May Winds

May Day;
The warm wind fills
with whirling seeds.

Today  — May Day — Bealtaine/Beltane by its old Celtic name, is the day in the old agricultural calendar when summer begins.  It certainly feels like summer has begun where I am.  The sky is a robin’s egg blue, and the air is warm and soft.

Happy May Day!

 

David

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THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN: CAVAFY’S CANDLES

 

Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek.  It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA.  It means simply

CANDLES

lineofcandles

The days to come stand before us
Like a row of lighted candles —
Golden, warm, and lively.

The days gone by remain behind,
A sad line of extinguished candles,
The nearest still smoking;
Cold candles, melted and bent.

I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me,
And it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lit candles.

I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble:
How fast the dark line grows —
How fast the extinguished candles multiply.

The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead.  And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.

Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories.  But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more.  Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before.  All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane.  One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.

It makes one think of these old words  from Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.

“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”

I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry.  Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.

 

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THE YELLOW WATERS OF SPRING OR THE SPRING’S YELLOW WATERS?

Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:

(Spring)

The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:

kerriasingle_1

Here is a closer view:

David

 

 

 

 

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good haiku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:

(Spring)

Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

cropped-trout.jpg

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.

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DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

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INNISFREE OF THE DEEP HEART’S CORE

Today’s poem is simple, but nonetheless one of the most popular in English literature.  It was written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939).

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

It begins with the biblical sounding “I will arise and go…”  Compare that with Luke 15:18 in the King James Version story of the Prodigal Son:  “I will arise and go to my father….

Much of its appeal is due to its quiet and lulling atmosphere, enhanced by the repetitious phrasing, for example the seven “I” repetitions:

“I will arise”
“will I have”
“I shall have”
“I will arise”
“I hear”
“I stand”
“I hear”

The first stanza:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Its meaning is simple:

The writer says he will arise and go to Innisfree, and there he will build a small cabin of clay and wattles.  “Wattles”  are wooden poles set upright, with smaller wooden branches or rods woven crosswise between them to make a barrier, such as a fence or wall.  When daubed with wet clay (“wattle and daub”) and let dry,  it forms a solid wall, though of course it must be protected from rain by a roof.  Thoreau’s cabin in the woods was built of lumber.  Yeat’s notion of a wattle and daub cabin is more primitive.

He says he will have “nine bean rows.”  The notion of planting beans came from Thoreau’s Walden:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Why nine rows in the poem?  Perhaps because in Celtic lore, nine is a sacred number, being three times three, and three too is a sacred number.  Yeats was very influenced by Irish legends and folklore.

Yeats speaks of “a hive for the honey-bee,” but in Walden, Thoreau had only wild bees:

“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke the tender limbs.”

So Yeats will build his clay and wattles cabin, plant his nine rows of beans,  and have a bee hive that will provide bees to make the island glade “bee-loud” (loud with the humming of bees).

The second stanza:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

He speaks of having (one gets the sense of “finally having”) peace there on the island, and says that peace drops from the “veils of morning,” which can be both dawn emerging from the dark veil of night, as well as the mists that veil the lake in the morning.  Yeats does not more clearly define his meaning.  That peace drops from “the veils of morning” to “where the cricket sings.”  Again Yeats is not entirely clear.  It can mean both “from the air to the ground,” and “from morning to the end of day.”  The impression is that all time is filled with tranquility there, morning, noon, evening, and midnight.

He speaks of midnight as “all a glimmer,” which makes one think of the moonlight glittering on the lake water, but that is not definite; nor is his meaning in “noon a purple glow.”  We can assume these are just romanticizing words to cast a dreamy atmosphere over things, “to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination,” in Wordsworth’s terminology.  And evening, he says, “is full of linnet’s wings,” that is the fluttering of the wings of the small bird (Carduelis cannabina) called a linnet in Britain and Ireland,  a kind of finch.

The third stanza:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is a sense of decision and immediacy in the “will go now.”  And the reason for this immediacy is that “always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…”  It never leaves him.  He hears it even amid the artificiality and bustle of the big city.  He hears it while standing on the roadway and while on the “pavements grey.”  “Pavement” is the British term for what Americans call a sidewalk.

So really the writer will arise and go to Innisfree because it is felt to be the deepest, most appealing and most authentic part of him; its sounds and image lie “in the deep heart’s core” — but like many such images, it is a mental mirage woven of memories, illusions and imagination.

