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Fly-ku!   samples

To swat or not to swat: that is the question posed by many if not most of the thousands of haiku written about flies over the past four or five hundred years. The answer, if there is an answer, is not simple. Most Japanese poets hardly shared John Muir’s sense of kinship for “our horizontal brothers”, who “make all dead flesh fly,” much less John Clare’s gushy affection for “our fairy familiars.”  Even the haiku of the most merciful poet of all, Kobayashi Issa, whose feeling for flies comes closest to that of the American naturalist and English nature poet, did not really condemn swatting as most of his Western and, for that matter, Japanese readers, usually imagine. 


Not only were the pre-modern Japanese (including Issa) less precious than we on both sides of the Pacific would have it today, but they reveled in poems about killing the little beasties.   Hae-uchi – “fly-swatting” or “fly-swatter” – has long been a bona fide seasonal term in haiku.  While house-flies lack the aesthetic appeal of the fire-flies  (the latter boasting over 6x more old haiku), are less powerful than the strident cicada  (over 4x more), and less troublesome than mosquitoes (2x), they enjoy a respectable presence (150 haiku in Shiki’s Categorical [bunruihaiku zenshuu] from which I got the above figures).  I believe the heart of that respectable presence is this:  flies present poets with a personal dilemma.  On the one hand, the poets feel a strong compulsion to swat; on the other hand, they believe, or professed to believe, that the wanton taking of animal life is sinful and would endanger their own soul’s future.


note:  the book has the original Japanese right here.
haedera ya kami no kudarase tamau tote – issa (d.1827)

(fly-temple:/!  god/s confer please give [as if praying that] = The tote at the end of the original is a Japanese word indicating that what precedes is something said by words or indicated by gesture.)


a church of flies

please confer this!

confer that!


(in the original the readings are side-by-side, but html does not allow for columns within a column, so please pardon the ugliness!)



the fly temple

gods, give us this!

give us that!

The poem does not insult flies because Issa knew damn well flies are not praying for favors when they rub their hands together.  It does, I think, poke fun at people who think religion is solely for the purpose of supplicating gods for favors.  Unfortunately,  it is never found in collections of senryû, for Issa is not a senryû poet, yet it is too senryû for the taste of haiku anthologists.  Until an anthology of  “hidden senryû by haiku poets” is published in Japan, I fear such poems will continue to be ignored.



The same year Issa wrote his famous  fly-ku, he wrote another farcical haiku about fly hand-rubbing without actually mentioning the same.  I think of it as a just-so story in reverse, for people usually learn from other animals rather than the vice versa:

dô no hae juzu suru hito no te o maneru  – issa (d.1827)
(prayer-hall flies: prayer-bead-rubbing-peoples’ hands[obj] copies)

temple flies
copy the hands of people
rubbing rosaries

I use the word “rosaries” instead of “prayer beads” in my loose translation because, despite the unwanted Catholic baggage, description (as opposed to single-word terms) weakens poems and because “rosaries” has but 1 strong-beat (on the ro) while “prayer beads” has 2, which would make the haiku too long.  Personally, the Japanese rosaries, or juzu, remind me not of the fly but of another bug, the cicada.  A room full of faithful Buddhists can make a hell of a racket when they rub those beads. Be that as it may, the fact these prayer beads (juzu) appear together with flies for the first time in Issa’s poems the same year he wrote the famous fly-ku may be added to the obvious structural similarities as collateral evidence of Issa’s debt to the Benkei senryû introduced in chapter I.   The idea of flies learning their behavior from “us” indirectly casts doubt on the efficacy of our own supplication, . . .



hae uteba sunawachi ari no makari-izu – kawabata bôsha (d.1941)

(fly swatting/swat-when, then/automatically ants come[boldly/grandiously] out)


swat a fly

and out roll

the ants


The life of Bôsha’s poem, matter-of-fact in the manner thought best for much of the 20th century, is the verb makari, which I tried to match with “roll.”  But Shiki’s last ku evokes more memories and is, thus, better for me. As a boy, I remember giving live bugs to ants to see whether they could escape and dead ones to see just how much ants could carry. In retrospect, I should have painted one side of a butterfly wing like a flag.  And I caught beetles, more than I needed, to feed my turtles, i.e. watch them fight over and pull apart the struggling bugs.  This mentality deserves a senryû: the kind boy / gives his snapping turtles / live beetles.  Enough confessing for now.  An older haiku which Shiki probably read – I found it in his categorized haiku anthology –  suggests the possibility of such feeding.

蝿打になるる雀の子飼かな 河瓢(猿箕続)
hae-uchi ni naruru suzume no kogai kana –  Kahyô (~1700)
(fly-swatting/er-to accustomed sparrow-chick/s-raising!/ ‘tis)

(paraversion 1)

their bird-food!
sparrow chicks grow used to
my fly-swatter


the pet sparrow grows
accustomed to it

(the above readings look so good side-by-side, forming a triangle with the below ku in my book!    damn the un-artistic bill gates!)

(paraversion 2)

orphan sparrow
opens its mouth hearing
the fly-swatter

To quote Ivan Morris, “women and children of the leisured class often kept baby sparrows and other little birds as pets.”  Here is an item from the “Adorable Things” list in his translation of Sei Shônagon’s Pillow Book:

[the uneven borders are also thanks to bill gates, sorry, the book is uniform!]

A baby sparrow that comes hopping up when one imitates the squeak of a mouse; or again, when one has tied it with a thread around its leg and its parents bring insects or worms and pop them in its mouth – delightful.


By the time the above haiku was written, I would think the friendliest sparrows had long since been eaten (Japanese shish-kebabed them) and parents were no longer so quick to come into the house to feed their chicks.  If so, then, it would stand to reason that flies were swatted and given to the chicks.   It is also the case that the time the bird would be growing up, early summer would be the time for fly-swatting to start.


The heart of the discovery behind the author's decision to do this book before others on bugs he knows more about than flies:

Damn, microsoft frontpage! i cannot find how to adjust margins within a cell!


yare utsu-na    hae-ga te-o suri   ashi-o suru –  Issa (1821)

yare tatsu-na  tatsu-na de musashi   juzu-o suri  – Yanagidaru (1791)


(hey, hit not!         /   fly/flies hands rub/s             /  feet rub)

(hey, stand/rise not! / “  “  “  “  –as, musashi / prayer-beads rub)


It is not dirty as it might seem.  But, I will not give it away here!                                               -  rdg