Sunday, December 30, 2012

Milky Way over Sado Island

Nichiren going into exile on the island of Sado - Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The previous post on astronomical imagery, prompted the topic for this one.
ara-umi ya / sado ni yokotau /amanogawa
# 559 JR (but note she appears to have mistakenly placed this poem in summer 1689, whereas the reference to amanogawa - the Milky Way (Heaven's river) is generally an autumn seasonal reference)
cf # 409 BH - DLB
I first encountered this poem in the collection by Sam Hamill, where the translation was:
How wild the sea is,
and over Sado Island
the River of Heaven
Nice, but I didn't mark it as a favourite. I actually skipped over and highlighted the next poem in his book
Later, in the introduction to his book Basho's Haiku by David Landis Barnhill, I met it again:
Stormy sea-
stretching out over Sado,
Heaven's River
A quite similar translation, but what totally transformed the poem for me was the following commentary:
"Basho was standing on the western shores of Japan looking out upon the night sea. He was pausing on his long journey to the "deep north" of Japan, and he could hear the crashing of the waves. Miles beyond lay Sado Island. Sado was known as a place of riches, where gold was being mined. But even more it was known as a place where numerous people, including the Emperor Juntoku, the Buddhist leader Nichiren, and the great medieval No dramatist Zeami, had endured the endorsed solitude of exile. The poem begins with an exclamation of the violence and vastness of the water, the cutting word ya functioning somewhat like an exclamation point. then our consciousness is brought to a focus on the melancholy island, small in the cold sweep of ocean. The island lies in contrast to the ocean that surrounds it, yet it harbors centuries of the emotional storm of exile. Then our consciousness is pulled up and out across the sky, as Heaven's River (the Milky Way) reaches from horizon to horizon. As a metaphorical river, it flows in eternal tranquility above the storms of the sea and of human life, sparkling with a scattered brightness more pure than gold. Basho, the island, and everything on earth seem to be alone yet together under the stream of stars. Over the storm is silence; above the movement is a stillness that somehow suggests the flow of a river and of time; and piercing the darkness is the shimmering but faint light of stars."

Wow! With this contextual background, suddenly the poem speaks to me, captivates me, in a way closer to how the original readers of Basho's Journey to the Deep North must have known, enjoying the range of subtle  resonances. After reading this, I did internet searches of Sado Island, and found pictures of the island

Ono-game rock on Sado Island
photos of the sea and waves around Sado (taken by a monk!), 

Waves around Sado Island
and woodblock prints 

The priest Nichiren going into exile on Sado island, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

which show something of the significance of Sado Island to the Japanese. Indeed, it encouraged me to try my own translation, trying to capture more of the "backstory":
The sea is rough, but
over all, even Sado,
flows Heaven's River
Some additional translations of this poem can be found here.

This has been an experience that brings home the importance of taking time with reading Haiku. The temptation for a modern reader is, with such brief works, to skip from one to the next in the anthology, looking for that one which "grabs" you. But even in Basho's day, the works were almost always set in a context that helped frame the experience. For instance, much of Basho's work is preserved in his travel journals. There we read his prose (Haibun) preceding the poems almost as an introduction and commentary. 

So the lesson for me today is when reading translated Japanese Haiku (or translations from any other language) it is important for a haiku apprentice to spend time - not only exploring other translated versions of the poem, but also researching context and connotations.

Another aspect of Haiku culture that we English-speakers lack, is the culture of "group" appreciation of haiku. There certainly are Haiku groups in English speaking countries, but most people first experience haiku alone with a book. In Basho's time, and today, publishing Haiku was very much a public event, and people gathered to read and discuss the works of famous poets. In such groupings, different people could be counted to on pick up various references to ancient poems, to connotations of landscape etc and bring them to the attention of the group, so enhancing everyone's enjoyment. 

In the absence of local Haiku appreciation groups, the Internet could be a wonderful resource for haiku apprentices, to share insights into poems, old and new. Sadly, I am not aware of blogs or websites in English where Haiku is discussed in such a way. If any reader could direct me to such sites, I would greatly welcome their advice. Alternatively, depending on whether this blog itself garners much of a readership, I may try and modify the structure of the site to include a discussion forum.  

