WORKING WITH MODELS

The very old practice of using models to learn hokku is, as I have mentioned earlier, also a very good one.  One should not think of it as simplistic or elementary, because if offers the opportunity to fix these models in one’s head and to understand how hokku works structurally, and ultimately aesthetically.

When working with models, we may disregard our usual habit of only reading hokku that are in season.  You may recall that the exception to that habit is in hokku used for teaching and learning.  So one may use a model from any season for practice in any other season.

In model work, we need not pay attention to the Japanese version of a hokku.  The Japanese language is structurally very different than English.  When learning hokku in English, it is important to work from English models.

In the study of models, we quickly find that there are several types of common hokku.  By learning these different types, we expand our range.  Because it is so frequent and useful, I like to begin with the “standard” hokku.

A standard hokku consists of a setting, a subject, and an action, not always in that order.  Here is a standard hokku by Uejima Onitsura, whom we commonly know as just Onitsura:

A cool wind;
Filling the sky —
The sound of pines.

Working with such a model is simply a matter of changing the various elements in it and substituting others.  We can change one or two or all of them, and each will give a different result.  Some changes will be effective, some will not.  By doing this, we learn how to combine elements in hokku, and we also learn the overall structure.

Onitsura’s hokku consists of these elements:

A cool wind; (setting)
Filling the sky —  (action)
The sound of pines. (subject)

Here is how one begins to work with a model through changing elements:

The spring morning: (setting)
Filling the forest — (action)
The sound of birds.  (subject)

It is easy to see that we have substituted other elements in the same structure.  We can go on doing this, using a wide range of topics:

The morning sky;
Filling the meadows —
The gold of poppies

One can easily see that the possibilities are infinite, which is why there are great numbers of hokku just of the “standard” kind alone.  And that is only one of several kinds of hokku.

One must not think this method too basic.  It is remarkably useful, and it enables the diligent student to quickly learn the basic forms of hokku.  When one adds to this the knowledge of the aesthetics of hokku, it provides an excellent grounding in the writing of original verses.

Any of the good hokku in the archives of this site may be used as models.  The more one works with them, the more one will expand one’s knowledge.  A teacher can show how to work, but only the student can do the learning through repeated practice.

If anyone has questions about this or about anything else, feel free to ask me by clicking on the “comment” button at the end of this or any other article.  Your question will be seen only by me, and I will reply to your email address.

David

THE OLD WAY OF LEARNING HOKKU

Those who have recently stumbled across my site might not understand what is happening here.  Some may think I am just presenting an archive of old hokku in new translations; others may think I am here to complain about modern haiku.

I do present old hokku here with my new translations; and I do bemoan what modern haiku did (and still continues to do, for the most part) to the old hokku tradition.  But my real purpose here is to teach hokku — to explain what it really is and how to write it.  I only talk about haiku now and then because to learn hokku, one must be able to distinguish it from haiku, which began much later and distorted the old hokku tradition.  And to learn hokku, one must correctly understand how old hokku were written, what their inherent aesthetics are, and the various techniques and principles employed.

I agree with Onitsura that the best way to learn hokku — and this is even more true of modern writers — is to imitate the models of one’s teacher.  I could just present my own verses and say, “do the same,” but I further believe that the best way to maintain continuity in hokku between the old tradition and our new practice is by using all the best old hokku as models.  Thus we learn not only from Onitsura, but also from Bashō and Gyōdai and Taigi and Buson and the other writers when they were at their best.

There are certain overall principles and aesthetics that apply to all of these writers and more, even though some may have had their own particular tendencies in writing.

The verses I translate here — those I present favorably — are really models for students to use in writing their own contemporary hokku.  This learning from the models of a teacher is the old way to learn hokku, and as I teach it, it is also the modern way to learn hokku because it is a very good way, as Onitsura recognized some three hundred years ago.

In the past few weeks I have spent considerable time in explaining what went wrong at the end of the 19th century, and how modern haiku pushed hokku into near oblivion.  It is important to know all of that, but now it is time to concentrate again on what this site is really about — the transmission and learning of hokku.  If hokku is to survive at all, there must be new writers.  Otherwise the tradition will disappear.

