On his death bed Basho summarized his life in this way: "awake I was astonished at the voices of mountain streams and wild birds" and the 40 poems about birds in this article express that astonishment.
Basho’s most famous bird haiku is certainly this written in 1680:
The branch lifeless, crow black and forbidding, nightfall cold and dreary, add up to the feeling of sabi (or wabi-sabi) which the Japan Encyclopedia defines as “a medieval aestetic combining elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquillity.” Scholars claim such a feeling is characteristic of Basho. In reality, however, sabi is only characteristic of the two years from this poem in late autumn 1680 through the winter of 1681 to the summer of 1682. Throughout the thirty years of his poetry, Basho sometimes was sad and lonely, and sometimes wrote dreary desolate poetry about birds, but many of his bird poems are rich in activity and color. Along with the sabi of a motionless crow in the dying light and dying autumn, we find birds flying and calling, crying, or singing, as well as nesting. We even find Basho’s hilarious parody of crows. (See ODE TO A CROW in article F-19)
Basho’s follower Chigetsu wrote
The O-hotoki was a Shinto ceremony performed around Kyoto in the 11th moon. While a sacred dance was performed in front of the shrine, food such as mikan are offered to the kamisama in prayer for warmth in the winter to come. The na at the end of the upper segment expresses a sort of resigned contempt—for which I translate “soo…” Chigetsu captures the essence of our relationship with those miserable, arrogant birds that fly wherever they want, not giving a shit what we think of them and how they get their snacks.
The large despised scavenger crow lords over the scene, strutting about in arrogance, cawing harshly, grabbing anything edible. The contrast of black bird with white snow gives me a new perception
There is so much movement in this verse; the flock of birds suddenly rising as one startled by the savage winter wind down the mountain overlooking Kyoto – the suggestion of that other time a savage force came down from Mount Hiei, when the warrior monks of Enryakuji Temple descended on the city to burn and kill.
Each element in Koeki’s stanza – the wind, the sunset, the “long-drawn-out cries” – feeds energy into Basho’s ode to Fate. Each time I read this pair, I am again surprised by the direction Basho chose. He took the elements Koeki provided and blended them into those great question of existence which can never be answered: Is death ordained? Or random?
Basho’s follower Tokoku, a wealthy rice dealer in Nagoya, got caught in some shady deal speculating on rice futures. His wealth was confiscated and he was sent into exile in a village at the end of a peninsula, a place so isolated only hawks come here.
Hawks fly high up in the sky, with no flapping of wings, floating for hours on the updrafts. There is nothing to catch up there; they are flying for the joy of it. Basho gives Tokoku an image to focus on -- the soaring flight of hawks -- to inspire his friend. The verse had a distinct purpose – to reassure Tokoku, to give him hope and help him pull together his shattered life. As you watch a hawk soar, you may use this verse to lift your spirit – as I use it to lift mine.
Fugyoku’s stanza expresses the violence of killing animals for food. We feel the bird fighting against containment, the farmer who does not care what the bird wants and is just doing his job. We hear his annoyed and ungrammatical shout or grumble about tomorrow when the real violence occurs and this bird will go silent.
Basho responds with the silent glory of the moon over another scene which could become violent tomorrow: a military encampment, here to do battle, but under a temporary truce, the warriors wait. While they wait, they have to eat, so a market has sprung up to supply their needs. This is where the farmer brought the goose in a straw bag. Tomorrow who will die? Only the bird? The one who kills the bird? The warriors who eat that goose for their final meal? Thousands of warriors? The moon is so bright it takes your breath away. My daughter Jean says, the two stanzas “make each other shine.”
Today is the early winter Festival in honor of Ebisu, the diety of commerce; among the folks happily walking along the street is a man carrying the carcasses of geese on a shoulder pole, shouting “Geese for Sale!” The pathos comes from the contrast between limp hanging geese and the gaiety of the townspeople. In the center of the verse is the peddler who partakes of both gaiety and death.
Seikizoro wore red hoods with only the eyes showing, ferns sticking out from their conical hats, the rear part of their robes stuffed into the waist sash; they went around from door to door in the final days of the year, doing comical and musical acts to receive money and food. Some sparrows are singing nearby, making their small soft and unremarkable sounds. Basho imagines that this sound is the bird’s response to the clowns’ performance. How do birds perceive the world? Does the clown’s get up seem weird to the bird? Do they actually listen to the clowns’ song, or is it just noise to their ears?
