Saturday, August 29, 2015


It was a clear, windy autumn morning on the western shore of the Isle of Skye.  I paused.  The person I was with continued walking through a green field toward the ruins of a grey stone tower that stood on the edge of a cliff. Beyond her, the waters of the Little Minch were brilliant blue and white-capped, stretching to the Outer Hebrides in the distance.  There was no one else around.

As the moment unfolded, I knew that it was perfect.  At the same instant, I felt a sudden awareness of the passing of time.  This awareness came in the form of a catch of breath.  It was immediately followed by a longing, a longing for I knew not what.  The wind buffeted in my ears.  I continued walking.

That was long ago, and I was young.  But the autumn morning on Skye was not my first encounter with this peculiar sort of longing, nor was it the last.

The moment returned to me this week after I read this:

     I am in Kyoto,
Yet at the voice of the hototogisu,
     Longing for Kyoto.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 175.

"The hototogisu corresponds more or less to the English cuckoo.  The breast of the male is blackish, with white blotches.  The breast of the female is white, the inside of the mouth red; it has a crest of hair on the head. . . . From early summer, it sings day and night, and ceases in autumn."

Ibid, page 161.

John Nash (1893-1977), "Dorset Landscape" (1930)

Here is an alternative translation:

     Even in Kyoto --
hearing the cuckoo's cry --
     I long for Kyoto.

Bashō (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass (editor), The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 11.

The original Japanese is simple (on the surface):

     kyō nite mo  
kyō natsukashi ya   

Kyō is an earlier name for Kyoto; nite is "in;" mo is "even;" natsukashi is "long-for;" ya is a particle of emphasis (similar to "!" in English, but less emphatic; there is a softer aesthetic element to it); hototogisu is "cuckoo." Note that there is no reference to the cuckoo's "voice" or "cry":  those are interpolations made by Blyth and Hass.

The following translation perhaps captures best the deep simplicity of the original:

even in Kyoto
I long for Kyoto --

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 294.

John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

The standard interpretation of Bashō's haiku is that the Kyoto that is longed for is the old, vanished Kyoto.  Thus, Blyth writes:  "Bashō is at this moment living in Kyoto, but at the sound of the voice of the hototogisu a wave of yearning flows over him for the past, the Kyoto of dead and gone poets of old."  Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 175.

Perhaps.  But I wonder if the "longing" of which Bashō writes is the sort of longing that I experienced for a moment on the Isle of Skye.  A Japanese commenter on the haiku articulates what I am trying to get at:  "Somehow we tend to feel nostalgic in early summer, when hototogisu cry.  At times we get homesick, too, while in our own home."  Nunami Keion (1877-1927) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, page 294.

"At times we get homesick, too, while in our own home."  Exactly.

          Nostalgia for the Present

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alan Trueblood), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Borges's phrase hits the nail on the head:  "Nostalgia for the Present."

A longing for the present in the present.  Which makes no sense, of course. But it happens.

John Nash, "A Gloucestershire Landscape" (1914)

There is a dreamlike quality to this experience.  But, at the same time, the present moment -- and everything that surrounds you at that moment -- is crystal clear and luminous.  You will never be more wide awake.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

John Nash, "Mill Building, Boxted" (1962)


Fred said...


I also have been somewhat dissatisfied with "nostalgia" as an explanation. I have wondered if it might be a sudden realization that, in spite of being there, there is so much more to Kyoto than he will ever know. It's a cliche probably, but he longs to be one with Kyoto or maybe grasp the entirety of Kyoto, but knows he can never achieve it.

Sorry, can't give a better explanation.

Sam Vega said...

This reminds me very strongly of C.S.Lewis' account of the feeling which he called "Joy", and which often surfaces within his writing.:
"It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
For Lewis, as an Ulster Protestant, this feeling was a naturalistic hint of God's presence in the world and in the human heart. The Japanese load it with less cultural baggage, but it sounds remarkably similar.

E Berris said...

I am really drawn to Basho in your blogs, but for me I would translate the v. simple version as 'oh hototogisu' not ' a', which interrupts the assonance - and is clearly more 'English'; but perhaps this is too many 'o's in the final line - and is of course only my personal feeling - but isn't there something about the distant call of a cuckoo in summer which makes you want to respond?

mary f.ahearn said...

