On an early September day a few years ago, I sat in the grass of a Berkeley park and listened to Robert Hass, former U.S. Poet Laureate, read some of his translations of the haiku of Bashô, Buson and Issa from his book, The Essential Haiku. A particular haiku of Bashô’s implanted itself in my mind, and began to occupy my thoughts occasionally over the next few years. Robert Hass’s translation of the poem is as follows:
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto.
My excitement at finding such a simple, beautiful expression of this sentiment faded when I recently learned that my reading of the poem is not a common reading, nor probably what Bashô himself intended. I realized this while reading Tom Robbins book Villa Incognito. In it he references a Bashô poem that he writes as:
yet I am lonely for Kyo
O bird of time!
Bashô wrote the haiku in 1690, near the end of his life, presumably on one of his two visits to Kyoto that year. My first finding as I searched for more explanations of the poem’s meaning was yet another possible interpretation the poem. In a book by Makoto Ueda entitled Bashô and his Interpreters, Selected Hokku with Commentary, I found a third translation and a third meaning. Udea’s translation is:
I long for Kyoto –
how I long for old Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings
Yet, among the commentators in the Ueda book, one seems to disagree from the others and offer an interpretation closer to Robbins’. The first commentator, Keion, writes, “At times we get homesick, too, while in our own home.” This statement, like the phrase “you can’t go home again” focuses on changes, not just in the city itself, but also in the writer and speaks more directly to the simple passage of time.
It is impossible to say for certain what Bashô’s intent for the meaning of the poem was, and some would say that is doesn’t much matter; once written, each reader can take what she wants from the poem. Perhaps multiple meanings of a poem enhance it, enlarge it. Yet often, implications flow from meaning. In the case of this haiku, the differing interpretations suggest two different roles for the poet. My initial belief about the poem’s meaning suggests that one role of the poet is to give us words for which we have none. Hass articulates this, in relation to a phrase from Woodsworth or Keats, in the introduction to The Essential Haiku, “you know that they are doing one of the jobs of the artist, trying to assimilate psychological states for which the official culture didn’t have a language.” I thought Bashô was doing just this: giving me, the reader, an expression of a feeling for which my language, at least, did not have a word. The second role for the poet is suggested by the other readings of the haiku: articulating a common feeling or experience in a more beautiful, penetrating way.
While the differing interpretations suggest different roles of the poet, there are also aspects of the poem that do not change with a change in meaning. For instance, no matter how it is interpreted, this haiku is focused on notions of change and transience. This is a common theme, not just in Bashô, but in Zen thought (Bashô was trained as a Zen priest) and other aspects of Japanese culture. Again from the introduction to Essential Haiku, Hass reflects on the notion of transience by offering an old Japanese phrase: “swirling petals, falling leaves,” an image suggesting impermanence. In the poem, just the act of longing implies a change; what is desired is present no more (or, in my reading, will soon be present no more and the speaker is deeply aware of this). Bashô’s invocation of the cuckoo, or bird of time, whose cry triggers the poet’s feeling of longing, also suggests change and transience. The cuckoo is associated in Japan with the coming of summer. Its song is distinctive and would have been heard in Kyoto as summer approached. Thus use in the poem of a migratory bird indicates the changing of the seasons - summer goes and returns again.
While indicating change, the poem is also about a particular present moment for the poet. Haruo Shirane, in his essay, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths” (Modern Haiku, XXXI:1, Winter-Spring 2000), offers an explanation of this tenstion in Bashô’s haiku between being fully about the present and also reaching in time. Shirane writes that Bashô believed the poet must work on two axes, one “horizontal, the present, the comtemporary world; and the other vertical, leading back into the past, to history, to other poems.” The vertical axis can be invoked using nature images. Shirane explains, “In Japan, the seasonal word triggers a series of cultural associations which have been developed, refined and carefully transmitted for over a thousand years.” The cuckoo was one such word. At once it links the poem to historical cultural associations and also suggest a particular moment for the poet, as he hears the birds cry.
I found the fact that the cuckoo’s cry triggers the emotion of longing an interesting contrast to other haiku of Bashô’s that are closer to quiet observations of nature, and less a reflection on Bashô’s personal state. At first reading, it might appear that Bashô’s feeling of longing could be, in some sense, a failure to accept the transience and change inherent in life, an acceptance that Zen practice tries to foster. It also might appear that Bashô has not achieved the stillness of mind that Zen teaches. However, I believe this would be an incorrect reading of the poem. As Sara Jenkins, author of several books on Zen practice, notes, “The end of all Buddhist practice is not stillness but conscious awareness, awakened-ness.” She continues, “Buddhist practice can lead (it is said) to a cessation of desire or longing, but getting to that point involves observing, again and again and again, how longing arises, how it is simply part of what human beings are.” This is what Bashô does in this poem: notices the feeling of longing arising within him in response to visiting Kyoto. He is aware of his feeling.
After initially being saddened when I discovered my interpretation of the poem, what had drawn me so deeply to it, was probably not the way others read the poem and probably not the meaning Bashô thought he was writing into his haiku, I now believe this increases the power of the poem. When I first began searching other translations and other interpretations of this poem, I hoped I would find confirmation that Bashô had articulated a powerful emotion I had felt in my life and had no word for, I hoped that I could be connected to this poem and poet from so many centuries ago through a common emotion. This thought made me feel that there was something permanent within the transience of life that Bashô so poignantly captures in his poetry – this one emotion remained through the centuries. Now, however, I am not saddened that my reading differs from others or from the poet’s intention. And I still use the term “Even in Kyoto Moment” when I am in the presence of something deeply beautiful I know will have to pass.