THE ESSENCE OF HOKKU

Because it is so important to understanding hokku, here is a repeat of an earlier posting:

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

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POETS OF THE DEAD WORLD

It is difficult to write hokku while living in a big city.  The reason is that to build a city, natural life is removed — trees and grasses, bushes and weeds, soil and streams and all the creatures that live in them.  Cities tend to be the Dead World — the world of asphalt and concrete and plastic and metal and glass.

Hokku, however, are about the Living World — forests and pools, meadows and hillsides, leaves and flowers.

One of the most significant differences between hokku and modern haiku is that modern haiku (speaking in general terms, for it has many divisions) allows one to write verses about such things as toasters and TV sets, sports stadiums and skyscrapers.  These are parts of the Dead World.  Hokku does not do that, because hokku reminds us that we are not apart from Nature, though cities may give us the unhealthy illusion that we are.

I recently saw a program in which American school children were asked to identify some of the most common vegetables — things like tomatoes and potatoes and broccoli.  They could not do so.  I was shocked that people were being brought up so removed from reality.  I remember the son of a friend who could not tell if a potato grew on a tree or a bush or in the ground.  People are growing up today knowing only that vegetables — if they even see them whole at all — come from shelves in a supermarket.

I frequently mention the movie The Emerald Forest, which aptly speaks of the people of modern civilization as the Termite People, because they eat away the forest and the living things, gradually turning them into the Dead World.  We see that has already happened and is still happening to forests all over the world.  People are the cause of the present extinction of many forms of natural life.

That is why hokku never abandons its focus on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature.  Hokku is a voice of reason and sense in a world that thinks it is all right to drill ocean wells and chance polluting the seas and coastlines, because it is important to the endless consumption of goods that is daily urged on modern humans, or to create nuclear waste toxic for millennia to generate electricity for all the wasted energy used by cities.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of living in a big city is the glare of artificial light all night long, glare that covers the land seen from space and blots out the stars in the night sky.

Focusing on the Dead World, writing verses about the Dead World, is like that — it covers over and makes people forget the Living World out of which humans grew, and which they are still in the process of destroying.  There is a point at which what used to be called progress simply becomes wanton destruction.  There is abundant evidence that point has been reached.  And one of the worst signs of the times is the number of people who are willing to despoil the natural world for a luxurious lifestyle, not thinking what will become of things in a generation, or two, or eight — the world that will be left to generations unborn.

Hokku is a small thing, and certainly will not save the world.  But it does turn our thoughts and our concerns in the right direction.

David

CONTEMPLATIVE VERSE

One of the major influences on the writers of hokku was the old collection of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems.”  These were the famous classics of the Chinese Tang Dynasty that were to Japanese writers what college anthologies of poetry are to us.

There are a number of translations of the Tang anthology, some of them online.  Here is verse from the anthology by Witter Bynner, translating Jia Dao:

When I questioned your pupil, under a pine tree,
“My teacher,” he answered, “went for herbs,
But toward which quarter of the mountain,
How can I tell, through all these clouds?”

That has the genuine spirit of hokku though it is obviously not hokku.  The reason is that such verses are among the roots of hokku.  Jia Dao’s poem obviously focuses on “Nature and humans as a part of Nature,” which is exactly what we want in hokku.

My point in mentioning it here is to emphasize that hokku is not the only short verse form that may have the spirit of hokku behind it, which is why I refer to the whole range of such poetry — whether old or new — as “contemplative” verse, meaning verses having their origins in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, verse which deal, as does hokku, with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and have behind them a deep spirituality.

Readers may have noticed that in the past few postings I have moved toward discussing a wider range of verse forms than just the three-line hokku.  I have done that to encourage readers not to abandon an experience of Nature just because it has too much content for a hokku.  One can write hokku-like verse in not only in three lines, but also in four or five, and perhaps even more, depending on the experience.  One just has to keep in mind the basic aesthetics of the hokku, aesthetics common also to ink painting, flower arranging, and landscape gardening in Japan.

Writers of hokku are free to write in any number of lines necessary to adequately express an experience.  That does not change the hokku.  It is still three lines.  But it does give us the option of using longer verse forms without abandoning the essential aesthetics of the hokku, without abandoning the hokku spirit.  And that is why I include all these other forms here, along with the hokku, as part of the wider practice of contemplative verse.

Old hokku had its wider practice of haikai, which included linked verse and journaling, etc.  Similarly, the practice of contemplative verse includes not only the hokku but also longer, aesthetically-related verse forms.

So whether we write an experience as a hokku in three lines, or in four or five-line verse forms, we can still keep the hokku aesthetic, the “spirit of hokku” that is also the spirit of contemplative verse in general.