I so agree with your thoughts about the kind of longing Basho meant. It seems to me that it has nothing to do with what Kyoto used to be as Blyth suggests, but truly a longing for what's right there. This longing that we sometimes feel may, in part, come from knowing this perfect moment is already fleeing. I don't know, but I have had that longing and it takes your breath away. It can change you.
There's that wonderful chapter in "The Wind in the Willows" - The Piper- where Mole and Rat feel the presence of Pan,"a great Awe," only to lose it,and to be left with an inexplicable longing. It's lovely writing and to me, at least, powerful.
Thank you so much for these posts, they are often about things I ponder too.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I understand what you are saying; but don't you think that Kyoto is merely the occasion for a general meditation by Bashō on this whole feeling of longing? I completely agree with you that one could spend a lifetime in Kyoto and never, as you say, "grasp the entirety of Kyoto." But I think there is more going on here. Mind you, I am not saying that Kyoto functions as a "symbol" or a "metaphor," which, as you know, are alien to haiku. But, as you also know, the specificity of a good haiku (which is their strength) radiates outward into Life, the World, and the Universe.

This is why I think that Keion's comment is so perceptive: "At times we get homesick, too, while in our own home." This is the general sense that I get from the haiku.

But, of course, this is all a matter of opinion.

It's good to hear from you again. I hope that it is starting to cool down where you are. Tonight, the rain has set in here. It feels as though autumn has suddenly arrived.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you very much for the wonderful passage from Lewis, which is new to me. I agree with you that it hits the mark. It is a feeling that is very difficult to articulate, isn't it? But Lewis's contemplation on the feeling is enlightening. "An unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction" is very nice. And I like the fact that he distinguishes "Joy" from "Happiness" and "Pleasure." In my experience, the feeling has nothing to do with Happiness or Pleasure (which are highly overrated).

I appreciate your pointing out the likely Christian underpinning to Lewis's contemplation. I understand your comment about there perhaps being "less cultural baggage" in the Japanese approach; however, Bashō's haiku are the product of immersion in Buddhism and Taoism, and in centuries of Japanese and Chinese poetry (which are also greatly influenced by Buddhism and Taoism). Thus, as you know, the 17 syllables of this haiku are actually pretty heavily loaded with a great deal of (wonderful) cultural baggage. We just don't see it.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for providing another thought-provoking comment. I'm ashamed to say that my knowledge of C. S. Lewis is virtually non-existent (with the exception of a poem I greatly love: "On a Vulgar Error"). I really need to educate myself. Your quoting him in this context is perfect. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

I agree with you that the sound of a cuckoo is quite likely to provoke an "oh." But I think that Ueda using "oh" instead of "a" would be like Blyth adding "voice" and Hass adding "cry": it is not there. The equivalent of "oh" in Japanese would probably by "ya." But Bashō uses "ya" after "long for"; adding another "ya" after "hototogisu" would be very unusual (it would also make the final phrase 6 syllables). True, the hototogisu may have been the occasion for the longing, but it is the longing that is the center of the poem.

I completely agree with you that there is "something about the distant call of a cuckoo in summer which makes you want to respond." Bashō's response was his recognition of longing; but -- and this is what makes haiku so lovely (and what makes Bashō a master) -- the cuckoo is not left out of account: everything is together in one moment.

Again, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for your thoughts on this feeling of longing, which is a difficult feeling to articulate. We only know how it "feels;" it is hard to describe. Your thought that it may "come from knowing this perfect moment is already fleeing" is an excellent, and lovely, one; I think this goes to the heart of the matter. I also agree that, as you say, it can take your breath away when it arrives.

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read The Wind in the Willows: I will have to track down the chapter you mention on the Internet.

I'm pleased you liked the post. As ever, thank you for visiting.

David said...

Thank you Stephen for this post. This haiku is one of my favourites, though I've never paused to analyse it before. Basho was a Buddhist, of course, so perhaps this longing refers to the craving of the second Noble Truth. Haven't we all experienced with Blake how, in binding ourselves to a joy as it flies, we destroy the winged life? From the Buddhist perspective this comes from grasping at a self that is held to be separate from its experience and wants to cling to passing moments for fear of losing them. Because such an independent self doesn't actually exist it must 'possess' its experiences in order to feel real and substantial. But as the Zen master Dogen put it so beautifully, when we forget the self we become awakened by all things.

Fred said...


