A WILLOWY WALDEN

Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.

David


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THE GREEN WILLOW ROAD

Buson the artist-writer was also a classicist heavily influenced by Chinese poetry.  Put very simply, Chinese poetry in general has a feeling of great distances, while Japanese poetry more often concentrates on the small and near.  Nonetheless, one sometimes finds the “vast space” of Chinese poetry in the very small envelope of a hokku.  One example with a very obvious Chinese influence is this verse by Buson:

Kimi yuku ya   yanagi midori ni   michi nagashi
You go ya willow  green at      road long

Rather literally it is:

You are going;
In the green of the willows,
The long road.

It is a “departure” verse, for which we find many prototypes in Chinese poetry.  Essentially it is an expression of one’s feelings when a dear one is going away.  It is quite obvious, though, that those feelings are expressed in ways other than we would usually do it in the West.  Here they are expressed through Nature rather than through “bare emotion.”

We could also translate Buson’s verse more freely:

Your leaving;
The green willow road
Is long.

Two old friends are saying goodbye in spring.  The willows that line the road are bright green with new leaves, and the road itself stretches on and on into unimaginable distance.

Inevitably one is reminded of Hans Bethge’s loose rendering of Wang Wei in Die Chinesische FlöteThe Chinese Flute, as used in Gustav Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”:

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müßte sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort: Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig… ewig…

(http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/assemble_texts.html?SongCycleId=235)

He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting;
He asked him where he was going and why it must be.
He replied, his voice was veiled;
“You, my friend — Fortune was not kind to me
In this world.
Where do I go?  I go — I wander in the mountains,
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to my homeland, my place.
No more shall I travel in far regions.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!
The dear earth all and everywhere
Blooms forth, and grows green anew.
All and everywhere the blue light
In the distance —
Eternal… Eternal….

David

Grown Old

The woman Seifu wrote:

Doll faces;
Unavoidably,
I have grown old.

The interest here is in harmony of opposites.  The faces of the dolls look still the same age, but the writer, by contrast, finds herself inevitably grown old — a matter beyond her control.

Blyth has translated the last two lines a bit more personally as

Though I never intended to,
I have grown old.

It is true.  One does not intend it, but it happens.  That demonstrates, as Carl Jung said, that we are not the master in our own house.  These humans who think they are Lords of the Earth are the servants of Time.

David

MY DESERT IS WAITING

Today I came across a wonderful example of excessive, exotic romanticism.  It is the beginning of a description of the 1929 movie “The Desert Song”:

GREEDILY the copper coin of the sun was tossed by some invisible hand into the coffers of the desert.  Now a purple radiance suffused the burning sands, till deepening twilight gradually wrapped its cloak all around and the mountains rose stark against the sky.”

(http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com/desert_song.htm)

One imagines shop girls with tired, aching feet sinking into such a film as into a warm, perfumed bath.  Sheer escapism — and completely the antithesis of what we do in hokku — but a bit of fun nonetheless.

David

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

THE HOKKU, THE WALDEN, AND NOW THE LOREN

Kyorai, one of Bashō’s students, wrote:

Hito aze wa    shibashi naki yamu    kawazu kana
One path wa for-a-while  cries silent   frogs kana

An aze is specifically a path through rice paddies.

When Blyth translated this, he changed the verse, and also — in my view — its meaning:

One field of frogs
Croaks for a time,
And then is silent.

There is nothing wrong with that except that one loses the intrinsic meaning, and without the explanation one wonders why a field is full of frogs.  Blyth tells the reader in an added comment that “actually it is ‘one footpath between the fields'” of frogs.  But of course one cannot have

One footpath between the fields;

as a first line of a hokku.  It is just too long.

Moreover, we cannot possibly get everything in the Japanese version into the space of a hokku in English.   That means we need a verse form slightly longer than the hokku:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

Two days ago I introduced an English variant on the old Japanese waka that I call the “walden,” which has essentially the form of the old waka but the aesthetic content of the hokku.  The walden form is:

short
long
short
long
long.

Today I introduce a second variant, a third writing option, for those times when the space of a hokku (as in this case) is too short, but a walden is too long.  I’m going to call it a “loren” after one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley.  As you can see from the example, the structure of a loren is:

short
long
short
long
short

If we were to put the three verse types in old “Japanese” measure, they would look like this:

Hokku:  5-7-5
Loren:    5-7-5-7-5
Walden  5-7-5-7-7

NOW we have the full tools for dealing with virtually any case that may arise, using a short verse form.  We have the hokku for the shortest, the loren when a hokku is just a bit too short, and the walden when the loren is not quite long enough.  And of course all three follow the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But back to Kyorai’s verse, which we have expressed in a loren because the hokku is too short in English:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

The rice paddies are filled with the croaking of frogs.  But as Kyorai proceeds down a footpath between the paddies, his presence is sensed and suddenly the frogs all go silent.

Having said all that, there is a way to translate Kyorai’s verse in hokku form:

A paddy path;
Suddenly the frogs
Go silent.

But of course the real point of this posting is to introduce another option for those cases that are virtually impossible to condense into the short hokku.

David

APRIL AND LILACS

Yesterday I took a walk in the cool sun of spring, and passed a lilac bush in bud.  And then for all that evening, this line kept coming into my head:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…

It is a cradle rocked by a loving hand;
It is feet moving in a dance:  step Step, step Step, step-step Step, step Step…

How Nature can astonish us.  Suddenly, in the 19th century, out of the American soil, out of the silence of the Quaker meeting house, out of the fields and meadows and the bustling young city, out of the helpless tears of Civil War, came Walt Whitman.

No one had seen his like before.
No one has seen his like since.

A completely different voice, as though a bird plain-feathered like its kin suddenly began warbling a throbbing new song unknown to all its kind.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

He shows us the painful deep wound healed only by time, yet never fully smoothed away:

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night–O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d–O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless–O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

He shows us peace and remembrance:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle–and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

Absolutely astonishing.

What other poet of the time could have raised such an elegy?  What other voice could have spoken in tone and varied cadence so fresh?

As that Whitman poem begins with a gentle to and fro rocking, so does this:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight…

And after more lines, the lilac again;

Once, Paumanok,
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air…

T.S. Eliot wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

But in his verse the lilacs are not seen by the gentle, loving eye, they put forth no fragrance to touch the heart and awaken it.  Everything is barren, stony, meant for death.  His is a bookish, cold, indoor spring of the mind that knows no softness nor sweet scent.

Thank goodness for Walt Whitman.