In the last posting, we looked at a verse by Issa, who tends to bring emotion into his hokku.
Today we will look at something more objective on the same “spring” topic, “the long day.” As we saw in Issa’s example, he composed the verse by combining two “long” things — age and the lengthening of the day — then making a statement on them: that even the lengthening of days as one grows old “brings tears.’
By contrast, here is a hokku by Taigi on the same topic:
Nagaki hi ya me no tsukaretaru umi no ue
Long day ya eyes ‘s grow-weary sea ‘s on
The long day;
Eyes grow weary
On the sea.
Remember that in old hokku, the reader was expected to know enough about the principles of hokku to “get” what the writer was saying. That is not, however, often the case for modern readers on their first reading of a rather literalistic translation of some old hokku. Modern readers need a verse to be a bit more explicit, which is also a difference in general between the Japanese language, which tends to vagueness, and the English language, which tends to be more direct and clear.
What Taigi is saying then, is this:
The long day;
My eyes grow weary
Looking at the sea.
We can see that this is very much like the verse by Issa in structure, but without Issa’s emotion. It even uses the same method of combining two similar things. In Issa it was age and the lengthening day; in Taigi it is the long day and the sea.
Now one may ask how the long day and the sea are the same, and though an adult may not understand, any child can tell you that they are both “long.” Look out at the sea and it goes on and on to the horizon; that vast stretch is in keeping in feeling with the perceived length of the day in spring, so much longer than the short days of winter, and growing ever longer.
So this verse simply combines two similar things, as did Issa, and makes a statement about them. Taigi’s statement is “My eyes grow weary.” Of course we could take out “my” and make the verse a more literal translation, but in English it is really necessary for completeness, and we want to make not only our translations of old hokku but also the new hokku we compose in English thoroughly English, not just reflections of Japanese language practice.
If we look at other hokku on the same topic, we find similar methodology in many verses, and Shiki, who began confusingly calling his verses “haiku” even while he was still writing hokku, used it constantly:
Sunahama ni ashiatao nagaki haru-hi kana
Sandy-beach on footprings long spring day kana
On the sandy beach,
A long line of footprints;
The spring day.
By now you should be practiced enough in this method to see what Shiki is doing. He is just doing the same as Issa, the same as Taigi, in combining two things. But unlike the two previous verses, he adds no statement, so this is not a “statement” hokku. Instead it is just a standard hokku (in spite of Shiki’s terminology), which means setting, subject, and action:
On the sandy beach, Subject
A long line of footprints; Action (the writer sees the long line stretching into the distance)
The spring day. Setting
We should note that usually in hokku, the “action” is something moving or changing; here it is simply the perceived change from the ordinarily blank sand to the presence of the footprints, which from our perspective is hardly “action” at all. It is a kind of “passive” action, but one must really be careful with this kind of thing, because all to easily it can make a verse into simply a photograph. And all too often a hokku as photograph is too static to be interesting.
For Shiki, however, it was a part of his personal approach to many hokku, which was to make them small sketches of Nature. That is why so many of his verses — like this one — could be easily converted into Japanese block prints requiring no real movement. In that lay the character of much of Shiki’s verse, but also often its shallowness, which we do not feel in this example in spite of the technique.
The “combination of similar things” technique can be applied to many things, and Shiki did so. Keep in mind that even though Shiki is known as the “creator” of haiku, he has almost nothing in common with most modern haiku. Actually he is just the petulant point at which hokku splits into modern haiku and modern hokku. Shiki himself still wrote verses that generally qualify as hokku, and most modern haiku people are as much at a loss to understand the methodology Shiki inherited from hokku as they are to understand the greater body of old hokku verse. Modern haiku is simply a verse form that in English, for all practical purposes, was created in the middle of the 20th century out of misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku combined with Western notions of poetry.
But back to Shiki’s use of hokku technique. We see the “combining similar things” method also in this verse by him:
Hyakunin no nimpu tsuchi horu hi-naga kana
Hundred-men ‘s laborers earth dig day-long kana
A hundred workers
Digging the earth;
The long day.
To understand such a verse, we must think not as modern haiku thinks (when it does at all), but rather we must see it from the hokku perspective, which is precisely the “combine similar things” method. Here Shiki’s two things are the “hundred workers” and “the long day.”
We must not be too literalistic about this or we will fail to understand the method. It is not that a hundred workers are long in the same way that the day is long; instead, it is a perception of volume/extent. To put it in the terms of a child, which is generally the best way to understand and approach hokku, “a hundred workers” is a “long” number of workers, just as “the spring day” is long. The big, slow job at hand takes a lot of laborers, and the passage of the long spring day takes a lot of time. And that is how one varies the method.
Shiki also gives us another verse in which the combination of similar things is more obvious:
Kawa ni sōte yukedo hashi nashi hi no nagaki
River at along walking bridge is-not day ‘s long
Following the river,
Still there is no bridge;
The long day.
The two combined similar things here are of course “the river” and “the long day.” Shiki unites them by adding the effect of walking on and on but finding no bridge to cross. That adds to the effect of the length of the river and the length of the day.
The knowledge of such techniques faded out in modern haiku, which claims descent from Shiki, but it is still very much alive in the practice of modern hokku, which gets it — just as Shiki did — from the long tradition of old hokku. R. H. Blyth, of course, explained the latter verse in his four-volume series (though he did not name or clarify the general method as clearly as I have done here), but the pundits of modern haiku paid little or no attention to him in the mid-20th century, preferring instead to remake “haiku” in their own image, which was really all they could do, given that they understood so little of the aesthetics and methodology of the old hokku, which even Shiki used in his very conservative “haiku.”