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
no moon at month’s end: a thousand-year cedar in the grip of the storm — Matsuo Bashō (trans. Keith J. Coleman), Presence 35(2008)
Lucy Whitehead aims for a comprehensive reading:
I thought this was a wonderful choice of haiku. As it’s by Basho, I decided to see how my reading of it as a Western woman in the 21st-century might differ from how it would be read in its original cultural and religious context. I was also interested in what it might have meant to Basho.
My reading of it from my personal experience began with considering the implication of a moonless night: ‘no moon at month’s end’. Immediately, this suggests an absence of light and an emphasis on darkness, setting up the mood and theme of the haiku. The thousand year old cedar gripped by a storm is a very striking and powerful image. When I read it, I cannot help but visualise a giant, ancient tree being blown around by heavy winds and threatened by lightning.
To me, it suggests those dark, tumultuous times in life when you are in the grip of your own particular kind of storm. That tree must have weathered countless storms, continuing to grow despite adversity. It suggests great strength and endurance despite challenge and difficulty, and as such it is an inspiring image. At the same time, the question occurred to me, as I’m sure it does to most people in such situations in life, is this the storm that will damage or break the tree? There is still that uncertainty, that fragility of life.
I also thought that the tree with its deep roots could have been an image of Basho’s Zen practice—in particular, the ability to stand firm in the midst difficult experience and whatever life throws at you and even bend with the wind as I imagine the tree was doing. He was, in fact, on one of his long journeys when he wrote this poem. It is from his first poetic journal Nozarashi kikou (野ざらし紀行), The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton, a journey he embarked on in late September 1684 (Makoto Ueda, 1992, Basho and His Interpreters, Stanford University Press, p94; as recorded in Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966, trans Nobuyuki Yuasa, p54, Penguin Books). The haiku that begins his account of this journey is itself quite dark and involves the image of wind.
Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart
(Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p53)
In the context of such a journey, I wonder how easily natural phenomena become metaphors for one’s experience? How many of us write in this kind of context nowadays? For me, the haiku above that starts his account of this journey throws light on the cedar tree haiku. When read together they resonate with each other and suggest something of Basho’s own emotional experience. His mother had died the year before and part of the reason for the journey was to visit her grave (Ueda, 1992, p94) and in fact only a page after the cedar tree haiku he writes a beautiful poem of grief about his brother showing him his ‘mother’s frosty hairs’ (Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p55).
Finally, I wanted to understand the haiku more in its cultural and religious context in case there was something that I was missing without it.
“Basho wrote this hokku when he visited one of the Grand Shinto Shrines in Yamada on October 8, the last day of the lunar eighth month” (Ueda, 1992, p108). On the commentary on the same page, Tosai goes on to explain the significance of the structure of the shrine to the haiku. He explains that “The Inner Shrine is worshipped as a sun deity; the Outer Shrine, as a moon deity. With no moon, the invisible deity seemed even more august, and the poets looked up to the cedar tree as her holy manifestation”. Basho was visiting the Outer Shrine when he wrote this poem (p108). There are other commentaries, but what I thought was interesting was that without the cultural and religious context of this haiku the link between the absent moon and the fact that he was in a shrine that was worshipped as a moon deity would be completely missed (could the absent moon in the context of a moon deity shrine also be a reference to his missing mother and thus the storm his grief?).
In terms of this translation, I thought it worth noting that in other translations the word ’embrace’ or ’embracing’ is used (抱く – daku) instead of ‘in the grip of’. I think the words have slightly different meanings and implications for the relationship between the storm and the cedar tree and even for the tone of the poem. It is interesting what a difference one word can make.
Finally, here is what Basho wrote (in two different translations) in the sentence before the haiku:
“The wind coming from the pine trees of the sacred mountain pierced my body and filled me with religious awe” (Ueda, 1992, p108).
“As I stood there, lending my ears to the roar of pine trees upon distant mountains, I felt moved deep in the bottom of my heart” (Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966, p54).
Petru Viljoen notes the intransient nature:
The tree is not expected to survive the storm. The ‘no moon at month’s end’ alerts us to this effect.
The tree has lived a 1000 years. Basho lived fifty. It befell him to witness the demise of the tree in his lifetime.
As it was growing, so was Japan. The tree survived many wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, invasions, famines and plagues. It saw the Japanese script become independent from Chinese.
A 1000 years old and it wasn’t to see the end of the month.
Radhamani Sarma gets metaphorical:
Here is my humble take on haiku interpreting the pivotal image (a thousand-year cedar), both literally and as a metaphor. we have to infer in line one that there is darkness prevailing in the forest for there is no moon. What follows in the second and third line is the disaster of a heavy
hurricane, blowing the thousand-year cedar with its clusters of green leaves to and fro. The poet envisioned the thousand-year-old cedar tree in the clutch of storm; the tree’s strength unbending, trying its best before being uprooted, or fighting until the gale recedes. It is like an exorcist driving away the spirit.
The poet might be interpreting, metaphorically, a family tragedy in which a brother or sister is in the grip of death or ruinous disaster, but who nevertheless fights until the end. The first line (“no moon at month’s end”) might be alluding to the waning stage, or last journey, of man. Also, no moon, no shining, only pitch dark now, may be implying a wealthy person, prosperous until now, financially broke down and torn asunder by debtors.
As this week’s winner, Lucy 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!
Octopus pot— evanescent dreams of the summer moon — Basho, Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko Yamamoto (2009)