Writing the sound of water

Friends –

I apologize fro jumbled formatting. If it precludes understanding, please write to me and i will send you a Word file or a odf. My email is Haj@unt.edu.

Peace –


Writing the sound of water: Basho’s pond
Haj Ross
Poetics and Linguistics
University of North Texas

Stéphane Mallarmé told his painter friend Edgar Degas that lines of poems are never written with ideas (beautiful or not) – that they can only be written with words. This may puzzle us initially – words do, after all, convey ideas – what else is necessary? I will argue that the most important thing that writing with ideas alone leaves out is the body. Words can denote concepts, and many of them may also call up images, bits of experience from the visual mode or from other sense modalities, but all of them also involve a dance for the throat. What idea-writing leaves out is the feeling of syllables, vowels, consonants, all kinds of sounds pulsing on our breath. To learn to speak a language is (in part) to learn to produce incredibly complex sequences of contractions and releases of the muscles of chest, throat, jaws and tongue. To write poetry is to make sound and image and concept reflect off each other. To write


I propose to look at one of the most widely-known poems in the world: every Japanese child learns this haiku by the great master Matsuo Basho:

huruike ya

ancientpond – oh

kawazu tobikomu

frog jump-beincluded

mizu no oto

water ’s sound

Translation is especially hopeless here – dozens have been tried. The one below is perhaps no worse than necessary:

oh – ancient pond!
a frog jumps in
the sound of the water

The poem has the macrostructure of a sonata: A – B – A – the first and last lines (the A’s) are just noun phrases – constituents headed by nouns. The first line exclaims: it presents us with a noun phrase, followed by ya – a particle which calls us to pay special attention – it’s a syllable a little like an exclamation point. Also, with respect to this line, it is worth noting that the normal word for “old” is huru-i – where the suffix -i expresses the present tense. So if Basho had written hurui ike in this line, it would have been better translated as “oh – pond that is old!” He had something deeper in mind when he chose a compounding of adjectival stem and noun in his huruike. Not many words can be preceded by the compounding form huru- : huruboosi, “old hat,” is one. It suggests something archetypal, primeval – possibly a way to suggest this in English would be to write oldpond – like Oldtown or Oldham. He wants us to feel the preternatural stillness and calm of the pond. The American Zen master, Robert Baker Aitken, suggests that Basho is the pond; that Basho’s contemplative practice has brought him to a state of total absorption and readiness, about to burst with potential. [http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm]
At any rate, the first line gives us a noun – a still, static pond. The second line, by contrast, gives us a small actor, a frog, performing one of the prototypical acts of a frog – jumping, the poem’s first verb, tobi – followed by, and fused with, the second verb, komu – a stative verb, which gives the result of the frog’s act: the frog and pond are joined in the (aftermath of the) jump. This compounding of verbs is possible in Japanese, but this particular sequence was perhaps new in this poem. Again, like the unusual fusing of huru and ike in line 1, Basho’s choice of incorporating a verb of action and its easily visualizable image with an actionless, more abstract, verb like komu may suggest a meeting of import, significance. The first line presents a stage – a tranquil pond – but hints at great potential. The second line announces an event of the greatest import. As in zen, there is no unimportant act – brushing one’s teeth is a sacrament – so here: every jump of Everyfrog is The Great First Jump – the Primal Event, in which Will shakes the world.
The second line gives us the most expected actor for this stage, doing what we expect a frog to do: entering its element, where it can be safer, find food, be in the company of other frogs. The smallest event, so routine as to risk being overlooked – but to the poised mind of the Zen student, the touch of a feather can trigger the mystical shift in awareness known as satori – an instant of realization, the goal of the seeker of wisdom. A mind perched on the abyss of satori is like a supersaturated liquid, which the falling of a single particle can transform into a solid in a revolutionary fraction of a second.
The great Japanese Zen master Daisetz Suzuki, who was instrumental in bringing the Zen teachings to the United States, describes such a moment beautifully:

Basho discovered this in the sound of the water as a frog jumped into the old pond. This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the entire universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness. Both the subject and the object, en-soi and pour-soi, ceased to be something confronting and conditioning each other. And yet this could not be a state of absolute annihilation. Basho was there, the old pond was there, with all the rest. But Basho was no more the old Basho. He was “resurrected.” He was “the Sound” or “the Word” that was even before heaven and earth were separated. He now experienced the mystery of being-becoming and becoming-being. The old pond was no more, nor was the frog a frog. They appeared to him now enveloped in the veil of mystery which was no veil of mystery. When he wished to communicate it to others, he could not avoid this paradox, but within himself everything was transparent, and no clouds of ambiguity enveloped him.

