INVERSNAID

Put very simply, today’s poem by the homosexual poet and Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is a word painting of a small waterfall on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in Scotland. He visited it in autumn of 1881, on a somewhat dark and gloomy day.

The poem is in the usual rather difficult Hopkinsese — his peculiar poetic language that mixes archaic and regional and made-up words — which can be both pleasing and, at times, mystifying. With Hopkins one sometimes has the feeling of reading a foreign language. But fear not; all shall be explained here. Keep in mind that some Hopkins terminology is open to differences of opinion. I shall discuss the poem stanza by stanza.

INVERSNAID

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

First let’s discuss vocabulary:

“Darksome” means simply dark.

A “burn” is a stream. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), it appears in later English as “bourne,” but has largely fallen out of use except in the Scots language, which is why Hopkins uses it here for a stream in Scotland.

“Rollrock highroad” is Hopkins’ way of describing high, rocky course of the stream, with its tumbled boulders. A highroad is a main road — and it is used here to describe the stream out of which the waterfall plunges. And “rollrock” makes us feel the tumbled rocky nature of the stream and the basin into which it falls — so the “rollrock highroad” here is the high rocky stream from which the waterfall plunges down among tumbled boulders.

“Coop” is an old term for a basket. This describes the rocky depressions in the course of the stream.

“Comb” indicates the rocks through which the water flows, like hair through a comb, or like fleece being combed. “Comb” also is an old word for a valley or large depression, but Hopkins likely intends the first meaning here.

“Fleece” is the wooly hair of a sheep or goat. Hopkins uses it here to describe the white foam on the water.

“Flutes” is a verb here, from the noun “flute” in the sense of a channel or groove, as in an architectural column. It describes the water dividing into narrow strands as it becomes a waterfall, plunging down among the rocks of the lower stream.

Now that we know all that, what Hopkins is saying is simply this:

The dark stream, brown as the back of a horse, comes roaring down among tumbled boulders. Flowing through depressions (“coop”) and divided by rocks in its path (“comb”), the fleece-like foamy water finally “flutes” — that is, divides into strands as it falls over the rocks and into the plunge basin, and flows on down to where, lower, the water finally empties into the lake — that is, into Loch Lomond.

Now why would the water be so brown? Well, first we must keep in mind that this is autumn, in which the Loch Lomond area gets roughly 17 to 20 days of rain per month, which tends to muddy the streams. But also it is an area of peat bogs, which can turn water a brown color. There is something similar in my state — Root Beer Falls on the Williamson River in Klamath County, Oregon. I saw it once, and the water really is brown as root beer, from the tinge the Williamson River picks up from the Klamath Marsh.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Hopkins begins by describing the foam on the water as a “windpuff bonnet.” I believe this is often misunderstood. One commentator, for example, opines that Hopkins mean the foam was like a bonnet puffed up by the wind. But actually Hopkins, in his typical fashion, meant something even more odd here. A “windpuff” is a kind of bubble-like swelling that sometimes appears on the fetlock of horses. The fetlock is that last wide part near the bottom of the leg, after which it narrows and joins the hoof. So Hopkins is likening the foam on the water to a bonnet (a “covering” that is, like a bonnet covers the head) of windpuffs — of bubble swellings.

“Fawn-froth” describes the brown and white coloring of the foam — the “froth” on the water.

“Twindles” is a Hopkins-made word that seems to combine “twirls” and the old word “windle,” meaning “to turn round and round” — describing the whirlpool swirling of the brownish-white foam on the water.

“Pitchblack” refers to the blackness of a pitch made by distilling, a process that makes it very black or dark brown and sticky; it is not the natural amber-colored pitch one sees on the bark of coniferous trees.

“Fell” means evil or cruel, but it also means a high and barren mountainous region — so “fell-frowning” means both to frown in an evil manner and gloomy as the barren hills — like the rocks that brood over the falls.

So, given all that, here is what the stanza means:

A covering of bubbles like the swellings on the fetlocks of horses, dappled like the skin of a fawn, turns and twirls over the water of a pool so pitch black and gloomy-evil-looking that it swirls round and round like a kind of hopeless despair, finally “drowning” — that is, sucking the water down in the center, like water swirling down a drain.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

“Degged” is an old Northern English dialect word meaning “sprinkled”

“Groins” as used here is an architectural term, meaning here the curving of the rocks through which the water flows.

A “brae” is a bank or shore (of a stream) — the word is again Scots.

“Heathpacks” here are clumps of the heather — the heath plant — so common in Scotland.

“Flitches” is rather obscure here. Hopkins seems to be likening the fronds of ferns growing on the banks to thin slices — i. e. “fronds of fern.”

The “bead-bonny ash” is the rowan tree with its clusters of orange-red berries that look like beads, that is, the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) not the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) tree found in Britain. “Bonny” is Scots for “beautiful.”

We can translate all that as:

The curved, rocky banks that the brook flows through are sprinkled and dappled with dew on wiry clumps of heather, fronds of ferns, and the beautiful berries of the mountain ash that hangs over the stream.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

There is nothing difficult in this last stanza. Hopkins simply states that the world would not be the same without the wetness and wildness of places like Inversnaid, with its rocky stream and waterfall. He pleads that such places should be left as they are, and ends with the hope “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

It is the same sentiment we find in his poem Binsey Poplars, which similarly pleas for leaving nature alone:

  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

It is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated, however, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, as expressed in his essay “Walking”:

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.

David

WHITE ON WHITE ON WHITE …

A poem by English poet and Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) — quite a good-looking fellow in his younger years, as you can see.

SPRING GOETH ALL IN WHITE

Spring goeth all in white,
Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
O’er heaven the white clouds stray
:

White butterflies in the air;
White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
Scatter their snow around.

Bridges tells us spring goes all in white. He actually uses “goeth” — the archaic form of “goes” — because he was still in the period when Elizabethan English in verse was considered poetic. He tells us that Spring (let’s capitalize it to personify it) is crowned with milk-white may — that is, with white Hawthorn blossoms.

He says the white clouds stray “in fleecy flocks of light,” likening the white clouds drifting across the sky to a flock of sheep with their white fleeces.

He adds to this the white butterflies fluttering through the air, the tiny white daisies scattered through the grass, and the cherry trees and the hoary (“white” here) pears both in flower that “scatter their snow around” — meaning scattering their white blossoms like snow. We have seen this likening of white cherry blossoms to snow before, in the discussion of A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” which ends with these lines:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

In his “white on white on white…” description of spring, Bridges details six white things:

  1. Milk-white may. By “may,” he means the may blossoms — the white flowers of the Hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna):

2. The white clouds floating in the sky, like a flock of straying sheep:

3. White butterflies fluttering in the air (Pieris species; the photo is of Pieris rapae):


4. White daisies that “prank” — that is, adorn or decorate in a showy way — the ground. He is referring to those tiny English daisies (Bellis perennis) that dot the grass in spring>

5. The blossoming cherry:

6. And the blossoming pear:

The poem is a beautiful study in the whites of spring, giving us a feeling of newness, freshness, purity and light.

THE THING WITH FEATHERS

A well-known poem by American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):

“HOPE” IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson, in this simple poem, compares hope to a bird perching in the inmost mind, like a songbird in its cage. And like a songbird, it continually sings its wordless tune — that is, hope is continually expressed wordlessly, from deep within the mind (“the soul”)

She says hope is sweetest in the gale — meaning it is when life is difficult, and our emotions turbulent as a windstorm, that hope is appreciated and valued by us all the more. And it would take a very terrible (“sore”) storm in life to hinder the hope that has given so many something to live for in times of great trouble.

Hope is heard in all kinds of circumstances. Dickinson is not being literal but rather metaphorical when she speaks of hearing it in the “chillest land” — that is, the coldest and most forbidding of circumstances, and on the “strangest sea” — those times when life seems so vast and trying and unfamiliar. And yet through all these trials, even to the farthest limits of human endurance — hope asks nothing of the person who hosts it, but sings on without reward or encouragement.

One of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose hope — that bright, singing spark that keeps us going no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how troubling the psychological challenges. It is at those times that we most need to listen carefully for the “thing with feathers” that sings its encouraging song deep within us.

I SHALL SEE …

Every now and then, I just like to share something I have found pleasant or interesting in one way or another.  Here is this handsome and extremely talented Polish fellow — Jakub Józef Orliński — singing the Vivaldi aria Vedrò con mio diletto — “I Shall See to my Delight”:

Apparently he was surprised to find an audience present instead of just a private recording session when this video was made — but I find his casual clothing for the event delightful.  I don’t know why people feel they have to “dress up” for classical music.

Here are the words in Italian and English:

Vedrò con mio diletto

Vedrò con mio diletto / I shall see, to my delight,
L’alma dell’alma mia  /  The soul of my soul —
dell’alma mia               /  Of my soul,
Il core del mio cor      /  The heart of my heart,
Pien di contento         /  Full of happiness,
Pien di contento          / Full of happiness.
Vedrò con mio diletto  / I shall see, to my delight,
L’alma dell’alma mia   / The soul of my soul —
dell’alma mia                /  Of my soul,
Il core del quisto cor   /  The heart of this heart,
Pien di contento           /  Full of happiness —
Pien di contento           /  Full of happiness.
E se dal caro oggetto   /And if from the dear one
Lungi convien che sia /I may have to be far —
convien che sia             /I may have to be —
Sospirerò penando       /I shall sigh, suffering
ogni momento               /Every moment.

