FITTING OUR LIVES TO HOKKU

It is a mistake to think that I present old hokku here simply to translate them into English.  My ultimate purpose in doing so is to teach readers how to write new and original hokku in English, and one of the best ways to do this is to show them not only how old hokku were written, but also how to put them into English-language form.

Chiyo-ni wrote:

Hirou mono    mina ugoku nari   shiohigata
Picked-up things all moving are  tide-ebb-beach

Things picked up
Are all moving;
The ebb-tide beach.

Everything in the Japanese version is there, but I prefer a shortened and re-arranged version that demands slightly more of the reader:

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving.

That verse flows more smoothly, and seems as though written originally in English.  And that is how our verse should be; they should be English-language hokku, not adaptations of Japanese form and usage.

We can say then that English-language hokku preserves the aesthetics and techniques of old Japanese hokku, but makes them thoroughly American or British or Australian, etc.   We should never view hokku in English as a kind of cultural outpost of old Japan (and certainly not of modern Japan); instead our hokku should reflect our own country and environment.

That does not mean, however, that if we live in a busy city we should write hokku about subways or elevators or taxis.  That would violate the Nature-centeredness of hokku.  What it means is that our hokku should be in keeping with the language and the natural environment of the place in which we live.  Living in a busy city is simply not conducive to writing hokku.  Living in the country is far better, or even in a small town where people still have yards and gardens and nearby woodlands and streams.  That is just a fact of hokku.

People in modern haiku often complain about this, saying that hokku is simply not attuned to the modern world.  That is not true.  Hokku is always attuned to the present world, but it is not attuned to present human technology, because a technological lifestyle really has nothing to do with hokku.  Imagine Henry David Thoreau living in the heart of a big city.  He would have been a fish out of water.  He would have had to make trips to the countryside to nourish his spirit, to find green spaces, clean waters, and trees.

The fact that hokku is not attuned to a modern, technological lifestyle is not a defect in hokku; it is a defect in modern life.  That is why we do not (as people in modern haiku do) adjust hokku to fit our lifestyle; instead we adjust our lifestyle to fit hokku.

David

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