The Old Pond
by Matsuo Bashō
An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond—
Splash! Silence again.
Haiku (俳句, listen (help·info)) is a type of short form poetry originally from Japan. Traditional Japanese haiku consist of three phrases that contain a kireji, or “cutting word”, 17 on (a type of Japanese phoneme) in a 5, 7, 5 pattern, and a kigo, or seasonal reference. Similar poems that do not adhere to these rules are generally classified as senryū.
Haiku originated as an opening part of a larger Japanese poem called renga. These haiku written as an opening stanza were known as hokku and over time writers began to write them as their own stand-alone poems. Haiku was given its current name by the Japanese writer Masaoka Shiki at the end of the 19th century.
Originally from Japan, haiku today are written by authors worldwide. Haiku in English and haiku in other languages have their own styles and traditions while still incorporating aspects of the traditional haiku form. Non-Japanese haiku vary widely on how closely they follow traditional elements. A minority movement within modern Japanese haiku (現代俳句, gendai-haiku), supported by Ogiwara Seisensui and his disciples, has varied from the tradition of 17 on as well as of taking nature as their subject.
In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed as a single line, while haiku in English often appear as three lines.
The Old Pond gives a traditional haiku in 5-7-5 form. The form presents a nature story wherein a silent old pond experiences a sudden noise, the splash of a frog in a pond, before returning to silence. The reader can interject his or her own emotions, or lack thereof, onto the tale.
I suspect that my own feelings about the story will vary depending upon the emotion I bring with me to the reading. Currently, the idea of a surprise splash from a frog evokes joy. Perhaps on another day, though, I might interpret the splash of the frog as an unwanted interruption of a long sought silence. The nature of the haiku form provides an opportunity for varying readings of the same work.
Who is Matsuo Bashō?
Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 – November 28, 1694), born Matsuo Kinsaku (松尾 金作), then Matsuo Chūemon Munefusa (松尾 忠右衛門 宗房), was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). He is also well known for his travel essays beginning with “Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton” (1684), written after his journey west to Kyoto and Nara. Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned, and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites. Although Bashō is justifiably famous in the West for his hokku, he himself believed his best work lay in leading and participating in renku. He is quoted as saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses.”
Bashō was introduced to poetry at a young age, and after integrating himself into the intellectual scene of Edo (modern Tokyo) he quickly became well known throughout Japan. He made a living as a teacher; but then renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles and was inclined to wander throughout the country, heading west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements.