HOKKU AS ILLUSION AND AS REALITY

Buson wrote:

A Korean ship
Passes without stopping;
The haze.

It is virtually impossible to recognize in English translation, but this verse is an example of the romantic tendency in Buson’s hokku — romantic in the sense of “evoking an idealized past or exotic adventurousness.”  When Buson wrote of a Korean ship, what he meant was a particular kind of ship that long before his day brought exotic goods from the mainland to Japan.  It is as though we were to translate the first line as  “a caravel” or “a galleon,” which in English would immediately set the verse in the past rather than the present day:

A Spanish galleon
Passes without stopping;
The haze.

So Buson was doing something romantic artists like to do, which is to create an exotic mood, and to do that, he has us see an ancient Korean vessel approaching the shore, yet continuing on into the haze of spring instead of stopping.  Essentially he is bringing the ship out of the haze of the imagination to evoke an artistic atmosphere of the “past,” then sending it back into the haze to let us know it is not a part of the “real” world.

This hokku reminds me very much of a painting I once saw of a boy reading at night in his room, and all around him — out of the haze of his imagination — appear pirates and a parrot, palm trees and all the images called forth by the reading of Stevenson’s Treasure Island in the young mind.

From my point of view this is all very well in novels and in some kinds of verse, but I do not think it should be the purpose of hokku.  Hokku should not be the artificial creations of the imagination, the world remolded nearer to the heart’s desire, but rather it should be the world seen clearly and without the coloring of the imagination — a reflection in a mirror wiped clean.

That is a fundamental difference between hokku as a contemplative path and hokku as a creative exercise of the imagination.  In the history of the form there has always been a certain kind of contradiction and conflict between these two approaches.  We find it even in the verses of Bashō, who after all was a businessman of sorts, making his living from teaching a rather complicated system of verse to the merchants and tradesmen of his day.  So not all he wrote is gold by any means, in fact the majority of Bashō’s verses could be obliterated without doing the slightest damage to hokku.  Those we see printed in anthologies tend to be among the few that showed him at his best.

In fact we could say that a certain amount of artificiality was built into the practice of haikai, because as a kind of group-oriented poetic game, the composition of a linked sequence of verses (of which the hokku was the first) meant coming up with new links on the spot, and that opens it to the possibility of a large element of artificiality.

It is also one of the reasons why I do not lament the passing of this approach.  I have always preferred a hokku that takes us closer to the real world of Nature rather than to the world remade through our imaginations.  Our task as humans is not to immerse ourselves in illusions, but rather to see the world more and more clearly.  And hokku, in my view, should be practiced in the same way.  Otherwise it only contributes to our delusions instead of helping to free us from them.

David

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