A Contrarian View on Basho’s Frog Haiku

by Susumu Takiguchi

Thanks in part to the global reach of the internet and the increasing dominance of English as a world language, haiku that might have been shared only through letters between distant friends or seen in tiny-circulation journals can now be read by anyone who can open a web browser …

… With free verse having been the dominant mode of poetry for decades now, haiku may be the one example of formal poetry many people would still recognise on sight. Your letter carrier or phlebotomist might be hard-pressed to identify a sonnet or terza rima, but show her Basho’s famous verse:

The old pond
A frog jumps in—
The sound of the water

and she’ll know it’s haiku.

From: ‘Haiku Casts big Net, An old and clever form of Japanese poetry is making a global splash’, by Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, last updated: March 31, 2001

**

There are no greater clichés among haiku circles than quoting Basho’s frog haiku. I have been trying my best to avoid talking about this haiku, as it (talking, not the haiku) bores me to tears. However, from time-to-time, and under certain circumstances, it becomes an inescapable task for me to deal with it. On such occasions, I try to say something which has seldom been said or, better still, never been said at all. And that is often a contrarian view.

Basho’s frog haiku is almost definitely the most famous haiku ever composed on this planet. As seen in the article by Jim Higgins, above, it is the starting point for haiku beginners. It also seems to be the finishing point for the most experienced and established haiku poets, as no one appears to be able to write any haiku which would surpass it. So, the most famous it is; and yet, I happen to believe that it is one of the most misunderstood haiku poems as well.

Let us start off with clichés in order to establish what it is that have become stereo-typed views about the frog haiku. There are over 170 different English translations of this haiku and it would not be too difficult to add more. If we include other languages, the number of translations would multiply even further. This ought to mean that there are easily over 170 different interpretations. In a sense it is so, as a change of a comma in a haiku, let alone a word, would create a new interpretation for the haiku connoisseurs and the uninitiated alike. However, apart from such niceties, the underlying views, or basic understanding of the frog haiku, remain mostly intact and therefore clichés. Hiroaki Sato’s book1 is the most entertaining in this respect. Some sample translations quoted by him are set out below (the term hokku should really be used here instead of haiku, which I shall use in this article unless otherwise specified, as it is more commonly known):

An old pond
A frog jumps in—
Sound of water.

(Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite)

The old pond!
A frog jumps in—
Sound of the water.

(Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai)

An ancient pond!
With a sound from the water
Of the frog as it plunges in.

(W. G. Aston)

The old pond, aye! And the sound of a frog leaping into the water.

(Basil Hall Chamberlain)

The old pond.
A frog jumps in—
Plop!

(R. H. Blyth)

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water.

(Donald Keene)

The old green pond is silent; here the hop
Of a frog plumbs the evening stillness: plop!

(Harold Stewart)

The old pond
A frog jumped in,
Kerplunk!

(Allen Ginsberg)

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water—
A deep resonance.  

(Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The quiet pond
A Frog leaps in,
The sound of the water.

(Edward G. Seidensticker)

The old pond—
A frog leaps in,
And a splash.

(Makoto Ueda)

The still old pond
and as a frog leaps in it
the sound of a splash

(Earl Miner)

Ancient pond unstirred
Into which a frog has plunged,
A splash was heard.

(Kenneth Yasuda)

Old pond.
a frog leaps in
water’s sound.

(William J. Higginson)

Listen! A frog
Jumping into the stillness
Of an ancient pond!

(Dorothy Britton)

ancient pond—
a frog jumping into its splash

(R. Clarence Matsuo-Allard)

pond
frog
plop!

(James Kirkup)

Oh thou unrippled pool of quietness
Upon whose shimmering surface, like the tears
Of olden days, a small batrachian leaps,
The while aquatic sounds assail our ears.

(Lindley Williams Hubbell)

There once was a curious frog
Who sat by a pond on a log
And, to see what resulted,
In the pond catapulted
With a water-noise heard round the bog.

