Santōka Taneda: Haiku Master

My begging bowl
Accepts the fallen leaves.

If most people have heard of the great haiku poets at all, it is generally Bashō and that most famous of all his haiku about a frog leaping into a pond:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.
—–translated by R. H. Blyth

 

Personally, this is not my favorite haiku and I’ve read scores of English language versions: here is a website that has 30 of the best.   Actually, I like Allen Ginsberg‘s rendition, which incorporates the sound of the sound:

 

The old pond
A frog jumped in,
Kerplunk!
—–translated by Allen Ginsberg

 

The other well-known master haiku poets are Buson, Shiki, and my personal favorite, Issa.  Chances are, though, if you don’t read Eastern poetry with any regularity you may not recognize their names.

The one thing most people do know about haiku is inaccurate; haiku in English is not a 17 syllable, three-line poem with 5 syllables to the first line, 7 to the second line, and 5 to the third line.  At least, it is not only that.  It is approximately that way in Japanese (although Japanese haiku are written in one line, not three), but in English 10 to 14 syllables more approximates the length of Japanese haiku because the rough Japanese equivalent to syllables, morae, are much shorter.  Of course, the issue is more complicated than this;  here is one of the best, simplest explanations I could find.

Personally, the best definition I know of a haiku is that it is a poem that lasts as long as the intake and exhale (and rest) of a single breath. 

Along with the other haiku masters, Santōka Taneda, a modern haiku poet, is also not a household name in America.   Of all modern Japanese poets,  Santōka Taneda has the most books published about him in Japan each year.  And there is a reason: he is very good, indeed, if one might judge from translations.

Santōka was born in 1882 and died in October 1940.  He was one of the first haiku poets in Japan to break with the traditional elements of the form; he did not write haiku in 17 syllables and he did not include a seasonal word (kigo).  This was a radical shift in tradition and made for a very different tone and approach.   His work is enjoyed for its bare bones style, and his infusion of Zen elements, such as simplicity, solitude, and impermanence, into his poems.   His overall technique somehow creates a more universal appeal, which explains his popularity beyond the poetic and scholarly communities – Santōka is one of Japan’s most popular poets and in recent years is becoming better known in English.

The title of his collection, Mountain Tasting, is taken from his following observation:

“Westerners like to conquer mountains;
Orientals like to contemplate them.
As for me, I like to taste the mountains.”

 

Mountain Tasting gathers together nearly 400 of his haiku, along with a selection of his journal entries from his many trips throughout Japan as a Zen priest, traveling on foot with only a single bowl for both begging and meals.  Santōka was born to a rich family that soon found itself on hard times.  His mother killed herself over his father’s numerous infidelities when Santōka was still young.   His father subsequently lost much of his fortune, resulting in the suicide of Santōka’s brother and Santōka’s own life of drunken dissipation while at school and later in business.  After an unsuccessful marriage, he was for a time a librarian, but lost this job also due to erratic living.  Finally, after an unsuccessful suiced attempt he was taken to a Zen temple, where he managed to pull himself together.

Here are some examples of Santōka’s haiku:

Young men march away―
The mountain greenness
is at its peak.

 

There is a great deal in this brief little poem – war, death, regeneration.  It is reminiscent of that other famous Bashō haiku:

Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

 

In my mind, these are two of the finest anti-war poems ever written, both taking a global view of simultaneous spiritual and practical proportions.  Of course, they might be read as pro-war also, just a part of the eternal cycle of existence.

Here’s another beauty by Santōka:

Oh! This louse
I’ve caught
Is so warm!

 

For those familiar with English poetry, John Donne’s “The Flea” comes to mind.  Though Donne’s poem is a convoluted seduction song, Santōka’s is every bit as grand, if barely as long as Donne’s first line. Santōka celebrates all of life: the louse having just lustily fed on Santōka, his own astonished reaction at their shared bond of warmth, the moment of revelation, and its resonance.  The blood shared between humans and the flea in one poem and a louse and a poet in the other inspires both poets to mighty raptures concerning  miniscule things.

This is another war poem:

The bones,
Silently this time,
Returned across the ocean.

 

This is a tiny poem, perfectly translated; in the complementary clause of the second line you can hear the silence, so one can recall only too vividly how these bones talked on the boat on their way to war. 

One last poem perfectly places man in nature:

The beauty of the sunset
Grieves not for old age.

 

Since there is only one book by Santōka Taneda currently in our system, here are a raft of web-based resources for you to explore if you’d like to know more:

 

Santoka Taneda

Taneda Santôka’s Haiku

About Taneda Santoka and his Somokuto  (page down a bit)

Weeds, Falling Rain (a selection of haiku)

Santoka Taneda (1882-1940)

Pathography of Santoka Taneda (pdf)

Walking Zen (Michael Hoffman on Santōka Taneda)

 

 

Finally, there is a generous selection via Google Books from the volume For All My Walking, translated by the well known Asian scholar, Burton Watson, a book which is currently on order for the library.

Even the sound of the raindrops
Has grown older.

 

– Don

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Santōka Taneda: Haiku Master

  1. I’ve read some Japanese literature, but never any poetry. This was really interesting, thanks! Mountain Tasting is now on my to-read list.

  2. Glad you liked the post, Scott. Japanese poetry, both ancient and modern, is quite moving.

    Don

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