This site, then, is a place where I not only share my pleasure in traditional hokku but also a place where I teach others how to write it and encourage them to do so.
I have been doing this a long time now — quite a few years.  But given the fact that even the name of hokku nearly disappeared into oblivion, along with the knowledge of how to practice it, one must be patient in bringing it back to life.

The revival of hokku is particularly difficult in our modern materialistic society, which tends to turn away from the chief subject matter of hokku — Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, not apart from it.  And few there are today who admire the poverty, simplicity, and spirituality of the old hokku.   Nonetheless it is to those few that I address what I write here.

David

TAKING OFF THE WORLD

I have mentioned previously the simple, elegant — one might even say “clean” feeling one gets from the hokku of Onitsura.  It is unfortunate that he had no reliable students to carry on his kind of verse.  Because of that, people tend to think of Bashō as the “founder” of our kind of hokku.  But he was only one of two, and we should never forget Onitsura.

Regular readers here will know that there are different kinds of hokku.  There is the “standard” hokku that we use in beginning teaching, a very common kind consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action.  There are “question” hokku that leave the reader with an unanswered question.  There are “occasion” hokku that are written for a special occasion and have two completely different levels of meaning.  And there are other kinds, including the “statement” hokku.

A statement hokku, you may recall, is simply making a simple, non-controversial, factual statement about something.  That is what we find in the following hokku by Onitsura.  But before we look at that verse, we need to understand its subject.

As you know, in Japan there were fixed subjects for certain times of the year, and in old hokku (unlike modern hokku in English), these took the form of definite season words.  When one read a verse with such a word, one automatically knew the season in which it was written.  This was a helpful shortcut in the beginning and in a limited environment, but over time the system of season words became unwieldy and impractical, which is why today we simply mark each hokku written with its season.

The seasonal indicator in this hokku is the “change of clothes,” that time of year when one (in fact when everyone, in the old days in Japan) changed from the heavier cold weather clothing to the lighter clothing of warmer days.   This is traditionally considered a “summer” topic, but in many parts of the world (as in mine), it is more likely to be a topic for the latter part of spring.

Here is Onitsura’s “statement” hokku:

Ware wa made    ukiyo wo nugade    koromogae
I          wa still-not      floating-world wo remove  change-of-clothes

The “floating world” is the world of desires and illusions, meaning the everyday world in which we live.  It is also the world that is, like its pleasures, only temporary and transient.  In English we would call it the “material” life or the “worldly” life as opposed to a life of deeper spiritual understanding.

Onitsura, then, is taking stock of his life at this time of the year when one formally changes clothing.  And his conclusion is:

Not yet
Have I removed the floating world;
The change of clothes.

An English writer might put it this way:

Having not yet
Removed the garments of worldliness,
The change of clothes.

Or one could put it like this:

My worldliness
Still not removed;
The change of clothes.

One suspects that Onitsura, while being honest, was also a little hard on himself, because his verses tend to be far less “worldly” than those of other writers.

Onitsura, however, is simply and clearly recognizing the truth that was also seen by Henry David Thoreau in Walden:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.  Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”

Onitsura recognized that at the time of the formal changing of clothes, it was far more important to be concerned with one’s “spiritual” clothing.  He knew that to judge a man by his outward appearance and not by the condition of his spirit was a very superficial judgment indeed.

But more important, Onitsura recognized that the condition of his “spiritual” clothes was his responsibility, and that merely changing his outward garments from heavy to light clothes was not the change that one really needs to make.

David


MASAOKA SHIKI: THE GOOD AND THE BAD

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki (1869-1902):

Viewed historically, Shiki was the first “haiku” writer.  So “haiku” really began only with Shiki, near the end of the 19th century.  Everything before him was hokku, in the wider context of haikai.

Viewed technically, however,  Shiki was the last of the prominent writers of hokku; Shiki’s verse still followed the old hokku requirements of season and of length of phonetic units, and in fact most of them are indistinguishable in form and content from hokku.  Their peculiarities are due to Shiki’s own view of what verse should be, but that view in practice was still so conservative that if Shiki had been both the first and the last “haiku” writer, his verses would still be considered hokku, if sometimes a bit odd or flat.