(in the style of a limerick)

A frog who would a-water-sounding go
Into some obscure algae-covered pool
Had best be sure no poetasting fool
Is waiting in the weeds and, to his woe,
Commemorates his pluck so all will know
His name and lineage, not for the fine school
He learned to sing at, nor, to make men drool
The flavour of his leg from thigh to toe.
He will not for his mother be remembered,
Nor for his father’s deeds, his honor bright,
Nor for his brother’s leg dismembered,
And eaten by a king with rare delight.
He will be famous simply for the sorta
Noise he makes just when he hits the water.

(in the style of a sonnet)

**

Now, why do I say that Basho’s frog haiku is one of the most misunderstood haiku poems? Possible misunderstandings about this haiku include:

1: We seldom see in Japan a single frog, rather many of them around a pond, rice paddies or any other similar places in spring time as it is the season for their mating. They are noisy and in abundance. Why should it then, be a single frog and not a number of, or many frogs? Only three translations refer to “frogs” out of 100 in Sato. Who decided it was only one frog? If we have an open mind, it would be either frogs (plural), which is the most natural interpretation, or at least a single frog but only as a literary device to represent many frogs (which is often the case in Japanese poems or paintings). Though there is a tradition in Japan and China to have a single subject/object such as kogan (a lone goose) or ikken-ya (a lone house) as an artistic or poetic technique, there is no reason to believe why Basho’s haiku should be talking about a lone frog. The fact that the two known haiga in Basho’s hand depict only one frog is not really a definitive proof that he meant one frog in the poem, though it is a strong possibility. They are only drawings, or even doodles, whereby his inclination was to draw only one frog whatever the reason (it could be that his drawing skill then was not good enough to draw a lot of frogs, as the frog is poorly drawn. We simply do not know it). He could well have drawn more than one frog on other occasions like he did with the crow-perching-a-withered-branch haiku whereby he drew more than one crow.

2: Frogs tend to jump into the water one after another, or simultaneously in spring time. Why should it be a single splash? If it is in other seasons, they may jump into the water more intermittently.

3: As has been mentioned, frogs are noisy in spring, when this haiku is believed to have been composed, because of the mating season. They are a symbol of the merriment, colour, noises, life (sex) and bustling movements of spring—a celebration of life on earth. Take the kigo, kawazu-gassen for example. This is a kigo which depicts many frogs mating in spring, but specifically many males mounting a single female on top of each other. They fight and jostle for the female and that is why the word gassen (kassen), or battle or fight is used. A battle among male frogs cannot be quiet or peaceful. Why, then, should the scene of Basho’s haiku be doctored and philosophised into one of stillness, loneliness, quietude and tranquility? Does it not sound too good to be true? There are many factors which can be attributed as having contributed to this popular interpretation of the frog haiku, ranging from serious factors to nonsensical speculations. They form the other side of the coin of what I am raising as forgotten or neglected questions in this article. Therefore, in order to understand this coin fully we need to look into them again but that will need another article.

4: The first five moji (the first stanza of the three components of haiku) is often referred to as johgo (or kamigo), i.e. ‘top five’ moji, and as it sets the scene is normally very important. In Basho’s haiku, it is furuike ya (old pond). However, as is well-known, it was originally suggested in a meeting at Basho’s request by Kikaku to be yamabuki ya (Japanese yellow rose, or mountain rose, kerria japonica). Yamabuki had been frequently used in conjunction with frogs in Japanese poetic tradition. The brilliant yellow colour of yamabuki, like gold, is another symbol of the arrival of spring. The episode suggests that there must have been a joyful feeling among the people gathered together with Basho when this poem was composed, and the melancholic or pensive stillness normally attached to this haiku could be either an outright mistake, or at least an overplay and an instance of “reading too much into it”. Such interpretation could well be an invention by some of Basho’s followers, especially after his death, to boost the reputation of the Shofu (Basho School or its ‘way’). It is a good story and it sells. This interpretation has been swallowed hook, line and sinker, and amplified by over-zealous Western interpreters, which has made it a ‘universal truth’ across the world.

