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Volume 35.1
Spring 2004


book review:

One Man’s Moon: Poems by Basho & Other Japanese Poets
English translation by Cid Corman


reviewed by Jon LaCure

One Man’s Moon: Poems by Basho & Other Japanese Poets. English translation by Cid Corman (Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 2003). xi + 111 pages, 5.5 x 8.5, sewn, paperback. ISBN 0-917788-7-61. $15.00 at booksellers.

This attractive book from Gnomon Press is a new edition of a much smaller collection of translations brought out in 1984 by the same publisher. The previous volume was subtitled: “50 Haiku by Bashô, Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki, Santôka.” The current volume has fourteen poets and at least three times as many poems. Most of the poems are haiku, although there are some tanka. The poems are arranged by author in chronological order. Most of the poets are from the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) with two older poets and three poets from the modern era. The poems are presented with four haiku or three tanka per page. Only the English versions of each poem are provided. In a few cases titles or notes are given with the translations.

On the title page of both this book and the earlier edition the author statement is: “Versions by Cid Corman.” There is nothing in the introduction to indicate why Corman uses “versions” rather than “translations” to describe his book. Perhaps he intends to produce his own “poems” in English that take their inspiration from the Japanese rather than producing a technically accurate translation.

Cid Corman, for those not familiar with his work, is a well-known poet in English who has lived in Japan for many years. With Kamaike Susumu, a professor at Doshisha University, Corman did translations of Bashô’s travel diary, Back Roads to Far Towns, short stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, and works by the modern poet Kusano Shimpei. On his own he has produced numerous volumes of English poetry, collections of essays, and translations of a number of Japanese poets. Corman went to school at Tufts College and graduate school at the University of Michigan. Before coming to Japan he lived in France and Italy and has done translations from European languages.

Poets often do translations. One of the best known examples from Oriental verse is Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese. The Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Gary Snyder has translated both Japanese and Chinese verse. Common wisdom would say that the poet might produce a somewhat freer translation than a scholar. I once had occasion to look carefully at translations of one of the most beloved and difficult to translate modern Japanese poet, Miyazawa Kenji. One translation was by Gary Snyder and the other by one of the most respected scholars of Japanese literature in this country, Makoto Ueda. Miyazawa presents special problems since he freely uses coined onomatopoeia words, technical terms from religion and science, and other personal vocabulary far beyond the comprehension of the ordinary reader. In the case of Miyazawa’s more difficult poetry, the average Japanese reader may have only a vague sense of the meaning from sound, context, and orthography.

It is impossible to fault the translations by Makoto Ueda. Again and again he renders difficult passages with remarkable accuracy. On the other hand, there are seemingly wild departures from the original in Snyder’s renditions of Miyazawa’s poems. A good example is a line from the poem “Snow of Saddle Mountain.” The line in Japanese reads: “Poshaposha shitari kusundari shite …Poshaposha may be either coined or dialect. It is not in any standard dictionary. From the sound and from its resemblance to other onomatopoeia words it gives a sense of being soft, or, applied to snow, perhaps “slushy.” Ueda uses “fuzzy” which captures the idea of softness. He uses “dusky” for “kusundari shite” which might also be rendered as “dirty” (Ueda, Modern, 207). Snyder translates the line as “thawing, freezing, and thawing …” (Snyder, 115). This is not the kind of translation that would result from simply translating the words. It does, however, capture both the active and verbal nature of the line while giving the picture of the dirty or slushy snow. Snyder goes beyond what a normal translator might do to produce a “version” of the poem in English that captures both the sense and the poetic language of the original.

I assume this is also what Cid Corman intends in his collection of “versions” of well-known Japanese haiku and tanka. Corman, like most poets, has a sense of the magical power of words. In his essay on Gary Snyder’s book of poetry Regarding Wave, he quotes Lafcadio Hearn’s words to Basil Hall Chamberlain, one of the first Westerners to translate Japanese poetry. “For me words have color, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they are mood, humors, eccentricities;—they have tints, tones, personalities …” (Corman, At Their Word, 156). A sense of this comes through in Corman’s translations in this volume.

An example is the second poem by Bashô that Corman translates. His version reads:

streaked cool
muddy melon.    (13)
asatsuyu ni
yogurete suzushi
uri no doro

There are actually three versions of this haiku by Bashô. The Japanese that I have supplied above is from the last version found in Oi nikki (“The Satchel Diary”). I am guessing that Corman may have used this version because of the word “muddy.” The two earlier versions end with the word tsuchi or “soil” (Imoto, 257). The grammar of the poem is relatively simple. “Covered with morning dew, mud on a cool melon.”

Makoto Ueda in his Bashô and His Interpreters, translates the version found in the Zoku sarumino (“The Monkey’s Cloak, Continued”). The two versions are the same except for the last word.

in the morning dew
spotted with mud, and how cool—
melons on the soil    (388)

There is also commentary on the poem in Ueda’s book. One interpreter sees the poem as allegorical. The melon is really the face of a person who, although he may have a soiled appearance, is pure at heart. The other commentaries seem more to the point. The season word is “melon” for summer. One commentator simply says: “The poem makes me want to get up early in the morning.” Another finds the visual image of the melon spattered with mud and morning dew to be particularly appealing.