That does not, of course, mean there is no difference between a hokku and verses written in more lines.  Hokku demands the ultimate of poverty, and the most care in selection.  To explain what I mean by that, here is a repeat of an article I wrote earlier:

Hokku is verse composed from the raw material of Nature and the seasons.  It may begin with an experience or a memory, but ultimately it all comes from Nature and time.  So writing a hokku is simply a matter of careful selection.

In 1877 a young man named George Willard Schultz felt himself drawn from Missouri to the West.  He boarded a steamboat and ended up in the Rockies among the Blackfoot people.  Many years later, looking back from the vantage point of age, he began his story with these words:

“Wide, brown plains, distant, slender, flat-topped buttes; still more distant giant mountains, blue-sided, sharp-peaked, snow capped; odor of sage and smoke of camp fire; thunder of ten thousand buffalo hoofs over the hard, dry ground; long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night, how I loved you all!” (My Life as and Indian, 1907).

Things and experiences — sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch — these are the elements that comprise hokku.  And except for his last five words, that is what Willard gives us here.  But what he gives us is in its entirety too rich for hokku, which turns from wealth of impressions to poverty, so that each aspect of Nature may be felt and appreciated individually — for itself — and not just for what it contributes to the whole.

A school teacher knows this instinctively.  Her little class of squirming boys and girls is not important as a whole, but as individuals — for the spirit and character of each boy and each girl, the hopes and abilities and skills and drawbacks of each.  Any teacher who tries to teach “the child” and not individual children is committing a crime against Nature.

We can see, then, that while hokku sees Nature as a whole, it does not make use of Nature in that fashion.  Hokku is not generalities but particulars.  So out of the paragraph of  George Schultz, the writer will take just one or two things, for example,

“…long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night….”

That gives us a subject.  But in hokku a subject alone is not enough.  Everything exists not only in the wider context of Nature, but also in the context of time and change, which we find expressed in hokku first through the season.  So an experience by itself is not a full experience until it is realized in the context of the season.

The result might be a hokku like this,

Winter silence;
The long-drawn howls
Of wolves.

Or perhaps

The long cry
Of a lone wolf;
The winter moon.

Or

Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy night.

The last is actually an old hokku by Bunson.

Often people ask me about writing hokku while living in the midst of a big city.  It can be done — one can look for Nature virtually poking up through cracks in the sidewalk — but in general the result will not compare with what one can write from actual experience from the heart of Nature — from mountains, fields and forests, from streams and waterfalls and lakes, from reeds and huckleberry bushes and giant trees.  So the worst environment for hokku is a big city.  Writing it there really takes work, unless one happens to have a good back yard or a large park.  Next best is a small town, perhaps a little place with a river flowing through it, lots of trees, lots of gardens.  But of course best of all is the Great Wild, where man is not the center but the periphery.

The solution — for those who live in a city and want to write hokku — is to realize that to express Nature, one must experience Nature.  If one spends all one’s time in a city apartment, there is not going to be much raw material.  So if Nature does not find you, you must go to Nature, or else take up some other kind of verse that does not have as its focus Nature and the seasons.  But if you do that, you will lose the opportunity to realize just how much a part of Nature you are, the opportunity of returning to it and experiencing it, just as Schultz felt the call to the West in 1877.

David

RAIN DRIPPING INTO A BASIN

I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.

David

LIKE CLOUDS — OR IS IT GEESE, OR MAYBE….

Someone recently kindly asked me to participate in an online group project to translate — or at least present Englished versions of — all the hokku of Bashō.  I declined for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it is stretching it a bit to say that even 20% of the approximately 1,000 verses attributed to Bashō are either worthwhile or transfer well from culture to culture.

But another reason I could have given is that some of Bashō’s hokku are so obscure in the originals that they defy definite translation, like this autumn verse:

Kumo to hedatsu   tomo ka ya kari no  ikiwakare
Cloud as separate  friend ka ya wild-geese  ‘s live-parting

It is devilishly difficult to understand precisely how Bashō intended this to be read.   Does it mean, as David Landis Barnhill has it (I have changed his format, not his words),

Like clouds drifting apart,
A wild goose separates, for now,
From his friend.

Or does it mean, as Oseko presents it,

Friend beyond the clouds!
Just as wild geese
Part company.

Might it mean

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose’s departure.

…as Makoto Ueda has it,

Or perhaps does it mean, as Russian translator  Dmitri Smirnov gives it,

Облака разделят  нас друг с другом навсегда,  словно двух гусей.

Which I would translate as:

Clouds separate us,
Friend from friend forever,
Like two wild geese.

Should it begin,

Like clouds…

or perhaps

Just as clouds…

Making a simile (which most hokku do not use, as I have pointed out previously), or does the apparent simile apply not to the clouds, but rather to the wild geese, as others would have it?

This is the kind of stew into which one jumps when one takes on translating the entire body of Bashō’s verse.  Really, life is too short to spend it on this kind of thing, particularly when the result will inevitably be inconclusive and colored by the personal aesthetics of the translator.