The legs have no feathers --- rather the legs are held close to the underside of the torso floating on the lake. Basho so often explores deeply and intimately within the body.
The little grebe is a small water bird who lives all year on open waters, floating about and diving in to get food. See the alive and breathing duck there, then suddenly no more; only the cold windy winter lake.
The bush warbler welcomes the new Spring with its lovely song.
The bird calling somewhere in the thicket of willow branches, the soul of a woman somewhere in the thicket of her long hair, either may fly off in reality, or in a dream.
Mochi rice cakes are eaten during the New Year’s season which in Japan lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it. Usually we enjoy the bird’s lovely call, but Basho notices something else about the bird.
We have seen the plover (aka sandpiper) in the winter poem about Mount Hiei. Here one mother-to-be finds a hollow in a river bank or near the sea, and lines it with pebbles or wood chips to make a comfortable place for her babies.
In the complete darkness a plover, who has flown away from her nest, cannot find her way back and cries out in distress.
The green pheasant, cousin to the chicken/rooster, “symbolic of masculine might and prowess as well as maternal love and care, the national bird of Japan since 1947.” An 8th century tanka describes the voice of the pheasant as horohoro, “melodious.” -- rather than the loud harsh squawk of the male showing off, horohoro is the gentle continuous clucking of the hen to reassure her chicks.
Nakagawa Shiro, former Director of Tokyo’s world-famous Ueno Zoo and Chairman of the Japan Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explains the traditional saying yakeno no kijisu, “pheasant and chicks in a grass fire,” a metaphor for the mother-infant bond:
Fire rages close to the female pheasant caring for her young. She could try to escape but does not, and burns to death. When the fire has passed, from under her burnt corpse crawl the chicks. This is said to actually happen. To protect and raise her children, the mother animal exerts her entire strength. Without logic, without ethics or morality, the methods for raising them genetically programmed into her, to do anything else is impossible.
Snakes have slithered down the throat that produces this voice.
Sparrows are an all-year bird, however they nest from March till July, Incubation of the 4-6 eggs takes 11 to 12 days, and fledging 12 to 14 more. The parents bring insects and worms for the babies to eat, until the wings are fully formed and the birds can fly away from the nest.
Sparrows nest under the eaves, and mice nest inside the wall, so the two kinds of babies are very close and can cheep to each other. Adult mice and sparrows are too ‘grown up’ to learn each other’s language, but maybe their young can communicate.
Basho’s follower Shado wrote this haiku:
Focus on the garbage, and the verse is heavy, even gross. Maggots! Yuck!
Now, focus on the sunlight and the affection of mother providing for her babies, and it is Light and “cute.”
There is a deep lesson in psychology and perception here, if you choose to find it.
Swallows, a completely different bird than the sparrows above - white underside, red throat, black elsewhere, v-shaped tail – come north soon after spring equinox. They build a nest on vertical surface up close under a roof. Some couples repair last year’s nest, others build anew. The mother-to-be takes the leading role with help from her mate. They carry one mouthful of mud after another to add to the structure— without any of the tools plasterers use, even without hands -- forming a cup large enough for the expected five babies. The job usually takes several days, although a swallow in a hurry, and with the husband helping, can finish in one day.
Traveling in the mountains, Basho stops at a rustic tea house – the sort of place where the roof has no ceiling, just bare beams, so swallows build their nests directly over where customers sit.
Basho’s few words capture the spirit of the situation; once we enter that spirit, the verse is ours. He says nothing at all about the teahouse or being tipsy at the time, nothing about the ceiling or the rafters or the nest or the activity of swallows in spring, yet each of these elements IS there, hidden in the verse. Only through study and imagination, does a haiku become complete.
Reading Basho is a meditation, a calming of the mind to allow in another awareness, another time. Come sit with him in an old and not-so-clean teahouse along a mountain road 300 years ago. It is spring and the glow of hot sake spreads through every pore. Suddenly a swallow flutters in over your head, and you glance up to see her flying to the nest: now read the haiku.
Single layer cotton cloth has been rinsed and is hanging on a line to dry in the breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all rise up together.
