This autumn I’ll be looking at the moon With no child on my knee. — Onitsura (Translation by Donald Keene. Included in Faubion Bowers' The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology,
with the following footnote: "Written on the death of his eldest son at age six, in 1700.")
Here are my comments:
Onitsura was a contemporary of Bashō, and is credited as being one of the great creators of haiku. Blyth, for example, said of him: “Onitsura composed the first real haiku.”
Kenneth Yasuda’s book The Japanese Haiku includes various quotes from various sources, which will prove valuable in getting to know about the poet at hand. Onitsura himself expressed his thoughts on haiku with the following words:
“When I think occasionally about an excellent verse, I find no artistic touch in its phrasing, or display of colorfulness in its air; only the verse flows out effortlessly; yet profound is the heart that expressed it.”
The Japanese scholar Asō is cited in Yasuda’s book with the following comment:
“Once an abbot asked Onitsura what the essence of haiku art was, and he replied: ‘In front of a garden a camellia tree blooms with white flowers.’ Since the truth of the universe lies even in a single flower, insight into the universe and into God can be grasped by understanding this truth . . . Onitsura thinks that the true way of haiku art is to discover poetic refinement in the truth of natural phenomena, whether in the snow, the moon, or flowers, with a selfless attitude.”
We find this mission statement evident in the poem under discussion: In front of the moon a father’s heart blooms with the loss represented by a childless knee. It is a simple description. Unadorned. Unpoetic even. And yet it resonates because of its sincerity, something Onitsura spoke of at great length, using the Japanese word makoto, which we will touch on in a moment. But first I’d like to present two very similar flower poems by Onitsura that speak to the “truth of natural phenomena,” and which I will try my best to translate:
when blossoms bloom
bird feet: two
The following haiku is similar, in the way it reveals the almost shocking isness of nature, offering an epiphany in which things-as-they-are become somehow absurdly real, usually by virtue of some natural phenomena which awakes in us a new way of looking at the world, which is little more than looking at the world in its essential nature.
eyes horizontal, nose vertical: spring blossoms
In the case of these two poems the epiphanies (that birds have 2 feet and horses have 4, or that eyes are of a horizontal nature, while the nose is vertical) are caused by blooming flowers, while in the poem about the loss of his child it would seem the moon has played a part in awakening him to a simple realization. The realization here, however, (that the moon-viewing this autumn is without his son on his knee) inspires far more pathos in the reader, and seems to go beyond the “whimsical humour” that critic Henderson spoke of when discussing Onitsura. Henderson criticized Onitsura’s haiku as being too philosophical, saying that they were more like epigrams than haiku (something we often hear said of many modern English-language haiku), and while that opinion may seem valid to a degree in reference to these two flower poems, I don’t think that criticism would hold with the poem we have been looking at this week.
I’d like to offer one final quote from Asō, also included in Yasuda’s book, which we can reflect on as we try to unravel this enigmatic genre known as haiku: a genre that evolved radically through the influence of Onitsura and Bashō and continues to challenge us to this day:
“At the center of Onitsura’s haiku theory is his statement about truth. Everywhere in his writing he uses the word makoto. This term is used in various ways and its meaning is not fixed. However, he uses this term in the sense of sincerity. In his writing a Soliloquy, he said, ‘When one composes a verse and exerts his attention only to rhetoric or phraseology, the sincerity is diminished.’
The fact that no artistic effort in the form or no decorative expression in the context [should be present] is Onitsura’s ideal, which is the way of sincerity.”
Our commentators this week have all remarked on the everyday nature of the elements in this poem that make it so easy to relate to, and of its ability to awake great compassion in us, while at the same time being composed with a lack of poetic decoration.
In Onitsura’s own words:
“Without makoto, there would be no haikai.”