Itô Yûki talks with Udo Wenzel: Forgive, But Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism

Michael Dylan Welch: This Perfect Rose: The Lasting Legacy of William J. Higginson

Susumu Takiguchi: Karumi: Matsuo Bashō’s Ultimate Poetical Value, Or was it?

Charles Trumbull: Meaning in Haiku

Martin Lucas: Haiku as Poetic Spell

Bruce Ross: Haiku Mainstream: The Path of Traditional Haiku in America

Robin D. Gill: Can One Hundred Frogs All Be Wrong?

Jane Reichhold: Building an Excellent Birdcage

Charles Trumbull: Between Basho and Ban’ya (Bypassing Barthes): A New Brand of Haiku?

Aubrie Cox: Clarity in the Unsaid

Zoe Savina: The Influence of Japanese Culture on the Contemporary Society


Vol. 11, No 19, Winter 2014

Angelee Deodhar: Haiku Silence 

Steve Wolfe: Bards of a Feather Lost Between Heaven and Earth

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: Haiku in German-Speaking Countries

Beverley George: Haiku and the Seasons

Bruce Ross: Haiku as an Absolute Metaphor

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku in Europe

Ferris Gilli: The Power of Juxtaposition

Jim Kacian: The Way of One

Toshio Kimura: A New Era for Haiku


Vol. 11, No 18, Spring 2014

Stephen Wolfe: Death in Deep Autumn

Klaus-Dieter Wirth: The Haiku at the Crossroads?

Michael Dylan Welch: Getting Started with Haiku

Richard Gilbert: Haiku and the Perception of the Unique

Robert D. Wilson: TO BE OR NOT TO BE -
An Experiment Gone Awry

Jane Reichhold: Should Senryu be Part of English-Language Haiku?

Jim Kacian: Skinning the Fish: Interpenetration in Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: The Practical Poet: On the Art of Writing


Vol. 10, No 17, Summer 2013

Robert D. Wilson: What Is and Isn't

David G. Lanoue: Animals and Shinto in the Haiku of Issa

Interview with Professor Peipei Qiu by Robert D. Wilson

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference in Haiku

Tatjana Stefanović: A branch with birdsong

David G. Lanoue: Write Like Issa


Vol. 9, No. 16, Summer 2012

Chen-ou Liu: Read It Slowly, Repeatedly, and Communally

Jim Kacian: So: Ba


Vol. 8, No. 15, Winter 2011

Jim Kacian: Haiku as Anti-Story

Chen-ou Liu: The Ripples from a Splash: A Generic Analysis of Basho’s Frog Haiku

David G. Lanoue: Issa's Comic Vision

Ikuyo Yoshimura: Kato Somo, the First Japanese Haikuist to Visit the United States

Dr. Randy Brooks: Haiku Poetics: Objective, Subjective, Transactional and Literary Theories

Vincent Hoarau: Suggestiveness in haiku through the work of Svetlana Marisova

David Grayson: The Sword of Cliché: Choosing a Topic

Robert D. Wilson: To Kigo or Not to Kigo

Saša Važić: What's the Use

Tomas Transtromer awarded Nobel Prize


Vol. 8, No. 14, Summer 2011

Haruo Shirane: Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths

Geert Verbeke: Haiku Study & Photo Haibun

David Burleigh: In and Out of Japan: The Contours of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Kigo – The Heathbeat of Haiku

Michael Dylan Welch: Haiku Form and Content

Richard Gilbert: Kigo and Seasonal Reference: Cross-cultural Issues in Anglo-American Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part I: The Importance of Ma

Matthew M. Carriello: The Contiguous Image: Mapping Metaphor in Haiku

Richard Gilbert: The Disjunctive Dragonfly: A Study of Disjunctive Method and Definitions in Contemporary English-
language Haiku

Bruce Ross: The Essence of Haiku

Robert D. Wilson: Study of Japanese Aesthetics: Part II: Reinventing The Wheel: The Fly Who Thought He Was a Carabao

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Vera Markova’s “Ten Haiku Lessons”

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Tranströmer and his Haikudikter