Numbers of Shiki’s verses were negatively influenced by his chronic illness.  One feels on reading them that not only was the man sick, but those particular verses are sick as well.  Nonetheless, R. H. Blyth was able to say that even though Shiki’s personality is unattractive, “we are struck with the large number of excellent, perfect verses which he wrote.”  When he was good he was pleasantly good, and when he was bad, his verses seem ill or flat and two-dimensional.

From Shiki onward, the “haiku” he began went downhill.  So we can regard Shiki as either the last major writer of the hokku, or as the first writer of the haiku.  If seen as the latter, we must recognize that Shiki has little or nothing in common with what is called modern haiku in the West today.  Conservative modern Japanese haiku (which is still, for the time being, the preferred kind in Japan), is more closely related to Shiki through his student Kyōshi, whose verses were not as good on the whole as those of his teacher.

Blyth attributes Shiki’s failures and weaknesses to the fact that Shiki had no religion, that consequently we feel in him “some want of depth; the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water.”  There is indeed something very superficial in Shiki, and Blyth said correctly that “we feel something a little hard, superficial, unloving in him.”

As unattractive a personality as he may have been, quite a few of his hokku are tranquil and pleasant, and as readers here know, I often compare his better verses to the pleasant block prints of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).  If you are not familiar with their work, find some examples on the internet, and you will easily see the parallels with the verses of Shiki.

As an example of Shiki at his best, Blyth gives this verse (my translation here), which differs not one whit from earlier hokku:

Shima-jima ni   hi wo tomoshikeri    haru no umi
Island-island at  light wo have-been-lit   spring ‘s sea

On all the islands,
Lamps have been lit;
The spring sea.

This is an interesting mixture of elements, all having to do with spring and the increasing Yang energy that grows out of Yin.  We see that in the overall subject of the verse (spring) and in the lighting of the lamps in the mild darkness.  We see the shadowy islands in the evening sea, and the lights twinkling here and there upon them, near and far.

If all Shiki’s verses had been like this, we would perhaps see him differently.

David

EVEN SHIKI WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE IT

Modern haiku is not hokku.   It is generally not even haiku.

We have seen that a hokku is a written thing-event in which an unspoken significance is perceived.  It involves Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and it is set in the context of a season.

Raizan wrote:

Shirauo ya    sanagara ugoku     mizu no iro
Whitebait ya just-like  moves    water  ‘s color

The whitebait —
Just as though the color of water
Were moving.

Raizan got it exactly right; the translucent whitebait fish does look like the water itself has taken on a definite form and is swimming about.

If we compare that hokku with a “haiku” by Shiki, we see something interesting:

Nure-ashi de   suzume no ariku   rōka kana
Wet-feet with  sparrow ‘s  hopping verandah kana

With wet feet,
The sparrow hops
Along the porch.

What distinguishes the two verses?  Both are set in the spring.  Both involve a thing-event.  Yet one is a hokku, the other is called a “haiku.”

Both are really hokku in their aesthetics, but by Shiki calling his verse a “haiku” he automatically excluded it from the possibility of its being used –ever — as the first verse in a series of linked verses.  In this case, that is really the only difference.

We can see from this that for the most part, Shiki just continued to write hokku, but insisted on calling his hokku “haiku” because he did not care for the practice of linking verses and wanted to discourage that practice.

One can deduce correctly from this that in general, the “haiku” of Shiki were really just hokku under a different name.  Some are better, some worse, and there is a tendency in many to shallowness and mere illustration.  Nonetheless, if Shiki had not insisted on calling his verses “haiku,” generally no one would bat an eye if they were included in hokku anthologies.

One may also conclude from this that “haiku” has changed drastically from what it was in the work of Shiki.  Modern haiku often bears not the slightest resemblance to either hokku or to what Shiki practiced as haiku.  Instead, as I often repeat, it is a new verse form created in the West, primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, from misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku combined with Western notions of poetry and the whims of “recent” Western writers.

David


FREEDOM FROM POETRY

One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

This of course applies to hokku as I teach it.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem as we usually think of a poem; instead it is a thing-event.

Buson wrote:

Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea  all-day     undulating undulating kana

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening.

