|Editor's Welcome to our
"Borrowed Water" issue
Popular descriptions of haiku often characterize it as a poem about nature. Strictly speaking, that's not so—traditionally, haiku is a poetry of season, and that may include imagery of human occupations and celebrations as well as climate, weather, plants and animals that serve as a window into the moods and emotions we associate with the changing times of year.
Our themes for the Haigaonline issues have tended to be grounded in kigo, traditional haiku season references. This year, however, we've begun what I project to be a series centered on pan-seasonal nature topics. The Haiga Challenge for Spring 2017 was Native and Imported [Invasive] Species. Our Fall 2017 theme, which encompasses the entire issue, is Water: water in all its forms: oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds, rain, ice and snow, fog, clouds, indeed, the entire Water Cycle.
Of late I've been using Japanese woodblock prints with an old master haiku to complement themes. It has been a way of maintaining the connection between our modern English language haiga's connection and its origins, as well as giving me a chance to learn more about the history of Japanese art. Ukiyo-e are particularly attractive because they were the vehicle by which European and American artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt and Arthur Wesley Dow discovered Japonisme and adapted its aesthetics to their own art. Plus, the prints of 19th c. masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige are available online and in Public Domain.
This time, the research has been particularly interesting, as no artist in the world has been better than Hokusai in depicting the elemental nature of water. Eventually, though, I settled on the well-known Morning Glory poem by Chiyo-Ni (1703-75) and two prints that illustrate it by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).
The English translations can differ significantly. A 1914 paper by Yone Noguchi, the father of Isamu Noguchi, compares two florid Edwardian renderings with his own more direct
Closer to the original and better for modern sensibilities might be
Still other versions range from lengthy to minimalist:
As for word choice, the devil is in the details. A simple "I ask/beg for water" may align with the literal translation of morai mizu, but in English the absence of indirect object can imply asking permission from the morning glory. Dictionaries on Yahoo and Google deal with this by translating as "water from a neighbor". This is as Gabi has chosen, and it does make for a lovely clarity of language. I do love her version, though for purposes of the Haigaonline issue I've settled on Ueda's.
It's all in line 3, the use of the verb "borrow" rather than "get", "ask" or "beg". It's also a matter of syntax: Noguchi excepted, the other translators render morai mizu as a first person declarative sentence. Ueda constructs a past participle phrase. Notice the difference between his and Stryk's. Ueda sets up a parallel construction with the past participle phrase in in lines 1and 2, and moves the reader's gaze from the "I" to the water, which is now in hand and the object of gaze.
One may find critical discussions of the poem online. A 2009 discussion thread at The Haiku Foundation touched briefly on it and produced some thought-provoking interpretations. In a back issue of Simply Haiku there is also a short piece by Patricia Donegan that excerpts from her book with Yoshie Ishibashi, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master (Singapore: Tuttle, 1998). Donegan notes that around 90% of Chiyo-ni's haiku are about nature rather than human topics, following Basho's theory that "the poet should detach his mind from self. . . enter into the object. . .so the poem forms itself when poet and object become one." In other words, an experience similar to Buddhist enlightenment: for Chiyo-ni, water imagery was a symbol of clear perception.
Water is a necessity of life. We humans use it for drinking, cooking, washing, agriculture and manufacturing, power generation and waste disposal. Our body itself is 55-65% water. With global warming, we have also begun to realize that water is crucial to maintaining a world climate congenial to our existence.
As we begin to see, Chiyo-ni's Morning Glory is a layered poem, is more than what the author, who became a nun, intended to say in it. Two centuries on, all that has been read or written about it, all the forms it has taken in quotation or translation, have become a discourse that borrows and adds to the poem, texturing and deepening it. I am not a scholar of 18th century Japan and do not know precisely how line 3 would have been read, but for me, in the 21st century, the word choices of all the translations are in the poem. That neighbor for instance: unseen in Ueda's version but she's still a presence when you accept the reading that the poet has gone elsewhere for water. "Borrow" rather than "get", "ask" or "beg". Whether water or a cup of sugar, borrowing implies a promise to reciprocate. Sooner or later, the water we have borrowed will be returned.
Chiyo-ni died in 1775, before the steam engine and Industrial Age began an exponential increase in human impact on the environment that has been dubbed the Anthropocene Age. She could not have foreseen the 21st century, but the poem remains relevant. Yes, it's about Buddhist humility in the face of nature, but also about interdependence, not only within the human community but also in sustainable balance with nature.
Enough of such weighty matters! In a way, even writing and making art about water is a way of borrowing it. My hope is that you'll let this thought inform your reading of our Water issue and the many guises that the theme has taken in these haiku and haiga. On behalf of Haigaonline and our Resident Staff, may you have an enjoyable Autumn.