by Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading

a favorite haiku,

saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating

the same small, perfect grape

again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it

and leave its letters falling

through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.

I say it in front of a painting of the sea.

I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,

then I say it without listening,

then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,

I kneel down on the floor

and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton temple bell

with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating

pressure of the moth

on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,

the bell is the world

and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it at the mirror,

I am the heavy bell

and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,

you are the bell,

and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown

from its line

and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.


Of course, the haiku that Collins refers to is actually about a butterfly, not a moth. Here’s the original Buson poem (kochō is apparently old classical Chinese for chōchō, which is butterfly, and has never been moth):

釣鐘に止りてねむる胡蝶 かな

tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochō kana

For a discussion of the differences between kochō and chōchō, visit http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100302131048AAWgMPG. In May of 2004, after he gave a reading at the Skagit River Poetry Festival, I asked Collins about this issue and he insisted the original haiku is about a moth, but I’ve yet to find any Japanese–English dictionary, let alone any reliable translation of this haiku, that agrees with him. They all say butterfly. Nor is this the only time Collins seems to have added “moth” to a poem. In an interview with Terry Gross for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he reads and discusses Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I died for beauty.” At the 3:40 mark, and again at 5:03, he very clearly says “moth.” Dickinson’s work has a history of having various versions, but in every version of the poem I have checked (in print and online), the poem says “moss.” In any event, despite the error in the “Japan” poem, it is probably better with “moth,” as I suspect that “butterfly” might strike some readers as too precious. For a fuller discussion of the moth/butterfly issue, read Don Wentworth’s 12 February 2009 blog entry on “Issa’s Untidy Hut,” which reveals the likely source of Collins’ error. Charles Trumbull suggests the source was a poetry textbook by X. J. Kennedy that contained work by Collins as well as the haiku in question, inexplicably describing a moth rather than a butterfly—apparently Kennedy’s own translation, and obviously not a reliable one. Whatever the case, “Japan” is still a favourite poem by Collins!

+ + +