Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Friday, May 11, 2001


Breathe the contemplative air of summer poetry


Japan is a land where each of the seasons expresses itself perfectly. Nature teems with variety and beauty throughout the year, stirring Japanese poetic or artistic minds and hearts.

Since early times, views of nature have nurtured Japanese poetry, especially tanka and haiku.

In general, visual views of nature are the most prominent: Landscapes, waterscapes and skyscapes stand out. Yet soundscapes of nature also seem to delicately flavor Japanese inner life, harmonizing with soundscapes existing in the Japanese language.

In this essay, I will reflect on some auditory vistas found in spring and summer haiku by Japanese poets.

The first example is from the haiku of Naito Joso (1662-1704). In his haiku, an acoustic scene of uguisu, a bush warbler, sings sweetly in early spring:

uguisu no koe namerakani maruku nagashi uguisu sings in a voice smooth, round, long

The poet gives a form and quality to the bird's voice. This may be a materialization rather than a visualization of the auditory sense. Our senses connect one thing with another to elucidate or enhance esoteric beauty or poetry. Such a collective process plays a vital role in creative acts.

In the next haiku, Miura Chora (1792-80) intensifies stillness with a touch of sound:

shizukasa ya chiru ni sureau hana no oto silence -- the sound of falling flowers touching one another

The poet purifies the feeling of stillness with the faint sound of falling pale-pink cherry blossoms.

The two haiku above represent gentle soundscapes. Now, let us enjoy a vigorous view of sound in the haiku of Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707):

akebono ya kotoni toka no tori no koe dawn -- cock's voice takes the color of peach blossom

Here, a symphony of red paints the splendor and vigor of daybreak. The poem reverberates with colored sound, the image of acoustic red. This sense of sound colored red creates a strong image when combined with the sense of sight suggesting the same color.

From our examination of springtime haiku, we might say that each of the soundscapes responds subtly with other senses, giving mental or emotional flavors to the poetry.

Spring is the prelude to summer. After the prelude, nature plays the music of summer brightly and powerfully. Japanese poets, however, do not necessarily express such intense aspects of summer in their haiku. The haiku I chose here depict gentle and delicate phases of nature in summer.

Focusing primarily upon scenes of sound, we can appreciate this summer haiku by Matsuo Basho (1644-94):

horo horo to yamabuki chiru ya taki no otoyamabuki flowers falling scatteringly; sound of waterfall

Petals of yamabuki, a kind of bright-yellow globeflower, are falling as if they are allured by the sound of a waterfall. The image of yamabuki is actually transformed into the image of the sound of a waterfall. The charm of this haiku lies in the juxtaposition of the heavy sound and movement of falling water with the light sound and movement of falling yellow flowers.

hototogisu naku ya kosui no sasa nigori -- by Naito Joso hototogisu sings; the lake becomes slightly muddy

In the rainy season, the lake is somewhat muddy because the hototogisu, a little cuckoo, flies over the water with a cry, breaking the silence and rippling the surface.

With such a view, we see not only the delicate influence of the bird's cry upon the water but also the water's reaction to the bird and fluctuation of the writer's mental picture. The poet depicts the bird's plaintive voice visually by making the most of the water's delicacy.

All of these summer haiku exhibit the outer and inner views of the writers, breathing in the contemplative air of summer. In these spring and summer soundscapes, one can see the poets' sensitivities interacting subtly with the subjects, ultimately enriching their expressions of poetry.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.