What strikes me in this haiku, which really shouldn't because all good haiku are this way, is the specificity, the concreteness--he is in Kyoto and longs for Kyoto at the call the of the bird. He is there, but longs or desires to be there. He recognizes the difference between being there and the place itself, which is so much more than what he perceives by being there.

This reminds me of my favorite haiku which I've mentioned before,"April's air stirs. . . " in that I can't express specifically what I feel. To me anyway, a good haiku is an accounting of a specific, concrete moment in time by the poet--that's all. What is seen by others is their contribution--something in them that resonates to that moment. Perhaps in a roundabout way I'm agreeing with you--it's just that I also don't like to see haiku as symbolic of something else. I think MacLeish in his "Ars Poetica says it best:

"A poem should not mean
But be."

LaoTzu tells us that the Tao that can be named is not the Great Tao or something to that effect. There are some things that can't be put into words for there are no words to contain them. I have tried to put them into words but always failed so I now resort to pointing if pushed.

The bird's call awakens something in him.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for your perspective on Bashō's haiku. As I mentioned in my response to Sam Vega's comment, Buddhism (either directly, or through the mediation of Chinese and Japanese poetry) always needs to be taken into account when reading Bashō's work (both his haiku and his prose). You demonstrate this in your comment.

One of the many interesting things about Bashō is that he is aware of, and is not afraid to show us, the struggles that are involved in trying to live in recognition of the truths of Buddhism. To some extent, as you know, he regarded his life of devotion to haiku as being in conflict with those truths. And he often pokes fun at himself for his lapses, and for taking himself too seriously. I find this very endearing, and it further deepens the humanity of all that he writes.

As you imply, this haiku is perhaps another instance of his struggles, and/or of his recognition of how the truths of Buddhism were at work in this life. What beauty he created out of the path he chose!

Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

billoo said...

Lovely thoughts here, Stephen. Since snow, summer and longing have been mentioned may I add:

Summer now: an older mode of sleep;
and this, the running dream that follows stone
and fence wire, digging in
for what remains of snow-melt and the last
good rain, the low road
peopled with bone-white figures: not
the living, in this aftermath of grass,
and not the dead we mourn, in empty kirks
or quiet kitchens, halfway through the day,
but something like the absence of ourselves
from our own lives,
some other luck
that would not lead
to now.

---John Burnside.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I greatly appreciate your follow-up thoughts. You articulate well how haiku work. As you say, their essence is their "accounting of a specific, concrete moment." The question then becomes: what does this mean to us? You and I both agree that there is no symbolism involved. Your remark about "resort[ing] to pointing if pushed" is an excellent one. It is reminiscent of R. H. Blyth's description of haiku (which I have quoted here before): a haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, NOT the moon. This, as you know, is a variation of a famous Buddhist saying. (I forget now who it is attributed to.) This does, as you say, involve a "contribution" by the reader.

I do know that it is important not to think too much when reading haiku. I am constantly reminding myself of this. Just read it and let it sit. We think and analyze way too much.

Thank you very much for the thought-provoking comments.

deborah said...

Thank you for this piece. I dip into your blog for moments of respite during a busy teaching year, and although I rarely comment, I greatly appreciate your posts.But I was so affected by this entry that I felt I must let you know. I love Thomas' work, although I hadn't come across "Abersoch," and it is full of such seemingly effortless phrases that have such resonance. I particularly love the phrase "rumours of life". Thank you for this and I shall enjoy dipping in as the new terms looms...

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the post.

The excerpt from Burnside's poem is lovely. I particularly like "the absence of ourselves/from our own lives." I've only read a few of his poems. I need to explore his work further.

Thanks again.

Fred said...


Analysis--my problem also--part of growing up in the West. Analysis has worked so well for Western science, the breaking down of things into their constituent parts, that it's almost mandatory that the same is done for everything.

I discovered that analysis doesn't always work and is sometimes inimical to what is under observation. I first discovered this, not with poetry, but with music. I love music, but I can't tell you why. I love certain musical works and dislike others, but I can't tell you why. I get a headache trying to figure it out--trying to analyze music. The more I try to intellectualize music the less sense it makes and the less I enjoy it.

So, eventually I gave up and now just listen and enjoy it or change the CD if I don't.

Stephen Pentz said...

deborah: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and about the blog in general. I'm flattered and gratified to hear that you may find "respite" here now and then. Respite is something we are all in need of!

