THERE’S A BELL AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Old hokku sometimes included historical, literary, or cultural allusions that make them very difficult for modern English-language readers to understand.  As I have already explained, we say that such verses “Do not travel well.”  That means they require so much explanation even after translation that any strength that might have been in the hokku is largely lost.  It is like having to explain a joke after one has told it.  Nearly all the effect is gone.

And of course many such allusive hokku were not very good to begin with.  Nonetheless, when the average Westerner reads them, completely unfamiliar with the background to such verses, the likelihood of misunderstanding becomes very high.

As we have seen, from the late 19th century and all through the 20th and even into the 21st century, most Westerners have completely misunderstood the hokku, and have seen it through their own colored glasses, tinted to make it seem like the Western poetry with which they are already familiar.

One such allusive verse by Bashō is:

Tsuki izuku    kane wa shizumeru   umi no soko
Moon where?  bell wa sunken       sea   ‘s   bottom

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

A Western enthusiast reading this without the context of hokku (I won’t name him) thought this an example of imaginative surrealism in Bashō — that Bashō just “made up” a fanciful verse.  As I always say, Westerners just misinterpret hokku in terms of what they already know — or think they know.

Actually, however, Bashō is not being surreal or exhibiting a wild imagination; he is referring to an historical event, one of many that took place during the gruesome and violent political history of Japan.  Without going into detail, there was a military defeat and suicides at a beach, and a large bell associated with the event sank into the sea.  From that alone we can see that what we find in the verse is not surrealism — just historical allusion.

In our practice of hokku we do not much care for such things.  I tend to discourage allusion in hokku because it demands a background that many do not have; and further, because it often detracts from the sensory experience of the hokku and takes us into intellectualism.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that historically it was sometimes found in hokku, and that numbers of old verses cannot be fully understood without recognizing such allusions.

But from our perspective, what interests in this hokku (even though it is not a very good hokku) is something else.  Let’s look at it again:

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

If you are a long- time reader here and have been absorbing what is taught, it should dawn on you that this is a hokku using what we call “harmony of similarity.”  That means a verse combining things that are similar in some way, even if only in feeling.  In this verse we have two kinds of similarity:

1.  Similarity of absence:  the moon is absent, the bell is absent.
2.  Similarity of shape:  the moon is round, the bell (which in the story of this verse is turned upside down in the sand at the sea bottom) is also round (its basal opening is round).

That does not mean we should imitate such verses in their use of allusion, because that is not something that fits our approach to hokku; nor should our verses require explanation.  Even to understand the second similarity, it helps to know that divers tried to retrieve the sunken bell, but because it was upside-down in the sand on the sea floor, they could not.  We can, however, keep in mind and use when appropriate the “harmony of similarity.”

The average Western reader, however, ignorant of the allusion and of the technique alike, will likely end up with some confused notion of what the verse is all about — perhaps even describing it (quite inaccurately) somewhat as the fellow mentioned earlier did — as imaginative and surreal.

David


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