David

LOOKING BUT NOT SEEING

Here is another translated poem by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

THE MORNING SEA

Let me stop here; and let me also look at nature a while.
Sea of morning and cloudless sky
Brilliant mauve, and yellow shore —
All beautiful and bright.

Let me stop here; and let me smile as I see them —
I did actually see them a moment when first I stopped,
And not my fantasies here —
My memories — the sensual images.

Cavafy pauses at the shore of the Mediterranean to look at the view — the morning sea, sky, and shore .

He smiles as he looks, because after only a moment of seeing sea, sky, and shore, his vision turned inward, and then he saw nothing but the images in his mind of sensual — that is, sexual — memories.

As so often happens with us, he is looking but not really seeing — lost in the images within his mind instead of the view before him.

It is amazing how much time we humans spend in our memories, thoughts and imagination rather than in the reality of the world around us.  And even when we are aware of that world, we all too often see it through the distorting glass of our fears, hopes, and expectations.  We really live in two worlds — the outer and the inner, and frequently  — like Cavafy in this poem — far more in the latter.

Where I translate “let me smile,” others have “let me pretend” or “let me fool myself.”

Here is the poem in a phonetic transliteration, so you may get some sense of the sound of the original:

Edó as stathó. Ki as do k’ egó tin fýsi lígo.
Thálassas tou proïoú ki anéfelou ouranoú
lamprá maviá, kai kítrini óchthi:
óla oraía kai megála fotisména.

Edó as stathó. Ki as gelasthó pos vlépo aftá
ta eíd’ alítheia mia stigmí san protostáthika
ki óchi k’ edó tes fantasíes mou, tes anamníseis mou,
ta indálmata tis idonís.

And here is the original Greek:

Θάλασσα του πρωϊού

Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας δω κ’ εγώ την φύσι λίγο.
Θάλασσας του πρωϊού κι ανέφελου ουρανού
λαμπρά μαβιά, και κίτρινη όχθη· όλα
ωραία και μεγάλα φωτισμένα.

Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας γελασθώ πως βλέπω αυτά
(τα είδ’ αλήθεια μια στιγμή σαν πρωτοστάθηκα)·
κι όχι κ’ εδώ τες φαντασίες μου,
τες αναμνήσεις μου, τα ινδάλματα της ηδονής.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS: ONE MAN GUY and HOLD MY HAND

And now for something completely different.

In the last quarter of 2020, I began reading a genre of books totally new to me — something that did not exist at all when I was a boy — YA (“young adult”) gay-themed fiction.

I got quite a surprise , because not only did I find some (of course not all) of the books entertaining, but I also saw how helpful they could be to people in their teens with same-sex attraction, as well as to their friends, relatives, and others wanting to have a better understanding of that orientation.  And YA books — though they do include a bit of sex here and there — tend to do it very tastefully and as a helpful ancillary to the overall plot.  That is quite in contrast to many adult gay-themed books, which as I quickly found all too often emphasize graphic sex over story line.

In the past few months I have read quite a number of books in this new-to-me genre, and would like to recommend some of the best of them — the ones I enjoyed most — to those who might be interested.  I will do that gradually over time.

First, I would like to introduce you briefly to two related books by Michael Barakiva that I highly recommend — One Man Guy and Hold My Hand.

First, One Man Guy:

Meet Alek Khederian and his very Armenian-American family. They are seated at a restaurant as Alek’s mother runs the unsuspecting waitress through a lengthy interrogation concerning the water and food, prompting Alek’s view that Armenian restaurant-goers should come with a warning label:  “Waiting on Armenians Might Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

While they are at table, Alek’s parents inform him he is going to summer school — much to his displeasure.  That is the first hint we have that Alek’s life is largely guided by his parents, who keep a short but concerned and loving leash on his activities.  But just before summer school begins, Alek has an unexpected and life-changing encounter with a boy named Ethan — just the beginning of the coming together of their two very different worlds.  Where dark-haired Alek is conservative and restrained, liberal, blond Ethan — at least to Alek’s eyes — is the very embodiment of cool.

We follow the two as Alek reacts to Ethan’s challenging, adventurous and free-spirited personality — and Ethan follows his strong attraction to Alek.

Michael Barakiva has created a very absorbing and loving portrait of two very different young guys exploring their youthful world and their feelings together — and of how the beginning of their journey affects those around them.

Hold My Hand is the must-read sequel for those who met Alek and Ethan in One Man Guy.  As often happens in life, it turns out the road for these two is not always without obstacles.  Through their experiences, we learn the importance of trust, honesty, fidelity and forgiveness in relationships.  We also learn that normally-quiet Alek is not afraid to take on the backward attitudes and prejudices of the Armenian Orthodox Church concerning same-sex attraction.

As you can tell, I don’t want to reveal too much of the story.  I don’t want take away from the freshness and enjoyment of it.  Suffice it to say that Michael Barakiva has written a very touching and often deeply moving story of young love and of growth through facing the difficulties that life and relationships can bring us.

As I turned the pages of Hold My Hand, I found myself giving an unexpected amount of thought to the psychology of the interactions of Ethan and Alek — how their backgrounds and personal issues may have motivated them to react to events as they did.  The book certainly offers much to ponder about the nature of relationships, whether among teens or adults.

I will add that when you finish the second of the two books, you will probably — like me — not want the story of Alek and Ethan to end.

One Man Guy, by Michael Barakiva;
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 27, 2014)

Hold My Hand, by Michael Barakiva
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 21, 2019)

 

David

 

LIGHT AND SHADOW

A loose translation of a spring hokku by Kikaku:

Dim in the shadows
Of the pines —
The moonlit night.

Oboro to wa  matsu no kurosa ni tsuki yo kana

It has somewhat the feeling of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

David

A ONE-SIDED SPRING

Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.

I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.

The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well.  That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:

LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees.  Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds.  It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature.  We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that.  But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove.  Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure.  So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing.  He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows.  He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?

The poem has some memorable lines:  And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect.  Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.

So that is the flaw in this poem.  Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided.  It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete.  Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.

While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.  To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them.  We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.

CHOMPING

A winter hokku by Kiūkoku:

The horse
Chomping and chomping straw;
A snowy night.

The loud chomping noises only emphasize the stillness of the night of snow, so we can say this is a hokku with harmony of contrast — two very different things put together that nonetheless come out as harmonious instead of discordant.

Best wishes to everyone on this New Year’s Eve for a far better and happier coming year than the last has been.

David

IN ALL THE WHITENESS

Here is my rather loose translation of a winter hokku by Yasui:

In all the whiteness,
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

Perhaps it reminds you of another winter hokku by Chiy0-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

In two days comes the Midwinter Solstice and the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Then the days will slowly begin to grow longer. and the new cycle will begin.

 

David

WHERE THEY SLEEP

There is already snow in the high mountains.

Here is another objective “daoku” verse from A Year of Japanese Epigrams, this time by Rimei — in my translation:

Snow falling
On the pines where they sleep —
The crows.

Ne-dokoro no matsu ni yuki    furu    karasu kana
Sleep-place  pine   on  snow falling  crows  kana

Largely visual, this hokku evokes an interesting contrast in the mind between the whiteness of the gently-falling snow and the black crows.

 

David

 

RAIN ON FALLEN LEAVES

It has rained on and off — and very heavily when on — here for many days now.  Most of the colorful autumn leaves have fallen.

Here is a verse by Kaen from the old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams, but in my loose translation.  You will notice that it has a dash of “thinking,” so in our system it is a shinku (hokku with a bit of thinking added) rather than a daoku (completely objective hokku):

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

Hara-hara to oto       shite       sabishi ame ochiba
Falling       to  sound making   lonely  rain  fallen-leaves

It of course reminds us of a similar well-known verse by  Gyōdai that qualifies as daoku, being completely objective:  It is one of the simplest and best old hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

When we compare Kaen’s verse with that of Gyōdai, we can easily see it is the addition of “loneliness” that makes it a shinku instead of a daoku.  That “loneliness” is the adding of the writer’s personal interpretation of the sound of the rain pattering on the fallen leaves.  Gyōdai, however, simply presents us with the leaves falling and piling up and the rain beating on the rain, and we feel what is openly stated in Kaen’s verse without the need to say it.  It is the old maxim we heard so often in school — “Show, don’t tell.”

There is no single English word that exactly corresponds to sabishi.  It combines elements of being alone and solitary with a kind of profound, wistful, existential sadness.  It does not have so much of the implications of “deprived of human company” that we sense in the English word “loneliness.”

 

David

JUST FOOLING — OR NOT

Tonight is Halloween — Samhain. In the old agricultural calendar and in the hokku calendar, it marks autumn’s end and the beginning of winter.

