And how is it that we hear, each of us in our own native language? Acts 2:8.
by Nancy Arbuthnot
Today’s poetry post recognizes two significant days in our church calendar: International Translation Day and World Communion Sunday.
International Translation Day falls on September 30, the Feast of St. Jerome, recognized as one of the world’s first translators. Born c. 347 in Illyria (now northeast Italy), Jerome went to Rome around 360 A.D. to study classical languages, literature and philosophy.
While there, he converted to Christianity, and under Pope Damasus I began his translation of the Bible (now known as the Vulgate) into Latin from original Hebrew and Greek texts.
World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday in October, is a time when Christians celebrate their unity and take up a special offering for those in need around the world.
In the spirit of world-wide communion, I would like to offer reflections on a poem informed by Buddhist belief, a haiku by the classical Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):
attached to nothing,
the skylark singing.
While I cannot vouch for the literalness of this translation by American poet Robert Haas—indeed, he calls his translations “versions” to avoid the need to be chained to the literal-- I love the multiple ways that this poem can be appreciated. It may help, first, to understand a little of the haiku tradition and Buddhist thought.
Traditionally, the theme of haiku is associated with a season of the year; the form is a tight, three-line, seventeen syllable verse, employing an image drawn from common life; and the language is plain.
Central to Buddhist thought is that the natural world is transient. According to Haas, Basho brought a new seriousness, elegance and power to the ancient haiku tradition and, especially in the haiku he wrote in the last years of his life, created some of the world’s greatest lyric poems.
This haiku presents a simple scene of a bird singing in the middle of a field. The bird is a skylark, probably Alauda japonica, a subspecies of the Eurasian lark, whose song has inspired poets and musicians for centuries. In “To A Skylark,” for example, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the “crystal stream” of the flowing melody and the song’s “joyous and clear and fresh” music. (The skylark’s song can be heard here).
The setting of Basho’s haiku is probably the spring or fall, as skylarks usually foraging in fields with low vegetation, indicating a spring or early summer time when vegetation has not grown or has died off. The bird is singing in the middle of the field, in the center of its world. But, “attached to nothing”—not attached to anything, any thing in this transitory world--Basho’s bird reflects the disinterested state of the enlightened mind.
Yet, for no reason—or because it is free of reason, free from the world’s suffering, the cycle of life and death, because it is of the world but not part of it—the bird sings, joyously. Like creation from nothing, then, sound, Logos, the Word, celebrating Being.
Nancy Arbuthnot, September 30, 2016