Plop!: On Bashō’s Most Famous Haiku- Clark Strand
I have a confession to make that may not go down well in official haiku circles, but I can’t hold it in any longer. It has been fifty years since I first read Bashō’s little poem about the frog jumping into the old pond with a plop!—and I still don’t get it.
Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve read dozens of commentaries on what is, arguably, not only Bashō’s most famous poem, but the most famous haiku ever written. By anyone. Period. There are hundreds of translations of it, but they boil down to same three propositions in the end:
1. There was this old pond…
2. and a frog jumped into it
3. with a little plop!
For over a hundred years now, translators have tried to make a poem out of this in English and it just doesn’t work. I don’t relish being the little boy from the fairy tale who cries out, “The Emperor is naked!” but in English the poem is a dud. Whatever Bashō heard and recorded in seventeen syllables of Japanese poetry hasn’t survived the voyage to the West. You might as well try to skip a stone across the Pacific.
This is as it should be. Poetry is the optimal use of any given language—the use most deeply embedded in the subtle sounds, nuances, and rhythms of that language. When we read a poem in translation, what we read is never what the poet intended to say. Not in its fullness anyway. How could it be? There is no universal language that crosses all cultural divides. We live in a post-Babel world.
The poems of Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks are not the poems of Rumi, but the poems of Coleman Barks with a heart on fire, achingly yearning after Rumi. Because Barks is so in love with Rumi’s poetry, he can’t help but want to share it. It’s that love that carries the day, bridging the gap between medieval Persian and modern English. If you think you’re reading Rumi’s poetry when you read Barks’ translations, you’ve got another think coming. You’re reading love letters. That’s what makes them so good.
There isn’t a translator yet who loves Bashō the way Barks loves Rumi. If there were, we’d have a satisfying version of this poem.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: Is there something about it I’ve missed? Something that everybody misses? Or is it simply that the poem is still growing four centuries later…still expanding to accommodate a wider range of meanings? In that case, it remains only to decide what that outermost ripple of meaning might entail. How are we to read the poem in an age of misogyny, mass extinction, and collapse?
The opening line sets the stage for a classical haiku collision between the infinite and the transitory. The old pond represents the eternal, the frog’s leap the ephemeral. At seventeen syllables, the poem is over very quickly, but it lingers in the mind. This is the classical interpretation. But if that’s all there is to it, why bother? A poem should mean something, presumably. Even a haiku. The poet should have something to say.
At a certain point in my spiritual life, I became weary of religion. After studying Buddhism for twenty years, part of that time as a monk, I wandered restlessly through a dozen more spiritual traditions for twenty years more. In the end, I discovered that they all had one of two things in common: they suppressed conversation, or they suppressed women. Usually, it was both. Religious rituals involve liturgy and lessons, sermons and singing and chanting. But these are invariably scripted. Get off script and you will find yourself silenced. In some parts of the world, that silence will be permanent. Especially for a woman. It has been that way from the beginning.
For centuries now, critics have been writing the most outlandish nonsense about Bashō’s little frog. The old pond, they say, is a symbol for the mind in a state of deep samadhi—an advanced state of contemplation that is the natural prerequisite for satori, the Zen flash of illumination that results in “sudden enlightenment.” The frog shattering the silence of the pond is, in their analysis, that sudden flash. Bashō became enlightened when he heard it.
No matter that Bashō himself never said so—that, in fact, he made no spiritual claims for the poem whatsoever, but saw it as a quantum leap forward in his haiku style (pun intended). Not only was Bashō not meditating when he wrote it, the evidence suggests that the poem was composed at a drinking party devoted to “linked verse,” a form of witty poetic repartee where conversation and collaboration (not meditation) were the rule.
What if the message of the poem was the opposite of that? What if the frog (who I now think of as she) isn’t there to reify the ideas of a dominant religious culture…but to disrupt them?
I may change my mind later, but for now, for me, this is the widest, outermost ripple of Bashō’s most famous poem. The plop! is a protest.
Before Bashō, frogs were always celebrated for their singing in Japanese poetry. But this frog doesn’t sing. Maybe she can’t. Maybe her voice, too, has been silenced—leaving her with no choice but to throw her whole body into making a sound.
It is only a small sound. Just a plop! But that is something. And it isn’t over yet. If you read the poem…and listen very closely…it can still be heard.
After all this time
Bashō’s frog still talking back
FREE RECORDED PROGRAM
Whatever You Can Get Away With In 17 Syllables: An Introduction to Haiku
An accomplished master of the haiku form, Clark Strand has been writing poetry for fifty years and teaching haiku for thirty. A former Vice President of the Haiku Society of America, he is the author of books on poetry, spirituality, and ecology, including Seeds From A Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey and The Way Of The Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, co-authored with his wife Perdita Finn. He teaches the popular group Weekly Haiku Challenges with Clark Strand on Facebook and writes the column “On Haiku” for “Tricycle: The Buddhist Review”.