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. Hello! My name is Lisette and I am glad to have found your blog:) I wrote a nice long message and then I lost it in cyberspace! Drat! But, as you point out, patience is a virtue, lol! I watched "Wrath of the Titans" tonight, and felt an urge to express some thoughts in hokku. My mind is pondering Andromeda, the person, and the galaxy, and so I wanted to find Basho's reference to the Milky Way, and I have, thank you! I was lucky enough to find a group I love called "The Hokku Tradition-Basho Workshop" on Facebook where I learn so very much from great teachers:) I did not find your name in your profile, but you are welcome to friend me on my Facebook page, Lisette Root. I saw you follow a blog called "Untraveled Worlds", and I am curious, so I will check it out:)I too am inspired by the Cosmos, and have a deep passion for theoretical physics, which, interestingly enough, really meshes well with hokku! I can tell you understand that yourself:)Have a great week!

    1. Hello Lisette and welcome to my blog! Thanks for visiting and I really hope you find my writing on haiku interesting and encouraging. Your positive comments were encouraging to me, so thank you!

      For professional reasons I don't identify myself.
      But my haiku pen name is "Strider", so feel free to call me by that name (in fact I will soon be posting a blog on pen names and haiku poets).

      I'm not actually "on" facebook, but thank you for the invite. Perhaps I can drop by some time. It certainly sounds a fascinating group. I presume, from the name, that there might even be some sort of renga going on. I have read a few commentaries on renga which really intrigued me, and opened my mind and deepened my understanding of where the haiku masters like Basho came from, and where they developed their skills.

      I love that you were inspired to write a poem after watching Wrath of the Titans! One of my son's loved Clash of the Titans, and I watched that with him once. Interestingly, I as well as my ongoing haiku study, I am also studying Ancient Greek philosophy, and I recently finished a course on Ancient Greek Drama. I think the Greek myths and Greek philosophy are fascinating and still so full of insight that has been neglected for centuries. You were quite astute to pick I am indeed also interested in theoretical physics. Only last week I bought a book called Quantum Philosophy, which is a philosophical examination of the implications of quantum physics. Ever since my own university days I've continued to ponder and "theorize" over the wave-particle duality, and the connection to Greek philosophical notions such as Anaximander's "apeiron", Plato's "forms" and Aristotle's "ens" and "essence", and wonder whether there are aspects of reality we are missing because our brains are not evolved to detect or comprehend it.

      I remember the marvellous graphic scenes of the gods of Olympus residing in nebulae from the Clash of the Titans, and being totally blown away (but I wasn't writing haiku poetry at that time). So I can imagine a similarly spectacular depiction in the movie you lately watched. Was it tying the mythological character of Andromeda to the galaxy? How wonderful! I will definitely get the movie and watch it with my son.

      A similarly inspirational myth-interpretation I love is Thor. The wonderful Hubble-like backdrop of Asgard links myth with magic and science. (I don't think I mentioned in my earlier post about the Milky Way, but the scenes from Thor with Dr Jane Foster chasing astrophysical phenomena inspired my astronomy-obsessed son, and on one occasion a year or so ago we set out driving with telescopes and computers to track a conjunction of planets in the morning sky, and he stood up through the skyroof of my car, where he had set up his portable telescope!) Now I think about it, an activity definitely worthy of a haiku itself! It is well known that Basho amended and even wrote poems from his travels long after the events, so it is not too late!

      Best wishes for your poetic / theoretical physics explorations!

      And thanks again for visiting and commenting.


  2. Greetings again Strider:) I drew inspiration from the movie because I had Heaven's river floating around in my subconcious self and beautiful Andromeda popped into it! Because Andromeda and our Milky Way with someday merge in a stellar ballet, I wrote a haiku about it:)(perhaps a poor one, lol)

    fair Andromeda...
    destined to dance with
    Heaven's river!

    My group isn't really into physics, so I think I confuse them at times, lol! I wrote a haiku last week that was acceptable, and I will share it with you now:)

    faded photographs...
    I am swept into
    a river of time

    I am truly a novice, but I have a strong desire to learn:)

    Happy Valentine's Day!

    1. Lisette, thank you so much for sharing your poems. I particularly like the Andromeda one. In fact, I am just finishing a blog post in which I explain how I analyze haiku, and why I think it is a very good poem. I hope you won't mind!

      I think you are far more than a novice, you have an obvious haiku talent, and should not worry what the "group approves" of! So they are not really into physics. Pff. I'm not really a connoisseur of cherry blossoms, but when someone who is into them writes authentic haiku about them, I can still appreciate that.

      You have a passion for astronomy and physics, which is obvious, and happily these are absolutely full of perfect material for haiku. Write about experiences which are genuine, capture emotions which are authentic, and then perhaps learn to take an analytical approach (such as I describe in my post) even to your own poems, to see whether you are being true to your inner vision. Then you will not go wrong, and you will write poems which you know are good, even if no one else will ever read them.

      That is my philosophy, anyway

      All the best, and I hope you continue to visit



Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!