“On a Withered Branch” is a well-known haiku written by Bash during the developing stage of his career. During this period, from 1673 to 1680, he often used the technique of the surprising comparison. Coming fairly early in his career, the poem also contains elements characteristic of some earlier work in which the poem was intended to amuse with puns, or play on words. Both in identifying wordplay and in counting syllables, English translations can rarely render the poem satisfactorily. One must see the Japanese version to understand some of the important elements of the haiku:
Kareeda ni On a withered branchKarasu no tomari keri A Crow is perched—Aki no kure Autumn evening.
Kareeda, translated as “withered,” is understood to be a “dead” branch, thus providing a contrast with the living bird perched upon it. The word karasu (“crow”) is the same as the transitive verb form karasu, meaning “to cause to wither” or “to kill,” thus showing some wordplay typical of Bash’s early work. Tomari (“perched”) signifies stopping or staying, as a temporary stopover at a hotel. Keri is an example of the “cutting word”; a literal translation would be simply “crow’s perch.” There is no word for “is.” Thus, the keri leaves the relationship of the perched crow to the poem’s next line vague and impersonal. The autumn nightfall is simply juxtaposed with the preceding concept, allowing readers to make their own connections. The Japanese lines follow a 5-9-5 pattern rather than the typical 5-7-5: ka-re-e-da-ni, ka-ra-su-no-to-ma-ri-ke-ri, and a-ki-no-ku-re.
The image of the small (relative to a tree) living crow, with shiny black feathers, perched on the dead tree limb, provides an interesting contrast with the dull darkness of nightfall on an autumn evening. The darkness of the night is of a very different order of blackness from that of the bird. Another convention of the haiku, the “season-word,” is provided by the reference to autumn. Autumn, also the “fall” of the year, suggests the dying period of the year, even as the tree limb is a dead one.
All together, the images come together to evoke a certain kind of loneliness as the outline of the crow is viewed against the background of the immense universe.