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May 2008 Issue VIII:2

Burning Hippo, Chuckling Beans & Dandy Dandelions,
expanding upon by R. Gilbert and Itô Y.’s translation of 7 Nenten Ku


by robin d gill

Tsubouchi Nenten’s ku were first brought to my attention by Japanese haiyû (friends in haiku) reacting to the occasional odd ku I tossed into (I hate the English “submit”) the haiku bbs’s where we hang out.  By odd, I mean ku with Chinese characters alone, including English words in Roman letters, invented words and wordplay, using commas or other punctuation marks, etc. Grateful to have a senpai (senior) in oddness and liking some of the examples given to prove it, I came to feel affection for the poet, though I never got around to reading enough of his poems to know if I liked his work taken as a whole. 

Encountering the sampling by Gilbert and Itô (May 31, 2007) in issue VII:4 (Novemeber 2007) of Roadrunner, I was unwise enough to express doubt (in a private note) about the worth of the translations, and was rightfully challenged for particulars.  Unfortunately, the main problem was not so much what was written as what was not, and by that standard I have my doubts about the worth of most poetry in translation.  In fact, excluding my books and Makoto Ueda’s Basho and His Interpreters, I cannot think of a single book of translated haiku with enough information to ensure readers get as much out of the poems as native speakers of Japanese do. Gilbert and Itô included at least the average amount of explanation (in notes after all the translations) and I reacted only because Tsubouchi happened to be on my mind and much of his work is so puzzling even to Japanese that it seems particularly futile to introduce it without the full-bodied explanation I believe should be standard when translating all tiny poems between exotic tongues. Let us briefly examine the seven ku from their article, starting from the two most famous.

1. tanpopo no popo no atari ga kaji desuyo
tanpopo no popo: / surrounding, burning! (trans. g+i)

As the translators explain, “tanpopo is dandelion,” and taking the popo part as onomatopoeia is new, though the related bôbô can mean to burn fiercely and poppo, as an adverb mimics the popping and puffing of rising fire, steam or smoke, and, as a noun, is common childtalk for a steam locomotive. The word sounds puffy+round, though dictionaries usually fail to note the visual component.  You might note that in Japan, the steam trains are always drawn with a trail of little puffs of smoke (I have even seen those clouds used for holes in sound-boxes of bowed triangular harpsichords made by a train enthusiast!).  I would probably have translated it with a cluster of two readings:

          the popo part                                                                         the white mane
     of the tanpopo, that’s                                                          of your dandelion, that’s
          a house-fire!                                                                         a burning house!

The emphatic “desuyo” at the end can be taken care of easily enough with a marked-case “that’s.” The “atari” is difficult. It can mean surroundings, or the general area where something is.  My Japanese friends think “surroundings” sounds right. I do not. I think it makes more sense as the latter, and English it as “part.” Also, we need to note that fire in English is just a fire, but in Japanese a “kaji” or “fire-thing” means a house-fire. In my salad days in Japan, I made the mistake of describing the takibi (little trash or dead-leaf fire) in front of my rented house as a kaji and the land-lady almost called the fire department. In my experience, house-fires are marked by white smoke because of the water used to try to put them out.  And, after a bad kaji, some of the bones (?) of a house still stand. So, reading the ku, I immediately separated the white fluffy head as the popo from the stem, tan, (just in this poem: it does not normally mean stem) and recalled Shakespeare’s famous metaphor based on the life-cycle of the dandelion puff (“golden lads and girls must as chimney sweepers come to dust”). When the translators write “In the pun, popo can represent the circumference of the flower,” it would seem that they are thinking of the yellow flower, which I would argue is just not the case.

The popo is where the tanpopo
is really burning!

But, does that mean the translators are wrong?  No.  I polled three of my haiyû, one who edits a fine online weekly haiku magazine, one who hosts my favorite haiku bbs and one who writes many haiku I like and takes haiku very, very seriously, though she cannot help being funny. The serious funny one, who is the least intellectual of the three, and doubts Nenten’s ku are bonafide haiku, thinks of the flower. The intellectual and long-time haiku adept with the bbs she sees a winter field with the flowers of many dandelion bursting out popo-popo in clusters here and there.  If that be the case, I can almost imagine an allusion to them growing on land with burnt down ruins beneath:

Where the tanpopo grow, po!po! That’s
the scene of the fire!

