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.”

WHERE ONCE …

For years on this site, I have explained hokku in terms of their basic aesthetics.  I wonder how many of you can do so at this point.  So here is a question:  what qualities or characteristics of hokku do you find, or not find, in this verse?  What do you feel — or not feel — on reading it?  If you would like to answer, or to say anything else about this hokku, just leave a comment.

(Spring)

In withered weeds
Where once a house stood —
Blooming daffodils.

 

David

DAFFODILS

Today we will look at the well-known poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” sometimes simply known as “Daffodils.”

Now we might think Wordsworth went out for a springtime walk near the water in the Lake District of England, came across masses of blooming daffodils, and went home, sat down, and wrote this poem.

The truth, however, is that British poet William Wordsworth wrote the original version of this well-known poem — based on an experience he had in 1802 — in 1804.  And he wrote it after reading his sister Dorothy’s journal account of their joint experience of walking by the lake known as Ullswater two years earlier.  She had written on April 15, 1802:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the Sea.

Having been moved by Dorothy’s journal entry to write the poem in 1804, Wordsworth had it first published in 1807.  The version commonly known, however — and that given here — is his slight revision,  published in 1815.

We shall go through it part by part.

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Wordsworth writes that he “wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills.  Do not misunderstand his use of “lonely” here.  He is using it in the old sense, meaning simply “alone,” not in the sense that he was missing human company.  So the meaning of this is just, “I wandered alone, like a cloud that floats high over valleys and hills.”  Now as we know, Wordsworth is using “poetic license” (meaning the freedom of a poet to change things) here, because when he originally saw the daffodils, he was walking with his sister by the lake.

He says, he saw “a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils.”  “Host” in old writings can mean “army” (it is so used in the King James translation of the Bible), but here it simply means “a large number, many.”  So Wordsworth saw a large number of daffodils beneath the trees by the lake, all fluttering and “dancing” in the breeze.  By using “dancing,” Wordsworth likens the daffodils to human dancing, which is projecting human qualities onto plants, but his purpose is to emphasize that they looked cheerful.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

He says the areas of blooming daffodils were continuous — that is, clustered together in a long stretch — “as the stars that shine / and twinkle on the milky way….”  So he compares them to a long stretch of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which in his day and location was far more clearly visible at night than it is now, due to our modern pervasive light pollution by cities. It may seem odd to compare a night scene of stars to a daylight scene of daffodils, but Wordsworth wants to emphasize their continuous numbers, and stars and daffodils both are “bright” in a sense.  And by the way, it was not until 1923 that it was proven galaxies other than the Milky Way exist.

He saw the daffodils blooming in a “never-ending line / along the margin of the bay,” which is a bit of exaggeration/hyperbole, just to emphasize how many flowers were blooming there.  And he uses a large number “ten thousand” that he supposedly saw at one glance, for the same purpose — to emphasize how many flowers were there.  Of course he did not actually count them.  Again, he projects human characteristics onto the flowers: they were “tossing their heads in a sprightly [“lively”] dance.”

Now we get into more human imagery projected onto non-human things for effect:

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:-
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

Wordsworth says “the waves beside them [the daffodils] danced.”  Here again he uses dancing to make the scene seem cheerful.  We, being more rationally inclined, would just recognize that the waves of the lake were undulating quickly in the breeze, but that does not give the effect he wanted to achieve with “danced.”  He goes on to say “they [the daffodils] outdid the sparkling waves in glee.”  By all this he means that though the waves raised by the breeze looked cheerful in their “dancing,” the daffodils looked even more cheerful in theirs — they exceeded the waves in glee/joy.  Seeing this, he tells us, a poet — someone with a “poetic soul” — could not help being gay (yes, I know what you are thinking, but he just means “happy,” “cheerful”) in such jocund (“cheerful,” “lighthearted”) company — the company of the “dancing” daffodils.

The poet “gazed — and gazed” at the fluttering daffodils, but did not realize “what wealth the show to me had brought,” meaning what a valuable thing the large scene of blooming daffodils had put into his mind.

And now he tells us why:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

The sight of the daffodils brought him unexpected “wealth” because now, when he lies on his couch, whether not thinking of anything (vacant) or in a pensive (thinking) mood, he often again sees the daffodils fluttering by the lake in his memory:

“They flash upon that inward eye (memory, imagination) that is a pleasure in being alone.”  And then Wordsworth’s heart (emotions) fills with pleasure, as though it is dancing (there’s that word again) together with the daffodils in his memory of that day by the lake.

Now of course Wordsworth could simply have said,

“I was walking alone by the lake, and saw a large tract of blooming, golden daffodils fluttering and bouncing in the breeze.  It all looked so cheerful.  I paused for a long time to enjoy the sight, but did not attach great importance to it.  Later, however, I often find the memory of the daffodils coming to mind, and it greatly cheers me when I recall them.”

But that would not be poetry, would it?

Yes, Wordsworth’s old-fashioned phrasing seems a bit contrived to us today, but nonetheless his poem give us an enduring, pleasant picture of a spring by an English lake over two centuries ago.

