A PART OF ME, AS I AM A PART OF YOU

 

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) that speaks so clearly it needs no commentary other than to say that the “Bessie” mentioned among favorite music was the noted blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937).

 

THEME FOR ENGLISH B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

 

Particularly significant now are his words,

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.

Yes, that’s American, and we should never forget it for a moment.

 

David

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT OPENLY VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT

As long-time readers here know, I rarely talk about politics.  But I am fervently an advocate of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is a shocking event and a severe threat to freedom to see a President of the United States having peaceful protesters cleared out by security forces and tear gas simply so he could have a photo opportunity standing with a Bible in his hand in front of a church — a church that did not want him there.  It was simply more stagecraft, more propagandistic nonsense to convince his gullible Evangelical Christian followers that he is a divine gift to them — for the purpose, of course, of getting their votes again.  It was the support of Evangelicals that unfortunately put Trump in the White House, setting off a disastrous chain of events, and it should be a clear demonstration to all how morally distorted their backward dogmatism is.

My first thought when I saw the forces dispersing peaceful protesters with tear gas was, “This is America, not Hong Kong!”  It is a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, and that any would support Trump’s dictatorial action — more a mixture of Mussolini and Carrie Lam than behavior any American President should display — just shows to what a dangerously deplorable state this country has fallen under Trump and his cronies.

Of course Trump should be removed from office.  He is simply not mentally or emotionally fit to be President.  His current behavior is clear evidence of that.  But with servile and self-serving Republican support, his removal does not appear likely.  That means it is vitally important to vote him and all of his supporters out of office as soon as elections make that possible.  That is for the benefit of the country, of the environment, and of the world.

 

 

BASHŌ FLOWERS

Some of you long-time readers here may recall that when I moved to this new location, I planted a Bashō — a hardy banana (Musa basjoo).  It is the plant from which the Japanese hokku/haikai writer took his pen name.

Since then it has grown amazingly tall.  I was looking out my window a few days ago, and was surprised to see a giant bud hanging from it.  I was very curious, having never seen a banana bud before, so I have kept watch.

Now the bud has opened so the flowers are visible.

Here is a closer look at the small flowers near the top:

From what I read, I can expect the very tall stalk to die when the flowering cycle is completed, but it has sent up shoots that are now nearly as tall as the main stalk, so they will continue to produce the same huge and very long and pleasantly green leaves that are so shading in summer, and so satisfying to see from beneath as the sun illuminates them.

 

David

A PATH DIVIDES …

We are close to the end of April, and in the hokku calendar, that means the ending of spring.  By that old calendar summer begins on May Day — May 1st.

This is probably a good time to let readers here know that the discussion of hokku and its English-language categories of daoku (objective hokku), shinku (hokku with a bit of “thinking” added) and soku (hokku with too much “thinking” or imagination) will now take place mostly on another site.  That site is:

http://www.hokkuforest.wordpress.com

Over time, it appears that the topic of hokku has rather gotten lost in the discussion of other kinds of poetry and other subjects — which will continue here on the hokku.wordpress.com site.  But those who are particularly interested in hokku will now no longer have to sift through those other postings to find information specifically on that topic, because discussion of hokku will be concentrated on the hokkuforest.wordpress.com site.

We are presently living through strange and troubling times, though of course past generations had to endure much worse.  We have been rather spoiled by decades of relative ease and calm.  A large number of Americans were far too foolish in electing a President who, it should have been obvious at the outset, was not in any way fitted for the office.  Now we are all suffering the consequences of that serious absence of good judgment.  The result has been very damaging and destructive for the United States and for the planet.  I can only hope that this damage will be at least begin to be partially remedied by Americans coming to their senses and voting out as many Republicans as possible in the next election — including above all the astoundingly incompetent U.S. President and his sycophantic cronies who have kept him in office long after he should have been legally removed for the public good.

I hope that as spring departs, we may look forward to gradually getting things back on track — paying attention to scientists rather than deceptive, foolish, or self-serving politicians, and focusing once again on trying to lessen the pace of climate change and the loss of species.  In short, we all need to remember that we are a part of — not apart from — Nature, and that when Nature suffers, so do we.

David

A “PEACE PILL” FOR DIFFICULT TIMES

Some time back, I made a pleasant discovery, and perhaps you would like to know about it — or rather him — too.