This must not be mixed up with Basho’s own preoccupation at the time to bring something new into Shofu, which eventually led to then innovative furuike ya. The idea of the ‘old pond’ would have been received by other people with conventional wisdom to be boring, out of order or just too flat had it been proposed by somebody else. However, it was proposed by none other than Basho, and those present were his important disciples and other disciples sympathetic to Basho’s new ideas. Even they must have been surprised, at first. However, they probably had the receptive mind to understand the significance and implications of furuike ya. The ordinariness of this first five moji is, in an ironical sense, precisely the reason why the haiku became almost ‘revolutionary’. This is really the point which relates to the oft-mentioned observation that the frog haiku was Basho’s Shofu kai-gan no ku (the haiku which opened Basho’s eyes to a new style, which established the Shofu).

5: The frog haiku has three versions. This fact almost proves some of the points I have made: that the haiku was not composed in a single session in a complete form; that the haiku had a number of issues for Basho, such as finding a new way (which relates to the first five moji: away, for example, from the conventional and traditional yamabuki ya to Basho’s own world of furuike ya) or a change in the philosophy of haiku (from the comic style of the Danrin School to the refinement of the Shofu: away from kawazu tondaru to kawazu tobikomu).

The first Basho-an (Basho Hut) was a gift from Basho’s disciple, Sugiyama Sanpu, who was a successful and wealthy fish merchant doing business with the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is known that there was an ikesu (a special pond or pool where many fish are kept before being sold) near his hut. There is a possibility according to a theory that this ikesu was no longer used and had effectively become an ‘old pond’. And it is perfectly possible that there were frogs which were spawned in that ‘pond’. So, it is theoretically possible that Basho was talking about a frog or frogs of this ‘pond’ and composed the frog haiku in question. (Another theory goes that it was a pond for fish-farming.)

However, even then, it is implausible that Basho heard the sound of a frog or frogs jumping into the ‘pond’ from inside the hut where he was holding a meeting. This is because the sound frogs make when they enter water would not be loud enough to reach a human ear farther than ten yards or so, unlike their croak.

Of course, it is possible that Basho went out into the garden with his guests and upon hearing the sound of frogs jumping into the water, composed the haiku later inside the hut. However, it is much more natural to think that Basho had already formulated in his mind the phrase of ‘the sound of the water’ when frogs jumped in, either from his earlier experiences in his garden, or in some other places in the past. Thus it was that only thing yet left for him to achieve was to find the right first five moji to cap this already established phrase of second 7 and last 5.

The phrase, ‘old pond’ can well be something like an image Basho was developing in his mind, even if it had been as familiar an experience for him as it was for others. This is perfectly understandable. It is a similar thing to the case of composers, say Mozart or Beethoven, in which they think of a phrase, have it somewhere in mind until their creative juice rushes in, and then elaborating the rest pf the movement around that phrase. In the case of Basho’s frog haiku, he broke with tradition by not using the celebrated and orthodox yamabuki ya, but chose, instead, a very ordinary-sounding phrase, furuike ya. The interesting thing is, that in the very ordinariness of the phrase can be found the almost revolutionary significance of its use in the frog haiku.

Basho lived in this first Basho-an from the winter of 8 Enpoh (1680) to 28 December of 2 Tenna (1682). The earliest date estimated for the composition of the frog haiku is 1 Tenna (1681). So, it is possible that Basho composed the haiku here in the first Basho-an in his second or third year of residence. However, the weight of evidence tends to be inclined towards a much later date. The most popular theory is that the haiku was composed in the spring of 3 Jokyo (1686), in which case Basho was no longer living in the first Basho-an, which had been burnt to ashes, but in the second. He lived in the new place from the winter of 3 Tenna (1683) to March of 2 Genroku (1689). It was in the estate of Morita Sozaemon, located at Motobansho of Fukagawa. It was one of the houses called nagaya (a long row of one-story cottages). If there was an old pond, it must have been a communal pond shared by all the people living in these cottages, a situation which makes the interpretation of quiet, lonely and philosophical atmosphere attributed to this haiku even less plausible.