Corman’s translation is remarkable for the economy of words. It is a line-by-line and practically word-for-word translation. This kind of translation makes for fractured English grammar. “Morning-dewed,” and “streaked cool” both modify melon. The sound of the poem is also worth noting with multiple words beginning with “m.” Overall this seems a somewhat eccentric but very pleasant and effective translation of what most commentators agree is a simple descriptive poem.

Some of the translations, however, depart much more drastically from the original poems. On the next page of Corman’s book is the famous poem about Bashô seeing his shadow in the rice paddies on a cold winter day as he rides along on horseback:

This is winter’s day
upon a horse frozen stiff
a monkish shadow.     (14)

There are again a number of variants for this poem, one of Bashô’s most famous. The Shogakkan edition of Bashô’s collected haiku has four versions (Imoto, 315). None of the variations differ significantly in their imagery. Corman probably used the best known, which appears in the travel diary, Oi no kobumi (“Manuscript in My Knapsack”). This is also the version used in Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters (170):

the winter sun—
on the horse’s back
my frozen shadow
fuyu no hi ya
bajô ni koru

There are significant differences in the imagery between the two translations. In Corman’s translation there is a shadowy figure of a monk (or someone who looks like a monk) riding a horse on a cold winter day. In Ueda’s translation, Bashô sees his own shadow cast by the winter sun while he rides on horse back. The problem here has to do with the nature of the Japanese writing system. The same Chinese character is used for both “day” and “sun.” That Bashô means the “winter sun” rather than “a winter day” comes merely from the context. “Kagebôshi,” the last line, is more problematic. The word is made up of three Chinese characters. The first character is “shadow.” The second two characters literally mean “a follower of the law” (hoshi) and are often used for a Buddhist monk or priest. The three characters taken together mean the shadow of a person, not the shadow of a priest.

In this case Corman has produced an attractive haiku in English; however, it is clearly a “version” or variation on a poem by Bashô rather than a translation. It differs from all of the variations that Bashô produced because it changes the basic imagery of the poem.

There is also the problem that occurs with all collections of this type. The poems lack context. Much of traditional Japanese poetry is occasional verse where the circumstances of composition are important for an understanding of the poem. In Bashô’s case many of his best known poems are from the travel diaries. For example, Corman translates the poem from the “Narrow Road to the Deep North” composed when Bashô visited Hiraizumi:

The summer grasses
the mightiest warriors’
dreams’ consequences.     (16)

Again the translation reflects an extreme economy of words. Although it is actually longer than the version by Corman and Kamaike in their translation of the complete diary:

summer grass
dreams’ ruins     (87)

Both of Corman’s translations capture the tone and meaning of the poem. The problem is context. Bashô’s poem echoes lines from one of China’s greatest poets Tu Fu. It refers to one of Japan’s most famous and tragic warriors, Yoshitsune, and also to the Fujiwara clan that flourished at Hiraizumi where the poem was composed. Much of this information is provided in the notes of the Corman and Kamaike translation, but there is nothing at all in the present volume.

Corman in his brief introduction to One Man’s Moon talks about Bashô’s haiku as “essentially songs composed ‘on the move’ rather than written at a desk.” Clearly many of Bashô’s poems are based on experience, but they are also the product of countless hours of revision “at a desk.” The travel diary, “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” was not published until years after his death. With the publication of the diary of Bashô’s traveling companion, Sora, it became evident that much of Bashô’s account differs significantly from what actually took place. The diary is a carefully crafted work of art that went through countless revisions. I would also quibble with Corman’s assertion that Bashô’s life was that of an “itinerant Buddhist priest.” Kenneth Yasuda, who taught classical Japanese literature for many years at Indiana University, was always a bit of an iconoclast. Yasuda delighted in painting a portrait of Bashô as the dandy. Bashô, of necessity, carried few possessions on his journeys, but what he carried was, according to Yasuda, the very best that money could buy. Certainly Bashô traveled for various reasons and travel in those days could be fraught with hardship. Romantic wanderlust or the quest for spiritual enlightenment were not the only reasons for Bashô’s travels, however. There was also a wealthy provincial class out in the countryside who were eager to pay handsomely for an evening of elegant diversion.

I do not think this book of translations would be a good choice as an introduction to the poets for those unfamiliar with premodern Japanese poetry, but, I would recommend this volume for a number of other reasons. One Man’s Moon presents numerous translations of well-known haiku and some tanka by an English poet who obviously loves language and has a genuine talent for producing unique, striking, and often insightful translations. Many of the translations are nearly word-for-word. This is certainly no small feat with two languages as different as Japanese and English. Corman’s love of language and his love of poetry come through clearly in these translations. Anyone interest in haiku or the art of translation will enjoy this often delightful and well put together book.


Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Volume II. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.

Corman, Cid. One Man’s Moon: 50 Haiku by Bashô, Buson, Issa, Hakuin, Shiki, Santôka. Frankfort, Ky.: Gnomon Press, 1984.

Imoto Nôichi, Hori Nobuo, and Muramatsu Tomotsugu, eds. Matsuo Bashô shû. Nihon koten bungaku zenshô 41. Tokyo: Shogakkan, 1972.

Matsuo Bashô. Back Roads to Far Towns. Translated by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu. New York: Grossman, 1968.

Snyder, Gary. The Back Country. New York: New Directions, 1957.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Ueda, Makoto. Bashô and His Interpreters. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.



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