Both of the above interpretations (which are probably not quite like what they become in my readings of them) are by women. I was relieved to learn, the editor, a man, saw what I did, the wata, i.e. the cotton-like round head of seeds.  All three of my respondents told me that I was free to read it however I liked.  Sooner or later I would like to do for this ku what I did with one by Buson, survey a hundred Japanese – or maybe two hundred, with a hundred haikuists and a hundred random subjects – to get an objective reading on what is going on in readers’ heads, which is to say how the haiku works, as opposed to how we think it works based on our own understanding.  One man growing senryu in his garden so to speak, may end up doing this for me. In his fine blog, he writes of sending the following ku to the Mainichi Shinbun Bannô Senryu contest only to have it rejected.

たんぽぽにどこがぽぽかと聞いてみる   樽坊
tanpopo ni doko ga popo ka to kiite-miru

I try asking
a tanpopo just where
its popo is.

Grammar favors this reading, but I cannot rule out another, allowing for the possibility of asking other people.

I try asking
which part’s the popo
of a tanpopo

This Keg-friar (as his pen-name Englishes) might have trouble asking Nenten, for he would only reply that it was wherever you wanted it to be. Like the author of “The Purple Cow,” Nenten even has what seems to be a follow-up ku:

たんぽぽのぽぽのその後は知りません  坪内稔典
tanpopo no popo no sonogo wa shirimasen    nenten

As to what follows
the tanpopo’s popo, that
i do not know!

Perhaps I should add that his book with the ku was titled popo no atari, which we might title “Where the Popo Is” or “Somewhere ‘round the Popo” and the phrase has started to take on a life of its own in Japanese. (And now, just to get started on this one poem, I have already used up as much space as Gilbert and Itô did for all 7 ku!  Is that good? Bad? I suspect most of you could do without my explanations and explorations.  After all, my books sell dozens, while books with no explanations to speak of that hide what little information needed to grasp the poems in the back of their books – which I hate so much I would outlaw the practice if I could – sell thousands.)

2. sangatsu no amanattô no ufufufufu
in march / amanatto: / u fu fu fu fu  (trans. g+i)

I would add to the translators’ notes on “sweet nattô” that the azuki beans are boiled and no longer seem like nattô (fermented soybeans) to me, but the point that needs to be brought out does not concern the detail. It is that this ku drives many Japanese crazy.  Why? Mostly because it is not only read by Nenten fans but by practically everyone, as it got into a major junior-high school (中学校三年) textbook. Teachers are supposed to be having a hell of a time trying to explain it. Gilbert and Itô picture a group of older women eating the sweets together, explaining that ufufufufu is “a small laughing voice, made with a slightly opened mouth, that is, a kind of modest, small-voiced chuckle, and one imagines a hand placed at the level of the mouth, hiding it.” I might have imagined the same, for the type of restaurants selling that food caters to women and older ones tend to go for Japanese sweets more than younger ones, but the unintellectual haiyu mentioned already, who is female and in her fifties, claims that she takes the mimesis to mean that the poet, a male, is bubbling over gleefully, and cites a famous poem – maybe from an advertisement? – of a man opening a beer and going ufufufufu. That is to say, there is a bit of “hee, hee, hee!” in the ufufufufu.  Nenten, himself, admitting to receiving question after question on the ku, wrote that he did not want to respond to questions about what of his feelings were expressed in the ku, for he thought it better for readers to enjoy the words themselves and to concentrate on the food itself rather than conjure up the image of a man with a blubbery belly and hair of salt and pepper 『坪内稔典の俳句の授業』坪内稔典著(黎明書房).  Such words imply that the ufufufu was originally his.

I wondered if the sound was the bubbling in the pot, but my strict formalist haiyû thinks it represents nature in the early spring just starting to feel its oats. That sounds good to me. It also makes it haiku, though she does not think it a proper haiku as it is “subjective.”  By subjective, she means that only the author has the information needed to know what his ku means, so that, by conventional standards, the ku is immature or unfinished. It is the type of thing young poets who fail to think of others tend to do. This criticism makes sense if one does not know that Nenten claims there is no right way to read his ku. Knowing his stated aim is to provide people with haiku to finish drawing and color in by themselves, it seems small. My friend wrote back to grant that he was “an adept in subjective haiku”(shukanteki haiku no tatsujin).

