Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Searching for Lost Haiku

The one thing that made me want to be a poet when I was growing up was a high school teacher reciting this haiku by Buson:

In the bedroom, stepping
on my dead wife’s comb:
the sudden cold.

That’s Robert Hass’s translation, but I swear the version I heard as a teenager said nothing about a dead wife. In fact what made chills go up my spine was precisely that it made me feel the grief without mentioning her. The way I remember the haiku—which I’m sure is inaccurate—is more like this:

Sweeping the bedroom,
I find an ivory comb
on the wooden floor.

Of course I didn’t realize it then, but this is a famous haiku and you can find translations of it all over the place, but all the translations I’ve seen mention a dead woman. I would love to find the version I first heard, the one that changed my life.

The different translations, of course, bring up the question of how much to say and how much to leave out in a poem. I’m pretty sure the haiku meant nothing to most of the kids in my class, but it might have meant something to them if it had made clear the woman’s death. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that increase in clarity would have reduced the electrical charge the poem sent through me. Poems seem to need to leave gaps for sparks to leap across in the reader’s mind. Or does the translation need to mention the woman? What would the ideal translation of this poem be?

3 comments:

Diane K. Martin said...

Sweeping the bedroom,
I find her ivory comb
on the wooden floor.


My change (above) gets in a little of both options. I could make further minute changes in that direction...but shouldn't the translation depend on what the original said?

Robert said...

Hey, I like your version! I suppose a purist might want to avoid all reference to "her," I'm not sure. Maybe the translation should depend on the original, but I guess I wasn't thinking about the best translation. I was thinking in general of what would make the best poem (e.g., if you were writing the original poem yourself). There's an interesting review by David Young of Donald Justice's Collected Poems in the new issue of Field, and he argues that one of Justice's poems "after Rilke" actually is better than the Rilke poem it's based on.

Diane K. Martin said...

Of course, "after" doesn't mean, necessarily, that it's a translation.