Shiki : kaki kueba


kaki kueba kane ga naru nari Hooryuuji

(正岡子規 Masaoka Shiki, 25-26/10/1895)


WHC Translation Project of Haiku Poems by Masaoka Shiki

Compiled and Edited by John E. Carley
Pennines, UK

as I eat a persimmon
the bell starts ringing
at Hooryuuji Temple

(version by Sususmu Takiguchi)

I bite into a persimmon
and a bell resounds -

(translation by Janine Beichman)

Shiki and the Temple
"The doctor who saw him gave him drugs which enabled him (to visit Nara, and it is possible that he may have thought that this could be his last chance to go there (the poem gives the impression that a sightseer was resting, while coincidentally the bell started to ring - all natural sequence and no contrivance whatsoever. Not quite so.

'It is believed that Shiki was in Nara on 24, 25 and 26 of October. He wrote quite a few haiku poems during these three days, including some on persimmons (At an inn where he was staying he asked a maid to bring him a bowl of persimmons. The maid peeled and cut them for him, which he enjoyed eating when he heard the bell of Todaiji [a nearby temple], telling the start of night. He loved this moment so much that he could not wait the following morning to hire a rickshaw to take him to Horyuji Temple, which he apparently preferred.

'In other words, he consciously went to Horyuji Temple in order to enjoy the bell and the persimmons there and to write a haiku."

"Yuasa sees humor in an incongruous relationship between eating a persimmon and hearing a bell (he points out that if Shiki were against laughter, he then was also equally against dead seriousness).

When I took a bite
Of persimmon, a bell rang -
Horyuji Temple."

D.W. Bender continued:

"I would (agree with Nobuyuki Yuasa that there is a (wry) humor expressed in Shiki's poem while at the same time it expresses a deadly seriousness: a juxtaposition of emotion, if what I've surmised about life ("persimmons") and death ("tolling bell") is true.

"Shiki was serious about poetic truth. However, he evidently did not find a discrepancy in such by mixing in haiku a "present," (eating persimmon and a temple bell), "future" (the bell at Horyuji Temple), and "past" (whenever).

"(Shiki has done a masterful job of writing a multidimensional haiku. It presents, past and future as well as the outer world and the inner man, light and dark (humor and seriousness). It combines season/nature and human. In addition, there would be the parallel of a piquant (sharp) tasting fruit and the startling sound of a bell, a (sharp) reminder of his brevity on earth.

"From these short studies, I would present a possible version:"

whenever I bite a persimmon a bell tolls Horyuji Temple
(version by Debra Woolard Bender)

Paul Conneally too had arrived at a similar conclusion - the juxtaposition of eating and hearing the bell could be both specific and generic:

"I think that the poem is not just about eating a persimmon and literally hearing the Horyuji Temple bell but the act of eating a persimmon now bringing to mind Horyuji where the bell was heard (So it is (written) to reflect the "bringing to mind" of the occasion."

the temple bell rings
as I eat a persimmon--

(version by Paul Conneally)

By now James Karkoski had joined the debate in person and was keen to underline the significance of 'kueba' - the condition of the verb 'to eat' - not least for its implications with regard to the idea of a 'haiku moment':

"It's already on record that Shiki didn't simply bite into a persimmon and miraculously hear a bell that happened to start ringing. Which is what the choice of "as I eat" leaves the reader with."
Mindful perhaps that the principle juxtaposition of the poem is between persimmon and bell Susumu also offered the following observation:

"Japanese bells are huge and hung in a special bell place of a temple. A long wooden pole horizontally suspended is swung at speed to strike the bell. The length of time between tolls is quite long, longer than Big Ben. The toll is heavy, austere and reverberating."

Dina E Cox had been puzzling on just this aspect of the poem:

"Would I be right in assuming that the sound of the temple bell then (is more that of a 'large' sound, more like a gong, than a bell (to our western ears).... with a heavy sounding reverberation, which continues with diminishing intensity.... and only once that has disappeared, would the bell seem to be 'struck' again?"

