More of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I was hard pressed to choose a representative poem from the many I liked in the last third of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson. I probably chose this one because it comes closest to expressing my own feelings at being retired:

Three Delights in My Place of Exile (1097)


Sound sleep, sea of inner breath stirring;
boundless, it ascends to the cerebral palace.
The sun comes up, dew not yet dried,
dense mist shrouding the frosty pines.
This old comb’s been with me so long –
teeth missing, still it makes fresh breezes.
With a single washing, ears and eyes brighten;
popping open, ten thousand pores come alive.
Young days, how I loved my sleep, loathed getting up –
dawn audiences at court were always a scramble,
no time even to give my head a good scratching,
and then the bother of putting on a hat! –
no different from a draft horse in the shafts,
wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.
Mounting my fancy saddle, jeweled bit jangling,
in truth it was like donning chains and shackles,
no telling when I’d be free again, unchained,
not even an old willow to rub my itches on! –
But who can describe the delight I know now?
I’ll send copies to the gentlemen with gold seals at their waist.

THE FIRST of three poems. The other two are entitled “By the Afternoon Window, Sitting and Dozing,” and “Before Going to Bed, Soaking My Feet.” The poet was suffering from swollen feet, probably due to beriberi, and soaked his feet to relieve the swelling.

Lines 1-2. The poet employs Taoist terminology to describe the physical sensation of a good night’s rest.

Line 20. “Gentlemen with gold seals at their waist” are the high government officials who sent the poet into exile. It is said that one of them ordered Su to move from Hui- Chou to Tan-chou because rumor reached him that Su was actually enjoying himself in Hui-chou. As these poems illustrate, Su remained defiantly determined to continue enjoying his life in exile.

My Army memories of having to get up and lead PT in the dark rival any of my Vietnam memories. Still, my worst memories were of donning Dress Blues to attend a formal reception and standing in long reception lines to be introduced to dignitaries who wouldn’t remember me ten minutes after I’d been introduced, not that they had any reason to.

Of course, as mentioned before, any kind of “work” seems like being “draft horse in the shafts, /wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.” What a joy to get up in the morning with nothing to do but enjoy the day in all its fullness.

“Rain at the time of Cold Food (1082)

Although this isn’t one of my favorite Su Tung-p’o poems from the “Middle Years: 1074-1079” and “First Exile:1080 to 1083,” it does represent one strain in his poetry, not surprising when you consider that this poem was written in the third year of his “exile.”


Since coming to Huang-chou,
this is my third Cold Food festival.
Each year I hate to see spring go,
but it goes anyway, heeding no regrets.
On top of that, this year we’re pestered with rain;
two months now it’s been bleak as fall.
I lie and listen to cherry apple blossoms,
pale pink snow getting dirty in the mud.
Of forces that steal things away in the dark,
the most powerful comes in the middle of the night,
as though a young man were to take to bed sick,
then rise from his sickbed to find his hair gone gray.

COLD FOOD, which comes 105 days after the winter solstice, is a spring festival celebrated by a meal of various foods eaten cold.

Lines 7-12. The lines in which the rain carrying off the cherry apple blossoms is likened to a thief in the night allude to the passage in Cliian Tzu Sec. 6: “You hide your boat in the ovine and your fish net in the swamp and tell yourself they will be safe. But in the middle of the night a strong man shoulders them and carries them off, and in your stupidity you don’t know why it happened.”

Of course I’ve never been “exiled” but I’ve certainly been “pestered with rain” and can identify with “two months now it’s been bleak as fall” since we’ve just gone through a week without rain and haven’t managed much more than two hours of sunshine in that entire span.

And there are certainly days lately when I’ve felt “as though a young man were to take to bed sick,/ then rise from his sickbed to find has hair gone gray.” It’s a common complaint with people my age. Every day is a struggle to hold onto what you’ve long taken for granted.

Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson and have just finished the section entitled “Part One: Early Years (1059-1073). It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, but it’s hard to pick out one poem as representative, particularly since Su Tung-p’o writes poems about so many different subjects.

