Chen-ou Liu's Translation Project: First English-Chinese Haiku and Tanka Blog

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

I once met an avid reader of haiku who could recite at least ten different English versions of Basho's frog haiku, but when I asked him, “what makes Basho's haiku so great that is worthy of more than a hundred different translations published in book form?” 1 How could there be significant meaning in such a simple poem which simply describes a frog jumping into an old pond? Or if I replace “frog” with any other amphibian creature or any creature that can dive into a pond, is it still considered to be great? ” I received no good answers from him at the time, but a few days later I received a lengthy email, in which he gave me a list of books or websites on Basho’s frog haiku. One of them was an often-quoted website page titled Matsuo Basho: Frog Haiku: Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary. 2 The commentary was taken from Robert Aitken’s A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen, a collection of essays on Basho’s haiku. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the answers from his sources because of their individualistic, de-contextualized, and Buddhist-influenced interpretations of Basho’s haiku. More importantly, they didn’t help answer my questions. I pondered, “What would Basho say if he were alive today and could read these English language reviews of his frog haiku done by writers or lovers of haiku?”

After an extensive reading of the related materials, I believe that Basho would say, “It might be better to read my poem (a text) in context.” Unlike modern haiku, “which [are] often monologic, a single voice describing or responding to a scene or experience,” 3 the haiku Basho wrote were mainly situated in a communal setting and dialogic, responses to the previous verses in haikai sequences or to earlier poems by other poets. “The brevity of the [haiku] is in fact possible because each poem is implicitly part of a massive, communally shared poem.” 4 And as a genre firmly rooted in the centuries-old tradition, its unabated rigor and cultural richness lie in the haiku poet’s keen awareness of utilizing the poetic legacy and cultural associations. 5 In what follows, I’ll give a generic analysis 6 of Basho’s haiku, hoping that this contextualized reading of his poem would broaden our understanding of some enriching characteristics of Japanese haiku.

The old pond;
bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbFuru ike ya
A frog jumps in —
bbbbbbbbbbbbbbkawazu tobikomu
The sound of the water. 7
bbbbbbbbmizu no oto

First of all, at the denotative level, Basho’s haiku simply says that there is an old pond, that a frog jumps into it, and that the sound of water is heard. Semantically speaking, as is typical of haiku, his poem is made up of two parts through the use of the cutting word, “ya:” “the old pond” and “a frog jumps in --/ the sound of the water.” The tension is thus created by the collocation of these two parts: the sharp contrast between the static image of an old pond, evocative of stillness and loneliness, and the lively image of an energetic animal that jumps into the pond and makes the water sound. 8 This tension leaves something for readers to ponder, furnishing both meaning and imagery for themselves.

Based on linguistic knowledge of the target language and on literary literacy, a textual analysis of this sort, generally speaking, would give readers a satisfactory pleasure in understanding this poem, but it couldn’t answer the questions I posed above. It’s because there are a lot of poets who write good haiku that leave something unsaid for readers to ponder, and because I don’t see any differences that would be made if Basho changed “frog” to any other amphibian creature or any creature that can dive into a pond.

Secondly, at the connotative level, Basho added an extra layer of meaning or surprise by using a kigo, kawazu (frog), in an unusual way. With its circle of associations, kawazu provided a special pipeline to the reader, increasing the complexity and capacity of the poem. 9 For example, there are some 140 poems classified under the section titled “ponds” in
Fubokusho (Selected Poems from the Land of the Rising Sun), a standard waka anthology, none of them depicts a frog. 10 More importantly, read in the context of classical Japanese poetry and the haiku poetics, kawazu is a seasonal word for spring used in poems since ancient times, and had always referred to its singing and calling out to a lover. The preface to the first imperial anthology titled Kokinshu describes “listening to the warbler singing among the blossoms and the song of the frog dwelling in the water” 11 as in the following poem:

on the upper rapids
a frog calls for his love.
Is it because,
his sleeves chilled by the evening,
he wants to share his pillow? 12

Instead of giving “the song of the frog,” Basho focused on the water sound of a diving frog. He was the first poet ever to defy the poetic essence (honi) of the frog by emphasizing the “splash” that it makes, working against what one would expect from reading classical waka or renga. 13 In juxtaposing these two seemingly incongruous worlds and languages of ga (elegance) and zoku (vulgarity), Basho humorously inverted and recast established cultural associations and conventions of the frog. In doing so, he created a comical effect: a “parody of classical poetry that refers to the frog as expressive of romantic longing.” 14

