THE UNANSWERED QUESTION

In hokku aesthetics, we find that it often favors that which is undecided, undetermined, incomplete.  We see that in two verses which superficially appear very different.  The first is by Chora:

The summer moon;
On the other side of the river —
Who is it?

Old readers here will immediately recognize this as a “question” hokku, a verse in which the whole point is that the question remains unanswered, leaving us with that “not-knowing” feeling.

Taigi wrote a verse that is not a question hokku:

The bridge fallen,
People stand on the bank;
The summer moon.

Blyth — because the people are standing on a bank — assumes that the bridge has washed away, and in fact he so translates it.  But the point I want to make here is that we see the bridge has collapsed; we see the people on the bank staring at where it had been.  What will they do? How will they cross?  How will it affect their lives?  None of this is told us.  We are left with that uncertainty, that sense of “not-knowing,” and here you see precisely what this verse has in common with a “question” hokku, even though it is not a question hokku.  Both have that sense of something unanswered, unfinished, incomplete.  And it is that particular feeling that such hokku wish to evoke.

It is worth mentioning in passing that hokku avoids violence and disasters.  Occasionally we will find something rather borderline, like Chora’s verse about the fallen bridge, but it is not really over the boundary, and its point, as already mentioned, is in what the verse evokes.

We can see, however, that when people began to change the hokku into something else near the beginning of the 20th century, an un-hokku-like harshness was introduced, as in this verse by Shiki, who in this case crosses the line into a kind of verse alien to the spirit of the hokku:

Without a home —
Twenty thousand people;
The summer moon.

Shiki wrote this about the great fire of Takaoka, apparently that in 1900.  This is more journalism than verse.  The catastrophe and its scope are not right for the aesthetics of hokku, and this, along with the gradual and increasing introduction of technology, led to new kinds of verse that diverged ever more sharply from the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But of course these later kinds of verse increasingly and rapidly lost also the influence of Buddhist spirituality.  That is why we make a clear distinction between the aesthetics of hokku and those of other kinds of verse that may have been loosely inspired by or descended from the hokku.

Incidentally, all three of these verses may be found on two facing pages in Blyth.  All but the first are my translations.  The first — by Chora — is in Blyth’s translation, which one can hardly better.

David

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