Frogments from the Frag Pool: Haiku after Basho, by Gary Barwin and Derek Beaulieu (Georgetown, Ont.: Mercury Press, 2005). 128 pages, 5 I" x 5 I", perfectbound. ISBN 1-55128-112-0. $14.95 from most retailers.
Canadian writers Gary Barwin and Derek Beaulieu have written an interesting book about Bashô and his famous frog pond haiku. The writers have a wonderful time playing with the words and ideas of the haiku within the context of the many different attempts at interpretation. In doing this exercise they explore a wide range of contemporary thoughts on what the haiku can and cannot do, or better yet, what uses have we made of a simple expression of a moment in our personal reality.
This is not the first time that a Canadian writer has ventured into a precise if not metaphoric expansion of Bashô’s unique haiku. Steve McCaffery’s Restricted Translation with Imperfect Level Shift (After Basho) in 1991 was an attempt to create a linguistic understanding of the degrees of perception through the means of the conditions present which prompted Bashô to write this haiku.
At this point the reader is trying to understand what is it that these two writers and others have found so fascinating about the interpretation of Bashô’s haiku. In Chapter Seven of his One Hundred Frogs, Hiroaki Sato has collected more than one hundred English translations and consequent interpretations of the haiku. Whether we interpret the pond as having one frog or more frogs is possible, Sato says, because of the ambiguity of the Japanese language. It is also known that Bashô revised this haiku more than once. The question and confusion remains to this day. Does the frog jump into water, or into the sound of the water?
The above writers have taken this last interpretation to heart and manipulated this haiku into both literal and figurative renderings, which stretches our imaginations beyond belief. They explore every visual and wordplay possibility to the point that if there is any metaphysical meaning implicit in the haiku, it is obscured by the play of meaning between the interaction of the frog, the pond, and the water.
No matter where you start to read this book, you will come away with a confused sense of the meaning of this haiku. This is where I believe there is more to this collection of these linguistic gymnastics then meets the eye. For example, some of these renderings read:
"the greatest basho on earth”
an old man’s mind
pond asks basho
The deconstruction of the haiku’s meaning and the resulting play or linguistic fanfare reduces the interpreters’ vis-à-vis translators’ intent to a multiplicity of non-sense meanings and jokes. For those of us who take our writing of haiku seriously it adds another dimension. On the writers’ part is there a lack of intent for meaning even in those haiku which might seem to capture a true sense of a perceived reality? In another context it turns the difficult art of interpreting for translation into a mockery. However, it might make us ponder, no pun intended, that we search deeper into our language so that trite examples of meaning won’t suffer the consequences of an unexamined acceptance.
This is an enjoyable book to read and I would recommend it for any haiku poet who wants to experiment with the form of the haiku and not restrict it to words alone.