These offerings called taima are made by folding and cutting a sheet of paper, traditionally of hemp fibers, into a zigzag pattern, then attaching to a wand. The Ise Shrine distributes them to houses who have been supportive of the shrine. As people pray, they wave the taima before the shrine to clear to the space so their prayer gets through to the gods. The birds seem to be stealing the hemp paper from the offerings; Hemp fiber is strong, so makes a good nest for the bird who brings good fortune. Notice how the second poet links with Basho: from blossoms to bird; from hemp offered to the gods to hemp stolen by birds;from Goddess to female nesting bird.
The kingfisher is a bright blue bird. Basho puts women on center stage;. The girl’s head becomes a stage where a flower, or a bird, descends gracefully and mysteriously as a dancer.
The spotbill duck lives on freshwater lakes and marshes in fairly open country and feeds by dabbling for plant food. It nests on the ground in vegetation near water, and lays 8-14 eggs. The young hatch after about 24 days. The chicks are black with a yellow back and resemble those of mallards but with a wider eye stripe.
I, a human being, can stare at flowing water, and be fascinated by the ever-changing, always-the-same ripples, but does a baby spot-bill duck have enough brains in that tiny head to be “fascinated”? We reach across the barriers of species, to discern the consciousness of a baby spotbill duck. Apparently this evening there will be lakeside festival. As we look into the ripples in daylight, we reach across the barriers of time to
“see” the lantern lights rippling on this same water in a future time.
Traditionally, women pick tea in the bright sunny month of May, wearing white kerchiefs over their hair and round sedge hats to ward off the sun. This is also the season for the hototogisu or little cuckoo. The bird is shy and rarely allows itself to be seen, but sings out so clearly: a three note trill on one pitch followed by a rise in pitch then the final trailing off. Ho toto GI su. The initial ‘ho’ calls our attention, then the two fast half-beats to-to lead to the intensity of GI and the su into silence.
See the scene: the women move between the parallel rows of round green bushes. All we see are their straw-colored conical hats within the dark green channels. The bird calls from somewhere hidden in the forest, and I feel my own heart tremble, and just at that moment, I see the round hats tremble with awareness. Three points – bird, women, and myself – form a triangle with one rhythm, the rhythm of Ho toto GI su.
Saga, west of Kyoto, is famous for extensive grounds of enormous bamboos.
The bamboos form a cathedral of green with the moonlight trickling in through the countless green leaves, then the clear bright five note call punctuates the feeling of divine presence.
“Sister” can be any female who helps or supports.Here is the sadness of growing old and losing my hearing, no longer able to hear the sounds I enjoyed all my life -- so my wife, sister, niece, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, nurse, has to announce into my ear that the bird has called. As the old lose their power and awareness, younger females supply power and awareness to the old. Basho’s stanza takes on greater meaning when we realize that the hototogisu was believed to call from the land of the dead, an incarnation of the soul of one who has died, or an escort for one going to that world for the first time.
Basho’s woman follower Uko wrote:
The bird calls spreads through the vast deep reverberation of the temple bell. Uko hears one sound vibrate inside another sound, such is her sensitivity to the physical world. Compare this haiku to a “farewell to life” verse written by a woman before she died in summer of 1753.
She signed the verse “Uko” but she was not Basho’s follower Uko; from her birth/death years, we see she was just a small child when Basho wrote letters to Uko. We speculate that she was Uko’s daughter Sai who signed her death poem with her mother’s name.
From the winter of 1692 Basho took care of his nephew Toin dying from tuberculosis in Basho’s hut, until the 33 year old died at the end of spring. Toin grew up from age 5 or 6 in Basho’s house, like a 17-year-younger brother. Basho describes his grief in a letter to a follower:
Sampu and Sora, the two followers in Edo who truly saw into Basho’s heart, realized that their master needed the challenge of writing a haiku to a theme they set, to get over his depression.
The call of the “time-bird” comes from deep inside the forest where it cannot be seen or located — like a voice from the dead The sound hototogisu spreads out over the water as the spirit of Toin spreads out into infinity. How does sound spread over water differently from the way it spreads over land? Over water sound seems to drift, as if coming from far, far away.
The birds usually sings just one, but occasionally twice and then sounds very busy. And occasionally, children in Japan, you may one fly.