Though he never mentions hokku, you can better understand its spiritual foundations by listening to John Butler of Bakewell, England.  He may use “Christian” terminology because of his upbringing,  but his application of it is quite undogmatic and universal — and could just as well be said in Buddhist or Daoist terms.  I think you will find listening to him very relaxing, a kind of “peace” pill for the times in which we presently find ourselves:

When he talks about the transitory nature of the virus compared to the eternal Stillness underlying it,  I cannot help thinking of the spring hokku by Bashō:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

If you would like to hear more of John Butler — and I suspect you will, given present circumstances — you will find his talks here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi0TFuqj6eND-mJRf8i2Tnw

 

David

 

 

THE ROAD TO DAOKU AND SHINKU

Over twenty years ago, I was dismayed by what I was seeing of the poor quality of modern haiku on the Internet.  Though many were writing it, none seemed to have an understanding of how — or even if — what they were writing related to the aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku.  Most had never even heard the term hokku in those days, and thought old writers such as Bashō and Onitsura had written only haiku — not realizing that haiku was just an innovation begun at the end of the 19th century, long after Bashō’s time.

In an effort to remedy that, I began teaching online the basics of writing a brief verse form in English that was more closely related to the old hokku, and better reflected its aesthetics.  The approach of the modern haiku community, by contrast, was simply to write whatever one wished as haiku, regardless of subject matter or aesthetics, as long as it was brief.  The old hokku connection with Nature and the seasons was largely abandoned.  The result was that modern haiku became whatever a given writer chose to call haiku — which is still very much the situation today.  Modern haiku has no universally accepted standards, other than perhaps brevity. It ranges from the very conservative to the extremely innovative.  So “haiku” today is an umbrella term  that covers a confusingly wide range of often very different kinds of verse.

It was important in avoiding confusion, to distinguish the modern adaptation of hokku I was teaching from modern haiku, so I called it what it had originally been named for the greater part of its history — hokku.  I did so because what I taught was a continuation of what I felt were the best qualities of old Japanese hokku.  I left needless cultural and linguistic baggage behind, and taught a hokku that bridged the gap from the old and often more complicated hokku of old Japan to the simpler needs of a modern hokku reduced to its essentials, yet still based on the best of the old aesthetics.

Over time, however, it became obvious that even the term “hokku” needed some adjustment.  It could (somewhat confusingly) signify either modern verses inspired by old hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, or old hokku in Japanese.  Further, what I taught expressed my view that a large part of what what included in the practice of old Japanese hokku was not, in my view, worth continuing as a modern practice in English.  In earlier times there were different kinds of Japanese hokku, ranging from the very objective to the extremely subjective.  My preference always tended to the more objective, which to me expressed not only hokku at its best, but also the deep roots of hokku in the aesthetic influences of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism.

That is when I decided to call the modern English-language adaptation of the old objective hokku that I teach and prefer “daoku.”  It clearly distinguishes that category of modern verse not only from old hokku in Japanese, but also from other modern forms of brief verse such as the varieties falling under the umbrella term “haiku.”

Occasionally, however, one might wish to write a slightly more subjective verse that shows some “thinking” instead of pure objectivity.  We see that kind of “thinking” in this verse by Bashō:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the addition of “thinking” — a subjective interpretation or commentary on the objective first line of the verse.

For such slightly subjective verses I have adopted the name shinku, to distinguish them from the pure objectivity of daoku.  The word shinku comes from a Japanese pronunciation of the old Chinese character for mind — “shin” — and the word for verse — “ku.”

Many old Japanese hokku are far too subjective — have too much thinking or intellectualizing by the writer — to fall under either of these classifications.  I do not think they represent the best of old hokku, so they may safely be left to the literary history books.

When excessively subjective verses are removed, the two remaining classifications — daoku and shinku — offer  a practical and convenient path forward for those wishing to follow the best essential aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku by applying them to writing new hokku for the modern English-speaking world.  And of course what I say here about writing daoku and shinku in English may also generally be easily applied to writing them in other modern languages as well.

Of the two categories, my recommendation for writers is to focus mainly on daoku — objective hokku — while using shinku only sparingly.

When writing shinku, keep in mind that the subjective aspect should be slight, and it is best to generally combine it with objectivity, as we saw in Bashō’s “Octopus Traps” verse.

We see that slight subjectivity also in this spring verse by Buson:

As the petals fall,
The branches of the plum
Grow older.

It is not hard to see that “As the petals fall” is the objective part, and “the branches of the plum / grow older” is the subjective part — the interpretation of, or commentary on the petals by the writer.

It is sometimes more difficult to distinguish subjective and objective, as in this spring verse by Seifu:

The faces of dolls;
Without intending to,
I have grown old.

Still, we can see that “without intending to” is a bit of “thinking” added by the writer.

Verses like that of Seifu above show how one can still “tell the truth” in slightly subjective verses — and that is what we want in hokku of either kind:  telling the truth, whether purely objective, or slightly subjective.

 

David

 

David

THEY DO NOT LIE, BUT HERE THEY SIT

As a boy, I was fascinated with Native Americans — then called “Indians.”  I read everything I could find about them.  It is not surprising, then, that early on I became familiar with today’s poem, which was written by the American Philip Freneau (1752-1832).