Anatoly Kudryavitsky: Haiku Poets' Last Line of Defence

Michael F. Marra: Yūgen

Robert D. Wilson: Simply Haiku Winter 2011 issue's Featured Poet: Slavko Sedlar



Robin D. Gill, USA



◎ normalizing composite translation ◎


I did not write Fly-ku! from an attraction to flies, or of flies to me. I am not like the English gentleman obsessed by their supposed ability to breed from sweat who carried out some of the first modern-style scientific experiments in history (Find him in Aubrey’s Lives). Mostly, I wanted to point out the fallacy of the so-called pathetic fallacy, with some help from Issa’s famous fly-ku, which in Blyth’s 1952 translation reads, “Do not hit the fly! / See how it wrings its hands, / its feet!” The first chapter introduces 15 translations by 14 translators (two by Blyth) and explains in detail how they cannot help but differ from the original, where flies rub their hands and feet, as said rubbing is simultaneously a fact and common idiom for begging for mercy or praying, and the vocabulary for hands and feet only unnatural in English, because the first happens to be reserved for primates. Pedagogically speaking, that single chapter is worth at least two of Weinberger’s Nineteen Wang Wei’s (a whole book), for the attentive reader will leave it wiser in the way that translation must distort and understanding why we should be careful about judging others to be naive, artificial, maudlin, or precious. And the reason I decided to finish the book before I finished others of the dozens of partially finished book-to-be’s was because I discovered something about the origin of Issa’s ku (a senryû connection) and wanted to publish it. But, such matters I leave to Fly-ku! Here, let us concentrate on the composite translations.


築山は人の手つたふわらびかな 千代

chikusan wa hito no te tsut[d]au warabi kana – chiyô d.1775

(chiku-mt.-as-for, people’s hands transmit/pass-along bracken ‘tis/!/?)

bracken pass
from hand to hand
mt. chikusan

mt chikusan
the bracken lend a hand
to people

mt. chikusan
we climb hand over hand
like bracken  

mt chikusan
hand to hand men
and bracken

Compare, if you will, the various readings against the gloss: “Chiku-mount-as-for, people’s hands transmit/pass-along bracken ‘tis/!/?” Had I dared go further and allow the mountain’s place in the syntax to be disturbed in order to pick up on more meanings of the “kana” glossed as “‘tis/!/?,” I would have needed more translations:

what bracken!
here on mt chikusan they
lend us a hand

is that bracken
lending a hand to humans
on mt chikusan?

Chiyo’s ku plays on the literal meaning of the idiom for help, tetsudau, hand-relay and the composite translation allows that to be expressed in English. Fly-ku! has a whole chapter on bracken hands, for the trope was developed earlier than fly hands. What am I talking about? What English calls a head, as in the fiddle-head fern, Japanese calls a hand. They come out looking like fists and then open, as hands can do. Because these “hands” are broken off (to eat), there are many pitiful old ku about young bracken (Adiantum, also called kujaku-shida, or “peacock fern”). Chiyo’s ku adds a sweet feminine touch to Teitoku’s “Bracken hands / Outnumber centipedes / on Mt Kurama” (mukade yori warabi-te ôshi kurama-yama), which plays the myriad hands against the 100-legs/feet of the bug. Note that still more readings might be needed if we guess that Chiyo was playing on the mountain’s name, and if we consider the fact that this bracken can be a girl’s name, any number of alternative readings come to mind, though I did not use that many in Fly-ku! for it took us too far off the subject.

mt construction
here the maiden ferns lend
all of us a hand ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have expanded on Fly-ku! above. What follows is straight from the book.


つままれて手をする蝿の命かな 嘯山 葎亭

tsumamarete te o suru hae no inochi kana – shôzan d. 1801

(pinched [between fingers], hand/s-rubbing fly’s/flies’ life/lives!/?/‘tis)

where there is life . . .
a fly already pinched
rubbing his hands

the pitiful bug

the fly
i pinch, wrings its hands:
dear life!

the pitiful thief

pinched, he rubs
his hands for life is life
even for a fly

Whether read as metaphor or description, this poem, antedating Issa and his fly-ku by almost a century (Shôzan was long-lived), contains much in common with it. The inochi kana is a fine phrase which can be translated in many ways: “life ‘tis!” “oh, life!” “it means my/its life” “it’ll be the death of me/ it.” I think Shôzan means it is a matter of life or death to the fly, which it is. As I cannot imagine a fly pinched between fingers would rub its legs together, I also suspect my first translation is correct, though it is wrong for not maintaining the “fly/flies’ life/lives.” As usual, it is hard for English to keep the ambiguity of a life possibly both the fly’s & the poet’s. The entire ku is a modification of the “life” (inochi) which cannot be kept properly linked together (i.e., the life of a fly rubbing its hands while pinched!) in English without reversing the life-comes-last syntax.


蝿一つ打てはなむあみだ仏哉 一茶

hae hitotsu utte wa [utteba?] namuamidabutsu kana – issa d.1827

(fly one, hit-as-for[ or, if/when] “namuamidabutsu”[part of a sutra]!/?/‘tis)

each fly
that i can kill
i bless


each fly
we swat gets
a blessing

the good death

each fly
swatted earns
a sutra

for each fly
we kill, another na-mu-

When the protagonist is unclear the general rule in haiku is assume the first-person. In that case, we have Issa swatting and blessing, as per the first and last readings. [“can” was added with knowledge of Issa’s ku about missing]. But a general rule is not a law; it does not rule out other possibilities.


each fly
she swats receives
my blessing


each fly
i swat enjoys
her blessing


a benediction
for every musca maledicta
we swat

When someone sneezes, they get a gesundheit, whatever that is. We stick with this phrase we cannot spell, much less understand, because a concrete blessing for so trite a tragedy – if the loss of a bit of breath and snot can be so called – is overblown. Better to use a foreign phrase. This na-mu-a-mi-da-bu-tsu is based on Sanskrit and written in Chinese characters beginning with “south-not” (namu) and ending in “buddha” (butsu). The in-between part is not so easy. We’ll skip it. Suffice it to say that it is chanted syllabet by syllabet and the whole phrase can be translated (from my Kenkyusha dictionary): 1) “I sincerely believe in Amitabha. 2) “Save us, merciful Buddha! 3) “May he [his soul] rest in peace! 4) “Glory to [whatever sutra name is inserted]. My first six translations of Issa’s poem all assume the third of these meanings, where the nebulous phrase blesses the dead fly. Many Japanese I have asked think the second more likely:


with each fly
we swat, we cry
god save us!

mea culpa

for each fly
i swat, a prayer: may
god have mercy!

old testament buddhism

each fly hit
is chased by a prayer, god
don’t hit me!

a killer’s prayer

for each fly hit
a plea: heaven have
mercy on me!

cowardly killers

with each fly
we swat a prayer for
our next life

Or, maybe it is better not to think the prayer is for either the fly or the fly-swatter but for both and all in our killing-field-of-a-world. As two correspondents point out, since part of Pure land belief is that we and others are ultimately one, blessing the fly (that its soul speeds over) is good for the karma of the swatter, too. I leave further interpretation and poetic permutation of “I,” “he,” “she,” or “we,” as you like, to the reader. The “God save us!” may be Japanned to “Merciful Buddha!” or Englished all the way to “Sweet Jesus!” There is no end to the creative paraverse.

引導を渡して呉れと後れ蝿 痾窮

indô o watashite kure to okurebae – ∀ Q 2001/08/27

(pull-road [death instructions] give please [says] dying/defeated-fly)

a benediction
please, says the dying
musca maledicta

finally swatted
a brave musca maledicta
gets last rites

please give me
the coup de gráce says
the dying fly

An indô is “the last words addressed by the priest to a deceased person’s soul at a funeral;” this “for guidance in passage to the other world.” Such words would be wasted on me, for I cannot remember directions alive and hardly think death would improve my memory! The indô can idiomatically mean the coup de gráce. The Japanese conjunction too serves to indicate something was said without using the anthropomorphic verb “to say.” Still, this is a silly ku. It’s bad enough for a fly to talk, but a dead fly? 痾窮 aka ∀ Q, says it is his early-stage work, i.e., juvenilia. I suppose it out of place, but if ∀ Q was brave enough to post it, I could hardly not include it here.

So long as we have a bit of space at the top of the page, let me remind the reader that he or she should not be thinking about flies but whether multiple translations, at least for some haiku, are good or not, and whether or not the use of clusters to present them as a composite whole is appealing.


人間の道徳蝿と相容れず 剣花坊

ningen no dôtoku hae to ai-irezu – kenkabô ( 19-20c senryû )

(humans’ morality: fly/flies-with meet/blend-include/accept-not)

Flies / Are excluded / From human morality – trans. Blyth


human morality
has no place
for flies

why we need zen

flies make
a mess of human

I un-parse Blyth, for he is off the mark. The senryû is clearly about incompatibility (not exclusion), and is a quite sophisticated statement. It is not that flies do things humans cannot countenance, but that flies, by annoying people, force them to swat out and that is a stain on a moral system where hatred and the taking of life was officially frowned upon. Flies make us betray ourselves. They make it almost impossible for a Buddhist to be a good Buddhist. Issa, as we have seen, wrote about striking a hotoke, a statue of Buddha or a corpse, while swatting a fly. Keigu paraverses in a more purely philosophical vein including Kenkabô’s idea:

蝿打てば即ち仏打ちにけり 敬愚

hae-uteba sunawachi hotoke uchi-ni-keri – keigu

(fly-strike-if/when, namely, buddha hit [emphatic/perfect])

when we swat
a fly, we swat the face
of buddha!


