Buson’s Butterfly and Shiki’s Firefly

In the history of haiku in Japanese, numerous examples exist of haiku alluding to other haiku or other Japanese or Chinese literature. It’s an honourific form of compression in poems as short as haiku, enlarging these poems to invoke other poems that have explored similar topics. Even the use of season words has a similar effect. A variation of this technique is to use place names in haiku (utamakura) as a way to invoke the history or beauty of those renowned locations. To give an example of allusion in Japanese haiku (honkadori, perhaps better described as allusive variation), let’s look at two poems by Buson and Shiki.

In his book Snow Falling from a Bamboo Leaf (Santa Barbara, California: Capra Press, 1979, 1980), Hiag Akmakjian notes the following: “Compare the feeling between Buson’s haiku of a butterfly sleeping on a temple bell and Shiki’s of a firefly gleaming on a temple bell. Though the two haiku are markedly similar, how altogether different are the psychological responses they arouse. A slight alteration—and we perceive an entirely new bit of reality” (20–21). Here are the two poems he presents (87, 88; he includes the romaji and the English, but not the Japanese text, and note that the Japanese has some variations, especially for the Buson poem, depending on the source):

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochō kana

on the temple bell
fast asleep—
a butterfly                                                       Buson

tsurigane ni tomarite hikaru hotaru kana

on the temple bell
the firefly
gleams                                                             Shiki

Shiki was surely aware of Buson’s poem, so his variation was undoubtedly deliberate, and thus an allusion to the earlier poem. As Akmakjian says, yes, we see an entirely new bit of reality in the newer poem. I’m not so sure, though, that our psychological responses differ all that much. Buson’s poem is perhaps more focused on sound, Shiki’s on light, but we may respond to both of them with wonder.

For comparison, here are translations by Hart Larrabee of the same two poems, by Buson and then Shiki, from Haiku Illustrated (London: Amber Books, 2020, 62, 138):

Settled on
The temple bell—
A sleeping butterfly

Settled on
The temple bell—
A glowing firefly

In Larrabee’s translations, the first two lines are identical, matching the Japanese originals, which Akmakjian’s do not. In addition to the contrast already noted between sound and light, another nuance we may observe is that Buson’s butterfly is plausibly seen in the daytime, Shiki’s firefly at night, thus adding further contrast between the two poems. It’s not just a different insect but a different time of day.

Let us look at another discussion of the same two poems, which appeared in Donald Keene’s book, Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers (New York: Grove, 1955, 15):

On the temple bell
Resting, asleep
A butterfly.

On the temple bell
Resting, glowing
A firefly

Keene comments that “The virtuoso approach to literature, and to art as well, where the artist attempts to do essentially the same thing as his predecessors but in a slightly different way, is characteristic of Japan” (15). The audience is expected to note and appreciate the differences, not the similarities, and to recognize the similarities as the foundation on which the new variation of the theme is built. Keene explains the connection in detail: “There is no question here of plagiarism; rather, Shiki assumed that the persons reading his haiku would be familiar with Buson’s, and undoubtedly hoped that the new touches which his sensibility imposed on the old poem would be welcomed by a discriminating audience. Objectively viewed, Shiki’s haiku is as good as Buson’s, although a Western reader would condemn Shiki’s as derivative, and his first impulse might be to write a parody of his own, such as ‘On the temple bell, Resting, chirping, A grasshopper’” (16). Indeed, this technique of honkadori, or allusive variation, is one that Western sensibilities seem to struggle with, and potential misunderstandings colour our perceptions of déjà-ku, in both its good and bad varieties.

In his essay “Performance, Visuality, and Textuality: The Case of Japanese Poetry” (Oral Tradition 20/2, 2005, 217–232), Haruo Shirane says that “A major characteristic of Japanese poetry, particularly of waka and haiku, is that it exists in an intimate intertextual (text to text) relationship with prior poems or established topics” (221). Haiku that bring to mind other haiku are therefore to be applauded and welcomed in English, not feared, as is the tendency of our litigious and individualistic Western culture. In discussing honkadori, Shirane also says that “originality or individuality is not the touchstone of literary genius, as it often is in the Western tradition. Instead, high value [in Japanese haiku] is given to the ability to rework existing subject matter” (222). This is exactly what Shiki has done with Buson’s poem. Shirane explains that “In writing about the scattering of the cherry blossoms, the Japanese poet is not just writing about a specific, direct experience; he or she is writing a supplement to or a variation on a commonly shared body of poetic associations with respect to the seasons, nature, and famous places based on centuries of poetic practice” (222).

In an essay in Haiku Canada Review, “In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku,” David Burleigh refers to honkadori as “the practice of echo and allusion that is common to haiku tradition in Japan” (22). Note that Burleigh says “practice.” This is a way of writing done intentionally and repeatedly, not merely by accident. Déjà-ku is broader than just honkadori, of course, but it’s worthwhile to remember, in déjà-ku, that echoes are what they are all about. And you don’t need to be standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon to love an echo. When echoes in haiku extend to allusion, that makes such poems a particular kind of déjà-ku, but echoing occurs in all kinds of déjà-ku.

How can writers of English-language haiku make more deliberate use of echo and allusion in their poems? We can be like Shiki in response to Buson, standing on the shoulders of giants, writing poems that are at once acts of respect and explorations of the new. And yet this impulse might well be tempered by alluding to earlier poems only if they are sufficiently well known by our audience. If readers are not in on the game, they might falsely believe that you are creating all of the poem’s lightning rather than beneficially adding thunder. Allusive variation therefore comes with challenges, but it also comes with opportunities that are underexplored in English.

on the temple bell
my finger

See also “Honkadori, or Allusive Variation.”

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