Jay Schleppenbach

Reflections on
Maruyama Kaido and Kobori Hiroshi

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2001

Jay Schleppenbach


Reflections on
Maruyama Kaido and Kobori Hiroshi

Although I must begin this essay by commenting that I believe the English translations of the Japanese works in In memoriam a whirligig have seriously jeopardized my ability to correctly interpret and understand the artists, I also must comment that I do believe I have gleaned some insight, provisional though it may be. Perhaps even more importantly, however, I have enjoyed the works immensely, and whether the responses I’ve gathered from them are genuinely cultural or merely due to the influence of the translations, I do think I’m somewhat richer for having read them.

It seems to me that the haiku included in this work, as well as the sort of fanciful imagined poetic paragraphs that accompany them, are far more concrete and imagistic than most English-language haiku I have read. While poets in our country write haiku that contemplate their relationships or their mortality, Kaido writes haiku that are quite simply moments. Something like:

oh, my aged dog!
gentle and blind
still looking to cherry blossoms

does not attempt to add the colorings of personal feeling or significance to the moment. It is pure and simple. In carrying on the image of the dog, the student Hiroshi is perhaps more personal (using pronouns "I" and "my" even), but no less in the moment. The thoughts he assembles all seem to be the result of a single Zen meditation on the poem in question. The youth of Po the dog, his love of doting boys, and his blind stare at the blossoms are linked in a way that is not quite linear but more almost hypertextual. These are associations we see here, and all the result of one quiet, personal moment.

Of course, at the same time, it would be wrong to characterize these poems as "simpleminded" in addition to "simple." The poems have some interesting layers to them that bear further explanation. The final page of the packet describes Kaido as having worked with "three phases or tri-strata in its literary expression.

Firstly sharp observation, secondly symbolism, thirdly yugyo or freeness in mind." Certainly the works in question here display those characteristics. Let us consider the dog example again. The image is sharply observed, with plenty of detail, giving us a very good picture of both the dog and his surroundings, to which he is of course oblivious.

But there is also a nice symbolic level. Consider the dog as a metaphor for the universal human experience—perhaps he does not realize he is blind, and he continues to believe that if he keeps looking he will see something. Or perhaps he thinks that the cherry blossoms are still not there. Or perhaps their lure is simply so powerful he cannot resist it, even in blindness. In any of these scenarios, the gesture becomes immensely human. We all look for things we cannot see, or things that are not even there. Our lives are characterized by intense and nameless longing. We want things we cannot have. We are in essence blind dogs.

Finally, the work shows freeness of mind. It does not cleave to any traditional patterns (other than the obvious dictates of the haiku form) and it makes new connections between its two images. Chances are that a dog and a cherry blossom would not normally end up being associated, but here they are brought together memorably and realistically. A certain freeness of mind is necessary to make this happen.

It is perhaps not surprising that the student does not fall far from the teacher in terms of poetic theory. In writing his accompanying work for the haiku, Hiroshi shows the same characteristics as his sensei. In the afterword, Hiroshi describes his task as "an common way of appreciating haiku, then the appreciation naturally and freely transformes [sic] into a pilgrimage, a pilgrim around the cosmos of poesy, somewhat different, often original, still stays to the core of the cosmos of Kaido Haiku." The reverence in which he holds the older poet is clear, and the work is very much an extension of the lines contained in the haiku from which it springs. Consider this Kaido haiku:

late spring
a screen play, by mom?
a fox cry left

and the text that Hiroshi comes up with in relation to it:

"In the corridor I sensed the rustlings of kimono. A shadow has just passed across the screen, that of my late mother—never. The shadow whosoever could it be other than my mother’s, that I used to identify… And she disappeared without notice. Unlike the old white fox, of the Forest of Shinoda."

Indeed, Hiroshi works in all of the elements of the original work: the season, the mother’s shadow, and the fox. He broadens, opens each image for further exploration. Again, I must refer to this work as hypertextual, because it pulls in all the references from the poem and takes them in different directions, allowing for all sorts of connotational passages through the work. A Buddhist poem, a long-ago quiet day, a lost parent—all become part of the tapestry. It’s a fascinating work.

Hiroshi also employs sharp observation, symbolism, and freeness of mind in his work. Consider the clever clarity of a statement like "No chirps of birds. No ding and dong from the street for a while." It is just an incredibly strong insight, a perfect encapsulation of the moment. The symbolism of the passing shadow, too, cannot be ignored, for in the long run all human lives and aspirations are merely passing shadows dancing on a screen. Finally, in the free association mentioned in the previous paragraph, the young poet matches the older in terms of freeness of mind The two are certainly a well-matched pair, displaying many characteristics in common.

But since this is intended to be a study of global haiku, let us look to the commonalities and differences between the haiku of Kaido. It is perhaps important to note that all of the haiku included in this collection include some sort of image of nature, whether animal, vegetable or mineral. Generally, it serves as a source of calm, emotional reflection, whether the slow change of a river (presumably reminding the speaker of his or her own changes) or the emptiness of a crabshell (here pointing to life’s losses). These sort of Zen moments seem to be an enormous part of the works. Never are conclusions drawn for the readers; instead, open-ended observations are made which allow readers to head off in multiple directions and reach their own states of enlightenment.

The overall sense of these poems is one of loss, of an awareness of life’s fleeting nature. Although many of the poems we have already discussed fit with this mold, it is perhaps no better embodied than in this haiku:

this life—
ah, waves over waves
the hawk, alone

Though the hawk may be mighty he is alone. Waves pass repeatedly beneath him relentlessly, never stopping, never turning back. Time will pass no matter what, and in the end, we all die alone. There can be no certainty in this life. But the attitude expressed in these poems is certainly not one of anger or sadness, but rather resignation. The author seems to have a profound understanding of life, and a sense that its patterns may not be perfectly within our grasp (or certainly not within our control), but they are nonetheless part of life’s pattern and therefore worth resigning oneself to. This is poetry with a real weight and philosophical importance, if certainly not blatantly so.

Overall, the work of these writers serves primarily as a reminder of cultural differences. Just as the things we read here seem foreign to us and perhaps a little bit disjointed, so must our works seem strange and uncomfortable, perhaps not even fully in keeping with the traditions of haiku. It is important for us to recognize that difference is the result of non-matching cultural paradigms, not of any sort of ignorance or mistake. Kaido and Hiroshi serve as a fine introduction to international haiku, for even in their difference, they somehow manage to reach across cultural barriers and speak volumes. In their clarity of voice and purpose, these writers are truly international.

—Jay Schleppenbach


©2001 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors