3000 haiku about cherry trees, cherry blossoms, and blossom-viewing: the most haiku about a single theme ever found in one book. The haiku are divided into 60 chapters, chronological (following the viewing from the wait to the trip home), phenomenological (buds, types of trees, bloom, drinking, falling blossoms) and conceptual (the wind as pushy male, woman as cherry tree, cherry tree as woman). The book includes about 50 older and longer poems, called waka. About half are by the poet monk Saigyo, the man who loved cherry trees like no one before or since. Also, I believe that about 50 ku by Sogi prove that haiku was pretty well established over a century earlier than generally believed. The poems in the book reflect the drunken carnival-like nature of Japanese blossom-viewing.
Robin gives an overview of the book:
From the preface to book I, of the 3 comprising the 740pg volume. The original has Japanese and notes as well.
hito ni hana ôkarakuri no ukiyo kana issa 1762-1827
(people-and/with blossoms: big automaton'sfloating-world!/?/‘tis)
all those men
and blossoms: the world's
A "mountain" - often meaning only a large park - of cherry blossoms in full bloom is a sensory experience as grand as Niagara. We are thrilled, more alive than ever; yet, sitting with hearts thumping below the pink cataract, glimpsing the blue sky beyond, we also feel the chilly breath of eternity (death) and shiver. For this reason, as well as the blossoms' ephemeral beauty, there are more philosophical haiku about these tree flowers than about any other subject except the fall moon, whose Buddhist baggage encourages a different sort of metaphysical musing.
If, as not a few have claimed, a haiku must be an "objective" description of "what is" and avoid "intellectualizing," no haiku theme is so corrupt as the cherry-blossom. But, if we do not choose to banish philosophy from poetry, the opposite might be claimed: cherry-blossom haiku are proof that haiku may be many things and still be haiku. Issa's ku, one of about 800 (!) he wrote about cherry blossoms, is a prime example of this. It does not simply observe what is out there but records a subjective experience of the type one might call an epiphany. Please note: Issa's metaphor is not so outlandish as one might think. Automata were popular in Japan and common in senryu. Experiencing the world as an automaton, i.e., a sort of mechanized maya, is another matter. Only a mountain of cherry blossoms swarming with revelers could have evoked it.
From the preface to book 2:
In Book I, I claimed the bloom of the cherry was sublime as Niagara Falls. To readers who have never enjoyed a blossom-viewing, let me add more simile: the heavy clouds and eventual blizzard of light pink blossoms is as sense-shocking and mind-blowing as fireworks experienced up close. It resembles white-water kayaking, where you ride the roaring torrent in utter silence aware of infinite time and the absence of it when an occasional rock or snag is not seen until it swooshes by. I must confess that I do not know if one has to be experienced in blossom-viewing to truly appreciate the hanami haiku; I had that experience before reading the poetry. For readers who have not had that experience, here are two testimonials in vintage nineteenth century prose:
"If the plum invited admiration, the cherry commands it; for to see the sakura in flower for the first time is to experience a new sensation. Familiar as a man may be with the cherry blossoms at home, the sight there bursts upon him with the dazzling effect of a revelation. Such is the profusion of flowers that the tree seems to have turned into a living mass of rosy light. No leaves break the brilliance. The snowy-pink petals cover the branches so completely that one is conscious of a bridal veil donned for the tree's nuptials with the spring." (Percival Lowell: The Soul of the Far East: 1888)
"With us, a plum or cherry tree in flower is not an astonishing sight; but here it is a miracle of beauty so bewildering that, however much you may have previously read about it, the real spectacle strikes you dumb. You see no leaves - only one filmy mist of pearls." (Lafcadio Hearn: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: 1894)
Lowell prefaced the above with doubt as to whether he could do justice to what was "perhaps as superb a sight as anything in this world." I doubt any Twentieth or Twenty-first century writer could describe the miracle of cherry blossoms in Japan as well as he or Hearn did.
Here is Lowell on the blossom-viewing:
"If the anniversaries of people are slightly treated in the land of the sunrise, the same cannot be said of plants. The yearly birthdays of the vegetable world are observed with more than botanical enthusiasm. The regard in which they are held is truly emotional, and if not truly individual in its object, at least personal to the species. Each kind of tree as its season brings it into flower is made the occasion of a festival. . . . "(Ibid)
"But wherever the tree may be, there at their flowering season are to be found crowds of admirers. For in crowds people go to see the sight, multitudes streaming incessantly to and fro beneath their blossoms as the time of day determines the turn of human tide. To the Occidental stranger such a gathering suggests some social loadstone; but none exists. In the cherry trees alone lies the attraction." (Ibid)
Calling the annual blossom-viewings birthdays and the participants "crowds of admirers" is a brilliant way to explain the nature-centric East to the human-centric West, but Lowell fails to sufficiently appreciate the attraction of the crowd for itself - hanami as a human happening - and the fact that most of the "admirers" are drunk or drinking - with the accompanying singing, reciting, dancing, eating, etc. - under the bloom. As Shirahata Yôzaburo noted with respect to other more well-known writers on Japan, the heart of the hanami evaded even most sympathetic Western observers. The exception was Lowell and Hearn's contemporary Eliza Scidmore - the person most responsible for the idea of bringing cherry blossoms to Washington DC - who described the real thing, giving ample and sympathetic attention to sake, but we shall save her words for the chapter on drinking in the bloomshade.
Robin D. Gill (1951-). Well-known in Japan for seven erudite yet fun books deconstructing stereotypes about national character (environmental reductionism, linguistic determinism etc.) in the 1980s. All develop and demonstrate his hypothesis that difference properly...
PLEASE NOTE THAT THE ORIGINAL IS FIVE PAGES AND EASILY FOUND ONLINE Those who think of haiku as simple little poems should certainly get out and read “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!,” with its title quoted from one of...
THE ORIGINAL IS FIVE PAGES AND EASILY FOUND ONLINE
Those who think of haiku as simple little poems should certainly get out and read “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!,” with its title quoted from one of...