Notes On Some Haikus About Cicadas for the Beginning of Summer
(I am indebted to R.H. Blyth’s 4 volume collection of haiku and commentary for providing these haiku and for the direction in how to approach them. The haiku in these notes are based on Blyth’s translations, although I’ve mostly jiggered them to suit my taste.)
"The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?"
Chapter 26 of The Zhuangzi: External Things
Cicadas are a traditional subject for Japanese haiku. They herald summer, and are representative of many of haiku’s larger concerns. Haiku are lovely but I often find it is not easy to see where their depth lies. Part of this is because they avoid many of the tools and scaffolding of western poetry: metaphors, rhythm, even, in a way, the “poetical” and the verbal itself. So these notes are an attempt to sound the depths of some haiku with cicadas in them. The plumb line of these soundings is myself.
Bashō writes: no birds the only water far away a cicada’s voice
When everything is quiet, no birds, no sound of flowing water, nothing is moving, then the sound of cicadas does not feel like it is breaking the silence but somehow deepening it. It is as if I wake up for just a moment to what silence is, it abidingness, how it dwells as part of the world.
There’s a quote from the Tsaikentan, or the Book of Tending the Roots of Wisdom, a book which compounds Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. It mirrors this:
“When all things are hushed, the suddenness of a single bird’s call arouses a deep sense of stillness. When all the flowers have departed, a solitary bloom is seen, and we feel the infinity of life.”
Thoreau describes a moment like this and says that a single sound after complete quiet makes him aware of a “deeper and more conscious” silence.
"At intervals we were serenaded by the song of a dreaming sparrow or the throttled cry of an owl; but after each sound which near at hand broke the stillness of the night, each crackling of the twigs, or rustling among the leaves, there was a sudden pause, and deeper and more conscious…" -Henry D. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Five years before Thoreau, Alexander Kinglake wrote about this in his travel book Eothen as he moves through an ancient Serbian forest:
“One strived, with a listening ear, to catch some tidings of that Forest world within—some stirring of beasts, some night bird’s scream; but all was quite hushed, except for the voice of the cicadas that peopled every bough, and filled the depths of the forest through and through with one same hum everlasting—more stilling than very silence.”
Larry Levis describes this same phenomenon as it occurs in ripples on water instead of sounds waves, which are ripples in the air, at the beginning of the poem Elegy with the Sprawl of a Wave Inside It:
Two black swans paddling the brown canals of Sheffield Park
Are still together. The chains of their days, the bright ripples
Linked by sunlight in their passing wake,
Leave them unchanged:
Still so aloof & out of reach they shy away from the outstretched
Hands of tourists,
And weave a stillness onto the water as they pass.
The motion of their wake is a stillness.
Bashō writes: silence the cicada’s voice pervading the rocks
Thoreau’s “deeper and more conscious” is an odd choice of words. It might be something like this—that silence is itself a kind of life, or an awareness of life, or a kind of mindfulness (John Cage says that “silence is not acoustic”), so that a cicada’s call—so loud and insistent that it seems to penetrate even the rocks—describes not only the peculiar droning, drilling sound the insect makes but also how that deeper, more living silence can enter and enliven even my own stony and guarded consciousness.
What I glimpse here is not the busyness of life, not its multifarious, noisy multiplicity, but how it is also infinite.
flowing water a cicada’s cry from the bamboos the
Cicadas are not every day occurrences. They are so out of the ordinary, out of the regular day-to-day ordering of my life. They give me a chance to pay attention, and to pay closer attention than I’m usually able to. So it might be that disparate things like the sound of water, bamboo, and a temple in a forest can be brought together in a new relation, or that the Temple could be seen as part of the natural world instead of having that world merely surround it, that the water and bamboo could be part of who I am, or be integral to my consciousness.
The world, a place I am always in, so large and always at arm’s length, might be able to become my intimate, and that intimacy would not be a place I am in, but a place I am of.
Bashō writes: nothing in the cicada’s voice of how soon it will die.
When I hear cicadas singing they seem intently alive and present, all of what they are is in their song, no hidden motives, agendas, no second thoughts, no distractions. They seem imbedded in the here and now, their song inseparable from their being alive. Of course I know just how ephemeral their lives are, so their sound is completely different and contains for me an intent the cicadas themselves don’t intend.
But it is just this difference that awakens me. There is no clue to be found in the cicada’s song itself of how fleeting that life will be. The transitory exists not in the cicada or its song but in me. Cicadas sing unaffected by their purpose or the larger world around them. A cicada’s call is pure song.
Haikus themselves might have some this same quality. When I read one I may be lost in it for just a moment, because there is in it life, its own and mine. One of Keats’ final poems also has this peculiar quality of being alive on the page:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Keats’s poem is a living hand—the very living hand the poem mentions—he holds it out to the reader, to me, a poem as living being. The poem grasps me, and when I read it aloud red life flows through its lines. This is part of the strangeness of poetry, to read a poem is to enact the same breathing, shaping of the mouth, movement into the air as the original poet, no matter how long gone. To hear cicadas thrumming I could be hearing the previous generation singing 17 years ago, or the generation before that, or before that, 34, 51, 68, 170 years ago.
Bashō writes: a cicada’s shell: it sang itself utterly away.
The reason cicadas are so loud is that their bodies are mostly hollow, like a drum or a bell—and they have a drum-like apparatus inside them that generates their call. Cicadas resonate.
I could say that being mostly empty, a cicada’s body is mostly its song, just as its adult life is mostly song, or listening to song.
When I speak, a column of air in me vibrates, so a part of me is my words, and I have something in common with the cicadas. A cicada departs into its song, and leaves it emptied body as a shell behind it. So both the cicada’s call and my words are for each of us part of our being, a part of the world.
Shiki writes: the cicada only seen when it stops crying and flies
Clumsy, slow flyers, cicadas are easy to spot as they stagger through the air. But when they are singing, hidden in the tops of trees, they sound completely confident. They almost have two existences, their awkward flight and, separate from this, their sound. In this Heisenberg principle of cicadas—you can either see it or hear it but not both at the same time—there is something moving, a poignancy I can’t pinpoint. Maybe it is the incompleteness of my knowing the world, or any other person, or even poem. There is always something that eludes me in any encounter.
It does seem to be the case that even at my best moments, when I’m really paying attention, really in tune, getting it, my “take” on the world is still partial, and my being here is itself perspectival and limited. I can never not have a point of view, there’s another level to reach for, a better and more intense focus to attain. Maybe what I find sad about cicada’s duality is my own duality, which is the same as the world’s duality, at once obstacle and home.
I learn to pay attention, a little at a time, and I hope that each time I do a little better. Every poem, western or eastern is surrounded by silence. In western poetry the right margin is, besides indicating meter and rhyme, a reminder of the silence that enters as if from the right hand side of the page. In honor of this, I will say that these haiku celebrating the attention paid to a summer insect are notes sent to me from the Archives of Silence.
Finally I can read these haiku not as words, but as a way of paying attention, to the world and myself, a place where the mundane and divine are not separate, but one, and wherein I will let my thoughts travel through them silently:
a cicada’s cry it is precisely a red paper windmill
Ya-yu writes, at the end of summer:
autumn cicadas may one live on—