YOURS TRULY INTRODUCES THE WALDEN

Buson wrote a spring verse that is very tricky to put into English:

Hana ni kurete   waga ie tōki   no-michi kana
Blossoms at darkened   my home far   field-road kana

Blyth, who often preferred to convey the overall meaning of a verse rather than its absolutely literal meaning, gave this as:

Among the blossoms, it grows late,
And I am far from home —
This path over the moor.

That does well what Blyth wanted it to do, but it is not at all what we would do when composing a hokku in English.  It is too unbalanced, too long.  The problem is that literally, what Buson is saying is something like

It grows dark on the blossoms;
My home is far;
The field road.

But that too is unusably awkward in English.

We could try

The blossoms dim,
My home is far;
The road through the fields.

But essentially, Buson has presented us with two parallel lines and a third, and that makes translation into English hokku form problematic.  We need not feel troubled by it, however, because Buson has really packed too much into the small space for a hokku.  The information contained in the verse requires a wider format, either the waka or four lines of “Chinese” verse.

I would translate it into my own version of the waka.  But first I must explain a bit:

A waka (literally “Japanese song” or “Japanese verse”)  put into English form comes out as three lines of the same length as a hokku.  But it ends with two additional lines that are the length of the longest (the middle) line of the “hokku-like” part.  Where hokku avoids overt “poetry,” the waka does not.  And the waka, which does not shy away from romance, tears, longing for the loved one, etc. etc. etc., also tends to use a very elevated and elegant language, using only what we might call “high” subjects though presented in the context of Nature.  It is all moonlight and singing birds and cherry blossoms.  No toads, no pumpkins.

We may say that while our tradition of hokku took a middle path in old Japan, neither falling into mere puns and wordplay and witticism nor using only elevated subjects, the waka always remained on a very elevated level.  Subjects often found in hokku would be considered too “common” or “low” for it.

Quite honestly, that has always been why I have never had much interest in writing the waka.  I have no interest in its deliberate romanticism and its “ivory tower” attitude toward the ordinary things of life.  In waka everything must be conventionally beautiful and elegant and aristocratic.  Waka fails to see that there is also beauty in the ordinary and plain, and for me that is a fatal flaw.

What I have always wanted to do, then, is to make up for the flaw by writing a kind of “hokku-fied” waka, verse combining the high and low, which of course I could not continue to call waka because its aesthetics would be different — like those of the hokku.  My kind of waka, then, would be the waka form minus its complexities, and having the “contemplative” aesthetics of the hokku.

So here I give Buson’s overly-packed (for a hokku) verse rewritten in my longer, hokku-fied waka form, which I hereby name the “walden” in honor of Henry David Thoreau:

With evening,
The cherry blossoms
Grow dark;
Through empty fields,
The long road home.

Buson has lingered too long admiring the blossoms, and as they darken, he turns his eyes to the long road through the fields and begins his homeward journey.

If any of you would like to try the “walden” as well, just keep in mind that it has the same aesthetics as the hokku, and the same avoidances.  Its subject matter is Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and it omits romance, sex, violence — things that disturb the mind in general, as well as “technology.”

It is simply an extended hokku in its aesthetics.  And every now and then, one may need an extended hokku.  Outwardly it looks like a waka but it is not a waka; nor is it what is today called a tanka.  It is a walden.

Enjoy.

David


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