This has many implications for analyzing haiku.  1. Our evaluation of subjectiveness is itself subjective. 2. There is a difference between the unintended subjectivity of the beginner and the conscious or selective subjectivity of the experienced poet. 3. There are two types of subjectivity, the one expressed by the poet and the one not expressed by the poet, and the second variety, where the reader is the one whose subjectivity is desired, is very different from the traditional  subjectivity problem (much of which I have problems with, but that is another matter) in haiku.

3. batta tobu ajia no sora no usumidori
flying grasshopper asian sky a washed-out green  (trans. g+i)

The original grammar is perfectly normal – nothing e.e. cummings-like in the least – and a prime example of what I have called (in six books so far, yet never to my knowledge, cited) “Japanese style,” for I know of no other literary tradition, and this goes back at least as far as the Manyôshû in Japan, with poems that are nothing but modified subjects. Had Nenten’s second possessive “no” been “ga” (a demonstrative that usually means “the” and sometimes is/are), the asian sky would probably be the subject, but, as is, it is more likely the pale green is. Either way, the grasshopper/s is/are not a possible subject. The translators knew something was up – they sensed the Japanese style was different from anything in English – and this is reflected by their use of a single line. A clearer rendition of the link of modifications would be “Flying-grasshopper-asian-sky’s washed-out green.” English, unfortunately, cannot link modifiers serially without hyphens. A possible compromise to take back a semblance of the original’s normality:

A washed-out green

There is a way to avoid hyphens and be natural in translation if one is not afraid of changing the order of the words to retain their flow.

The pale green of this asian sky of flying grasshoppers.

Unfortunately, this makes the ku entirely abstract, while there is a possibility the thought was a reverie arising from the poet’s absorption in the color of a single green grasshopper, which is to say from something concrete, material in the sense described by Alan Watts in Does It Matter?  

A grasshopper leaps –
The pale green of Asia’s sky.

Readers of Japanese might also note that the previous poem was also Japanese-style and could have been translated “march’s sweet-natto’s ufufufufu.” I did not comment on the translators’ “in march,” for it seems the best Englishing because of something they neglected to mention: Tsubouchi did an amanattô ku for every month of the year!  I must confess to having shared my formalist friend’s opinion of the ufufufu ku as lacking until I discovered there was a series. I do not find it a great series, but I still find the ku more satisfying knowing that it is part of such a series, why exactly I cannot say.  It may have something to do with my love for collecting that I recently realized has much to do with an appreciation for hyper-short-form poetry (for a long discussion of this, read the part of the foreword found in the back of my most recent, and first xxx-rated book, A Woman Without a Hole – or, Octopussy, Dry Kidney & Blue Spots – yes, it has two completely different names).

4. suichû no kaba ga moemasu botanyuki
a wallowing hippo / burns — / snowflakes   (trans. g+i)

We – meaning all translators but Hiroaki Sato with one line and Harold Stewart with two –  seem to be hung up on three lines, though a double digit percent of haiku have only one clear caesura or equivalent pause. As the original’s seams fit a fairly common 12-5 pattern, the translators might better have parsed it that way

A wallowing hippo burns –

I capitalize, though Japanese has no cases for letters, because left-adjusted poems look better that way in English and I fail to understand why poets no longer realize it.  “Wallowing” is a beautiful word and keeps the poem together beautifully, but a friend, lucky enough to have seen just what Nenten describes, said the hippo, steaming so profusely it did indeed seem on fire, was not moving, but kept very still in the water while the snow floated down.

In the water
A hippopotamus burns  
Peony snow

I was tempted to make it “a water-logged hippo,” to avoid that damn “in the,” but that would mean the hippo was completely out of the water and the Japanese suichû no, or “water-within’s” usually means “underwater.” As Gilbert and Itô explain in a note, the snowflakes in question are fluffy clusters of flakes called “peony snow.” I would prefer that the expression be Englished, but that would have meant an explanation right after the poem rather than in the notes, and, it would seem that the establishment of poetry prefers poetry to be surrounded in nothing but blank space to keep it sacred or something (yes, I think the establishment needs to loosen up and admit more diverse ways to present poetry). The falling peony snow seem a cross between huge white ashes and cotton balls.