And the third line is again a noun phrase, a return to the motionlessness of the first line – an evocation of the sound of one of the four elements of universe – water. Water is essential for all that lives: English distinguishes between various “bodies” of water – ocean, lake, river, brook, well. These differ in size, in power, and in the sounds that are prototypically associated with them. The surf roars, waves lap the shore, brooks gurgle. But still water only shows its voice if something outside enters with enough speed – then water “goes” plop, kerplunk, splash. Water-sounds like these are surely some of our earliest acoustic experiences. Many of us have seen a frog jump into a still pond, have heard the sound of the water, have seen the ripples spread out in concentric, astoundingly circular, rings, have heard the silence return. The pond incorporates the frog’s act, as ike incorporates huru-, as komu incorporates tobi, as the silence incorporates oto.
The poem goes from state (a noun phrase) to action (a sentence) and returns again to state – a noun phrase. But this final noun phrase, unlike the one in the first line, is not inert, at rest. The word oto, the final word of the poem, is an energy word. The everyday jump of the frog, in the sentence of the second line, has triggered the release of the sonic energy that was dormant in the pond. The second line of the poem gives the complement of oto – the act which brought forth the essence of water, a sound known to all humans, everywhere. Thus, as Aitken Roshi points out (op.cit), though the first two lines are separated, by the final ya of line 1 (In Japanese, such particles are called kire-ji – “cutting symbols.), the last two lines fuse into one syntactic unit, the second line being something like an object of the noun that ends the line to follow. A translation which may come closer to suggesting how these lines can be heard by a Japanese would be

the water-sound of the frog jumping in (to the pond)

In short, everything depends on this last word of the haiku: oto. We notice that to, the second syllable of oto, repeats another syllable of the poem: the first syllable of tobi, “jump.” Not by coincidence, there is only one more pair of repeated syllables in the poem: the syllable zu ends kawazu, “frog,” and also ends mizu, “water.” These two pairs of syllables are adjacent in line two: they occur at the juncture where the actor kawazu meets its act, tobi(komu). We might see them as marking the spark of action. And then, in the next line, we find zu and to again, as the final syllables of the two nouns into which the frog’s action unfolds the notion of the pond: what it consists of – mizu, which we can perhaps see as a kind of abstract actor – and oto, the resultant sound energy which the act called forth.

I would like to suggest that this three-line sequence of stopped – act – stopped is reflected in the phonetic structure of the Japanese word for sound: oto. Vowels are much more suited to convey states – they are singable, prolongable, and holdable – they are long enough to hold, touch. By contrast, consonants are too short. The very morphemes of which con + son + ant is made mean something like “that which sounds with.” Thus the wave of a vowel is cut, interrupted, by the consonant.

Not by coincidence, there are only two places in the poem where vowels come together with no interrupting consonant: two syllables from the beginning of the poem (huru + ike) and symmetrically, two syllables before the end of the poem (no + oto). This mirrored placing is connected to another deep similarity: there are only two words in the poem that begin with vowels – the poem’s first and last nouns, ike and oto. And in both of these words, and in none of the other four bisyllabic words of the poem (namely, huru, tobi, komu, and mizu) we find between the vowels the least singable of all types of consonants – the voiceless stops [k] and [t].

So the last three morae of the poem make two syllables: [no:to]. A mora is sort of like a syllable, except that to the Japanese ear, a long vowel, like the first and the last vowels of the word ookii, “big,” (phonetically [o:ki:]) has four isochronic (= equally long) morae: o + o + ki + i. Thus the correct description of the metrical structure of a haiku is not that it has seventeen syllables, divided into lines of 5 + 7 + 5 syllables, but rather that it has seventeen morae, divided 5 + 7 + 5. Thus the last line of huruike has only four syllables, but it has the metrically required five morae. Nowhere else in the poem do we find a long vowel. And, beautifully, this lone long [o:] is followed, after the briefest of stops, by a continuation of itself! In other words, we can view the last three morae of the poem as a triple-long [o::] interrupted by the quickest and smallest of obstruents – [t].

What are we reminded of here? Why of the poem itself! The syntactic structure of the poem (which is Noun phrase + Sentence + Noun phrase), a structure which semantically expresses State + Act + State, a drama which itself rhymes with the semantics of a life (we come from timelessness and locationlessness into the briefest of intervals and smallest of spaces, our life and body, and return into the Vastness of which Suzuki Roshi and Aitken Roshi speak so eloquently).

In other words, one of the reasons why this poem has survived for 400 years is because of its magisterial writing with words. The meaning and syntax of the poem rhyme with the music of its central word, oto. As we hear its music, we are entrained into its sense and structure. Like Basho, we are pond, we are frog, our life is kerplunk, our tinily immense existence is/becomes/is (thank you Suzuki Roshi)


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