It would seem that we had at last found the least contentious area of the poem. Susumu replied:

"Yes, you are absolutely right, exactly so (The typical kane is something like 8 or 9 foot high and 6 foot in diameter, and weighs goodness knows how many tons!"

And there was the wider point:

"This is the practical side of understanding (Japanese) haiku - before we start thinking about the cultural and spiritual side - that actually is necessary in order to make any sense of it."

Which is quite a daunting proposition - for a translation to succeed the translator, or team of translators, must have a comprehensive grasp of the socio-economic fabric, past and present, of both the culture of origin and the culture of destination.

But good poetry is not necessarily dependant on analysis and Laurene Post proposed a draft "from the gut translation only"

taste of persimmon
as sharp as the bells

(version by Laurene Post)

As with Janine Beichman, Laurene had omitted the word 'temple'. Mary Angela Nangini, by contrast, preferred the Takiguchi approach:

as I eat persimmon
a temple bell rings

(version by Mary Angela Nangini)

To date every version of the poem proposed or scrutinised had been faithful to the image order of the original: persimmon/bell/location. Alenka Zorman wanted to explore the effect of inverting the last two elements:

eating a persimmon -
at Horyuji Temple
bell's ringing

(version by Alenka Zorman)

Or, using the noun form of the verb 'resound':

eating a persimmon -
from Horyuji Temple
bell's resonance

(version by Alenka Zorman)

Carmen Sterba too considered the sound of the bell to be central to the poem:

"the sound of the bell takes Shiki out of himself and links him with sound of an ancient temple bell"
Whether that was the precise moment that he wrote it or not, is not as important as the epiphany Shiki experienced to create this haiku. (he realized that this bell had been heard before he had been born, and would also be heard after he died. (When he went back to Matsuyama, and ate many more persimmons. It would give him a feeling of wholeness.

as I eat a persimmon
the temple bell resonates -

(version by Carmen Sterba)

These remarks on the nature of Shiki's personal exegesis were strongly endorsed by Dina E. Cox who had an important observation of her own to make:

"the temple bell is resonating" it is interesting to consider the many layers of possibilities, as well as meaning, in this haiku - augmented I'm sure, by the ambiguities of translation."

'the ambiguities of translation' - a crucial concept in so many ways, and never more so than for this most elusive of verse forms.

Some clarifications though may be in every way desirable. And Carmen Sterba's thoughtful post had contained one such:

"The 'ji' in Horyuji means temple, so the word 'temple' is not (strictly) needed (as with Beichman). On the other hand, the sounds of a temple bell and a church bell are quite different, so I prefer to use the word 'temple' to modify 'bell' in the second line even though 'kane' (bell) stands alone in the original Japanese."

Michael Nickels-Wisdom, meanwhile, brought some clarification of his own to the debate: a comment on the significance of persimmons, and - by implication - humility, to Shiki. Quoting from a translation by Hiraki Sato and Burton Watson contained in The Country of Eight Islands he posted:

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku

Mary Lee McClure had been quietly digesting (sic!) the implications of persimmons large and small. Unbeknownst to her she was about to light everyone's favourite fireworks:

the taste of this persimmon
and the deep bell of Horyuji
resounds once more

(version by Mary Lee McClure)

"I've taken many liberties, I know. But I happen to share with Masaoka-san his love for those lovely persimmons. And the gorgeous deep BONG of a temple bell is a sound never-to-be-forgotten. It resonates forever in your mind and gut and the simplicity of a bite of persimmon is all that's needed to start it ringing."

This lyrical excursion to the land of all-things-persimmon was to prove our undoing, or, just possibly, our fulfilment. But first Kevin Ryan had some rhetorical questions to ask, and some comments on the nature of simplicity:

"does the sound of slowly biting into one and the gap between bites have any reference to the slow deliberate striking of a Japanese temple bell?

"does the spreading taste and 'presence' of a mindfully eaten persimmon equate to the prolonged penetration of the vibrations of the Horyuji temple bell?

