Big Echo

Critical SF

The Robotic Poet Reads Basho

by Stewart C Baker

Published in Beyond Borderlands, September 2014

The robotic poet (who refers to herself in the third person, for reasons which may become clear) has been reading translations of Basho, and has discovered two things in his work:

First, that our understanding of reality is largely a consensus agreement.

Second, and more importantly, that poetry can serve as a gateway to an infinite number of realities.

It may be tempting to attribute these little epiphanies to the vagaries of translation — to differences in interpretation and idiosyncratic syntax choices. (The robotic poet’s children were of the opinion that we all saw a single reality, but children have not lived. Not fully. The robotic poet herself remains convinced there is more going on.)

However, Basho’s famous “old pond” haiku makes the truth as clear and crisp as an autumn treescape. The standard translation of the poem is something like:

 old pond
 a frog jumps in
 the sound of water

All the many translations of “old pond,” as well as its creator’s intent as reported by posterity, sing a chorus of universes beyond our own which are hovering just out of reach.

The fact that you can fix upon a short poem the portrayal of a specific image — a unique setting with clear action — might suggest that reality is real, and the universe unitary. In a world where we can agree that “pond” refers to a small body of water, you might say, surely communication and connection are a given. If “frog” refers to a specific type of creature of the order Anura, what could possibly be the problem? (But what does a silence mean? What does it signify when someone will not meet your eyes? How can the sound of water be distinguished from the sound of — no, no, set it aside.)

It is true, as the robotic poet has already suggested, that communication is impossible without some common ground. Without consensus as to what words point to what, we are left with nothing but strings of characters and sounds — a library of Babel, a cacophonic chorus.

So: yes, we can communicate. Yes, we can connect with one another through words.

But the robotic poet knows this cannot be the end of the trail. She has heard frogs sing to the rain when no clouds are in the sky. She has seen ponds which flicker like cherry blossoms in the sand of the high desert. (She has seen her children’s eyes light up with the wonder of life, and cannot forget it. This talk of connection exhausts her.)

Let us return to the point at hand: Basho’s frog haiku. The standard translation may seem adequate, but in fact it barely dips below the surface of the water. There are well over a hundred translations and adaptations of the poem in English, which vary from the literal to the free. Take, for instance, the versions of early writer Lafcadio Hearn (“Old pond — frogs jumped in — sound of water”) and 20th-century lay Zen teacher Robert Aitken’s obviously Buddhist adaptation:

The old pond has no walls;
a frog just jumps in;
do you say there is an echo?

These renditions make it clear that the poem is far from simple. As we can see, even the word “frog” carries difficulties. For one thing, Japanese lacks plurals; beyond that there is the question of what kind of frog. American audiences may envision a bullfrog, fat with bulk and warty, almost a toad. Thus, Alan Watts’s adaptation:

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:

(Jan, the robotic poet’s oldest son, once brought home pictures of such a frog, shot on a cheap disposable camera during a school field trip to Walden Pond. She remembers the way he chased his younger sister Courtney through the house waving it, spurred on by her squeals of disgust until the two of them collapsed in gales of helpless laughter and the photo fluttered to the ground, forgotten.)

Historically, though, the image of a bullfrog can make little sense. Basho more likely had in mind the Japanese Tree Frog, a far smaller creature. And despite his stated preference for the singular in haiku, his disciple Kagami Shiko notes that this poem in particular originated at a gathering, where Basho and other poets occasionally heard the sounds of frogs leaping into water outside the poet’s hut.

Setting aside the question of frogs, there is the matter of the pond. Shiko reports that it only after rejecting “globe-flowers” as the first line did Basho hit upon the now-famous “old pond.” As such, according to critic and haikuist Hasegawa Kai, this most famous of Basho’s haiku is also one of his most misunderstood: its historical origin means that any reader looking for a specific pond, or even reading the poem as an objective representation of reality, is missing the point. (Thoreau, too, changed reality to suit his literary output in Walden, combining two years’ stay into one, and freely adapting conversations he had or did not have with those who visited him. Or was Thoreau, too, a believer?)

Expounding on composition, Hasegawa discusses a poetic technique called kire, or cutting. (Flashes of bathwater red and a chilled child body; tearful phone calls and dried, brittle flowers — set it aside, set it aside.) Cutting in haiku usually refers to the use of specific words like “ya” or “kana” to syntactically and linguistically cut across what might otherwise be a flat, non-poetic statement. In English, the words are often replaced by a colon, ellipsis, or em-dash.

Hasegawa is more concerned, though, with “cutting before and after,” a non-textual form of the technique which he says enables haiku to “express realities beyond language.” (Hospital beds and gravestones have their own solid being-in-being; withholding words can be a powerful punishment — set it all aside. Focus: you are nearly there.)

At this point, things get tricky.

How do we discuss what is beyond language? Pinning words onto the wordless, do we not seek to define it, to drag the ineffable down to our consensus reality? But some things cannot remain wordless, some events must be codified (again that flash of red, those flowers with their too-yellow bulbs and wheat-chaff stalks). Our humanity cuts us out of ourselves, pushes us to tell of our pasts as we have lived them.

But have we lived them?

(All those years spent cooped up with a pencil and notebook, scratching out heartfelt wonder at the manifold, impossible beauty of the real. All that time away from home in libraries and conference halls and classrooms. And through it all the muteness of children, the willingness of the young to make their parent happy. Scattered memories across the pond of life, skitting one or two times on the surface before they sink below forever. Who can say what is life? What is living? Not the robotic poet — not she.)

In an interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa says that the quintessence of the frog poem, and of Basho’s mature style is that he “discovered a new cosmos” via haiku, and accessed it (them?) again and again. If Hasegawa is right, then perhaps what we see in the translations of Basho are these same discoveries, made again and again. Each translator locates a new cosmos, each poet creates a new universe in which to exist. If Hasegawa is right, then perhaps there is hope.

The robotic poet is inclined to think he is.

(Somewhere a young girl is inspecting herself in the reflection of still water; somewhere her brother throws a stone in, and the ripples spread like laughter. Their mother may put her arms around their shoulders and be reassured by the definitive proof of their warmth. There’s a place out there somewhere where men and women still know how to live, to sing, to be.)

It is traditional for haiku essays to end with a poem, but the robotic poet has long since lost the will to write. She leaves you with this meager glance at a now-forgotten, never-was place:

old-pond-frog-water-sound my own heart breaking in 

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