This year it is unusual in having a “blue moon” — the second full moon in a month. It is unusual also in that the usual festive activities of children and adults have been disrupted by the uncontrolled spread of the virus, due partly to the dangerously incompetent presidential administration in Washington.

The American “prairie” poet, writer, and biographer of Lincoln Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) wrote an unusual poem in which he gives a single, colletive voice to the pumpkin — that common symbol of Halloween in the United States, particularly when carved into a Jack-o’ lantern. It is titled

THEME IN YELLOW

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am jack-o’lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

It is an easy poem to understand, and one can readily visualize the low hill fields spotted with pumpkins, and the prairie cornfields ( fields of maize to speakers of British English) with their clusters of pumpkin vines.

Then Sandburg moves to Halloween (“the last of October”) and the celebrations of children, having fun scaring one another with the notion of ghosts, and so expressing their love of Halloween “to the harvest moon.”

The summation of Halloween comes in the last line, when in spite of the frightful appearance of “jack-o’-lantern / With terrible teeth,” Sandburg as pumpkin gives the secret of the joy of the night away:

“And the children know I am fooling.”

It is the combination of the fearful elements of Halloween with the knowledge that it is all “fooling” that has made it a unique and much-anticipated celebration for children and young adults.

This Halloween marks a crucial time for the United States. It will shortly be followed by the Presidential election, and there is great fear and stress that if we do not have a change of administration voted in this beginning of November, it will mean not only four more years of unpredictable and perilous chaos, but also an even deeper decline and fall into ongoing authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and the perhaps final national loss of the best of traditional American values — as well as the disastrous continuation of unbridled climate change and environmental rape and destruction. That should be enough to frighten anyone this Halloween, not only in the United States but in the entire free world. And that is no fooling.

David

A TWILIGHT OF THE HEART: DOWSON’S “AUTUMNAL”

We have already discussed Ernest Dowson’s most famous poem, with its memorable line “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”  See https://hokku.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/they-are-not-long-the-days-of-wine-and-roses-the-brief-life-of-ernest-dowson/
Today we shall look at another by him, with the same atmosphere of beauty, brevity and impending loss.  Here is his

AUTUMNAL

Pale amber sunlight falls across
The reddening October trees,
That hardly sway before a breeze
As soft as summer: summer’s loss
Seems little, dear! on days like these!

Autumn (or the Fall, as we say in America) does have its lovely days of honey-golden light.  And it can have its gentle October days filled with the coloring and falling of the leaves, which add their own distinctive fragrance to the season.  One might well think on such days that the passing of summer is little loss.

Let misty autumn be our part!
The twilight of the year is sweet:
Where shadow and the darkness meet
Our love, a twilight of the heart
Eludes a little time’s deceit.

Let us have autumn!, Dowson says.  Autumn is the twilight of the year, as in hokku it is the late afternoon to early evening, and in human life it is the passage into old age — the “autumn of life.”  But here Dowson is talking about a love affair during this twilight of the year — a last love affair — a twilight of the heart — before the passage of time takes it all away.

Are we not better and at home
In dreamful Autumn, we who deem
No harvest joy is worth a dream?
A little while and night shall come,
A little while, then, let us dream.

Is it not better, he says, to stay away from the rest of the world in its harvest celebrations, and keep to ourselves and our “dream of love,” illusory though it may be.  And he thinks no joy in harvest is worth this brief dream of love.  So soon the night will come and the dream will end, but let us dream while we may.  Yes, it is escapism, but poor Dowson, as we have seen in the earlier posting, had reason in his sad life for escapism.

Beyond the pearled horizons lie
Winter and night: awaiting these
We garner this poor hour of ease,
Until love turn from us and die
Beneath the drear November trees

Beyond the pearled (bluish-gray) horizons — that is, beyond the present time, lie winter and night, symbolizing to Dowson the end of things — of life and joy and pleasure and sadness.  So, he says, we garner (take and hold) this “poor hour of ease,” that is, the brief time of their love affair, their dream — until it all comes to an end, and he sees “love turn from us and die / Beneath the drear November trees.  By November, of course, the gentle and lovely October days of bright leaves and leaf-scented walks are past — and cold and rain have replaced them.  And for Dowson, love inevitably would end, would “turn from us and die.”

Basically, this is another “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” poem that tells people life is not easy nor is it lasting.  Matthew Arnold wrote,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

Dowson would certainly have agreed with much of that, though he obviously felt that love itself is a temporary illusion rather than a long and faithful bond; beautiful while it lasts, like the fragrance of a rose — but evanescent and all too soon gone.  That, of course reflects the downward course of his young life, but he did leave some memorable words behind.

David

MORNING WIND

The old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams attributes this autumn hokku to Bashō — though I have not been able to find it in collections of his verses.  In modern hokku terms it would be a daoku, that is, an objective hokku, but whether it was so originally, I cannot say.  Remember that sometimes old hokku were written with a double meaning.  I prefer to take it as objective, which makes it in my view a far better verse than a subjective interpretation would offer:

Morning wind;
Only one wild goose
In the white clouds.

Or we could revise it somewhat to improve the flow:

Morning wind;
Among the white clouds —
A lone wild goose.

Asa          kaze   ya  tada shira kumo  ni     kari          hitotsu
Morning wind   ya  only white clouds at wild-goose one

It gives us a feeling of solitude that one senses in many autumn hokku, when, as Nature begins to turn inward, so do humans.

It often seems to me as I translate, that when writing hokku, English generally gives us far more options for word choices and shades of meaning than the traditional Japanese “hokku” vocabulary.  Is that just a limited perception or reality?  It would be interesting to hear a  learned Japanese view on this.

 

David

 

 

 

 

THINGS TO COME

The news says that where I live — as of now — we have the worst air quality on the planet. That is due to the massive wildfires on the West Coast of the United States.

Whether literally or metaphorically, depending on place, our planet is on fire. The present devastating forest fires burning here in the Pacific Northwest are extraordinary — nothing I have ever seen in my lifetime. And we can look to the complete lack of government climate action as a heavy contributor to that.

I had hoped the heavy wildfire smoke blanketing my area of the city would be gone when I woke this morning, but it is as thick as ever outside, and visibility is very low — the smoke equivalent of a fog. I smell it indoors, but there is nothing I can do about it. By the time I get an air purifier delivered, the matter of smoke here will likely have resolved for the time being, as we are to have a weather change Sunday or Monday (it is now Friday) that may help to keep the smoke at bay.

I just read that the fire is creeping closer to the city suburbs, but I think it is still comparatively distant, and there is not thick forest all around the city as there is where the fires are burning now. So I suspect our major problem here will be the dense and harmful smoke. And of course there are many homeless people out in it.

As for now, it is just something we have to endure. Large numbers of people in the rural areas have already been burnt out or ordered to evacuate.

As someone said, if warnings such as these massive fires were to be compared to the canary in a coal mine, we would be knee-deep in dead canaries now.  And we are only at the beginning of the coming world-wide climate and environmental troubles.

This is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of planetary survival. We absolutely must remove from office government leaders who will not seriously deal with climate change.  And in the United States, we can begin in the upcoming election.

David

FOR THE ELECTION, 2020

On reading this poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), one cannot help but be struck by the great contrast with the present American administration.  It could have been written specifically for the dismal situation in which we now find ourselves in the United States.  It reminds us of values and ideals many Americans seem to have forgotten or to have discarded in favor of base emotions, crass tribalism, and personal gain.  For “God” we can easily substitute a plea to the national conscience, and to “men” we must of course add “women”:

GOD, GIVE US MEN

God, give us men!
A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office can not buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.

Read the daily news, and you will see endless examples of wrong ruling the land and justice sleeping.  A great deal, not only for the United States but for the planet, is at stake in the upcoming election.  One can only hope that those who voted in the disastrous administration we have had these last four years will come to their senses and return to the highest ideals held forth by the best and brightest souls this country has produced over the years.  Then perhaps the country can begin to climb out of the dark slough into which it has fallen.

 

David

 

LISTENING TO THE WIND

As I often say, some old Japanese hokku were needlessly vague — something we want to avoid when writing new hokku.  There is, for example, this verse by Sora:

yomosugara akikaze kiku ya ura no yama
よ も すがら 秋  風    聞くや  裏    の    山
All night autumn wind hear ya behind ‘s mountain

As it is written in Japanese, one would read it as:

All night long
Listening to the wind;
The mountain behind.

That, however, fails in English to adequately make the link between the wind and the mountain/mountains (remember that in Japanese there is no written plural)

I would prefer this understanding, in daoku form:

All night long,
Listening to the wind
On the mountains behind.

That way we we know that the writer is listening all the night to the wind blowing through the trees on the mountains behind where he is lodging.

Historically, Sora was apparently kept awake by an illness when he wrote this, but a hokku should not be linked firmly to its original circumstances if it is to become our experience as well — as a hokku should.  There are many reasons for being awake all the night, with only the sound of the wind on the hills.

David

 

WHY THIS, NOT THAT?

English is an interesting and useful language, but I am glad I grew up speaking it instead of having to learn it as a second language.  That is because it is filled with countless idiomatic usages and traditional ways of saying things.

What does this have to do with hokku?  It relates to how we use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) — particularly in first lines.

