our lost ones. Perhaps the poet too has the same idea at the back of his mind.
Fathers usually make their children sit on their knee while talking to them affectionately. This is the time when a father answers all the queries of his child, in a warm talk where both of them bond affectionately. The poet knows he will be missing his child and the time they spent together.
The longing is well depicted.
Editor Danny Blackwell offers some extra background on Onitsura:
Onitsura was a contemporary of Bashō, and is credited as being one of the great creators of haiku. Blyth, for example, said of him: “Onitsura composed the first real haiku.”
Kenneth Yasuda’s book The Japanese Haiku includes various quotes from various sources, which will prove valuable in getting to know about the poet at hand. Onitsura himself expressed his thoughts on haiku with the following words:
“When I think occasionally about an excellent verse, I find no artistic touch in its phrasing, or display of colorfulness in its air; only the verse flows out effortlessly; yet profound is the heart that expressed it.”
The Japanese scholar Asō is cited in Yasuda’s book with the following comment:
“Once an abbot asked Onitsura what the essence of haiku art was, and he replied: ‘In front of a garden a camellia tree blooms with white flowers.’ Since the truth of the universe lies even in a single flower, insight into the universe and into God can be grasped by understanding this truth . . . Onitsura thinks that the true way of haiku art is to discover poetic refinement in the truth of natural phenomena, whether in the snow, the moon, or flowers, with a selfless attitude.”
We find this mission statement evident in the poem under discussion: In front of the moon a father’s heart blooms with the loss represented by a childless knee. It is a simple description. Unadorned. Unpoetic even. And yet it resonates because of its sincerity, something Onitsura spoke of at great length, using the Japanese word makoto, which we will touch on in a moment. But first I’d like to present two very similar flower poems by Onitsura that speak to the “truth of natural phenomena,” and which I will try my best to translate:
when blossoms bloom
bird feet: two
The following haiku is similar, in the way it reveals the almost shocking isness of nature, offering an epiphany in which things-as-they-are become somehow absurdly real, usually by virtue of some natural phenomena which awakes in us a new way of looking at the world, which is little more than looking at the world in its essential nature.
eyes horizontal, nose vertical: spring blossoms
In the case of these two poems the epiphanies (that birds have 2 feet and horses have 4, or that eyes are of a horizontal nature, while the nose is vertical) are caused by blooming flowers, while in the poem about the loss of his child it would seem the moon has played a part in awakening him to a simple realization. The realization here, however, (that the moon-viewing this autumn is without his son on his knee) inspires far more pathos in the reader, and seems to go beyond the “whimsical humour” that critic Henderson spoke of when discussing Onitsura. Henderson criticized Onitsura’s haiku as being too philosophical, saying that they were more like epigrams than haiku (something we often hear said of many modern English-language haiku), and while that opinion may seem valid to a degree in reference to these two flower poems, I don’t think that criticism would hold with the poem we have been looking at this week.
On a technical note: Lynne made reference in her analysis to the use of future tense in the translation, although the original is more ambiguous about tense and would maybe read more like this:
no child on my knee
I’d like to offer one final quote from Asō, also included in Yasuda’s book, which we can reflect on as we try to unravel this enigmatic genre known as haiku: a genre that evolved radically through the influence of Onitsura and Bashō and continues to challenge us to this day:
“At the center of Onitsura’s haiku theory is his statement about truth. Everywhere in his writing he uses the word makoto. This term is used in various ways and its meaning is not fixed. However, he uses this term in the sense of sincerity. In his writing a Soliloquy, he said, ‘When one composes a verse and exerts his attention only to rhetoric or phraseology, the sincerity is diminished.’
The fact that no artistic effort in the form or no decorative expression in the context [should be present] is Onitsura’s ideal, which is the way of sincerity.”
Our commentators this week have all remarked on the everyday nature of the elements in this poem that make it so easy to relate to, and of its ability to awake great compassion in us, while at the same time being composed with a lack of poetic decoration.
In Onitsura’s own words:
“Without makoto, there would be no haikai.”
As this week’s winner, Aparna gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
mosquito wings — the colour of evening so thin — Ajaya Mahala (First Place, Shiki Monthly Kukai, May 2014)