Another issue is what part of the day it was when Basho composed the frog haiku. It seems as though the dominant opinion during the Edo period was to assume it was during the period of dusk-to-night. In modern times, scholars and commentators have voiced the opinion that it must have been daytime. Interestingly, there seems to be no apparent evidence to assert, let alone prove, either. It seems, at first sight, that the darkening twilight hours fit extremely well in the kind of atmosphere of serenity, quietude and stillness, when nothing was heard except for this single splash of a lone frog jumping into the water, breaking the silence and then immediately giving the silence back to the darkening world. However, there can be no assumption that it was evening. Even if it had been evening, frogs would have continued their mating battle, though the noise may have somewhat subsided.

Once again, these factual details are of lesser importance anyway, when compared with what was going on in Basho’s mind and imagination, i.e. how to move on to attain new way of haiku by means of the frog haiku. For a person like Basho, it would not have been difficult at all to think of various versions of a particular haiku of his own, judge their pros and cons, revise each for the better, or whatever. That was what he was doing as a master to his disciples all the time. Therefore, that could not have been his main preoccupation. His main concern was to find a new way, and he knew that this frog haiku could give him that breakthrough.

Some brave commentators in Japan have even gone so far as to say that this world-famous haiku is not that brilliant, and that, in fact, it is rather mediocre (e.g. Hotta Bakusui, Naito Meisetsu). I personally do not subscribe to that perspective, but the haiku may be slightly over-rated. If the comments I have made here were to be established, even so much as to present reasonable assumptions, if not proven truths, the whole understanding of haiku in the West might well go through a serious rethinking, or worse still, a fundamental correction. Surprisingly, the same can also be said with the fundamental understanding of Basho’s haiku in Japan.

There are a number of important issues involved in this discussion which can be deduced from the above points:

Firstly, it should be noted that Basho did not always write his poems in situ from direct experiences. Nor did he keep his original poems unchanged and unrevised. On the contrary, it is known that he wrote some of his poems after the event (sometimes long after the event) and that it was his practice to revise (suiko) his poems, often not just once but several times. To write a haiku while you are directly experiencing something, or at least soon after — is a teaching of kyakkan-shasei (or objective sketch from life) from the later Shiki-Kyoshi school — taken a little too far. In Basho’s mind, there were ideas or ‘phrases’ (part of a haiku which he composed in his mind) at any given time. Also, even if he had written a haiku, it was lingering in his mind afterward for a long time if he was not completely satisfied with it. True, he was teaching that haiku should be written within a certain short period of time, i.e. relatively quickly. If one cannot do so, he taught, one should throw it away into the dustbin. However, this is slightly different from doing the suiko (revision).

So, it is wrong to assume, let alone conclude, that Basho wrote the frog haiku in situ or even from direct experience. The assumption, regrettably, has, over centuries, come to be regarded as fact. It is more natural to think that Basho had this idea or phrase about the scene of a frog or frogs jumping into the water for some length of time, which is nothing new or outstanding because it is the experience of everybody else, too. What is remarkable, is that Basho identified this common experience as something with which he could innovate a new way of dealing with it (and by extension with haiku as a whole) and he pursued it relentlessly. Like ingredients for cooking, the materials Basho had are the same which are available to all of us. It is his cooking that was different—very different at that! In another simile, Mont Sainte-Victoire or fruit, pots and vases are all available to any artists, but it is the way Cezanne looked at and dealt with them that was different.

What must have been on his mind is the shift of emphasis away from ‘frogs’ croak’ to the act of jumping and to the sound it makes when they dive into the water, which is a departure from tradition. The other thing of which it is certain was on his mind, is the question of what sort of first five moji he should choose to write to cap the middle seven and the last five, as he knew that the first five could make or break the whole poem. In other words, it is extremely important for us to understand that in this haiku, the first five moji was something of a special concern for Basho. It was like a missing link or even a holy grail. He was in search of it, and in the end he got it.

