A decaying pond
Many flies buzz everywhere
Curiously Mei-Lheg is unique as the only classical haiku poet whose first haiku and last haiku were both preserved for posterity. His first effort, written as a school boy, gives no hint as to his eventual prowess but does show him working on the basics of the form:
One two three four five
One two three four five six sev-
One two three four five
Mei-Lheg was a minor administrative official in Edo, now known as Tokyo, which was the capital of the shogunate. This gave him the opportunity of finding rich and powerful patrons. Mei-Lehg’s life and haiku are usually divided into three periods and the first “courtly” period consists largely of complimentary, even fawning, haiku written for these patrons. A typical example, composed for Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, follows:
Brightest summer stars
Sir Tokugawa Yoshimune
Outshines all of them
I was reminded of this minor master of the haiku recently when I re-read Japanese Death Poems, ed. Yoel Hoffman (1986, Tuttle). A literary tradition in Japan from at least 700 C.E. to the 20th Century, these poems are the poets’ “last words” usually written as they take their last breaths. Many are haiku, a poetry form of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, that typically do not rhyme. Most haiku juxtapose vivid images and have a strong nature theme or a seasonal reference.
It was perhaps inevitable that Mei-Lheg’s haiku, written in the pursuit of money and influence, would eventually devolve into purely commercial efforts. This example, from his middle “commercial” period, can be precisely dated to 1717 because of its reference to a well-known historical event involving the death of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu (1658-1714):
You’ve been in the ground three years
Drink Matsu Sake!
By the mid-1720’s it is apparent that Mei-Lheg’s approach had lost favor both with potential patrons and with businesses. His haiku reflect his embittered outlook on life during this third “curmudgeonly” period of his literary life during which, ironically, he composed haiku in the more traditional style:
Autumn’s plague of crows
Laughing raucously over
Diseased rice fields
And it seems appropriate that his final effort, composed as he died in poverty and obscurity, is a rare example of an uncompleted death poem:
Whose rattling throat?
Awakening from my sleep
I --- uuggggggh ---