A contextualized reading of his poem, like the one I present here, would reveal the greatness of his poem: the psychological impact of the inner tension brought about by the sharp contrast between two parts of the poem and the transformative power of the newness created by parodying established practices and cultural associations. For Basho, his notion of the new “lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.” 15. Throughout his life, instead of writing haiku with new kigo, Basho devoted himself to “seeking new poetic associations in traditional topics.” 16

Basho’s use of parodic allusion that brought to the reader’s mind earlier texts and reworked an old theme in a new setting has enriched Japanese haiku. His frog haiku, which has been often read one-dimensionally by most of Western haiku poets, is two-axis: on the scenic level, the horizontal axis, the poem objectively describes a natural scene, possessing no emotion, but “the sound of water rising from an old pond implies a larger meditative, lonely silence;” 17 on the vertical axis, it is a parodically allusive variation, a haikai twist on the poetic associations of the frog depicted in classical Japanese poetry. As Haruo Shirane demonstrates in his book titled
Traces of Dreams, Basho believed that “the poet had to work along both axes: to work only in the present would result in poetry that was fleeting; to work just in the past, on the other hand, would be to fall out of touch with the fundamental nature of haikai, which was rooted in the everyday world.” 18

Decades later after Basho’s death, Yosa Buson, who led the Basho Revival movement in the eighteenth century, wrote a response haiku:

the old pond's
frog is growing elderly
fallen leaves 19

Buson’s poem, a parody of Basho’s, could be read as a commentary on the pitiful situations of the haiku community of his day, adding its voice to the centuries-old dialogue between Japanese poets and their predecessors. This allusive characteristic of Japanese haiku has still been absent in most of English language haiku that put great emphasis on the “haiku moment”20, which means “here and now.”Maybe it’s time for us to learn from Basho while greatly praising his haiku.

After all has been said, I would like to conclude my article with a tribute poem to converse with and show my respect to masters and their works.
The Ripples from a Splash: A Haiku Sequence Based on Chinese Poetics 21

moonlit pond…
are frogs asleep

flower moon --
its eyes on the flowing clouds
a frog

this frog
crouches on a lotus leaf --
reciting Basho

the frog
shatters the moon’s face...
alone by the pond


1 See Hiroaki Sato, One hundred Frogs: From Renga to Haiku to English, New York : Weatherhill, 1983. 1st ed. In the book, he presents a collection of over one hundred translations and variations of Basho’s frog haiku.

2 The Bureau of Public Secrets, “Matsuo Basho: Frog Haiku (Thirty-one Translations and One Commentary),”

3 Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 15.
4 Ibid., p. 27.

5 Koji Kawamoto, “The Use and Disuse of Tradition in Basho’s Haiku and Imagist Poetry,” Poetics Today, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), p. 709.

6 Daniel Chandler, “Working within Genres,” “Advantages of Generic Analysis,” “ D.I.Y. Generic Analysis,” in An Introduction to Genre Theory,

7 See the Bureau of Public Secrets.

8 Cheryl A. Crowley, Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival, Boston: Brill, c2007, p. 57.
9 Haruo Shirane, “Matsuo Basho’s Oku no hosomichi and the Anxiety of Influence,” in Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, ed., Amy Vladeck Heinrich, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 182.

10 Makoto Ueda, compi. and trans., Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1991, p. 142.

11 Koji Kawamoto, The Poetics of Japanese Verse: Imagery, Structure, Meter, trans., Stephen Collington, Kevin Collins, and Gustav Heldt, University of Tokyo Press, 2000, p. 76.

12 See Shirane, p. 14.

13 See Ueda, p. 142.

14 See Crowley, p. 57.

15 See Shirane, p.5.

16 See Shirane, Currents in Japanese Culture: Translations and Transformations, p. 182.

17 See Shirane, p. 77.

18 Haruo Shirane, “Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths”, Modern Haiku, XXXI:1 (winter-spring 2000),

19 See Crowley, p. 56.

20 See Shirane, Beyond the Haiku Moment.

21 According to classical Chinese poetics, a poem sequence is a group of poems by one poet or perhaps even by two or more poets intended to be read together in a specific order. The integrity of a poem sequence is dependent on this prescribed order of presentation. A poem sequence by a single author is sustained throughout by a single voice and point of view, and it shows consistency in style and purpose from one poem to the next. The defining characteristic of a poem sequence is that each poem must have its own value and integrity yet contribute to the artistic wholeness of the sequence while maintaining the logical progression of events.

Magnapoets, #7