All this is pointing to the importance of imagination and memory when we consider any of Basho’s poems, writings or remarks. It is well known that Basho often altered facts and used some fictions, for example, in the Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North), in order to make it a good read and interesting and higher literary work. His imagination was always at work. So, it is perfectly possible that the idea of the ‘old pond’ as the first five moji was kept for some considerable time on Basho’s mind and imagination as a new way, rather than something which Basho suddenly thought of when he happened to hear the sound of frogs jumping into the water, which is indeed the popular preconception. If we allow for the important role played by Basho’s imagination, then, it could even be speculated that the ‘old’ in the ‘old pond’ may also have been a product of his imaginative power, rather than the actual old pond which he may or may not have seen, wherever it may have been located. In short, furuike ya (old pond) could well be a product of Basho’s imagination. The probability is derived from the fact that the ‘old pond’ was an idea which stayed in his mind for a long time. It is also derived that it was not the croak of the frogs but the sound the jumping frogs make when they hit the water that Basho was preoccupied with. This is typical of Basho, who was so sensitive to the five senses of man, plus the sixth sense. Yamabuki ya (mountain rose) was not only too conventional to open a new gate for his Shofu, but also too garish and distracting to fit into Basho’s schemes. He had to rely on his imagination and creative force. Basho was a poet, a wordsmith and literary person, whereby creative impulse and rich imagination were the spur. He was a creator of art and inventor of new literature. He was not a newspaper reporter or an academic historian.

To put it another way, one must understand fully that this frog haiku was not something Basho composed easily in one sitting at a haikai-no-renga, or whatever else meeting, in a single, simple and smooth way with all three components of it coherently joined and connected in one fell swoop. And, yet, this is no more than an assumption which most people have come to believe as fact. Rather, it was a disjointed haiku composition whereby the sound of frog(s) jumping into the water, rather than their croak, was given prominence and brought to the fore, disrupting the traditional rendering of the theme of frogs. More importantly, the phrase for the first five moji was independently contemplated; the way of joining it to the rest of the poem was the major concern for Basho. I rather cast doubt over the popular belief described above. That seems to me to be more of a wishful thinking and legend which his followers promoted after his death than a historical fact. Perhaps, people have been led up the garden path.

My hunch leads me to deduce that instead of Basho composing the frog haiku spontaneously and extemporaneously in a renku meeting, as is popularly believed, he used such a meeting, most likely to be the Kawazu Awase meeting of 3 Jokyo (1686), for deciding the definitive version for the frog haiku once and for all. In other words, after a long deliberation within himself he was now ready and determined to settle with the final version come what may. In this connection, the last remaining part of the frog haiku in the making was, as Shiko suggested, the beginning five moji.

This is perfectly plausible because the Kawazu Awase meeting was not the usual renku session. It was a special meeting whereby poets gather to compose and compete haiku (hokku in this case) on a single theme. Here the theme was ‘frogs’ (and toads). They put two hokku at a time side by side (i.e. left and right) for competition. There were believed to be forty poets (Basho’s disciples), plus another person. Quite how these 41 poets got into what must have been a small house is beyond me. Probably another myth and another item to be reviewed! The judging was done by shugi-han (not by the leader, author or an invited hanja judge but by the discussion among participants), which indicates that Basho was actually wishing to hear other people’s opinions and desirous of presenting his idea to them. In this instance of the Kawazu Awase meeting at Basho-an, the other people believed to have been there include Kikaku himself, Kyorai, Sanpu, Senka, Sodo, Ransetsu, Rika, Ranran, Haryu, Kasoku and Kooku — many of Basho’s important disciples. This indicates that Basho had some great expectation as to the results of his poem, for which he had struggled so long. Basho’s frog haiku was the starting poem of Kawazu Awase and placed left (i.e. the top place). All-in-all, they had a nuju-ban kuawase (20 pairs of hokku). The results of the Kawazu Awase were collected and edited by Senka, and published in Uruu March in 3 Jokyo (1686) under the same title.