蝿ハにげたのにしづかに手をひらき 柳樽

hae wa nigeta no ni shizuka ni te o hiraki – yanagidaru bk 16

(fly fled/escaped-though, quietly hand[obj] [he/she] opens)

opened with care
his hand shows the fly
is not there

This senryû is from the same series that I believe gave form to Issa’s famous fly-ku. I use the third-person because when the subject is explicit in senryû, it is almost always that person [unlike haiku which is generally first-person]. A simple translation, true to syntax, might be “the fly escaped yet he quietly opens his hand.” Blyth’s translation was sober yet hyped up with a double adverb: “The fly has escaped / But he opens his hand / Very, very slowly.” I prefer to play around with the idea. More paraverses:

fly gone
he carefully opens
his hand  

a fly is
seldom found in the hand
slowly opened

the emptiness
of a hand that should have
held a fly

 his slowly
opened hand reveals
no fly

The first paraverse is in a straight senryû-style. The next is aphoristic, a style rarely encountered in senryû or haiku. If you have experienced that emptiness, you know that the third could be a haiku. The last completely reverses the syntax of the original, changing it from a description of how men act to a logical joke. Strictly speaking, it is neither haiku nor senryû. I think I got the idea from reading of a North Florida toe-bidding party where a man, finding the dish he hoped to eat gone, quipped that he was not interested in chicken-was but chicken-is (or something like that in Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic and literary masterpiece Of Mules and Men or autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road. [Additional: What is a “toe-bidding party? Sorry, I won’t say. You must read her nonfiction books!].

老の手や蝿を打さい (へ) 逃た跡 一茶

oi no te ya hae o utsu sae nigeta ato – issa d. 1827

old/elderly hand!/: fly/flies hits-even-though, fled after/spot

my old hand
hits the very spot
the fly was

Let’s face it, killing flies is not like killing mosquitoes or (with a trap) mice. We have a moving target not only live but lively enough to manifest a there!-not-there! quality worthy of quantum physics. Would I be wrong to guess that for all people who did not enjoy the satisfaction of hunting, fly-swatting must have been the game in the days before video and other electronic skill-games. In fact, we might call fly-swatting the prototype for all that Sony et al come up with. The first Gamestation© was the fly-swatter. It, too, was able to command the total mindfulness = mindlessness of the player. Now, the one rule for all games is that we cannot win all the time (This has been tested on all sorts of birds and beasts: they are more persistent if they are not allowed to succeed every time). In other words, if we never missed, fewer flies would be swatted. Yet, there are not as many misses recorded in haiku as one might imagine. Issa boasts the lion’s share of them. But before I cough up another, let me play a bit more with the last:

You try: old/elderly hand!/: fly/flies hits-even-though, fled after/spot –

 my old hand
even when it takes a swat
the fly is not  

the old hand
when it swats it swats
the fly that was

an old hand
swats the fly, all right
where it was

my old hand
not that it misses the fly
just moves!

this ole hand
don’t miss – it swats right
where fly was

right place
wrong time – an old hand
after a fly

I am not just trying to be clever with my “was” stuff and other shenanigans. A peculiarity of English is responsible for my forced translation. In English, an animal (or machine) has a trail or a track, or leaves a mark. The Japanese term ato (homophonic with another heterographic ato meaning “after/ following/next”) is more versatile, for it means all of these and also can mean something we can only describe as “the place where something was.” In other words, the fly was there, but not then. I am guessing the slow hand is Issa’s, but it could be someone else’s. [Let me add that the center reading is my favorite, for the fly moves when you read the ku from being the object of the verb “misses” to the subject of the verb “moves” – did you notice? – something that is common in traditional Japanese poetry, especially waka (5-7-5-7-7) which puts that pun/pivot in the middle 5.]


うつ手を感じて街の蝿うまくにげた 山頭火

utsu te o kanjite machi no hae umaku nigeta – santôka d.1940

(hitting-hand/s[obj] feel/sense/s town-fly/ies[subj] skillfully fled/escaped)

city slicks

 the flies in town
skillfully read and
beat my hand

The past tense – in ordinary vernacular, something rare in haiku – may mean the wandering poet has just passed through a town and, finding a fly that does not flee so quickly, looks back on the flies in the city. A few more paraverses: [Why more? Note the “read” rather than “sense” and “beat” rather than “escaped.”]


reading my hand
the town-fly makes
a great escape!


sensing hands
town-flies are adroit
at escaping


the town-fly:
an adept in the art
of escape

Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it does create caution. We all are very aware of the difference between animals familiar and unfamiliar with man. Unless tame, those that know “us” flee, and those that do not are curious, then dead, usually.