Look at these examples of possible first lines:

Autumn moon;

Cold rain;

Morning light;

Evening star;

Hot stone;

Cool water;

An English speaker automatically feels that the following require “the”:

The autumn moon;
The evening star;
The hot stone;

However these can be either with or without “the”:

Cold rain/The cold rain;
Morning light/The morning light;
Cool water/The cool water;

Trying to come up with a fixed rule to fit all possibilities would be devilishly difficult, because it is often just a matter of traditional usage and common speech — in short, what sounds right to one brought up speaking English.  For those learning the language, it is a constant effort to determine what is normal in each particular case.

This is often an initial difficulty for those coming to hokku from long exposure to modern haiku, which tends to frequently avoid the use of articles, thinking that there is a virtue in making a verse as grammatically minimal as possible.

That mistaken notion is partly derived from seeing literal translations of Japanese hokku; Japanese does not have articles or plurals.  But English is quite unlike Japanese, and to try to mix English words and Japanese grammar just comes out as odd.  This trend toward excessive minimalism in modern haiku is also partly the influence of the experimentalism in English-language poetry of the first half of the 20th century, which sometimes found even eliminating punctuation desirable.

Of course if we carried this idea of minimalization by elimination of articles to its logical conclusion, we would be writing hokku, such as the verse I posted yesterday, in a form like this:

Autumn moon;
On floor
Pine shadow.

Instead of like this:

The autumn moon;
On the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

In short, we would be writing in pidgin English.  And of course many in modern haiku would even eliminate the capitalization and punctuation.  But in contemporary hokku, we do not go for the peculiar.  We use ordinary English in ordinary ways.

When people come to hokku from modern haiku, they are often so accustomed to the partial (or even complete at times) elimination of articles and punctuation that seeing a hokku written in normal English seems initially peculiar to them, because they have been mistakenly conditioned to think that writing a verse requires some kind of special, abbreviated language.  But in hokku, we just write of ordinary things in ordinary English.

It is true that in hokku we keep to the principles of poverty and simplicity — that is, eliminating all that is unnecessary so as to make a stronger verse.  That does not, however, extend to the deliberate distortion of common English usage to fit a preconceived and mistaken notion that by doing so, a verse is somehow made better.

 

David

PINE SHADOW

Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.

The autumn moon;
Across the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

Literally, in Japanese it is:

Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage
   名   月    や     畳     の 上  に   松     の     影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow

The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon.
Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.

We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:

The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.

It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.

We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:

Autumn moonlight;
A pine shadow
Across the floor.

As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku.  If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.

David

CHORA’S CLOUDS

Here is a hokku by Chora that requires a rather interpretive translation to make sense in English.

Autumn begins;
In the flowing clouds
The wind is seen.

The flow of clouds in the sky reveals the wind — the first sign of the wind of autumn that will become more and more obvious as the season progresses.  It is the wind that carries the clouds across the sky.

In the Japanese original, it is like this:

Autumn begins;
Clouds flowing —
The wind is seen.

If one reads that before the interpretive translation however, English speakers are likely to fail to see the connection between the clouds and the wind, which is why an interpretive translation makes the relationship clear — and thus is better.

Aki tatsu ya kumo wa nagarete kaze miyuru
秋   たつ や    雲     は  ながれて   風   見 ゆる
Autumn begins ya cloud wa flow wind is-seen

Remember that a hokku should be simple and clear; one should not have to puzzle it out.  Its effect on the reader should be immediate.  Vagueness was sometimes found in old Japanese hokku, but it was a flaw rather than a virtue, and should not be emulated when composing in English.

 

David

WHITE AND GREY

A hokku in daoku form by Shōha:

(Autumn)

On the white wall,
Shadows of dragonflies
Flitting by.

         壁  に  蜻  蛉  過ぐる  日 影    かな
Shira-kabe ni tombō suguru hikage kana
White wall on dragonfly pass shadow kana

The shadows of the dragonflies and their translucent wings on the white wall in the autumn sun are fleeting, and their impermanence is in keeping with  the sense of autumn as a time when impermanence is much in evidence.

This hokku is a study in grey and white — the whiteness of the wall, and the faint grey shadows of the dragonflies — so it is very simple, but also effective.

This daoku (objective hokku) is a good example of the “setting/subject/action” form because they are so clearly separated here:

Setting:  On the white wall
Subject:  Shadows of dragonflies
Action:  Flitting by

The S/S/A form is a very good one for beginners in hokku because it enables them to arrange the significant elements of a hokku experience easily, and countless hokku can be written using it.  Because it is simple does not mean, however, that it is only for beginners.  It is a good tool for writers of hokku at any stage, from beginner to very advanced.

For those of  you who may come to hokku from other short verse traditions such as modern haiku, be sure to note the definite characteristics of the daoku form:

It consists of three lines.
The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts to the verse, one long and one short.
The two parts are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.
The daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Remember that unlike modern haiku, contemporary hokku in English has not only a definite form, but also definite aesthetic principles that the student of hokku must gradually learn and absorb.  Also unlike much of modern haiku, hokku keeps the strong connection with the seasons found in old hokku, so every verse has a seasonal heading in parentheses, as you see above.

Also, it is very important to remember that unlike much of modern haiku, contemporary hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

If you are unfamiliar with the term daoku, it simply means an objective hokku — one without any opinions or comments of the writer added, or as we commonly say, “no thinking.”  Daoku form means the standard form we use in writing contemporary hokku — the form shown above.

 

David

 

DUST AND RAIN

I have discussed today’s verse before (in 2017), but it is worth mentioning again in a little more detail.  It was written by Kyoshi, whose prolific verses on the whole tend to be rather bland, and who wrote in and beyond the time of Shiki.  He even took over as editor of the magazine — Hototogisu — that Shiki had formerly edited.  That means we are in the “haiku” period, even though like Shiki, Kyoshi kept season words and a more conservative kind of verse that was sometimes indistinguishable from hokku — which is why I am discussing a verse by him today as daoku (objective hokku) in English.  Here it is:

Falling
On the dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
石    の  上 の       埃  に  降るや   秋  の   雨
Stone ‘s on ‘s   dust   at  falling ya autumn ‘s rain

I think of this as one of those transitional verses written at the time when one season has begun merging into another, in this case summer has transitioned into autumn.  We still feel the lingering heat and dryness of summer in the dust on the stones, but the rain is the rain of autumn, and its drops spatter the dust on the stones into mud.  It is a very objective verse, and quite good because it not only lets us feel the seasonal change clearly, but it also has a strong appeal to the senses in its mixture of dryness (Yang) and wetness (Yin).  So we see it is a verse with harmony of contrast.

You may recall that harmony of contrast is a technique used in hokku through combining things felt to be opposite or contrary in a way that reveals an underlying harmony, as in this combination of dust and rain, dryness and wetness, that nonetheless create a very satisfying combination.

We could translate the verse very closely to Kyoshi, like this:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

There is something a bit awkward about that, however, as we often find when we try to translate more literally.  So we could translate a bit more loosely, while still keeping the meaning:

Spattering
The dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

You may recall that I once made a slight variation on Kyoshi’s verse in this daoku:

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

R. H. Blyth spoke of the poet “dissolved in the object,” by which he meant the same as we say in hokku: that the writer must get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That selflessness is the objectivity of daoku.  Today’s verse, therefore, well qualifies as daoku– objective hokku.

David

 

HOKKU AND POVERTY

As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:

(Autumn)

Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among

 

David

AUTUMN, HOKKU AND HAIKU

We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year.  Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature.  In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see.  The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).

In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight.  In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age.  It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter.  In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.

Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life.  We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.

The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles.  I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them.  If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.

Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation.  In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry.  That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today.  Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku.  The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.

The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been.  But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.

What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?

First, there is the form.  As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably.  Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.  All of these are permissible in modern haiku.

In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized.  A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two.  It is divided into two segments:  a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one.  The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end.  The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku).  The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation.  This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.

A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season.  In hokku season is crucially important.  Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season.  Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season.  That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku.  In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:

(Autumn)

That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.

Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature.  In hokku, Nature is all important.  The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.”  Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.

Then there is the matter of topics.  Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality.  That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence.  Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.

In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible.  That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”).  In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical.  The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak.  In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.”  In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku.  Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).

Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it.  I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku.  And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude.  How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.

Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.

Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple.  Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write.  Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku.  Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku.  Many people have never heard of the hokku.  When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.”  And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.

That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.

Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference.  Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires.  Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal:  to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.

For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.

 

David

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: HAIKU ENLIGHTENMENT

Ivan M. Granger — founder and editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website — (https://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/ ) — has bravely sent me a book for review.  I say “bravely,” because he knows I am very critical of the modern haiku movement, and the book received is definitely about haiku.  And if I do not even spare nice old ladies who put into print bad renderings of Bashō , what am I likely to say about a new book advocating the writing of haiku — that mutated offshoot of the old hokku?

Well, let’s see.  Off we go.

Haiku Enlightenment
by Gabriel Rosenstock
Published by Poetry Chaikhana
2019

The first thing one notes about this book is the author’s enthusiasm.  Whatever one may conclude about his views, one cannot deny that Gabriel is sparklingly enthusiastic about his subject, which is evident in the book from beginning to end.

