I’m enjoying reading Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters, though at times it seems more like being immersed in a mini-class than casually reading a poetry book. The more I read, particularly the commentary, the more I realize how much I don’t know about Japanese literature and culture, though I am finding many new ideas to explore.
As I’ve noted in past commentary, I may enjoy haibunas much as I do haiku. One of my favorite haiku in this section seems much more effective to me when the “headnote” is included:
I arrived at my native town at the beginning of the ninth month. Nothing of my late mother remained there anymore. All had changed from what I remembered. My older brother, now with white hair in his side-locks and wrinkles around his eyebrows, could only say, “How lucky we are to meet alive again!” Then he opened a keepsake bag and said to me “Pay your respects to Mother’s white hair. They say the legendary Urashima’s hair turned white the instant he opened the souvenir box he had brought back from the Dragon Palace. Now your eyebrows look a little white, too.” We wept together for some time.
should I hold it in my hand
it would melt in my hot tears-
te / nil toraba / kien / namida / zo / atsuki / aki / no / shimo
hand / in / if-take / will-vanish / tear / ! / hot / autumn / ‘s / frost
Written in Ueno on October 16. Urashima was the young hero of a legend who visited a Dragon Lady’s palace under the sea. Returning to his native village and finding nothing there that he could remember, he disobeyed the lady’s order and opened a jewel box she had given him. Instantly he turned into an old man.
The comparison here is between frost and white hair. The word “hot” connotes an infinitely deep sorrow, while the words “would melt” -kien–have a sonorous sound. -Tosai
The poet is saying he cannot take the white hair in his hand because if he were to do so his hot tears would melt it away like autumn frost. In brief, this is a hok1 that depends far too much on a logical connection of ideas. In addition, it still retains something of the old style that characterized Minashiguri. I do not find it poetically appealing. – Meisetsu
An excellent poem which, without any verbal adornment, fully reveals the poets honest, sincere personality. -Kobayashi
The poet just could not contain his grief. -Ebara
The poem’s central metaphor-that of autumn frost-is a failure. In particular, the statement that the frost would melt in hot tears sounds hollow and unconvincing. We can visualize the grieving poet, but the poem does not convey the grief in a manner that moves the heart. – Shüson
I think it can safely be said that few other poems make us so sublimely conscious that nature and humanity are one. -Komiya
The underlying emotionality of the poem is manifest in the wave-like rhythm of the verse. However, if we read the hokku independently of the headnote, we get the impression that the wording of the poem does not do justice to the intensity 0f the poet’s emotion. A poem of this kind needs to be read with its headnote to be fully appreciated. -Iwata
While the haiku may be able to stand on its own, I agree wholeheartedly with what Iwata says in the last comment. With the headnote it reminds me of one of Thoreau’s essays which he concludes with a powerful aphorism. I suppose you could even consider it a unique type of prose poem.