Huge snowflakes
A hippo is burning

The hippo is in the water with its head and, possibly, part of his back out, but the “underwater” helps preserve the surreal feeling of the ku. As the “peony” (botan) most commonly describes delicious sweetrice cakes (botan mochi), “huge” might be replaced with “luscious.”  When I first read Nenten’s poem, I must admit that I pictured the hippo completely underwater with some bubbles rising and steam coming from the water surface.  But that would make the hippo boil rather than burn (moemasu), so I had to give it up.  I also imagined the scene as a cremation.  Why?  Because a translator friend once told me that she once imagined people became hippopotamuses when they died because the word for a casket, (shi)kabane, sounded like a hippo/kaba sleeping/ne.  

Despite the above, this hippo ku is one of the less subjective of Nenten’s ku. The only thing that might strike a traditionalist as odd is the ending of the verb, which is a polite conversational style rather than the special abbreviated one usually found in haiku. Interestingly, it serves to emphasize the observation in the same way a caesura particle added to the usual shortened verb might (eg. moe-keri), and does so far more naturally with the same total length. If everyone used such language in haiku, it might seem prosaic and less emphatic; but, as it is rare in haiku, it stands out and seems more poetic than the specialized poetic language!

5.  sakura chiru anata mo kaba ni narinasai
cherry blossoms fall — / you too must become / a hippo (trans. g+y)

Three of the seven ku chosen by Gilbert and Itô concern hippo. That is definitely representative of Nenten’s poems, for he wrote scores of kaba ku.   My formalist friend finds this particular ku not just subjective but silly for no one can figure out what sort of hipposity the poet would have us assume.  But, subjective or not, there is objective proof that people find something in it, for it is popular. Personally, I like it because I recall a hippo who kept his or her mouth wide open minutes, or even hours at a time (it only closed it briefly when the food thrown in it amounted to so many pounds), so I can imagine telling people to open their mouths and wait for the petals to fall in. But, for most people, I would bet it means either lying down under the trees and dozing to be covered with petals or wallowing in the same. What makes the ku so attractive to the ears, however, is the command, a type of imperative I have never seen in any other ku and I have read hundreds of thousands of them!  As with the burning hippo ku, it takes advantage of a commonly used Japanese verb-ending, and even more effectively, for nasai is at the end. Nenten demonstrates that haiku, with its all too routinized endings (in Japanese, not English, which rarely ends in a verb), should make more use of normal Japanese.  The same can be said of the desuyo (the yo an enthusiastic way to express something that sounds emphatic to a friend and pushy to someone not expecting it) in the dandelion ku.  In other words, there are aspects of Nenten’s bold style that can invigorate rather than weaken traditional haiku.

6.  haru o neru yabure kabure no yô ni kaba
in the spring — / lying down desperate, as / a hippo  (trans. g+i)

The enjambment in the translation is not half so awkward as in the original, for, if a human metaphor is implied, “yô ni” should come after the kaba, or hippo, rather than before.  The spring+o+sleep means to sleep out/through/off/away the spring.  The adverb yabure-kabure infuriates some Japanese readers (and me), for it is hard to imagine what the poet means.  I might have guessed,

Sleeping the spring
in utter abandon, call me

But there are better ways to express that, as there are also better ways to express Gilbert and Itô’s “desperate,” which might be closer to the author’s intent which he never likes to share.  Note that as awkward as the original’s grammar is, the most likely reading gives us no explicit metaphor. The “as” (yô ni), from an odd distance, probably modifies the “sleep,” i.e., “as if desperate” rather than an un-mentioned subject.  In other words, the hippo in the original is the subject (This has not yet been bounced off my haiyû, but I feel fairly confident about it):