It has an odd topic — the position in which the dead were buried.

THE INDIAN BURYING GROUND

In spite of all the learn’d have said;
I still my old opinion keep,
The posture, that we give the dead,
Points out the soul’s eternal sleep.

In spite of all that the well-educated have said, Freneau tells us, he nonetheless holds the view that the posture in which European-Americans bury their dead — lying down — points out that the soul will sleep forever.  He then says that was not true of the Native Americans:

Not so the ancients of these lands —
The Indian, when from life releas’d
Again is seated with his friends,
And shares gain the joyous feast.

The original inhabitants of the northeastern United States, the poet continues, did not bury as the European-Americans did.  Instead, they buried in a seated position, as though the dead were again seated with their friends, sharing a happy feast of abundant food.

His imag’d birds, and painted bowl,
And ven’son, for a journey dress’d,
Bespeak the nature of the soul,
Activity, that knows no rest.

They were buried with images of birds, and painted bowls, and venison (deer meat) prepared for a journey; these expressed the real nature of the soul, the poet tells us — which is restless activity.

His bow, for action ready bent,
And arrows, with a head of stone,
Can only mean that life is spent,
And not the finer essence gone.

In the bow buried ready for use, with its stone-tipped arrows, Freneau sees the meaning that though life on earth may be spent — used up — gone, it is not so in the other world, where the finer essence of the person — the spirit — lives on.

Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way.
No fraud upon the dead commit —
Observe the swelling turf, and say
They do not lie, but here they sit.

The poet cautions passers-by who may happen upon the native burial mounds that swell the earth above the burial, that they should not speak untruths about the native dead; do not say they lie here in the ground.  They sit.

Here still lofty rock remains,
On which the curious eye may trace,
(Now wasted, half, by wearing rains)
The fancies of a older race.

Freneau tells us he knows of a high rock on which a curious person can still make out — though worn by years of rains — the drawings or petroglyphs created there through the creative imaginations of “an older race” — older because they were in eastern North America long before the arrival and colonization of eastern America by European-Americans.

Here still an aged elm aspires,
Beneath whose far — projecting shade
(And which the shepherd still admires
The children of the forest play’d!

The poet also draws our attention to an ancient elm tree.  A European-American shepherd may in Freneau’s time appreciate the wide shade it casts, in which one may rest, but the poet sees it as a place where in earlier times “the children of the forest play’d — “the children of the forest” being a lovely description of the young of the woodland tribes of eastern America.

There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there.

Here the poet goes into his imagination, with a rather romantic imagining of a Native American “queen” (though of course they did not have queens; Freneau is just thinking of a noble and prominent woman); he describes her as a pale “Shebah” using a biblical reference to the Queen of Sheba — with braided hair.

By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews,
In habit for the chase array’d,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!

Continuing in this romanticized imagining, Freneau imagines the spirit of a Native American, dressed for the hunt, chasing a deer — who is also a spirit (“shade”) — beneath the midnight moon and across the dewy ground.

And long shall timorous fancy see
The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And reason’s self shall bow the knee
To shadows and delusions here.

Freneau ends the poem by saying that those with a somewhat timorous (timid, apprehensive) imagination will long continue to see, at the burial mounds, “the painted chief, and pointed spear” — imagining a Native American tribal chief there — and “reason’s self shall bow the knee” — the living man’s reason will give way and surrender to his imagination — and he will see there the shadows and delusions, the mental images of the early Native Americans — that being at the grave mounds will call forth in his mind, as though their spirits were still present.

the Jesuit, Père Pierre Biard, of Grenoble, wrote of the Algonquin tribes:

They bury their dead in this manner: First they swathe the body and tie it up in skins; not lengthwise, but with the knees against the stomach and the. head on the knees, as we are in our mother’s womb. Afterwards they put it in the grave, which has been made very deep, not upon the back or lying down as we do, but sitting. A posture which they like, very much, and which among them signifies reverence. For the children and the youths seat themselves thus in the presence of their fathers and of the old, whom they respect . . . When the body is placed, as it does not come up even with the ground on account of the depth of the grave, they arch the grave over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb . . . If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles; as eager in that for glory as we are in our marble and porphyry. If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows; and shield; if a woman, spoons, matachias [strings or  bands of beads and or porcupine quills], or jewels, ornaments, etc. I have nearly forgotten the most beautiful part of all; it is that they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage, even his dogs if they have not been eaten. Moreover, the survivors add to these a number of other such offerings, as tokens of friendship . . . These obsequies finished, they flee from the place, and, from that time on, they hate all memory of the dead. If it happens that they are obliged to speak of him sometimes, it is under another and a new name.”