Yes, "Abersoch" is wonderful, isn't it? It has long been one of my favorite Thomas poems. Your description of it is perfect: "seemingly effortless phrases that have such resonance." It goes its apparently simple way, but it stays with you. In this regard, the way it works reminds me of haiku: a seemingly straightforward recounting of a moment in time, but the implications are deep. Yes, it is a very beautiful poem, I think.

Thank you for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I wish you well in the coming teaching year. Please stop by again when time permits.

billoo said...

Yes, as a whole it's not one of his best poems Stephen, but the lines you indicate are interesting (btw, please don't feel you need to post any of my comments!).

I liked the unassuming 'quiet kitchens, halfway through the day'. In fact, some of the paintings you've put up, the ones in the post-War period, have that kind of quality to them: a sort of emptying after someone has left but the world continues.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I agree: too much analysis is a problem, especially when it comes to poetry. During our time, because of the obscurity of much "Modernist" poetry, people came to believe that poetry is a puzzle to be solved, and the "experts" have rushed in to provide "solutions." Which is unfortunate. I recognize the need to "understand" what the poet may have had in mind. But, as I have often stated here, explanation and explication destroy poetry.

Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

billoo: Thank you for the follow-up thoughts. Your comment "a sort of emptying after someone has left but the world continues" is lovely. I am reminded of the closing lines of Thomas Hardy's "The Walk," written after his first wife Emma's death, in which he ponders her absence: "What difference, then?/Only that underlying sense/Of the look of a room on returning thence."

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Here, by coincidence, is something I read yesterday in "Paintings in Proust" (by Eric Karpeles). I read one page most days & look at one picture -- somewhat as I do with your blog. This is from the notes on "Interior of the Arena Chapel, Giotto":
"Under the brilliant blue barrel-vaulted dome, Proust finally found himself in a place he had long dreamed of visiting. It was one of those rare occasions in his life when longing & being co-existed."

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Thank you so much for this! It is absolutely perfect. What a wonderful coincidence!

In addition to being a lovely observation in and of itself, it sheds further light on Basho's haiku, and on all of the discussion that has ensued here.

(By the way, I also have a copy of that book. It is wonderful, isn't it? Your comment will now prompt me to revisit it.)

Thank you very much. As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you.

Dafydd said...

Thank you for this posting.

It's fascinating that you should link the Japanese poem with a Welsh one (and that a commenter should pick up on Lewis' idea of "joy", for Lewis was very conscious of his Welsh ancestry, describing his father's family as "“true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate, and rhetorical, easily moved both to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much of the talent for happiness").

Fascinating because this phenomenon, this emotion, is one that is well known among us Welsh. There is even a word for it, the famously untranslatable "hiraeth". Literally "longing", it has all sorts of connotations of homesickness, nostalgia, etc. (cf. the literal meaning of "nostalgia"), but you can feel it even when you are at home (Kyoto for Basho), yet as you remark it's subtler than a mere longing for "old Kyoto" (or old Abersoch).

A traditional Welsh poem about hiraeth is one of the most famous in the language:

R.S. Thomas is not so crass as to allude explicitly to hiraeth in his poem, but as you have discerned, that's what it's about.

Stephen Pentz said...

Dafydd: Thank you very much for providing me with an introduction to "hiraeth," which I'm ashamed to say I wasn't familiar with. I would never have been aware of its presence in "Abersoch," so I greatly appreciate your showing the connection. And, as you point out, it helps to illuminate Bashō's haiku as well.

And thank you as well for the links to the Welsh poem. I particularly like the phrase "longing does not wear out" in the second stanza of the translation.

Reading your comment, Edward Thomas came to mind. As I'm sure you know, although Thomas was born in England, both of his parents were Welsh. This circumstance was important to him. For instance, he and his wife gave his three children Welsh names. He wrote a travel/nature book titled Beautiful Wales. I may be completely off-base (having just been introduced to "hiraeth" by you), but it seems to me that hiraeth is present in much of his poetry.

Thank you again for your thought-provoking comment.

Unknown said...

Stephen, You made my day with "Abersoch"...your blog is a treasure.!!!

Stephen Pentz said...

Vamsi Krishna KV: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm happy that you like "Abersoch." It is a wonderful poem, I think.

I'm pleased that you found your way here, and I hope you'll return soon. Thank you again.