Next comes a surprise.  Unlike the majority of the present pundits of the modern haiku community, which has done its best to completely separate haiku from its spiritual origins,  Gabriel has no qualms about passionately advocating just the opposite:  a very strong grounding of his brand of haiku in non-dogmatic spirituality.  That is evident even in his use of the loaded word “Enlightenment” in the book’s title.

Well, as I have always said, no one ever became enlightened by writing hokku.  I can safely say the same of haiku.  But that one might get a “little” and lower-case enlightenment is something even stated by R. H. Blyth.  It is not the upper-case “big” enlightenment of Buddhism — but it is a very momentary and transitory experience in which the writer or reader becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (that which is written about) disappears.  That is why we can speak of hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  So one cannot fault Gabriel for the connection, though it is very important not to confuse the “little” and “big” enlightenments.  Bashō spent a lifetime teaching and writing haikai and hokku, yet he is said to have regretted at the end of his life that he had obsessively devoted so much time to that instead of seeking the “big” enlightenment through Buddhist meditation.  So though writing verse may be an ancillary to a spiritual path (and it is important to note that it may also be a hindrance), it will not enlighten anyone in the “big” sense.

Given that, one may feel that Gabriel has oversold his case for his kind of haiku as a spiritual path, but at least he has remarkably and with fervor restored a connection between verse and spirituality that has long been discarded and scorned in much of the modern haiku community.

In avidly presenting his case, he quotes many different “spiritual” writers and teachers, but one wishes he had stopped before including excerpts from such dangerously destructive personalities as the Tibetan “guru” Chögyam Trungpa and “Osho” — the head of the cultic Rajneesh movement.  Their presence in the book tends to detract from those more legitimate.

Aside from that, Gabriel’s book offers a sizable anthology of verses, including a number of “haiku format” versions of old Japanese hokku — unfortunately sometimes in inferior and even misleading translations, and of course presented anachronistically as “haiku” in keeping with the topic of the book .

Examples of  such translations include this unwise rendering of Bashō:

ancient pond …
a frog jumps
into the sound of water

The translation of its second and third lines is not at all what the verse means in the original.

And this erratic version of Chiyo-ni:

dragon-fly hunter
where has he wandered off to?
where?

In that verse — written about a son who died — the writer was not asking “where has he wandered off to?” but rather kyō wa doko made itta yara — “today what place has he reached, I wonder” — referring to the child’s journey in the afterlife.

Now as we can see from the format of these two examples, Gabriel offers no firm guidance as to form and punctuation, but seemingly accepts the wide variations of practice found in modern haiku — leaving the novice to decide whether to capitalize and when or even if to punctuate.  He does advise “you might prefer to avoid using capital letters, except, perhaps, for the first word”  But he gives no reason for such a preference.

The book includes many verses by recent and contemporary writers of haiku, giving the reader a good idea of tendencies in the haiku community, though generally excluding the more far-out and experimental examples one finds in the more arbitrary writers of today.

Here and there, Gabriel gives some genuinely good advice, such as  “Avoid the use of “I” and “me,” and “mine” as much as possible.”  But it is frequently offset by less helpful suggestions such as “Discarding punctuation can sometimes lead to an engaging ambiguity.”  That is a view quite contrary to the contemporary hokku dictum that an ambiguous verse is a weak and generally failed verse, but in his favor he could easily have pointed to the ambiguity of many old Japanese hokku, in support of a tendency toward occasional vagueness in writing.

He further advises the beginning writer: “Read the haiku classics [by which he means hokku] over and over again, and read the best of the moderns, such as Santōka.”  The problem here is that he neglects to mention the importance of the quality of translation of the old verses one is looking to for help.  There are many bad translations of old verses out there, and several are used in Gabriel’s book, providing bad examples for the learner.  Further, the gap between the form and aesthetics of traditional Japanese hokku and more exploratory and individualistic writers like Santōka is so wide that it is likely to result in much confusion in new writers about just what a verse should be and how it should look — a confusion that is already endemic in modern haiku.

Now it should be obvious that in reviewing Haiku Enlightenment, I am seeing it from the perspective of a long involvement with — and preference for — the hokku;  and the paths of hokku and modern haiku frequently diverge.  In choosing whether to write hokku or haiku, some new writers may prefer the wider and more indefinite boundaries offered by Gabriel’s spiritually-oriented haiku approach, which extends even, at times, to verses that depart greatly from the hokku practice of omitting that which “disturbs the mind.”

It could be said that Gabriel’s book continues the fundamental mistake made by writers on the subject of Japanese hokku and haiku in the 20th century — the error of offering beginners too little guidance regarding form and content and aesthetics, leaving it up to the student to decide those very important matters.  But on the other hand, he is writing in the modern haiku tradition that developed as a consequence of that lack of early guidance — and so it is not surprising he favors a more all-encompassing approach that leaves much (too much from the hokku perspective) up to the novice writer.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gabriel has a decided preference for the verses of Issa — verses with which the Western reader can easily identify, though they are also very popular among ordinary Japanese readers.  While that is partly a matter of taste, I think it also indicative of a lack of familiarity with the deeper aspects of the old aesthetics of Japanese hokku, which are largely absent in the book, and which were never really transmitted when the hokku came West and was re-interpreted there as what became modern haiku.

What can be said of the book is that its restoration of spirituality to haiku, and its strongly and frequently repeated advice that the composer of haiku should “disappear” — both of which are important to hokku as well — offer would-be writers of modern haiku a decided improvement over what is generally proffered to new learners by the more anarchic and self-absorbed trends so common today in the modern haiku community.

 

David

 

HARVEST HOME: SUMMER’S END 2020

Tomorrow — August 1st — marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn by the old hokku calendar.   It is the ancient celebration Harvest Home — the beginning of the harvest season.  To some, it is known by its Gaelic name Lughnasadh/Lunasa — pronounced LOO-nuh-suh.

As some of you know, I often repost an article to mark that time when I sense the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter.

It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day it will come, but already I felt again that weakness in the air, and this morning a kind of vast stillness, a pause of the atmosphere in breathless silence.   The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall is beginning.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite. And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year. The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August. Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave. And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of hokku. We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event. And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in hokku. In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a daoku (objective hokku) I wrote some years ago:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, and feel it, can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood? Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku. It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, that everything changes, that nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing. It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows. It is not necessary to tell that to the children.

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer moves toward an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

David

SWISHING

A hokku by Banko:

Suzushisa yo ushi no o wo furu kawa no naka
Cool          (!)  cow   ‘s  tail wo  wag river ‘s in

(Summer)

How cool!
The cows in the river
Swishing their tails.

It is unfortunate that in our modern and increasingly urbanized society, fewer and fewer will see such rural scenes.

 

David

 

COOL MOONLIGHT

Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer.  In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.

In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day.  But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:

Tsuki suzushi   uma arai iru  kawa no oto
moon cool        horse wash-is  river ‘s sound

We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:

(Summer)

Cool moonlight;
The sound of horses
Bathing in the river.

It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.

 

David

THE TAINT OF THE PAST: ELINOR WYLIE’S “AUGUST”

Today’s poem — by American poet Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) — is one I find simultaneously both interesting on a sensory level and very troubling.  I think you will see why.  It depicts the heat of August through the image of a man of African ancestry wheeling a barrowful of (presumably) “Black-eyed Susan” flowers — also called Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) –down the hot August street.

In the imagery of this poem, Wylie creates very obviously what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls — in her essay titled “Racialized Cultural Work” (Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act: University of Illinois Press, 2000) — a “black-white binary” — in short, a presentation of presumed opposites.  There can be great danger in this when applied to humans of different appearance.

Here is Wylie’s poem, which, following its imagery, we shall take in two parts:

AUGUST

Why should this Negro insolently stride
Down the red noonday on such noiseless feet?
Piled in his barrow, tawnier than wheat,
Lie heaps of smouldering daisies, sombre-eyed,
Their copper petals shriveled up with pride,
Hot with a superfluity of heat,
Like a great brazier borne along the street
By captive leopards, black and burning pied.

Wylie expresses displeasure with the heat through her image of the dark man pushing the “smouldering” barrow of flowers — both symbolizing the intensity of  August — down a street in the noonday sun.  She begins, “Why should this Negro insolently stride ….”

Now that phrasing raises clanging alarm bells in my head immediately, because it recalls the standard deprecating racist term used in the past to describe American men (and women) of African ancestry who behaved with self-confident assurance: “uppity.”  Not only that, but old news articles from racist times and locales in America actually had headlines using the very phrase “insolent negro.” Her use of that racist phrase is only magnified by her description of the daisies as “shriveled up with pride.”

So Wylie uses the imagery of the dark-skinned man silently wheeling the barrow full of tawny (orange-brown) daisies down the street to signify the oppressive heat of summer — a heat smouldering and excessive.  Then she takes the image to a greater level of fantasy by comparing the barrow of “smouldering” coppery-petaled flowers to a brazier (a metal container of burning coals) carried along the street by captive leopards that are two-colored (pied) — both black and “burning” (the black spots over the lighter orange-brown of a leopard’s fur, like the gold-brown of Gloriosa daisies).