Essentially, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a fantasy poem with three main elements.  The first two are obvious:

  1.  A boy’s typical dream of living alone on an island (whether in river or lake or ocean).

2.  Henry David Thoreau’s account in Walden of living alone in the woods by a large pond, and growing beans.

3.  An undertone of Celtic folklore in which Nature is filled with mysteries hidden behind the visible world.

Yeats made no secret of the influence of Thoreau.  He wrote:

… sometimes I planned out a lonely austerity. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street [in London] very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little bell upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem ‘Innisfree,’ my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.” (Autobiographies, p.153)

So there we have the first two elements:  1.  the youthful fantasy of living on an island, and 2.  the influence of Thoreau.  The third element we find mentioned in another autobiographical excerpt:

I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood.  I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom.  There was a story in the county history of a tree that had once grown upon that island guarded by some terrible monster and borne the food of the gods.  A young girl pined for the fruit and told her lover to kill the monster and carry the fruit away.  He did as he had been told, but tasted the fruit; and when he reached the mainland where she had waited for him, was dying of its powerful virtue.  And from sorrow and from remorse she too ate of it and died.  I do not remember whether I chose the island because of its beauty or for the story’s sake, but I was twenty-two or three before I gave up the dream.” (Autobiographies, p. 72)

Yeats apparently had found the local legend of the magical tree in a book called History of Sligo (1882) by William Gregory wood-Martin.

But The Lake Isle of Innisfree also had its beginnings in a story by Yeats titled John Sherman,  published in 1891.  Yeats wrote in an 1888 letter (to Katherine Tynan):

In my story I make one of the characters when ever he is in trouble long to go away and live alone on that Island — an old day dream of my own.  Thinking over his feelings I made these verses about them [an early draft of Innisfree] (Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, I, 120).

In his story, he called the island Inniscrewin rather than Innisfree:

Often when life and its difficulties had seemed to him like the lessons of some elder boy given to a younger by mistake, it had seemed good to dream of going away to that islet and building a wooden hut there and burning a few years out, rowing to and fro, fishing, or lying on the island slopes by day, and listening at night to the ripple of the water and the quivering of the bushes — full always of unknown creatures — and going out at morning to see the island’s edge marked by the feet of birds.

Now let’s be realistic.  Just as Yeats’ old man’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is a fantasy about a once-real place that was transformed into a place of the imagination, so The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a young man’s poem, a fantasy about a real island made into an island of the imagination.  And note that behind both poems is the notion of going somewhere for the sake of knowledge, of wisdom (though they are not always the same thing).  Yeats had written a couple of earlier poems about an island in Lough Gill, one, The Stolen Child, richly heavy with Irish fairy lore, as we see in its beginning lines:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

“Sleuth Wood” is merely Slish Wood, the wood opposite Innisfree.  And Innisfree is an actual island, but only about one acre in size, not too far off the shore of Lough Gill, a five-mile long lake mostly in county Sligo in the west of Ireland.  The name Innisfree is an anglicized form of Inis Fraoigh in Irish Gaelic. Inis (pronounced “inish”) means “island” and fraoigh means “of heather” (fraoch); so Innisfree is really the “Isle of Heather.”  But by happy chance, when anglicized it becomes a combination of Irish Innis/Inis and the English word “free,” which adds to the sense of escape and liberation in the poem — “the Island of Freedom.”

Now Innisfree, being a very small and rocky island covered with brush and trees, is hardly a place where one could have successfully planted a garden of beans or have found an open glade for anything.  It is only one of  about 20 or more islands in that lake.  A writer described it as “probably the most inhospitable place in Lough Gill.”  But again, Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree is not the real island, but rather that island transformed into a fantasy refuge of the imagination.

So we should remember that it is just a “wish-fulfillment” poem.  Yeats was not a Thoreau in character.  Yeats in reality never arose and went to Innisfree, never built a wattle dwelling there, never planted rows of beans or had a hive of bees there.  The  journey to Innisfree, like that to Byzantium, took place only in his mind.

None of that, of course, changes its beauty as a poem, but perhaps it helps to explain why Yeats was bothered by its continuing popularity in the latter years of his life.

The poem was finished in London in 1888, and published in 1890 in the National Observer.

 

 

David

 

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THE VAST, IMMORTAL SEA

Yesterday, in spite of intermittent rain, I was able to make a trip to the Pacific coast.  Just above the pounding waves at a coastal town called Depoe Bay, there was a standing stone monument inset with two brass plaques.  The first recorded the death of two fisherman lost at sea on a rescue mission in 1936.  Just below it was inset another:

depoebaymemorial

It is not true.  Life is not slain by death.
The vast, immortal sea shall have her own,
Shall garner to her this expiring breath,
Shall reap where she has sown.

The poem has no attribution, and I do not know who wrote it.

The vast, immortal sea” –When one reads those words below a memorial to the drowned, and within only feet of waves pounding into spray against the dark rocks, one obviously thinks first of the physical sea — the ocean beyond the memorial.  But I think it also has a deeper meaning.  It is the Universe, it is the Sea of Eternity out of which we all come and to which we all return.  It is what the Chinese called the Dao, the nameless origin of all things.

We find confirmation of that, I think, in these lines by the English poet William Wordsworth, excerpted from his Ode: Intimations of Immortality.  I have put the most relevant part into bold type:

Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

It is the same metaphor as on the brass plaque:  we come out of the Sea of Eternity, and to it we return.  Fortunate are those who, though “inland far,” nonetheless perceive behind the noise and bustle of modern life “the mighty waters rolling evermore.”

David

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