Secondly, it is equally wrong to assume, let alone conclude, that Basho had an old pond in the garden of his hut and that this was the very pond where the frog(s) jumped in, the sound of which Basho heard from inside his hut while he was talking to his guests. There may well be other explanations. Some people have gone so far as to assert that the frogs were jumping into the Sumida River and not the silly old pond (e.g. Kaneko Tohta). A lot depends on the fundamental question of when and how the frog haiku came to be composed. There have been good studies done on this question but I don’t feel that any of the theories or informed scholarly guesses so far presented have established themselves as definitive.

The attributed dates of the composition of the frog haiku ranges from 1 Tenna (1681) to 3 Jokyo (1686). If we believe the theory that Kikaku was with Basho when this haiku was composed (Shiko et al), then the right date needs to be targeted at the time when Kikaku and Basho were both in Edo and during springtime, as both men were on journeys from time-to-time. Possible dates between 1681 and 1686 were thus derived from the known dates when Basho and Kikaku were in Edo during springtime, and were suggested by scholars, including Shida Yoshihide.

Kikaku was born in Edo but came from a farming family in Katada of Ohmi (present Shiga Prefecture). His father was bright and multi-talented and studied medicine in Edo, later serving the Lord Honda of Zeze Domain as his doctor. He practiced waka, renga and haikai. Kikaku also studied medicine. Like his father, he was multi-talented and was good at Chinese classics and Confucius (jugaku), Chinese poetry (kanshi), Zen, calligraphy, art, among other things. Kikaku became Basho’s disciple in 1 Enpoh (1673) at the age of 13 (another theory says it was 5 Enpoh, i.e. 1677, age 17), becoming one of his most important disciples. He is said to have made his living out of haikai, founding the Edo-za School which later produced Buson. He was a man of the town and loved drinking, being on the verge of alcoholism. He died in 4 Hohei (1707), aged 47.

At this point, I refer to an interesting piece of knowledge that Kikaku reportedly capped a wakiku to the frog pond, which may indicate that there was some kind of a renku meeting apart from the Kawazu Awase meeting mentioned above. Kikaku’s wakiku goes:

ashi no wakaba ni kakaru kumo no suitaike ni kawazu tsukubau ukiha kana

a cobweb hanging
among the new leaves of reeds

This wakiku can be found in Haikai Fumyoja by Etsujin. It can be contrasted to Kawazu Awase which recorded the frog haiku as top of the selection (left) and placed Senka’a own stanza next to it (right), which means that these two hokku were mochi (draw). Senka’s hokku goes:

itaike ni kawazu tsukubau ukiha kana

prettily
a toad squatting…
a floating leaf

(Note: the kanji for kawazu is kaba which means a toad rather than a frog, but because of the kuawase meeting on a single theme it is artificially pronounced as kawazu.)

In August of the same year, the famous Haru no Hi was published under Kakei as editor. Three haiku by Basho were included in the anthology, including the frog haiku. However, in the case of Haru no Hi, Basho was not involved in renku. Basho’s three haiku were in the hokku no bu (or the hokku section.)

There are two more anthologies which carry the frog haiku. One is Iori-Zakura, edited by Saigin and published late in March of 3 Jokyo (1686). This is an especially important anthology because the frog haiku published therein is drastically different from the standard version published in Haru no Hi. It goes:

furuike ya kawazu tondaru mizu no oto

This does not affect English translations in a rough sense, but in the original, it makes a world of difference. It can be seen in the verb jump: tobikomu is used in the Haru no Hi version, while tondaru is used in this Iori-Zakura version. The    version in the Iori-Zakura anthology is believed to have been composed slightly earlier than the tobikomu version in Haru no Hi, and thus is held to be the first (known) version of the frog haiku. Saigin belonged to the school of Ihara Saikaku, and thus was a member of the Osaka Danrin School. This means that the frog haiku in the earlier version was already known in the Osaka haiku community. It also seems to support my view that Basho was mulling over the idea of the frog haiku for a considerable amount of time.

From the viewpoint of writing style, tondaru is more colloquial, informal and plebeian (what is called haigon, or haikai terminology) than tobikomu which is formal, neutral and factual (more suitable for waka). Tondaru also has a lot of sense of humour and gaiety, exaggerating the motion of a frog or frogs jumping in a humorous manner into the water.