Having shown us the August heat through this imagery, Wylie expresses her dismay that there is no ready alternative to it:

Are there no water-lilies, smooth as cream,
With long stems dripping crystal? Are there none
Like those white lilies, luminous and cool,
Plucked from some hemlock-darkened northern stream
By fair-haired swimmers, diving where the sun
Scarce warms the surface of the deepest pool?

She asks, in the presence of the “heat” imagery, is there not something cool and refreshing — no water lilies with long stems dripping crystal drops of water — no lilies like those picked in some northern stream shadowed by hemlock trees, white lilies that are luminous and cool?  And to add to the contrast, she sees these lilies as “Plucked — by fair-haired [blond] swimmers” who dive into water where the sun hardly warms even “the surface of the deepest pool.”

Now it is not hard to see that this is a black-white, hot-cool contrast, or as Rachel Blau DuPlessis put it, “a black-white binary.”  The hazard in this is depicting the “black” side as “insolent” oppressive heat, and the “white” side as cool and refreshing — with the danger that a reader may expand these images into opposite racist stereotypes of society in general.

Now if this poem had not been written under the racist overtones of its time, we could simply take the imagery for what it is — a contrast of bothersome heat and refreshing coolness — without expanding those images into harmful and greatly misleading racial stereotypes.  As such, the imagery would be interesting.  But it is very difficult to read this poem simply as such, without the taint of the racist past of the United States interfering with the colorful and effective imagery.  It is very hard to get past that first line without wincing, as we look back on all the devastating troubles that thoughtless use of words has caused Americans of African descent.

 

David

 

THE FOURTH

Fourth of July Parade: Alfred Cornelius Howland, 1884; High Museum of Art

Well, if you are up for it, today we will look at — or rather listen to — not a poem, but a unique musical composition by a unique American composer — Charles Ives.

Ives was an insurance man, but music was his love.  He was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut.  His father George had been a bandmaster — in fact the youngest — in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Son Charles began composing music at 13, and by the age of 14 he was the youngest paid church organist in the state.  Ives went on to study music at Yale.  But after that, he became a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company.  One might think that would end his musical career, but instead — gradually free of the musical “establishment” of the time — Charles went on to compose whatever he liked, however he liked — which accounts for his exception place in American musical history.  Ives took a partner, formed his own insurance company, and composed prolifically on his own time.  He died in 1954.

His work The Fourth of July was the third of four parts of his larger composition A Symphony: New England Holidays.

Prepare yourself.  Ives’ Fourth of July, in his own words, represents

” … a boy’s ‘4th—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquences by ‘grown-ups’—no program in his yard! But he knows what he’s celebrating—better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it’s like—if everybody doesn’t—Cannon on the Green, Village Band on Main Street, fire crackers, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, Church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam-chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White, and Blue runaway horse,—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the Church-steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town-Hall on fire.”

It is the musical equivalent of a dream-like memory of the past.  In it there are bits and snatches of once very well known but now mostly forgotten patriotic songs of 19th-century America, such as:  “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and even a few notes of “Reveille.”

Ives wrote of it:

“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it. And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things etc., and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played—although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades.”

It begins slowly –like the day itself — and grows into a noisy, loud mixture as the day progresses.  You may like it, you may hate it — but it well expresses the cacophony of the Fourth of July as it once was, through the sensory experiences of a boy — transformed into a remarkably nostalgic musical composition.  Though it sounds very modern, it is really echoes from an ever more distant past.

 

A POEM FOR “JUNETEENTH.”

 

June 19th was the day in 1865 when — quite belatedly — news of the emancipation of the slaves finally reached the people of African descent in Texas — the last state still having slavery — and was proclaimed at Galveston.  It became an annual commemoration and celebration given the colloquial name “Juneteenth.”

It has taken a long, long time for this to reach the consciousness of the rest of America, but now that it has, perhaps it will be on its way to acceptance as a national holiday and celebration.

There can hardly be a better poem for it than this one by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  It requires no lengthy explanation beyond saying that when Hughes asks for America to be America again, he is asking for the realization of the best of American ideals, not a return to some supposedly glorious, idyllic past — because for African Americans, “poor whites,” and Native Americans, those ideals have yet to be fully realized.  As Hughes interjects in the poem, “America never was America to me.”  It is to those ideals that Hughes exhorts all Americans to return, to create a better and more equitable future for all.  He expresses the belief through his oath — still not fully realized in his lifetime — that “America will be.”

LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

To “make America again” means to reshape it to fit the highest, most noble ideals of liberty and equality.  That is a goal to which people of all countries may aspire.

 

David

BLUE, WHITE, AND GOLD

This pure white flower with the golden center,  growing against today’s blue summer sky, is the rather amazing Matilija Poppy.  It is native to the Matilija Wilderness in southern California, as well as other relatively dry areas in southern California and nearby Baja California.

Oddly enough, I first encountered it in a large vacant lot here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  This region is far wetter and often colder in winter than its home territory.  It had been established in that lot for many long years, and had grown many new plants there from sending out rhizomes.

The surprising thing is not only that it grows vigorously well out of its native region, but also that the flowers are the size of saucers, and the example I have in my garden (the one shown here) is about eight feet high.

The catch, though, is that it is very difficult to grow from seed.  The trick seems to be burning pine needles over them.  That appears to imitate the wildfires that periodically and naturally sweep through its native habitat.

The much easier method of propagation is to use root (rhizome) cuttings, but it can be very touchy about being transplanted, so one must treat the cuttings and new plants with care at first.  It is often available in nurseries — at least in the western coastal states, and buying it that way is easiest of all.  Once established, it does very well.

In my region it tends to die back in cold winters, but sprouts energetically again in the spring.

The name Matilija (pronounced muh-TIL-i-hah), it is said, comes originally from that of Matâ’ilha, a Native American Chumash village.  The scientific name of the plant — Romney coulteri — combines the “Romney” from the name of the Irish astronomer Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), with that of Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843), an Irish botanist who first came across the plant while collecting botanical specimens in in 1831-32.

 

 

 

 

BLUNTING THE PEARS

Today we will look at a poem by the Imagist poetess known as H. D. — which she preferred to her more prosaic name, Hilda Doolittle.

Born in 1886, she had a strong interest in expressing herself through what she considered an ancient Greek aesthetic, which was also the case with another noted female of the time, the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).  While Duncan expressed her concept of Greek influence through dance, H. D. used poetry.

When reading H. D. through her earlier poems, one always has the feeling she is trying to write as though she were an ancient Greek, strongly influenced by poems of the Greek poetess Sappho, from the isle of Lesbos.  The earlier poems of H.D. always remind me of the 19th-early 20th century notion of old Greek marble statues and columns — carefully chiselled, pure and white and hard.  But that, of course is a misunderstanding, because as we now know, such statues and temples were originally colorfully painted.

Still, H.D. is often interesting in her sparse aesthetic.
HildaDoolittle

Here is part II of her “Garden” sequence.  This second part is generally better known than the first, probably because it is less obscure and consequently more accessible.  It is commonly titled:

HEAT
O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 
Fruit cannot drop through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes. 
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

The setting of the poem is a very hot and still day — the stillness making the heat even more unbearable. In this discomfort, the poetess invokes the wind (much as an ancient Greek would call upon a god or goddess). In doing so, she treats the heat as a material thing with some solidity.

The poem  has essentially three parts:

In the first part, she speaks of heat as though it were cloth.  She uses the word “rend” (meaning “tear apart”) twice:

…rend open the heat
…rend it to tatters

And she uses “cut”:

… cut apart the heat

Then in the second part, she expresses the solidity of the heat like this:

Fruit cannot drop through this thick air
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes

She is giving her psychological impression of the heat; that it is so thick fruit cannot fall down through it.  Instead, the heat “presses up and blunts the points of pears” — that is, it flattens the bottoms of the pears.  And it presses in and “rounds the grapes,” pressing the softer fruit into small, round globes.

That is of course all fanciful, but it expresses her perception of the heat as having volume and force.

In the third and last part, she uses the word “cut” again, but this time she is using the image of a plough cutting through soil, instead of the tearing and cutting of cloth.  She asks the wind to

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

That again gives the heat a sense of solidity.

In short, the poem expresses the discomfort of a hot and airless summer day, when one longs for a cool breeze to cut through and disperse the oppressive heat.  H.D. does this with few and simple words, and a bit of imagination.

I would like to add a word about nomenclature.  You perhaps noticed (though more likely if you are younger than older) that I used the word “poetess” for a female poet, which has long been standard practice in English.  In recent years however, there has been a movement toward using the formerly masculine-only noun “poet” for both male and female, just as in the theater it is now common to hear the word “actor” applied to females as well as males.

I understand the thinking behind this.  It stems from a sense that the use of “poetess” or “actress” somehow diminishes the work of the female, placing it in a separate category that may be viewed as less in dignity or skill.  That is something added by culture, however, not something inherent in the words.