You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry.  And of course if we present it like this,

The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.

— nothing has really changed.  So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry.  That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.

Nonetheless, when we look at the spring sea there is poetry in it, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  There we have it in a nutshell.

When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.

What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku?  We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

That means poetry (as we are speaking of it in relation to hokku) is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead, poetry is something awakened by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.

We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:

Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?

“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”

That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize the poetry, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.

It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”

David

THE ESSENCE OF THE MATTER

I have never been an admirer of Confucius, yet one can say of the teaching of hokku what Confucius said:

“The Master said, “Do you think, my disciples, that I have any concealments?  I conceal nothing from you.  There is nothing which I do that is not shown to you, my disciples; that is my way.” (Analects 7:23)

That does not mean a teacher demands nothing of the student:

“The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself.  When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects 7:8)

Well, unlike Confucius, I present one corner of the subject, and when the student cannot produce the other three from his or her own resources, I explain even further, and I repeat the lesson over and over, because it is initially very difficult for Westerners to grasp how completely different hokku is from what they are accustomed to think of as poetry.  Those in modern haiku, for example, have never understood the difference, which is why haiku has devolved into just another kind of short-form modern verse in the West, becoming simply free verse divided into three lines.

One could say that the method of learning hokku is in these words:

“The Master said, “Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge.” (Analects 2:17)

We can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature.  Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.”

Here Blyth, like Confucius, clearly shows us one corner, and we are to supply the other three.  But Blyth demanded a great deal of Western readers, and for the most part they failed him, unable to supply the other three corners — and the result was modern haiku.

Quite simply and clearly, what Blyth meant was that hokku is nothing like what we think of when we think of poetry.  To even call it “poetry” is to mislead, because it obscures and distorts hokku with mistaken presuppositions.

We are accustomed to making a distinction between inner and outer, between the thing seen “out there” in the world and the thoughts about the thing in the mind.  But in hokku the thing out there is the thing in the mind, if we only let the mind reflect it like a bright mirror, not obscuring it with all our thoughts and commentaries.

A clear and flawless mirror reflects without adding anything.  The mind that is obscured with thoughts will reflect the thing clothed and distorted by those thoughts, remaking the thing “in our own image.”  So in hokku it is vitally important to distinguish between what we see in Nature and our thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is the great distinction between hokku and modern haiku.  Modern haiku has become inseparably attached to “what the poets [meaning the writers of modern haiku themselves] have said about them.”  In haiku (in contrast to hokku), the “poet” is the most important thing, which is why those in haiku are so remarkably attached to the individual’s whim in writing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the POET, which one is tempted to write in grand Gothic Blackletter type.

In hokku, by contrast, there are no poets.  The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature.  It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will.  The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice.  Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense.  It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

–where is the writer?  Where is the reader?  Both have disappeared.  There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field.  The truth is revealed for all to see, as Blyth says:

Each thing is preaching the Law incessantly, but this Law is not something different from the thing itself.”

Quite simply, hokku “is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration...”

That is precisely what Mokudō does.  He presents us with the thing (the spring wind, the sound of water running through the barley) “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration.”

There is no poet Mokudō.  There is only the thing simultaneously both outside and inside the mind, the bright mirror mind that reflects without adding or distorting.

Modern haiku has never understood this because it is too attached to being a “poet” and to “writing poetry.”  But hokku, as Blyth told us plainly and truly, is not poetry; it is not literature.  Instead, it is “the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

In this lies the great difference between hokku and modern haiku.  In hokku we do not even use the term “poet” in talking about ourselves and we do not use the word “poem” to describe hokku.  Hokku is simply the writer getting “himself” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  When we add our own thoughts and commentary, we drown out the voice of Nature.  That is why in hokku we just present the thing as it is, unobscured by our thoughts.

Hokku, then, is a remarkably humble form of verse.  We do not take on the pride of being “poets” and writing “poetry.”  When we write “poetry,” the writer as “POET” stands in the way of the thing.  In hokku the writer disappears so that the thing is revealed just as it is, with nothing obscuring it.

It is very important to understand these things, because without such understanding one simply will be unable to read or to write hokku.

David