RED ON WHITE, CROW ON SNOW

We all know that Shiki was the individual who began the revisionism that has proved so disastrous for hokku — so damaging, in fact, that in the 20th century most people did not even realize that Bashō and all the others up to Shiki wrote hokku, not haiku, let alone having any inkling of the aesthetic principles necessary for the reading and writing of hokku.

And keep in mind, revisionist though he was, Shiki was still on the conservative end of things, if we look at the history of haiku overall.  Most haiku written today have as little in common with what Shiki called haiku as they do with hokku, and are in fact quite new kinds of verse.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the trouble.  Shiki had a predilection for art, which is no doubt what attracted him so to Buson; Buson was the most painterly of hokku writers, and his verses often show his “artistic” intent, usually not for the better.  Then too, Shiki was influenced by Western open-air painting, and he came up with the notion that a “haiku” — his revisionist version of hokku — should be a kind of nature sketch in words.

We can see that in one of his “winter” verses (remember that Shiki, unlike most Western haiku enthusiasts, still held season to be an essential element):

Akaki mi    hitotsu koborenu   shimo no niwa
Red   berry   single  fallen         frost    ‘s    garden

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

I often talk about how Shiki’s verse tends toward mere illustration, and this is an excellent example.  We could, in fact, turn it into a block print using only two kinds of ink — red and white.  A red berry seen against the white frost background.  One could make it of construction paper, a red dot on a white page.

It is, in a way, an experience abstracted from nature.  It reminds one inevitably of William Carlos Williams’

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Aside from the extraneous “so much depends upon,” that too is essentially just a color assemblage, though slightly more advanced than that of Shiki.

Shiki’s verse is a tiny, circular spot of bright red set on a field of white.  It could be simply an abstract painting  — “Red Dot on White Field.”  It has its virtues for what it is, but it is a step away from what hokku should be.

Shiki takes the first step toward abstraction by not telling us what kind of berry it was.  That leaves us with the spot of red.  Thoreau would not have done such a thing.  To Thoreau a berry was not a mere spot of red; it was a winterberry, or perhaps a tree cranberry, or some other specific thing.  To Thoreau, as for hokku in general, Nature was not in the abstraction but in the specific particular.  So in hokku, when we write about a red berry, we want to know specifically what kind of berry, because then it will immediately appear before our inner vision as itself, not as an abstraction.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki    karasu mo yuki no    ashita kana
Usually hateful  crow    too  snow ‘s    morning kana

Usually hateful,
The crow too
This snowy mornin
g.

That is a bit cryptic in English, because in Japanese one was expected to “intuit” what the writer meant, which was simply

The usually hateful crow is also something pleasant this snowy morning.

And of course one was to know automatically the reason for this, which is that the crow, being so black, looks quite pleasant when seen against the pure white background of snow.

Now we can see that Bashō’s hokku too would make an interesting block print — simply a black crow against a white background — but Bashō has not abstracted the crow into a generic black bird, as Shiki has done with the berry, and of course with the crow there is life; one sees it stalking about in the cold whiteness, turning its head.

Such differences seem small, but it is by failing to understand such things that one fails to grasp the essential nature of hokku as different from other kinds of verse, including much of haiku.

David




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