I have used “poetess” here not with any sense of difference in quality or standing, but simply because to me it is more expressive and specific when referring to a female writer of poetry, just as “poet” does the same job for a male.  I like knowing when a person is male or female, because it evokes a more specific image in the mind.  I know there are today those who like to avoid gender titles, and if that is their preference, that is fine — as long as it does not become a case of invoking the “word police” for those with different preferences, and as long as no disrespect to an individual is intended.

There are some languages in which traditionally the distinction we have in English between “him” and “her” is absent.  That is the case in Persian.  When reading Persian classical poetry, there is no “him,” no “her,” only the word “u” (pronounced “oo”).  Unless there is something in the context that specifically indicates this “u” is a male or female, we simply cannot tell if a fellow was writing about his love for another male or for a female.  No doubt that could prove convenient in repressive times and places.

Similarly, in Chinese the word “” can signify either a male or a female — a “he” or a “she.” Modern Chinese has changed that a bit in reading and writing (though not in speaking) by adding a second character to the writing system that is pronounced the same, but nonetheless is understood to signify a female — using a different character than that used for the male “tā” ().  It was done by simply removing the “man” radical from the left side and replacing it with the “woman” character ().

The thing I would like you to remember is that when I use “poetess” or “actress,” or similar gender-specific words, it is because I like their specificity, and for no other reason.  But if a particular poetess tells me she prefers to be called a “poet,” or a certain actress prefers “actor,” as her title, then I am happy to oblige.

David

 

NOW YOU CAN TRANSLATE POSTINGS HERE

Just a “housekeeping” note.

I want to let readers here whose first language is not English know that I have added a Google Translation function on the right side of the page.  That way readers can get an approximate translation of my postings in their preferred languages.  Google Translate is not at all perfect, but it is a big improvement over nothing.

(Image by Frits Ahlenfeldt on Public Domain Pictures Net)

 

David

WHITE CLOUDS PASSING

Kwanrai (1748-1817) wrote this early summer hokku — a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  I was only able to find the transliteration of the original:

Shira-gumo no sora yuku keshi no sakaru kana
White cloud  ‘s   sky  goes  poppy ‘s  blooming kana

In my translation:

A sky
Of white clouds passing;
Blooming poppies.

It is very simple — almost just an illustration, were it not for the movement of the clouds.  There is a similarity of feeling between the passing evanescent clouds and the frail impermanence of the poppy flowers.

Much in this verse depends on the perceived color of the poppies.  If they were white, they would reflect the whiteness of the clouds; if red or purple, there would be a strong contrast.  In the absence of knowing, it is easy to fill in whatever poppies commonly bloom in our individual regions at this time of year.  In my little garden, it would be either the gold of California poppies — which Steinbeck described in East of Eden as “of a burning color  — not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies”; or it might be the delicate orange or yellow of Spanish poppies — Papaver atlanticum.  In Kwanrai’s time and place they would likely have been Papaver somniferum — opium poppies, which can be anything from white to pink to red to deep purple.

Kwanrai’s hokku consists of two elements placed together.  Here they are sky and earth — the passing white clouds far above, and blooming poppies below.  It is a simple way to write, but often not successful if there is no perceived link or harmony between the two elements.

Shiki also made a two-element summer verse, this time linking earth and water:

Roku-gatsu no umi miyuru nari tera no zō
六         月    の    海   見ゆる なり    寺   の

Sixth  moon ‘s    sea  seen      is  temple’s   images.

The June sea
is seen;
The temple images.

It does not read well that way, which is why Blyth made a more interpretive translation:

The temple Buddhas;
In the distance,
The June sea.

Though not a literal translation, in English Blyth’s rendering is a distinct improvement on the original.  Blyth has clarified that the images are Buddha images in a Buddhist temple, and that makes us think of the shadowed interior of a temple at the coast.  From it, the glittering sea of summer can be seen in the distance —  Blyth has added the word — so we have the contrast of the unmoving Buddha images in the still, shadowy temple with the bright, ever-moving sea in the distance, as well as the contrast of the temple above and the sea below.

 

David

 

THE EFFECT ON THE READER

In a previous posting, I mentioned a third category of hokku — one I do not teach or advocate because it takes us too far away from reality.  It consists of hokku with not just the bit of thinking we find in shinku — but rather with excessive thinking, imagination or fantasy.  We can call this category soku, from a reading of the character — meaning “think,” combined with ku, meaning “verse.”  In English usage we drop the double ō and just call it soku.

But what about verses written from the imagination that seem quite faithful to reality?  Well, those verses are somewhat like the old Chinese ink paintings that were done after one familiarized one’s self with the characteristics of natural landscapes to the extent that one could make a painting that seemed to express the essence of the natural world.  In short, though they are hokku written from the imagination, the practical effect is the same as if they were written from direct experience.  That is because the writer has absorbed memories from past experiences so well that a new verse created from combining elements of those memories has the effect of a verse written from reality.

Now obviously — if such a verse is suitably effective — the writer alone is likely to know if it was written from memories plus imagination, or if it was written from immediate direct experience.  The key here is that it must show no trace of artificiality or “phoniness.”

With many old Japanese hokku, we simply cannot tell if they were written from direct experience or from an accumulation of memories mixed with a bit of imagination.  A great many are the latter.  Nonetheless, if such a verse — whether old or new — reads and feels like reality in English, we treat it as a daoku — an objective hokku — because that is its effect on the reader.

Here is an example of such a verse:

(Summer)

Opening a window
In the stuffy attic;
The wind from the sea.

Now I have experienced stuffy attics and rooms, and the effect of opening a window; and I have experienced the wind from the sea.  But I do not recall ever experiencing them all together.  Nonetheless, because of my memories of each element, I can put them together and feel the oppressive summer heat in the attic and the sense the refreshing gust of coolness from the sea when the window is opened.

But, as I have said, I did not have the precise experience of the entire verse from direct experience.  And I can tell you exactly what gave rise to my writing it.  It was seeing a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Wind from the Sea”:

(National Gallery)

I do not advocate making a habit of writing in this manner, because I favor direct experience — but it does no harm if the urge strikes you now and then, and if the realism of the resulting verse is strong enough for it to be read and felt as a daoku (objective hokku).

 

David

 

IN THE WATER JUG

A verse by Shiki as a daoku in English:

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨

water jug   at   frog     floating   is     fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

It is primarily a visual verse that gives us a very harmonious watery feeling.  Water in the jug, water in the rain falling steadily, and the frog connecting them both.

You have probably noticed that in hokku — whether as daoku or shinku — we do not follow any strict syllabic count.  That fits English much better than trying to manipulate it to the very different structure of old Japanese hokku.  It also prevents needless “padding” to fill out a line when composing.  Many old Japanese hokku had a perfunctory kana at the end — a word which frequently seems added only to fill out the standard number of phonetic units (seventeen in Japanese).  Shiki often did that, but fortunately it did not happen in this verse.

There is something very refreshing about rain in May.  It has a feeling quite different than that of rain in autumn or in winter.

 

David

ALL THE WHITE PAPERS

There has been a lot of wind where I live the past few days as the weather has warmed, so this summer verse (a daoku in English) by Shiki seems appropriate:

Natsu-arashi kijō no haku-shi tobi-tsukusu
   夏        嵐     机上 の 白       飛び      盡す
Summer windstorm desk on ‘s white papers fly-exhaust

A summer windstorm;
All the white papers
Fly off the desk.

Unlike most of Shiki’s verses, which often tend toward illustration, this one has strong sensation in the sudden gust of wind and all the white papers on the desk confusedly flying here and there.  There is a kind of harmony between the whiteness of the papers and the wind that becomes visible in their flying about.

 

David

NIGHT WATER

A summer hokku by Issa:

Suzushisa ya yo mizu no kakaru ido no oto
涼    しさ  や  夜   水    の かかる 井戸の  音
Coolness ya night water ‘s pour well ‘s sound.

Coolness;
By night the sound of water
Pouring into the well.

It is a bit vague about the water, however, so R. H. Blyth added admirable clarity in his translation:

The coolness
Of the sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

But we can simplify it by restoring the pause that should be there in hokku (the ya in Japanese — here the punctuation separating the two parts in daoku) while keeping that clarity:

Coolness;
The sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

It is an old-fashioned well with a well bucket.  When the bucket full of water is pulled up, some of it spills over and falls back into the dark depths of the well.  The sound of that water falling into the unseen water below, combined with the surrounding darkness of the summer night, gives a deep sense of coolness.

From a Yin-Yang perspective, we have the yin of the falling water reflected in the yin of the night — and vice versa.  Coolness is yin, water is yin, night is yin — and that is why in the heat of summer, this is a very refreshing daoku (objective hokku) in English.

 

WHAT JOY!

A summer hokku by Buson — one of his best because of its sensory nature:

Natsu kawa wo kosu ureshisa yo te ni zōri
夏          河     を   越すうれしさよ 手 に  草履
Summer river wo cross joy yo hand in sandals

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

This simple verse is just a cry of happiness at the pleasant sensory experience of crossing a river barefoot in summer, with the feeling of the cooling water on the legs, and the sun shining brightly.