 

David

AGAIN AND AGAIN

Onitsura wrote this spring hokku:

又もまた花にちられてうつらうつら
Mata mo mata hana ni chirarete utsura utsura

Here it is in daoku form:

Again and again
As the blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

It is a very relaxing verse, with the gentle falling of the blossoms and the drowsiness of the experience.  Notice how it is expressed with no need for the word “I.”  Notice too that this is a good example of something seen in a different way — which is very helpful in composing good daoku.

A Japanese would know from the word hana in the original that the blossoms are most likely cherry blossoms, but in English it could be any blossoming tree scattering its petals in the spring.

We could be more specific, like this:

Again and again
As cherry blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

 

David

THE RHODORA

In a previous posting, we looked at the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.”  Much that was said there is also appropriate to a discussion of today’s poem, “The Rhodora,” by another American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882).  Bryant’s poem was published in 1818, and Emerson wrote today’s poem in 1834.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As with Bryant’s poetry, we must keep in mind a characteristic of much 19th century poetry: the general feeling that everyday language was too common for something as “exalted” as poetry, so poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek,” and “wert” for “were.”

Though it was not at all their everyday language, such out-of-date phrasing was nonetheless very familiar to them from common public knowledge of the King James translation of the Bible, which in those days was considered the Bible.  All of this old-fashioned English can seem just too “precious” and overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine, as I said previously, such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.  Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.  Keep that in mind as we go through Emerson’s poem.

You will also need to know that the Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is a wild shrub with colorful pinkish-purple blossoms that appear on the bare branches before they have yet leafed out, or just as leaves are beginning to sprout.  In Massachusetts — which was where Emerson lived — it blooms in damp and swampy wetland areas in May.  Its range extends from Pennsylvania northward into southern Canada.

You will also want to be reminded that the now seldom-seen word “whence” means “from where,” just as its companion word “whither” means “to where.”  In spite of their clarity and usefulness, both have largely fallen out of use in modern English.  So when we see the title of today’s poem —

THE RHODORA
On being asked, whence is the flower?

We know that it means in ordinary English:

THE RHODORA
On being asked, “Where is the flower from?”

In other words, someone likely asked Emerson, “Ralph — where did you get the flower?” — and that gave him the excuse for writing a poem.

Now let’s look at the poem, which I will discuss part by part.

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.

Concord, Massachusettswhere Emerson lived — was some 35 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the East.   He wrote the poem in Newton, which was only about 12 miles from the sea.  In May the sea breezes — the easterly winds from the sea — are frequent in that region.  So Emerson tells us that in May, when the winds from the from the sea blew into “our solitudes,” meaning the uninhabited, woodsy places outside the towns — the wilder and more lonely places — he found the newly-blooming Rhodora in the woods.  It spread out its “leafless blooms” — which as we saw is characteristic of the shrub — in a damp recess of the forest — “to please the desert and the sluggish brook.”

By “to please the desert and the sluggish brook,” Emerson is merely telling us that the shrub was not blooming to please anyone — because until he came along and found it, there was nothing where it grew but “the desert,” by which he means its wild location with no people (desert in its old use signified a wild, uninhabited place) — and the “sluggish brook” — a slow-moving little stream.

The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.

Emerson saw purplish petals of the Rhodora that had fallen into a pool of water, making the blackish, rather stagnant water look “gay” with their beauty.  This is of course an older use of “gay” — not the modern “same-sex preference” definition.  Emerson is saying that the petals fallen into the dark pool make it look bright and colorful.  He adds that the red-bird might come to that pool “his plumes to cool,” meaning to cool his feathers — or in simpler words, to splash about.

The Red-bird/Redbird was and is a common name for the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis):

He adds the fanciful notion that the red-bird might “court the flower that cheapens his array,” meaning the red-bird might try to impress (as a male would a female) the flower that makes his own bright feathers look “cheap” — less impressive than the petals of the Rhodora.

Now Emerson gets to the philosophical part of the poem:

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;

He says, if the sages/wise men ask the Rhodora why its charm is wasted “on the earth and sky — that is, wasted on this world, growing in places where people may not even see it — then the answer — in Emerson’s view — is this: that just as eyes exist so one may see, beauty exists so it may be beautiful — whether someone is there to see and appreciate it or not.  His analogy is a bit shaky, and of course this notion of sages talking to a flower and getting an answer from it is just Emerson’s rhetorical way of making  a point — that beauty needs no excuse.  It just is.

He continues, in his old fashioned English, by presenting the question again:

Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!

By that he asks, what is the reason for the blossoming in a wild, lonely place of a flower that in its beauty rivals the rose — “Rhodora, why were you there?”

And then he gives his own answer:

I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

When he was in the woods looking at the blooming Rhodora, he just enjoyed its beauty, not even thinking to wonder why it was there — and he never really knew why it was there — but he has a supposition about it:

“But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

Really, the whole point of the poem is in those last two lines.  Emerson was a New England Transcendentalist, who felt that Divinity pervaded all of nature, and was the power behind all that happens.  So when we read that Emerson supposes

“The self-same power that brought me there, brought you” …

He is saying essentially the same thing that Bryant said in “To a Waterfowl”:

“He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.”

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

And that is Emerson’s

The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

 

David