Considering the present economy, though, this one particularly struck me:

Lament of the Farm Wife of Wu (1072)

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come – with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mold, the sickle rusts.
My tears are all cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see yellow stalks flattened in the mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty; shoulders sore, carting it to town –
the price it fetched, you’d think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we’ll get by for a time, but what of next year’s hunger?
Officials demand cash now – they won’t take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court – why do things get worse?
I’d be better off bride to the River Lord!

Line 16. “Bride to the River Lord.” In ancient times it was the custom each year to sacrifice a young girl as a “bride” to the River Lord, the god of the Yellow River, by placing her on a bed and letting her float down the river until the bed capsized and she drowned.

I’m a city boy and always have been, but having once been married to the daughter of a wheat farmer I’m all too aware of how dependent farmers are on the whims of the weather. And I know from limited experience just how hard harvest is — with machinery — though it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in 1072 in China.

It seems like the more things change the more they stay the same. Doesn’t it? It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of grinding poverty these farmers endured; perhaps we need to, though. It will give us some perspective on what we are enduring, which is not to say that there aren’t people who feel exactly like the farmer’s wife did over a thousand years ago.

One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan

I’ve been reading One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan translated by John Stevens, and I’ll have to admit that my biggest complaint is simply that the book, at 85 pages, is too short. If I’d looked at in a bookstore rather than ordering it from Amazon, I doubt I would have paid $12.95 for it.

That said, I do like many of the poems. In fact, I have even ordered another book with a larger selection of Ryōkan’s poems, one I’ll review later.

My favorite poems are probably concrete ones like this

After a night of rain, water covers the village path.
This morning the thick grass by my hut is cool.
In the window, distant mountains the color of blue-green jade.
Outside, a river flows like shimmering silk.
Under a cliff near my hut, I wash out my sore ear with pure spring water.
In the trees, cicadas recite their fall verse.
I had prepared my robe and staff for a walk,
But the quiet beauty keeps me here.

that resonate with my own feelings. Of course, you already knew that I often find my yard as appealing as Nisqually, Belfair or even Point Defiance if you look at the relative number of shots I take in my own yard. Sitting quietly on the front porch watching the hummingbirds dart hither and yon is actually one of my favorite endeavors.

But I also like several of Ryōkan’s more abstract poems that remind us that he was a Buddhist monk:

BUDDHA is your mind
And the Way goes nowhere.
Don’t look for anything but this.
If you point your cart north
When you want to go south,
How will you arrive?

I don’t know about arriving at enlightenment, but I love the last three lines. I wish I’d known this poem when I was teaching!

Although most of Ryōkan’s poems included in the colllection are not haiku, the last section does include several haiku like this one

What is the heart of this old monk like?
A gentle wind
Beneath the vast sky.

that seems as good as any I’ve read anywhere.

More Basho

I’ve finally finished Mako Euda’s Basho and His Interpreters, at least a first reading, because there’s a lot more to learn, particularly concepts of Japanese literature, than I could ever learn on a first reading. It’s the kind of book that you could come back to repeatedly and you’d still never master all the concepts introduced.

This book, with supplemental readings to flesh out literary concepts, could easily serve as a college text for a quarter-long class. I think I’ve noted before that I find it more difficult to sit down and read page after page of haiku than I do longer poems. There is so much packed into seventeen syllables that it’s hard to read poem after poem without taking a break between poems.

It’s impossible to accurately convey the book with four samples, but hopefully I’ve inspired some readers to check out the book, either by checking it out of your library or buying a copy. It’s as good a book of haiku as I’ve ever read.

Of course, as much as I appreciate the discussion of Japanese literature, I read the book for the poetry, not the literary criticism. I love a simple poem like this

housecleaning day-
hanging a shelf at his own home
a carpenter

susuhaki / wa / ono / ga / tana / tsuru / daiku / kana
year-end-cleaning / as-for / self /’s / shelf / hang / carpenter / kana


In preparation for the New Year, the Japanese traditionally cleaned their houses on the thirteenth of the lunar twelfth month. Translated into the Gregorian calendar, that day in 1694 was January 8.


