As I have pointed out in earlier postings, some old hokku do not travel well. They are so oriented to a specific culture that when removed from that context, they lose their meaning.
A good example is Shōha’s
Haru tatsu ya shizuka ni tsuru no ippo yori
Spring begins ya quiet with stork ‘s one-step from
Tatsu in Japanese means to stand or rise, but it also has the sense of “to begin, to start,” just as a person who is about to go on a journey begins by first standing. Ni commonly means “at, on, in” but in this case it has more the sense of “with,” so shizuka ni is to be understood as meaning “with quietness” or “quietly.” We can translate the verse as
Quietly from the stork’s
The verse only loses its obscurity when one realizes that in Japan the stork is a traditional symbol of longevity — long life. A first step is a beginning; spring is similarly a beginning (remember the principle of reflection in hokku?) So when one sees the stork take a first step, that reflects spring beginning as the “first step” of the new year. The stork’s first step is to put us in mind of the beginning of a long life, as spring is the beginning of the long year. Thus spring begins as the stork takes his first step. Those are the cultural connections and intuitive leaps required by this hokku, and of course they are too much baggage to allow it to be meaningful immediately in another culture. But remember, we are not talking metaphor here; we are using the hokku principle of reflection, which Westerners sometimes confuse with metaphor, but they are not at all the same.
Another hokku, this time by Sodō, is a bit easier to transfer from culture to culture:
Yado no haru nani mo naki koso nani mo are
Hut ‘s spring something is not indeed everything is
This verse relies on the paradox of nani mo naki (there is not a thing) versus nani mo are (there is everything). We can translate it as
The spring hut;
There is nothing,
Yet there is everything.
Or one could rephrase it as:
My spring hut;
It has nothing,
But it has everything!
This verse is the kind of spiritual paradox beloved by Zen. We often divide the world into the “haves” and the “have nots,” but in the spiritual life there is no difference between having and not having. One who has sees it as no different from not having, and one who has not sees it as no different from having. This is the “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.” You have without having, because neither having nor not having has any meaning any more. The spiritual novice who gives up things and misses them still has them (mentally), because he has not really given them up but is still attached. The spiritual novice who has possessions and is not attached to them has given them up already, and physically ridding himself of them is a mere outward formality.
Sodō’s verse has a contrast between “is” and “is not”; Shiki has a verse that contrasts big and small:
Kobune koide ōbune meguru haruhi kana
Small-boat floats big-boat around spring-day kana
A small boat
Goes around a big boat;
The spring day.
If one reads Blyth’s translation of this verse, one will find it as a small boat going around a “great vessel.” We must always remember than Blyth was not interested in being absolutely literal in his translations. Instead, he wanted to convey the overall meaning of a hokku to those in the West who were not likely to get it without such an “expanded” translation. And in this case he is again right.
It brings to mind a large, sea-going ship in a harbor, standing virtually still in the water as a comparatively tiny boat sails around it. One thinks of a tug going around a large transport ship.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of verse that begins to take us away from Nature, and it was by this and even more borderline verses that Shiki began the movement away from Nature and into technological things that we so often find in modern haiku, but never in modern hokku.
Incidentally, readers will notice the frequency with which Shiki ends a verse in kana. He does it so often that it is characteristic of him. But he was really just using the word as a neutral filler to pad out the last number of phonetic units required for a hokku. There are those who say it was used for emphasis, and in some cases it was, but with Shiki it is generally just a perfunctory space holder not to be translated.
As for the significance of the verse, whatever Shiki himself may have taken it to be (remember that often he was simply interested in making a sketch in words), to the student of hokku it reflects the slow passing of the long day of spring, which is felt in spite of the small activities that happen during it. But keep in mind that one must not take this as a metaphor. It is simply the nature of one thing reflected in the nature of others.