SPILLING THE MOON

In the previous posting I mentioned that many of Shiki’s “haiku” would still be classifiable as hokku, though they often tend to be illustrations.  But even among his illustrations some are better, some worse.

Here is one of his verses:

An isolated house;
The moon declining
Above the grasses.

Do you see why I say that such hokku are illustrations, like the block prints made by Hasui and Yoshida in the first half of the 20th century?

Now there is nothing wrong with illustration.  There is not even anything wrong with writing illustration-like hokku now and then.  But one should not make a principle of it.

A grade-school teacher could say, “Now for autumn, I want you to draw a house all by itself, with the moon declining over the grasses,” and it would make a good seasonal illustration.  Remember that Shiki did not abandon the connection of hokku with Nature and the seasons, though he did strain the connections occasionally.

People first learning hokku find it hard to make such distinctions between verses that are illustrations and verses with more depth.  But a good way to begin learning is by comparing the verse of Shiki with this hokku by Ryuho:

Scooping up
And spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

The writer stands before an old washbasin on an autumn night.  Lifting the water in both hands, he sees the moon in it — and then he spills the moon back into the basin.  Seen in comparison, Shiki’s verse is perceived to be rather flat and two-dimensional, and that was one of the flaws of his new aesthetic.  Remember that the best hokku show us ordinary things, but seen in a new way.

But of course even Shiki did not always follow his own ideals, and the old aesthetic was not completely lost in him, in spite of himself.  If haiku had stayed where Shiki placed it, it would have possibly remained just a variant of hokku.  However, it changed even more — so much that most haiku writers today have little in common with either hokku or with Shiki’s once-new “haiku.”

 

David

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