Normally a carpenter is so busy in working at other people’s houses that he would do nothing at his own home. But on the day of the year-end cleaning, he cannot keep his eyes closed: he is repairing a broken shelf in his house. Basho took note of a happening unnoticed by other poets. -Donto

By describing a relaxed carpenter performing the rare role of a family man on the annual housecleaning day, the poem creates the congenial atmosphere of a common household during the busy year-end period. The poet, drawing on a happening in ordinary life, has produced an exemplary poem that displays karumi. – Kon

This carpenter had always wanted to improve and beautify his house. He had been simply too busy, too tired, and consequently too lazy to do so. But this day he was able to stay at home all day long, and that is why he began to work on the shelf. The scene has humor, yet it also shows an ordinary man trying hard to get on with his life. For that reason, we cannot regard the situation as only a laughing matter. There is something human and warm, something redolent of the common man, that underlies the poem and adds a touch of pathos. This 1S another of the karumi poems Basho wrote in his last years. -Imoto

that reminds us just how little human nature has changed over time.

After you’ve spent a day earning your living fixing other people’s homes, the last thing you want to do is spend the night fixing your own home.

When I was teaching the last thing I wanted to do was come home and write something for a web page or even go through another batch of photos to share with others. Teaching gave me the skills needed to improve my own writing and photography, but left me with little desire to practice those skills.

“Autumn Frost”

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-
autumn frost

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.

Basho and His Interpreters

Things are slowly returning to “normal” around here. I’ve managed to take Skye out for his walk two days in a row, and I’ve even managed to find some time to start reading poetry again. I’ve had Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary by Makoto Ueda lying around for quite awhile, since, as I remember it, Jonathon Delacour suggested it was the best version of Basho out.

If you’ve come here for awhile you’ll remember that Chinese and Japanese poetry are favorites, though I’ve only had one college course that centered on them. In fact, most of my interest has arisen since I’ve retired. I’ll continue to include them under the heading “Haiku and Beyond” because I still don’t feel comfortable discussing them in the same depth I discuss English-speaking poets.

One of the reasons I’m particularly fond of this translation is that Ueda includes his translation, a Japanese translation directly under that, and a word-by-word translation after that. He follows that with what he considers significant commentary on each of the hokku. Occasionally, I even find that my initial interpretation of the poem matches at least one of the commentaries.

a fool in the dark
grabs a bramble-
firefly hunt

go / ni / kuraku / ibara / wo / tsukamu / horatu / kana
folly / in / dark / bramble / [acc.] / grab / firefly / kana


Kuraku, as is the English word dark,” can mean either physical or metaphorical darkness.


Unable to see in the darkness of night and absorbed in an exciting firefly hint, a man accidentally grabbed a bramble. Reading this hokku, we should remind ourselves of those pleasures that will do us harm if we are too absorbed in them. – Duuto

This hokku seems to satirize a person who falls into an error because of his own greed. -Tosai

The poet saw a firefly that had settled not on a soft blade of grass but on a thorny bramble. Thereupon he speculated that the firefly muse be none too brilliant during daylight hours, although at nighttime it flits about freely by its own light. That, I think, is what the poet meant by the hokku’s opening phrase. – Komiya

The meaning of the poem centers on the loss of judgment suffered by is person who was too intent on catching a firefly. The lesson can be applied to life in general. The poem utilizes an allegorical device borrowed from Chuang-tzu, a device that was central to the art of the Danrin school. -Shuaon

An allegorical poem on the folly of a person who is too preoccupied with one thing to reflect on other things. Probably self-derision. – Kou

Though he didn’t do so in this example, Ueda also consistently points out lines in the hokku that reference poetry or literature that preceded Basho’s hokku. It’s clear Western readers of hokku miss much in these poems because they don’t have the literary background to pick up on such subtle references. On the other hand, the poems reveal Basho’s genius because they are able to stand on their own. Even without a literary background, the best of these poems create a moment that reveals its own eternal truth.