Of course such problems have not deterred others from giving it a try, yet even David Landis Barnhill stops at translating about 725 of the near 1,000 extant hokku.  Toshiharu Oseko earlier went farther, coming out with two large hardcover volumes of Bashō translations, with extensive notes.  And they are not the only ones to take on the task — just the most useful authors so far, in my view.

So how would I translate the verse in question?  First, I would just openly admit its obscurity. and then I would probably come up with some “amended” version like this:

Friends separate
Like passing clouds;
Wild geese leaving.

Quite honestly, it makes a terrible hokku, because it does not do what a hokku should do, which is to avoid simile and too much comparison.  I do not think any translation I have seen of this verse of Bashō makes a good hokku.  And of course what Bashō really intended remains unclear even to native Japanese readers, so what you just read in my “translation” is a mixture of Bashō and Coomler.

The reason for difficulty in this verse, no doubt, is that Bashō was mixing images from old Chinese poetry  — parting friends, clouds, and wild geese — and he poured the result into the very tiny mold of hokku, and in this case it just did not work.  Instead he should have written it in another and more expansive verse form, leaving hokku for what works well in hokku.

Blyth once said with affectionate hyperbole that a bad verse of Bashō is better than the best of lesser writers of hokku, but I do not find that to be literally the case.  Many of Bashō’s verses make poor models for modern hokku, but we need not dwell on those when we have the best of his hokku given us in the translations of Blyth.  As students of hokku it is best to concentrate on those that are good, using the mediocre and the bad only as examples of what to avoid.

And for those who do want to dwell on those numerous, lesser attempts of Bashō, there is always the large selection offered in paperback by David Landis Barnhill and the two very useful volumes (outrageously expensive now that they are out of print) of Toshiharu Oseko.  If you are budget-minded, go with David Landis Barnhill.  If you are interested in “popular” personal interpretations by someone who is a lover of poetry though not a real translator, you might like to peruse Jane Reichhold’s “complete” versions of Bashō’s verses, but keep in mind that it will be hard to distinguish what is Reichhold with her “modern haiku” aesthetics from what is legitimately Bashō.  Those looking for deeper insight and accuracy will prefer Barnhill and Oseko.

As for me, I will leave the translating of the complete works of Bashō to others.  My view is that modern hokku is legitimately based on the best of all writers of hokku prior to the beginning of the 20th century, and there is no need to spend much time on inferior or confusing old examples that contribute little or nothing to the building of modern hokku in English and other languages.

As for which of the many translations of the verse given above is really the best, one can only say that the best verse as a poem is that of  Dmitri Smirnov, followed by that of Barnhill.  But in doing so, one must separate what is good as a poem from what is good as a hokku.  Something may be good as poetry yet bad as hokku.

David

CHERRY BLOSSOMS COME BLOWING

Bashō wrote a very spring-like verse almost too pretty for hokku:

From the four directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing in;
Lake Nio.

We could be a bit less literal and make it:

From all directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing;
Lake Nio.

Most of us have not the slightest idea what Lake Nio, also called Lake Biwa, looked or looks like.  So we naturally do what we do with all hokku — we automatically come up with an internal image of a lake, with cherry blossoms blowing into it from all directions.  For each of us the image will be slightly different, depending on our past experience of lakes.  And that is the way with all hokku.  Each reader has a different experience depending on his or her internal stock of images.

If we were to examine this verse structurally, we could say that the setting is Lake Nio; the subject is cherry blossoms, and the action is “come blowing from all directions.”

We could even present the verse that straightforward way, putting the setting last:

Cherry blossoms
Come blowing from all directions;
Lake Nio.

David

ON THE OLD DOOR

I repeatedly remind readers that hokku is very simple.  Here is a good example — a verse by Shōha:

Furuki to ni    kage utsuriyuku   tsubame kana
Old  door on   shadow changing swallow kana

In essence, this is saying

On the old door,
A changing shadow —
The swallow.

But we could make it better in English like this:

On the old door,
A constantly-changing shadow —
The swallow.

Or even better,

On the old door,
A flitting shadow —
The swallow.

Or we could say,

On the old door,
A shadow flits to and fro —
The swallow.

In the West this is likely to be a weathered barn door, and the constantly-changing shadow is that of a barn swallow flitting to and fro with remarkable speed and agility.  The focus, however, is not on the swallow; it is on the old door and the shadow that flits across its surface repeatedly.

On this we see both the sense of time and age that is appropriate to hokku and the sense of transience in the constantly-changing shadow.  It is the combination of these two elements — the fresh and active and the old and passive — that gives this hokku its interest.  Regular readers here will recognize this as just another manifestation of the principles of Yin (passive) and Yang (active) that we find so often in hokku, used in so many ways.

David