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
人に生死苅田鳥の争うよ Life and death for man; a battle fought by chickens on the paddy stubble — Shin'ichi Takeda, Haiku Universe for the 21st Century (2008)
Marietta McGregor finds the broader perspective:
Well, I think this haiku or senryu by Shin’ichi Takeda certainly puts petty human squabbling into a broader perspective. The scene is set after the rice crop has been harvested, perhaps as the weather becomes colder and bleaker in late autumn. Preparations should have been made for winter by now, because it is possible that the area will be under snow quite soon. The farm chickens are still out and about, scratching through the scant remnants, finding a few grains that have sifted into the stubble, worth fighting over, but only if you’re a hungry chicken. The shift from humans to chickens is profound. To me, the poet seems to convey that the grandiosity of purpose and justification for fighting world wars is sheer folly. He brings the conflict right down to its trivial and futile basics. The chickens are not going to win much from the rice field, for all their ruffled feathers. Neither will humans.
Clayton Beach helps break down the Japanese original:
Without finding any biographical information for the author beyond his birth date (1935), it is hard to know exactly which conflict this haiku was written in response to. Based on the author’s age, in all likelihood it is either the Korean War or the long turmoil in Vietnam that culminated in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war, but it could refer to any number of violent conflicts in Asia that have occurred since the end of World War II. The fact that there are so many possible conflicts in which this haiku makes sense is a testament to its potency and relevance as a haiku of social consciousness, and only deepens the sense of tragedy and the futility of war engendered by the contrast between human war and chickens squabbling over rice in a field that was just harvested.
This is an excellent example of modern haiku, or “gendai haiku,” that still contains all the elements required of strict yuki teikei (5-7-5, seasonal format) while making a poignant social commentary. The word for “life and death” seishi kari, functions as a pivot word, sharing the symbol 苅 (kari) with the word karita, or “paddy stubble/harvested rice field.” The fact that the kanji used for kari is the one contained in the word for life and death, rather than the 刈 that would normally be used in the word for harvested rice field, “paddy stubble,” means that the entire phrase also functions as the neologism seishikarita, “rice field of life and death.” This dual meaning deepens the metaphorical resonance of the ku in a more nuanced and complex manner than is communicable in English translation. In addition to the kigo and wordplay, the poem ends in the emphatic cutting word “yo.”
Thus, in the Japanese, the poem begins with men locked in a struggle for life and death, killing and dying in the autumn rice fields that perhaps are still smoldering from being burnt to renew the soil, and ends with their battle being transformed into a lowly chicken fight. Rather than the bombastic heroism of the Holy War haiku of fascist Japan under Kyoshi’s watchful eye, this post-war haiku takes a critical, anti-war stance, elucidating the destructiveness of war with the autumnal sense of harvest and endings, and underscoring the futility of man’s endeavors as our great battles are reduced to the squawking, mindless fighting of the hen-yard.
The use of the yuki-teikei format and complex literary language makes it very clear that this poem is still part of the traditional haiku tradition, and is not a senryu, underscoring how different views of the permissibility of politics and human nature in haiku are between modern Japanese haiku poets and the “traditionalist” view of English-language haiku, where many would be tempted to erroneously call this poem a senryu.
Jacob Salzer looks within:
In this haiku, we see the absurdity of wars. Why is human history often not a story of progress, but one of endless wars and violence? The ego is the problem. Power for land, power for money: all corruption-based, all ego-based, and all transient. What a waste. None of this reflects the true nature of man that is the human spirit, and that is within us. We must go beyond the ego, and quiet the mind. It seems it would become easier once we realized it was never our true nature to begin with . . . But, it seems the mind is heavily conditioned through years of patterns, and is turned outwards vs. within. It revolves itself into a personal “me” and is convinced it is permanently apart from all life and others: this is the myth of identity.
It seems some people believe they are nothing but little “me’s” running around, apart from “others” and other life forms. As innocent children, people just throw stuff at us to shape and mold an individual mind in certain ways. Rare are those who can turn to question those things and discover what dwells beneath the surface . . . Indeed, we do appear separate and live separate lives, but, whether we realize it or not, everything is connected — in a myriad of subtle and obvious ways. The space between us is very important, like waves of the ocean. Those spaces allow us to breathe. But are those waves not one with the great ocean and its unfathomable depths? But it seems our differences are too vast for some people to understand: they do not realize we are ultimately expressions of the same life. Nothing new here: E Pluribus Unum is the Great Seal of the United States and translates to “Out of Many, One”. There is great danger within the “my way or the highway” mentality . . . Some people lack understanding, which can lead to a lack of acceptance, and violence. The ego is attached to labels, forming the “us and them” mentality, and this only strengthens the myth of identity.
So, does this haiku reflect an internal war within (some) humans? Indeed, it seems all wars start from within us, and the animal-nature within us is nothing in comparison to the heart of man, that expresses itself as basic kindness, and compassion. But even these qualities have extremes, and it seems we should proceed with great caution; as this haiku reminds us, there are impressions and wars within people. And there are breaking points in the mind, cracks in the mind, which may reveal deeper layers beneath the surface.
Let’s just hope that the mind and heart may become one within people: Let’s hope for greater understanding and compassion. The balance and unity between the heart and the mind: it seems this is a great secret. Indeed, it is the end of the primal war — the war that starts all wars: the war that is within.
Ajaya Mahala identifies insatiable desires:
The image of a cockfight in the haiku conveys to the readers a scene of entertainment in some primitive pastoral society. But the implications are far more prophetic, going beyond the horizons of any human civilization. It speaks less of entertainment and more of the non-ending fight for lust, greed and power.
It’s the symbol of our conflict on the basis of our position, economic prowess or false vanity. Gamecocks become the symbol of the authority of their respective owners. This is in the same way as a diamond necklace is used for satisfying the sense of vanity of a woman — or, as in modern times, nuclear arsenals in the hands of state heads have become the tools to prove supremacy over others.
Therefore, the image in the haiku is not simply a duel between gamecocks to spill blood and pluck feathers. The poor creatures become pawns in the hands of their masters, giving shape to their nefarious designs, and the haiku quite sarcastically reflects the insatiable desire of man to grab power by whatever barbaric means necessary.
Aparna Pathak makes mention of metempsychosis:
Shin’ichi’s haiku questions our ways of living. An amazing haiku that looks at life and its sustenance.
Man is stuck in the eternal cycle of life and death. Those who believe in reincarnation also believe in karma and its dependency on rebirth.
Whereas we are lost in the quest of an afterlife, animals struggle to survive on a daily basis.
Somehow their struggle is also on the increase as humans have been influential in disturbing the food chain as well as vegetation on the planet.
Chickens and rice paddies both belong to our daily life. A chicken’s struggle is just about having grains for survival, nothing more, nothing less.
We are more into wars and dominance but other creatures still live with their basic requirements and go on without any fuss. Luxurious life and our obsession with technology is perhaps drifting us away from the fundamentals.
As this week’s winner, Clayton 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!
è già mattino — a pioggia bussa ai vetri con cento dita it’s morning — rain knocks to the window with one hundred fingers — Lucia Cardillo, Otata 22 (2017)