Sleeping out spring
The picture of desperation

I guess the odd syntax may have been to use the hippo, or kaba as a psychological mimesis for the hippo’s plopping down and flopping about or maybe just lying vacantly – I just can’t tell.  I do not call the hippo hippo here, but potamus or his full name because the word “hippo,” even if it is heard in hypnosis, does not have the right sound for lying down. A kaba is closer to a potamus than to a hippo. A good example of a noun-subject used as subtle mimesis is found among Issa’s peony (botan) ku. One of my favorites praises the peony for sitting down, unlike the prosperity god dancers who went door-to-door doing a wild dance trying to milk poor people for money. To English the ending more clearly than in the original, it sits down with a potan. (fukusuke ga chanto suwatte botan kana). In a case like this yabure-kabure sleep, where we have no idea what is going on, I would go with multiple translations until I got the author to weigh in. I need to know at least whether the hippo is dead to the world or fitfullysleeping.Or, seeing as the poet does not like to discuss what he means, I would probably cut the ku and use another of the scores of hippo-ku Nenten wrote, instead.

7. harukaze ni haha shinu ryûkakusan ga chiri
to the spring wind / mother dead, herbal medicine / scatters  (trans. g+y)

Nenten’s score of hippo, month by month sweet-beans and attention to the sound of words as subjects in themselves puts him somewhere between haiku and the children’s poems of Tanikawa Shuntaro; but, he also writes many ku anyone will admit to be haiku.  This one, my formalist friend grudgingly approved of. I find Gilbert and Itô’s “to” a poetic choice but, myself, would not have chosen to translate the ku to begin with because, in English, the mother cannot die in/with/to/by the wind while the medicine scatters in/with/to/by it, as in the Japanese.  We just do not have the proper spread of connotations in a single preposition. One solution would be this:  

The spring wind
Mother dies her dragon-horn dust scattering.

Unfortunately, this makes the wind’s presence too strong. The original could use, but does not have a comma (though Nenten uses them sometimes) as “mother dies” seems to run directly into the dragon-horn-powder. I would have liked to have grilled my haiyû about this oddness and may if or when I rewrite this for a book.  About that dragon-horn. I know exotification is bad but the name of that traditional Chinese medicine, in my opinion, gives the ku just enough color to save it from being humdrum.  In the original, the enjambed medicine name flows directly into the “scatter.” If I were to use three lines, it would have been “a spring wind / mother dies / her dragon horn dust scatters.” But, following the natural break of the Japanese, which comes just before the Dragon horn, and considering that both pre and post-positions link both ways, I think this might do:

Mother dies in the spring wind
Her dragon horn dust scattering

There are many more possibilities, but on final thought, there is one reason I have come to like Gilbert & Itô’s translation (though I would give the name of the medicine) with its “to the spring wind,” more each time I read it: I can imagine their translation (and, to a lesser degree the original) repeated on an endless loop.  With the computer, this sort of thing will become easy (it already is for some of us) and might even be aimed at.  Mobius ku. I would not be surprised to hear someone is already doing them.

One more thing about Nenten.  He is commodore (?) of a haiku group, whose name (船団) might be Englished as Flotilla, and while the fulsome praise by follower-types turns me off – I just do not like “sensei-this-and-that-ism – most of what he teaches agrees with my haikai sensibilities.  He has good things to say for Teitoku, as the neglected father of haiku, which is to say that he defends word-play and other humor in the face of the more-serious-than-thou crowd (See my defense of Teitoku in the animal year chapter of The Fifth Season).  He also points out what might be called relativity in haiku by introducing the range of interpretation of famous haiku most Japanese (wrongly) think they know (You can grasp what I mean by reading Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters. No, Ueda has never recommended my books as far as I know.).  I cannot say if Nenten is a good haiku poet, however, for I have not read enough of his work or spent enough time with it to make up my mind.

Question for readers: Do I ruin haiku by explaining too much?  I ask because The Fifth Season, first book of my 10 vol. saijiki, the only lengthy introduction of the New Year season ever published, came out about a year ago, and sold only 6 copies to date. My second most recent book Cherry Blossom Epiphany did only a little better with 16 copies. As I do not write for the hell of it, my haiku series is, until I get support, suspended.

Finally, I owe an apology to Simply Haiku for writing this, as I have neglected my HIC (Haiku In Context) column.  I had not planned this article and only wrote it because I made the mistake of commenting about the translations and felt I had no choice.  Now, back to Han-chan, The Cat Who Thought Too Much and A Dolphin in the Woods.  After eating lunch.

2008, January 12

robin d. gill
paraverse press




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