It is an expression of the use of contrast so common in summer hokku, with the contraries of heat and coolness — the Yang of the summer sun and heat, and the Yin of the coolness of the river water.  We call this kind of thing “harmony of contrast,” because even though it uses opposites, there is still a sense of harmony in their combination.

 

David

BASHŌ OVERDOES IT

Yes, Bashō sometimes wrote hokku with too much “thinking” — verses classified here as soku.

Here is an example — a summer verse:

Inazumi ni satora-nu hito no tattosa yo
稲    妻    に  悟ら   ぬ    人  の   貴   さ よ
Lightning at satori -not person ‘s venerableness y0

This is very tricky to translate into English because of the apparently ironic use of the words satora-nu — which can mean both someone who has not attained satori —  enlightenment, and someone who does not talk like he has attained.  That is why I have translated it very loosely (but I think more accurately) as:

At the lightning,
How venerable the person
Who does not talk Zen.

What Bashō intended was praise of those who follow the dictum of the Daoist philospher Lao-zi:  “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”  He sees the person who does not pretend to spiritual wisdom in Zen Buddhism that he does not really have as venerable — worthy of honor and respect.

Why might someone start talking of Zen or Buddhist philosophy on seeing lightning?  To answer that, we need only look to the Diamond Sutra.  Here is a popular rendering of the relevant portion in verse:

So should you see all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

R.H. Blyth translates the verse without explanation, and one reading his translation might easily misunderstand what Bashō intended:

How admirable
He who thinks not “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning flash.

In that rendering, the interpretation becomes, “How admirable is the person who can see a flash of lightning without thinking how quickly life passes.”  Seen that way, the person is just in the moment — seeing the flash of lightning without adding his “thinking” to it — without adding the seeing of it as a symbol of human transience.

Oddly enough, though Blyth’s translation does not seem to reflect Bashō’s original intent, the person honored in it is more in keeping with the spirit of daoku:  he has experience without adding interpretation.  Nonetheless the verse as a whole still says too much — has too much thinking added by Bashō to be daoku, no matter which version one prefers.

In writing hokku in English — whether as daoku (objective hokku) or shinku (hokku with minimal thinking added) we must also know what not to do — and Bashō here offers a good example of what not to do.

 

David

FIFTH-MONTH RAINS

Sampū (1647-1732) composed this summer verse:

Samidare ni kawazu no oyogu toguchi kana
五 月  雨  に      蛙      の およぐ  戸口        哉
Fifth moon rain at frog ‘s swimming door kana

In the May rains,
Frogs are swimming
Right at the door.

This verse emphasizes the heaviness of the summer rain, which overspills the ponds and brings frogs swimming right up to the door.  It is a very watery-feeling verse.

Though the Fifth month/moon would be May in the modern calendar, by the old Japanese calendar it extended into June — which was a time of heavy summer rains in Japan — so one could translate the first line “In the June rains,” or even “In the summer rains.”

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, this verse is more appropriate for May, and currently we are having intermittent showers from day to day — some of them quite heavy.  It makes the vegetation grow very lush.

Blyth appropriately connects this verse with another and quite good example by Shiki (1867-1902) that we have already seen (in my translation) — both of them daoku in English):

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨
water jug   at    frog   floating is  fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

This feeling of “water, water, everywhere” — and with it, frogs — has somewhat the feeling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s child’s verse:

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Notice that in both “Fifth month rain” verses, we find only complete objectivity.  There is no “thinking,” by the writers added, no commentary, no interpretation.  That is pure daoku (objective hokku).

That objectivity — as well as the close connection with Nature — has often disappeared entirely in many verses produced by the modern haiku movement, which has chosen to go a different way.  In my view, much was lost by that choice

David

QUACKING IN ENGLISH

A  summer hokku by Kikaku, which makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ya ie wo megurite naku ahiru
夕立      や 家 を  めぐりて  く あひる
Sudden-shower ya house wo circle crying ducks

A sudden shower;
The ducks run quacking
Around the house.

It is a very simple, almost childlike verse, but effective nonetheless, because we feel the effect of the sudden rain in the startled excitement of the ducks, expressed in their equally sudden running and quacking around the house.

We could describe this as a verse of the common setting/subject/action format, which works well in a great many daoku:

Setting:  A sudden shower
Subject:  The ducks
Action:  Run quacking around the house

Of course this is just a handy formula we can use in writing new verses, and it is a good tool if we do not apply it too strictly.  As we see in this verse, there is really action not only in the running and quacking of the ducks, but also in the sudden shower.

You may recall that action is often very helpful in hokku, giving life to what otherwise might be just a still “illustration.”  So keep in mind while composing that if a verse seems too passive and dull, it is often because it lacks something moving or changing.

Also, keep in mind the importance of the pause that separates the two parts of the daoku.  In the Japanese original of this verse it is indicated by the particle ya.  In our daoku translation, it is indicated by the semicolon after shower:

A sudden shower;

That gives us the meditative pause so essential to the verse.

And of course it is easy to see why this hokku by Kikaku makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  There is no “thinking” added to it by the writer, no added commentary or interpretation.  Kikaku just presents the event, and lets us experience the sudden shower, and the excited running and quacking of the ducks.

It is worth mentioning that in some respects, the English language is more expressive than the Japanese in the writing of hokku.  An example is the word naku used in Kikaku’s verse.  It can be used for everything from the croaking of frogs to the singing of birds to the crow of a rooster.  But English is much more specific in distinguishing the various cries, which is why we can onomatopoetically speak of the “quacking” of the ducks, in imitation of the sound they make.

 

David

 

A WOMAN ALONE

Hokku is very good at evoking subtle psychological states through events in Nature.  An example is this summer verse by Kikaku (1661-1707) — a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ni hitori soto miru onna kana
夕立       に ひとり 外   見る    女    かな
Summer-shower at alone outside looks woman kana

The summer shower;
A woman alone,
Gazing outside.

It evokes that delicate feeling of solitary sadness that the Japanese call sabishii, and it is done without the writer adding any of his own thinking or commentary.  As Blyth says, this hokku “requires us to be as thought-less as the rain.”  That is a real insight into the nature of daoku — objective hokku:  that thought-less-ness — that complete absence of thinking — which makes such verses so pure and satisfying.

It is remarkably simple:  a sudden summer shower, and a woman inside — all alone — looking steadily out into the falling rain.  It is so brief in content that Kikaku ended it with that all-purpose and nearly meaningless padding word — kana — that we find so often ending the verses of Shiki.  Of course in English-language daoku, we do not have to fill out a standard number of phonetic units, so we are free of needless padding in composing.

If we remove the grammatically-necessary articles “the” and “a,” that leaves us with these few elements:

Summer shower
Woman alone
Gazing outside

But of course the articles are required for normal English, and in hokku we should use normal English.

Again in this verse, we may apply the “setting/subject/action” model, like this:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  A woman alone
Action:  Gazing outside

It is really quite remarkable how very little is required for a good hokku — but selecting the right elements is all-important.  In this hokku we feel the harmony between the summer shower and the woman alone gazing out into it.  Hokku should always have this sense of harmony among its elements.  It should not be random things thrown together with no relation among them.  This close harmony between the woman and the rain illustrates what is meant when we say that hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

In spite of being over three hundred years old, it is a verse that could have been written yesterday, and has lost none of its effectiveness.

 

David

BRIEF DREAMS

A summer hokku by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya hakanaki yume wo natsu no tsuki
蛸        壺   や   はかなき   夢    を     夏    の    月
Octopus-pots ya transient dreams wo summer’s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses that do not travel well, because one has to know a bit of Japanese culture and the background of the verse in order to understand it.

It is said that Bashō composed this hokku while on a boat in Akashi Bay, southwest of Kobe, Japan.  It is a place traditionally noted for seafood, and for octopus in particular.  And summer is the height of the octopus-catching season.

The method used for catching octopus was very simple.  The fisherman would go out in his boat, and lower a weighted rope into the water.  Pottery jars were tied to the rope at intervals.  When an octopus saw such a submerged jar on the sea floor, it would view it as a shelter, and would crawl inside.

The pots were left in the water overnight, with their location marked by a buoy or float.  Very early in the morning, the fisherman would return and pull up the pots, catching any octopi that had spent the night in them.

That is why some translate the first line of this verse as “octopus traps” instead of literally as “octopus pots,” but in doing so, one misses seeing the pottery jars, and may instead imagine some kind of cage — at least without the background explanation.

We can tell from the words “brief dreams” that this is not a daoku — not an objective hokku.  Bashō is adding his imagination, supposing the octopus to be dreaming in the pot — dreams all too soon cut short when the fisherman hauls up the pots.  He is adding his interpretation to the scene.

Because of this, the verse is frequently applied to human life; we are all going about the emotional ups and downs of daily existence, accumulating objects, seeking fame or fortune or romance, not realizing the trap we are dreaming in — and how soon it is all to end.  But whatever Bashō’s intentions with this verse, hokku should not be openly metaphorical — not hokku at its best.

That is why it is very important to know the difference between daoku — objective hokku that do not have any thinking, interpretation, or imagination added by the writer — and those verses with a little or a lot of “thinking” added.

 

David