SEEING WHAT IS NOT THERE

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone.  “To be able to see Nobody!  And at that distance too!  Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light.” (Through the Looking Glass)

Modern haiku writers are similarly adept at seeing things that are not there.  Paradoxically, they are remarkably inept at seeing things that are there.

I have often posted about how American haiku enthusiasts from the middle of the 20th century onward completely misunderstood hokku, but nonetheless undertook spreading their misunderstandings on to others under the term “haiku,” which they carelessly and inaccurately applied to both modern haiku and to old hokku, confusing the reader even more.

If I were to spend my days reading modern haiku internet sites, I would also find myself spending day after day just correcting their misunderstandings and misrepresentations of old hokku as they view it “through a glass, darkly” — that is, through their ideas about modern haiku.  For this I have neither the time nor the inclination, so today I will just discuss a misconception common among “haiku” enthusiasts and often repeated on their internet sites.

As regular readers here know, old hokku in general had nothing to do with metaphor.  I am not saying one will not find a single metaphorical old verse anywhere, ever, but I can say that good hokku did not use metaphor, and further, what is generally interpreted as metaphor in hokku by modern haiku enthusiasts is not metaphor at all, but rather a hokku technique with which they are unfamiliar, and which they misperceive as metaphor because they have never really learned hokku and its aesthetics and principles.  That is something that can be said of almost everyone in modern haiku, including its leading pundits.  They speak of that which they do not know.

Let’s look then at a supposed “metaphorical verse” in the original and in translation.  It is out of season at present, but for the sake of learning we will overlook that.  So here is the “summer” hokku by Bashō:

Natsukusa ya   tsuwamono-domo ga   yume no ato
Summer-grass ya soldier-s           ‘s    dream ‘s   remains

We can translate this as:

Summer grasses —
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

There is nothing metaphorical about that at all.  A metaphor, you will recall, is speaking of one thing as though it is another.  There is none of that here.

And do not be misled into thinking that we are missing something in translation.  The hokku is very clear.  The significant word ato means essentially something left behind, the tracks, traces, signs, or remains of something.   Here Bashō is speaking of what is left behind by the grand military dreams of warriors; the only traces they have left behind are the grasses of summer, meaning they have left behind nothing at all.

One must also avoid the simplisticism of thinking that the grasses are in any way a metaphor for the warriors.  Any person who has studied the basics of hokku aesthetics will know that hokku do not use metaphor; instead, they use the technique of internal reflection.  The nature of one thing is reflected in the nature of another, without one being a metaphor for the other.

In this verse, the warriors of a long past battle, along with all their dreams, are gone.   Where lordly homes and fields of battle lay, one sees only the rank grasses of summer.

What is the point of all this?  Bashō is simply giving the reader an example of transience.  It is like the Latin saying, “Sic transit gloria mundi” — thus passes the glory of the world.  It is like the poem of Shelley, “Ozymandias“:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

That is precisely the meaning of Basho’s hokku.  His words

Summer grasses —
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

are saying just what Shelley said in his lines

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Bashō’s   “Summer grasses; all that remains” is Shelley’s “Nothing beside remains…The lone and level sands stretch far away.”  Bare sands in one, grasses in the other.

The hokku, by the way, comes from the Hiraizumi stage of Bashō’s travel diary Oku no Hosomichi. In this segment he speaks of the decay into nothing of lordly mansions of the past, and he adds a variation on a verse by the Chinese poet Du Fu:

When a country is defeated
Only mountains and rivers remain;
Springtime comes with grasses green
That cover a ruined city.

Bashō then speaks of his weeping at the sight, and immediately adds the hokku under discussion.

One can see from all this that the notion held by some in modern haiku that this verse exhibits metaphor is really just an insight into the fact that they are mistakenly seeing hokku in terms of Western poetry, and it is through those heavily tinted glasses that they misperceive and misinterpret hokku.

It is not surprising that modern haiku people fall into such peculiar notions.  They think too much, and lead themselves astray; instead of seeing hokku for what it is, they see it as what they think it is — and there lies the root of the problem. One looks on in amazement as they wander about in a pseudo-intellectual mental fog of their own devising, not realizing that it is precisely this endless intellectualization that prevents them from seeing even such a simple verse as Bashō’s “Summer Grasses” for what it is — something Carl Sandburg could easily have told them:

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.


David

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