生き残る蝿がわたしをおぼえている 山頭火

ikinokoru hae ga watashi o oboeteiru – santôka d. 1940

(living-remain/surviving fly/ies-the me[obj] remembering)

the flies
that survive
remember me

Santôka’s ku do not come to a head with the fly/flies, in the manner of many more traditional hai ku [or waka] where everything else in the poem would modify the same. Paradoxically, by turning the fly into the subject of a prosaic sentence and, instead, focusing on the behavior, Santôka avoids making the fly the subject of the poem, ending it with the verb, as done in ordinary Japanese speech, without so much as a nod toward haiku convention (which would, at the very least, put a haikuesque conjugation on the verb). His second ku about “the flies that survive” appear to hypothesize upon the mechanism for the natural selection of smart city flies in his previous ku.

I would have thought twice before shortening another poet’s ku as I did the above ku by Santôka. The reason is that he composed many under-length haiku. This was not one of them, but I had to do as I did to follow another of Santôka’s idiosyncracies. He used exceptionally natural language. Any padding added would have betrayed his style. I am unsure what to call such a translation. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

とく逃げよにげよ打たれなそこの蝿 一茶

toku nigeyo nigeyo utare na soko no hae – issa d. 1827

(quickly flee! flee! swat/hit-get-not! hit-get-not! over-there’s fly)

caveat musca

beat it!
flee! don’t get yourself
killed, fly!

hey, you there!

better flee!
quickly, fly, fly!
don’t die!

if the swatter
don’t kill you

flee, fly, flee!
fly away and live
until you die!

unsafe here

quick, fly
beat it! don’t die
for me

a last plea

flee, fly!
don’t make me
kill you!

If Mother Goose
(rather than Kiku)
had a fly-swatter:

Flee, fly! Fly away!
Come back to play
another day!

I was tempted to guess “don’t let him (or her) kill you!” Issa could have been laughing at a bloodthirsty friend or an extermination campaign by his spunky wife Kiku. This seems more likely than warning the fly against staying near to him (unless he wrote this under the influence). Moreover, Issa has a similar ku where he tells an escaped bird to quickly get lost in the spring mist. [New: Quickly flee! / Flee! Don’t get hit, / Fly, over there!]


さはぐなら外がましぞよ庵 ( の ) 蝿 一茶

sawagu nara soto ga mashi zo yo io no hae – issa d.1827

(disturb [others] if, outside is better [+double emph.]!/: hut’s fly/flies)


if you want
to horse-around, then,
housefly, leave!

house rules

if you want
to zip about, housefly,
go out!

if you would
horse around, outside’s better
fly of my hut

the bouncer

act rowdy,
fly, and you’d best
get out!


act up, fly,
and, by god, you’d best
get out!

The rambunctious fly mentioned is probably one type that sometimes comes into the house and rips about like a racing car on a basketball court [Additional: in Hawaii, we called it a banzai fly]. I don’t know if housefly is right. “Hut’s fly” doesn’t work, as can be seen from the middle translation, “fly of my hut” is too long and ludicrous. [the double emphatic “by God”.]

As already clear to readers of Fly-ku! Issa was remarkable for addressing flies even when they were not on the point of dying. I think the mark of a healthy anthropomorphism, if you insist that a relation real or imagined with an animal that is not human be labeled, is that it is as likely to be scolding as loving. I think we all know that, though we might not be aware of it. If people (poets or not) are often challenged for anthropomorphism, the pathetic fallacy, it is for the pretentiousness, maudlinity and so forth when they express affection for these creatures, but seldom if ever for giving them a piece of their mind or booting them in the ass . . . no, tail!


夜の蝿人を忘れて何処へか 之房 新選

yoru no hae hito o wasurete izuko e ka – Šibo, 1773.

(night’s fly/ies, people[obj] forgetting, where to?)

a mystery

forgetting men
where in the world do flies
go at night

the question

flies at night
where do they go
without us

flies without people

do our flies go
at night?

This poem did not need many translations. The idea is so simple and, I think, good that any translation would work. Yet I did many out of love for the poem and fear that I might fail to select the best possible reading. There is a fine line between paraversing out of strength and weakness. Your translator does not know whether he does it because he is blessed with more imagination than most translators or cursed with worse judgment.

But, look at the titles. Only the last, which incorporates part of the poem in the title is needed. Yet, each creates a different and completely different mood. It just occurred to me that if I did not mind the waste of paper, I might reprint a single haiku every other page with a different title and a different explanation. I may just do just that some day on the world-wide web where the carbon footprint will be minimal.



From A Dolphin in the Woods, Paraverse Press 2009.