Another source carrying the frog haiku is called Gyozan-shu, which was a textbook of renku of the Teitoku School written by Hozan in 12 Genroku (1699) and published the following year. In this book, the frog haiku is quoted most curiously having the yamabuki ya (mountain rose) as the first five moji:

yamabuki ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

mountain rose…
frogs leaping,
the sound of water

Thirdly, let us look at one more document before ending what is now beginning to resemble a detective work. What is related in the document is arguably most famous and widely accepted, and has coloured all the interpretations of Basho’s frog haiku to this day. It is Kuzu no Matsu-bara which is one of the earliest introductory books on Shofu (The Way of the Basho School) written in 5 Genroku (1692) by Shiko, one of Basho’s disciples. As it was written two years before Basho died, and about 6 to 9 years after the time when the frog haiku could have been composed, it can be said to be highly reliable, at least important. In this Kuzu no Matsu-bara, there is a passage which talks about the situation leading to the composition of the frog haiku. To quote it by Ueda Makoto’s translation:

Master Basho was at his riverside hut in the north of Edo that spring. Through the soft patter of rain came the throaty cooing of doves. The wind was gentle, and the blossoms lingered. Late in the third month, he often heard the sound of a frog leaping into the water. Finally an indescribable sentiment floated into his mind and formed itself into two phrases:

kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

a frog jumps in,
water’s sound

Kikaku, who was by his side, was forward enough to suggest the words “the mountain roses” for the poem’s beginning phrase, but the Master decided on “the old pond”.

If I may offer an opinion, I think that although “the mountain roses” sounds poetic and lovely, “the old pond” has simplicity and substance. The passage does not mention when exactly this episode took place. Some scholars doubt the credibility of it. Yamamoto Kenkichi quotes this same passage in his book on Basho but refers to this passage as a ‘legend’.

Fourthly, none of the above accounts provides a definite answer to the exact date or correct interpretation of the frog haiku. Future studies may establish it. However, they indicate very strongly, at least to me, that the received and well-established interpretation of this famous haiku can be mistaken, and needs a critical review and rethinking. The three components (phrases) of the haiku were considered, mulled over and revised independently, as it were, over a period of time. Of the three, the last two (7-5) were less of a problem relatively speaking, albeit going through a drastic revision. It was therefore the first phrase (top 5) which was most agonising. Eventually, Basho rejected yamabuki ya (mountain rose) in favour of the now most famous furuike ya (old pond) which revolutionised Shofu, and more widely, haiku, itself.

However, whether this old pond actually existed and where, or whether it was really old is, relatively speaking, immaterial. Notwithstanding, the idea was in Basho’s imagination and creative faculty for a considerable amount of time and the important thing is that it was thus being developed in his mind. The furuike ya phrase can be said to be Basho’s invention in the sense that I have explained in some detail in this article. That is the most important point. The frog haiku may well have been as much the product of his imaginative power as the product of his acute observation. This is where Basho’s genius is found. At the very least, it was not the product of the ‘Haiku Moment’.

**

Footnote 1:  Hiroaki Sato, One Hundred Frogs: From Matsuo Basho to Allen Ginsberg (Paperback), 127 pages, Weatherhill; 1st ed edition (May 1, 1995), ISBN: 0834803356.

Editor’s note: This essay is based on a paper formerly given at the University of Oxford and originally appeared in Vol 5-1, Summer 2005, of the World Haiku Review and appears here with the author’s permission.

Susumu Takiguchi is a Japanese poet, artist, and essayist who has lived in England since 1971. He began to write haiku “seriously” while researching Basho as lecturer in Japanese Language and Civilisation at the University of Aston in Birmingham. His haigo (nom-de-plume) is Ryuseki, which means “stream and stone” (or more mysteriously, “floating stone”).

Susumu is a member of the Japan Classical Haiku Association, the Haiku Society of America, and other haiku organisations. He served as vice-president of the British Haiku Society and in 1998 founded the World Haiku Club. He is acting editor in chief of the World Haiku Review.

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