"is this essentially a comment on mindfulness?"

savouring a persimmon -
bell resonates

(version by Kevin Ryan)

"I see this verse as a simple acknowledgement of what we all know at some time - that we may find insight, upliftment and resonance anywhere - Shiki points a way to this beautifully and resonantly himself - in the simplest action, if undertaken fully."

Kevin used the word 'savouring' to shade the action of the verb 'to eat'. Earlier Laurene Post and then Mary Lee McClure had proposed 'taste', and it was this usage that attracted the present author who also had an alternative suggestion with regard to the bell:

"I am not too keen on 'resonates'. I'd argue that its principal figurative sense in English tends to notions of interiority. To that extent, and in this setting, 'resonate' might be said to describe rather that evoke."

a taste of persimmon at Horyuji the bell rings out
(version by John Carley)

Don Socha too had settled on 'taste', and had been musing on the effects of synesthesia and 'distant' reverberations:

"So, first I thought: tintinnabulation/ with this taste of persimmon--/ Horyuji (but) While poetically, the term "tintinnabulation" may serve both the taste in the mouth and the sound in ear, the word itself may be too ornate or complicated."

of the bell at Horyuji--
taste of persimmons

(version by Don Socha)

By now the process had been rolling for more than seventy-two hours. Under the heading 'Nuts and Bolts' the points raised might be summarised as:

1/ The tense and condition of the verb 'eat', its physical nature and abstract connotations
2/ The actual and symbolic nature of the sound of the bell
3/ The type and taste of the persimmon eaten
4/ The nature of the juxtaposition bell-fruit.
5/ The most effective image order
6/ The inclusion of the word 'temple'

The heading 'Translation Issues' would group some concerns such as:

A/ Literal, word for word, substitution vs. the translation of concepts
B/ Capturing tone
C/ The inclusion of phonic effects
D/ The uses of ambiguity
E/ Layering the meaning.
F/ The degree of context needed

Clearly then, Haiku Forum members were poised on the brink of a magisterial synthesis which would yield the definitive translation of Shiki's masterpiece.

Susumu Takiguchi:

" In order to understand Shiki's "persimmon/Horyuji" haiku really well, one must visit Horyuji around 25 October, take a rest at the tea house, eat persimmons and wait for the "tsuri-gane" bell to toll. Short of that, one should at least eat persimmons."

Quoted extensively from the
World Haiku Review
(The text is not available online any more, what a pitty!)


eating a persimmon
the bell reveberates
at Horyu-ji temple

(Tr. Gabi Greve)

Read about the Persimmon, a KIGO


There is another twist to this haiku.

Shiki had lived together with Soseki in Matsuyama for quite a while, before he had to travel back.
Natsume Soseki (Natsume Sooseki 夏目漱石), a close friend of Shiki, who had most probably financed his trip to Nara and back to Tokyo, had just a few weeks earlier posted a haiku in the Matsuyama Newspaper

kane tsukeba ichoo chiru nari Kenchooji

whent they strike the bell
gingko leaves are falling -
Temple Kencho-ji

Shiki's verse about the persimmons was a response to this friend, whom he had taught haiku in Matsuyama and so he posted this KAKI haiku in the same Matsuyama Newspaper.

For the sake of showing this honkadori allusion approach of Shiki,
I offer these translations

when they strike the bell
these gingko leaves are falling -
Temple Kencho-ji


when I eat a persimmon
this bell reveberates -
Temple Horyu-ji


. WKD : Unison (shoowa 唱和) .
and honkadori

Related words

***** Bell (kane), Temple Bells and Haiku

***** . Haiku and Temple Horyu-Ji  

. Natsume Soseki .


. WKD - Cultural Keywords used by Shiki .

. WKD : ABC-List of his works .

Join the Masaoka Shiki - Study Group on facebook!



Anonymous said...

where can we purchase the beautiful bell in the photo

Gabi Greve said...

well, you have to find a bell caster in Japan. I am sure it will be VERY expensive.

Here is more about bells of Japan