Musings on Buson

Landscape, ca. 1870
(Ink and light color on paper,
124.5 x 53.3 cm)
BY Yosa Buson
Brooklyn Museum

Translator’s Note

It’s easy to get seduced by brushed concrete or polished wood. I do it all the time. I walk down a certain street and see a new restaurant with shiny chrome and clean surfaces, and like a magnet it draws me toward the door. But after I’ve finished my frilly salad and poached salmon and cappuccino with its bunny face imprinted in the foam, I often as not go away unfulfilled. It’s the homey, hole-in-the-wall places, the ones with chipped table edges and battered serving trays, with their conviviality, sense of history, and good home cooking that keep me coming back.

Haiku cannot be read ahistorically and should really not be viewed simply as vignettes.

Haiku in translation can be as equally seductive as those polished places. Sometimes I see a fine-looking specimen, all of its articles and punctuation and capital letters stripped out, and I want to hold it in my hand like the little bauble that it is and run my fingers over its perfect surface.

But later, when I look at the source haiku, I see that something is missing, some essential emotional bit has been lost. Now I realize that it’s almost an inevitability when translating to lose something — but it should never be the meat. For my own translations, what must usually be scrapped is the 5-7-5 syllable count and — and this is a far greater loss — the repeated sound patterns. These ka-ki-ku-ke-ko kinds of sounds are almost always impossible to recreate in English without saddling the haiku with distortions in meaning. (In the haiku below about the autumn wind, the words of the haiku in the original sound like the song of a howling or buffeting wind. In English there is no such feeling.)

I think we sometimes get a false sense of what haiku is in translation. Some polished bauble translations are quite good as far as they go — but for me they don’t go far enough, and don’t acknowledge the original’s sharp edges and reflective surfaces. Rather they are an understandable reaction to certain “poetic” translations from the middle of the last century which added filler and fluff in order to achieve certain rhymes or meters, or subtracted some essential meaning to preserve syllable count.

Haiku cannot be read ahistorically and should really not be viewed simply as vignettes. At least not with the Edo period haiku poet, Yosa Buson (1716-83). Yes, his haiku have denseness, compactness; yes, every word, every syllable, every character has been well considered. But each one is also pointed or jagged in its own way, with smooth reflecting surfaces — and perhaps some dirt in the cracks and discoloration at the base. Haiku can be as much about prostitutes as mushroom picking, lumberjacks as lightning on bamboo.

His work shows a remarkable range: at times self-deprecating in its humor; most often compassionate; oftentimes ironic; always with a keen eye for the detail.

It’s important to understand, too, that haiku is very rarely an only this proposition. What I mean by this is that haiku in Japanese require you to hold two very different things in your head at the same time and acknowledge both as having equal validity, even if they are at odds. Sometimes this ambiguity is achieved by the lines pushing against one another. Sometimes through the variable interpretation of a single line. Often by the absence of personal pronouns.

Buson was a learned and accomplished painter as well as a poet, but he never put on airs. He chose homeliness and simplicity over worldliness and sophistication. Out walking in the countryside and mountains, less often in the capital, he looked closely at what was around him while managing to look inward at the same time. His work shows a remarkable range: at times self-deprecating in its humor; most often compassionate; oftentimes ironic; always with a keen eye for the detail. He saw the tiny butterfly clinging to the poppy stem. He lingered with it. Didn’t chase it away. He hunted for crystals under poppy stems. He didn’t buy them in stores.


cherry blossom viewing over
my own house far away
out on a country road


spring reluctant to go
to the verse writing party of the head priest
I have been summoned


with the flash of lightning
a scattering sound
dewdrops from the bamboo


moon over the hermitage
if you ask the master
a potato in the canal


though a deer
he goes through the San Ei gate
in broad daylight


autumn wind —
singing songs in the sake shop
fishermen, lumberjacks

几董と鳴滝に遊ぶ / 茸狩や頭を挙れば峰の月

Having fun with Kitō at Naru Falls

mushroom gathering —
if we lift our heads[1]
moon on the ridge

一 条もどり橋のもとに柳風呂といふ娼 家有。ある夜、太祇とともに 此楼にの ぼりて / 羽織着て綱もきく夜や川ちどり

Under Ippo-modori Bridge there is the so-called
Willow Wind Baths brothel. On the night in question,
Taigi and his friends were climbing up this lookout.

wearing haori[2]
a rope is necessary too, at night
river plovers

HEADER DETAIL FROM A PAINTING BY BUSON (Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art)
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  1. Or, if we lift the kusakanmuri radical (艹) from the kanji (茸) we get (耳) which is the moon (月) on the ridge (一). Buson is certainly playing with Kitō here!
  1. Japanese formal coat; in this case, the coat given to the patron of the brothel to wear. The rope of the second line can also mean the prostitute. The haiku bristles with meanings. Plovers have a brown coat with a white ring about the neck. Also, a rope might be necessary to climb the tower, or to keep the haori from opening.

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