“The turning of the leaves in the American autumn is, in its own way, wonderful, but it lacks a poignancy and an elegance suggestive of the passing of time.”
These are the words of nonfiction author Masako Shirasu (1910-98), who spent some of her teenage years at the Hartridge School for Girls in Plainfield, New Jersey, where she witnessed the turning of the leaves.
The coming of the autumnal equinox — this year on Sept. 23 in the northern hemisphere — invariably reminds me of the Japanese saying, Atsusa samusa mo higan made.
Literally meaning, “The heat and the cold last (only) up to the equinoxes,” this proverb suggests that whatever is trying and hard to bear will eventually come to an end.
This year’s summer, which has been far and away the hottest since records began to be kept in Japan in 1898, was exasperating; and this equinox will most certainly be a welcome one.
For Japanese poets, the poignancy of autumn has been an obsession. I thought it fitting now, on the eve of the equinox, to offer some cool, if wistful, respite in the form of haiku.
Traditionally, haiku are marked by the use of kigo (seasonal words). There are more than 500 kigo in the traditional haiku lexicon to indicate that the poem is describing something autumnal. Among these are kiri (fog), ine (rice plant), akatonbo (red dragonfly), amanogawa (the Milky Way), kaki (persimmon), kiku (chrysanthemum), kabocha (pumpkin) — and even that autumnal ritual without which no Japanese school principal can hold their head up high, the hallowed, hoary and time-honored undokai (Sports Day).
Basho Matsuo (1644-94), without doubt Japan’s most celebrated haiku master, is best known for this one: “The old pond / A frog jumps in / Splashing water.”
Haiku-writing is a social art, inviting friendly — but sometimes unfriendly — rivalry. More than two centuries after Basho’s frog plopped into the most renowned old pond in Japan, Shiki Masaoka (1867-1902), the great iconoclast of Japanese prosody — who was ever scornful of anything that smacked of homage — wrote: “That old pond / And on it floats a cicada’s shell / Upside down.”
Oh dear, Basho’s frog finally turned up again, this time as a dead cicada; and Masaoka, stalked by terminal illness for much of his adult life, was the right one to reincarnate it. Many of his more than 20,000 (!) poems deal with the passing of time as a symbol of illness and death. One put it this way: “The gods are leaving me / The spirit is leaving me / As autumn gives in to winter.”
Masaoka was a close friend of the novelist Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), whose house in Matsuyama, Shikoku, he stayed at in 1895 while convalescing from tuberculosis. That year, perhaps in Masaoka’s presence, Natsume wrote an autumn haiku set at Kenchoji Temple in Kamakura: “Strike the bell / And ginko leaves will fall / At Kenchoji.”
As lovely and evocative as that is, Masaoka went one better than his friend with what has become one of the most well-known haiku in Japan, set at Horyuji Temple in Nara: “Eat a persimmon / And the bell will toll / At Horyuji.”
The tolling of the temple bell is a potent symbol, going back 1,000 years and resonant of the transience of life.
Natsume wrote 10 haiku on the theme of the keito (cockscomb), a radiantly colored flower with dense folds like a brain. Masaoka’s haiku about cockscombs is arguably his most controversial, with some scholars consecrating it and others dismissing it: “Cockscombs / Fourteen, fifteen / It’s hard to tell.”
Simple enough, but what does it mean?
It is a portrait of a grouping of this flower that tells, in an oblique way — for what are good haiku if not oblique? — how it grows, what its nature is like.
Here are a few more haiku by Masaoka on the theme of autumn: “The red light district / But ten steps away . . ./ And this autumn sky.” Then there’s, “I read through / Three thousand haiku / Ate two persimmons.” And: “I stretch my neck / To catch glimpses / Of the bush clover in my garden.”
This last one is a touching portrait of the bedridden poet.
However, among my favorites is one about a lucky fly who survived the summer thanks to the condition of the swatters that were otherwise used with stunning success. “Autumn fly / The swatters are all full / Of holes.”
The great haiku master Issa Kobayashi (1763-1821) composed many wistful haiku set in the autumn season, one of which is reminiscent of a famous Basho haiku about the Milky Way. First the Basho haiku, an exquisite miniature of the Sea of Japan stretching below the Amanogawa (literally, “the Celestial River”) out to Sado Island: “Rough seas / The Milky Way / Angling out to Sado Isle.”
Kobayashi, perhaps in reply, writes: “How beautiful! / The Milky Way from a hole / In my sliding rice-paper door.”
One of the key elements in haiku is scale, often a juxtaposition of the small personal viewpoint with the grandeur of nature; and nowhere is it more brilliantly expressed than in Kobayashi’s view of the cosmos from his humble home.
Here are a few more of my favorite Kobayashi haiku of autumn: “The cows appeared / Out of the fog / Mooing and mooing and mooing.” Then there’s this one, set in the old province of Shinano, present-day Nagano Prefecture: “Zenkoji Temple / Harvest time in Shinano / Buckwheat moon.” And: “I’ll be tossing in my sleep / So, cricket / Move over!”
Kobayashi obviously doesn’t want to kill the cricket in his sleep, showing respect for the sanctity of all life.
Finally: “The fields are on fire / The birds, too, seem to be saying . . . / “Love when you can.”
Perhaps Masako Shirasu put it best when she wrote, “There is nothing in the world as all-encompassing as Japanese nature. Religion, art, history and literature are latent within it.”
As the autumnal equinox approaches . . . and passes . . . we can see what is latent in Japanese nature exposed and revealed in poetry, if only for the briefest of moments.
Translations of the haiku in this article are by Roger Pulvers.