On his journey to the Deep North, Basho and Sora visited the hermitage where, years before, Basho’s friend, the Zen Priest Butcho lived and meditated. Basho’s haiku about the old hut is a fine example of how a haiku can communicate a personal message:
Basho is saying that Butcho’s enlightenment is so profound he left behind an aura powerful enough to repel woodpeckers from pecking the old wood searching for insects.
Basho included this verse by Sora in his journal:
Ospreys, or fish hawks, form a ‘pair-bond’ so a couple stays together till one dies. They usually build their nest in trees, but this rock among the waves stands high enough that the birds feel it safe for their nest, and in that safe place they vow their commitment to each other and to their young.
The reed warbler adds its irritating squawk, day or night, to the overall oppressiveness of the summer season. “One exhausting endless summer day, having done nothing for days, with no talent for anything, I just want to sleep – but a reed warbler starts to squawk so I cannot. Oh! won’t you stop squawking for a bit.”
The people in this house are very nice. The sparrows are overjoyed
to receive this bounty. This is a verse of a pure simple happiness.
Because nothing bad happens in the verse, it may seem trivial. This is Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness: just ordinary life without tragedy or misery.
Some rice fields are planted in May, some in June. Rice takes four months to grow, so early rice can be harvested in September. Harvest leaves the field an expanse of muddy puddles and cut off rice stubble.
Snipe are marsh-dwelling birds; they have a long flexible bill useful for getting at bugs and worms in mud; unlike sparrows, they have no interest at all in rice. In thick-growing vegetation, such as among the rice stalks before harvest, they have no space to stand while searching for bugs and worms.
Suddenly, in the midst of an area of inhospitable rice fields, someone gives the snipe a gift. One patch of thick inedible rice plants has been magically transformed into lovely wet mud full of bugs and worms. The snipe call out “thank you!”
The sparrows are eager to get some of the rice grains so ripe and heavy they droop over. Someone comes to drive them away. They fly over to the nearby tea plantation and wait for her to leave.
The owl hides in the forest, sometimes heard but never seen, until swooping in suddenly on silent wings she grabs her prey. The first two lines are about the bird; the third line makes her a shy reclusive Japanese girl, who when she get her chance emerges into the world, and goes for love. Basho says all she finds is misery, her tears as large, bulky, and misshapen as horse chesnuts.
Quail are gentle birds preyed upon by vicious hawks. The eyes of hawks are remarkably acute – however can see nothing in the dark. Quail have enough going on in their brains to make the connection between darkening of the sky and it being safe to chirp – or maybe this knowledge is bred into their species.
Wild geese spend summer in Siberia, then as the weather turns cold, come to Japan to winter on marshes. Geese fly at night, navigating by the stars. Basho wrote both of these stanzas in succession:
Geese fly in a V formation, the updraft from one bird lifting the bird behind, enabling the flock as a whole to conserve energy. As the birds fly past the moon, a wave motion flows through the two lines of the ‘V,’ a ‘force’ or organizing principle determined by the physics of flight. Rice is polished, steamed, and fermented with mold and yeast for a month to produce raw, rough-tasting ‘new sake’ This must be aged for a year, the organizing force of fermentation acting everywhere in the sake to give a smooth taste Japanese drinkers enjoy. Everyone has gathered to sip the new sake from this year’s rice crop. Miyawaki sees in the stanza, “a moment of happiness in which satisfaction mingles with expectation.” As an organizing force acts on the birds’ flight, and on the molecules of rice mash, an organizing force brings people together into a human community.
The goose needs strength to stay in the sky. We watch the elegant V formation cross the sky when suddenly one member drops down to somewhere we cannot see. Basho is portraying his own sickness which came upon him in the cold night.
In several poems Basho wrote in his final autumn, the call or flight of a bird expresses the nature of death:
Lightning lights up the sky, but leaves the earth dark. The heron’s screech fills the darkness with intense sound for an instant, then returns to silence.
This is for me the saddest of all haiku, for once in my life, clouds covered the sun and birds passed over the end of a dream I cherished.
Basho told Shiko,
Basho feels the power of words in his body. His chronic disease is in his bowels, and literally will tear them to pieces.
On his deathbed Basho said: