There is still a lot of confusion about metaphor and simile in hokku, so here is an old article newly revised to explain the matter more thoroughly:

Haruo Shirane writes:

“However, many of Basho’s haiku [sic] use metaphor and allegory, and in fact this is probably one of the most important aspects of his poetry.”

When we look at Shirane’s prime examples for metaphor, we find he tends to use two hokku of Bashō:

Shiragiku no me ni tatete miru chiri mo nashi
Botan shibe
fukaku wakeizuru hachi no nagori kana.

Paradoxically, however, he sometimes tells us these hokku are metaphors (“The poem employs the white chrysanthemums as metaphor for the hostess, implying, ‘this is a beautiful house, with a beautiful hostess, just like an elegant white chrysanthemum, and there’s not a speck of dust here'” (Performance, Visuality and Textuality: the Case of Japanese Poetry) and sometimes tells us they are allegories or even symbols (“This form of symbolism or simple allegory was standard for poets at this time, as it was for the entire poetic tradition” (Beyond the Haiku Moment: Bashō, Buson and Modern Haiku Myths).

Now one can quickly see from these brief examples that Shirane himself seems uncertain how to identify what is taking place in these verses.  He calls them simultaneously metaphors, allegories, and symbols.  This alone should tip us off that he is on shaky ground and is either not really quite certain himself what such hokku represent, or more likely he is quite uncertain how to convey what is happening in these verses to the English-language reader in Western terms, and so uses very confusing (and from my point of view, very misleading) terminology.

Let’s pause for a moment then, to define our terms.  We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  We must add to these the two terms Shirane uses:

An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at the two verses Shirane uses as his examples of metaphor in hokku:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written, as Shirane recognizes, as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.  Here again, is that explanation.  Knowing the real methodology behind it makes Shirane’s confusing attempt to convey it by mislabeling it “metaphor,” “symbol,” and “allegory” appear as what it really is — an obfuscating — if well-intentioned — half-truth that does not tell the whole story, and consequently leaves the reader understanding little more than he or she did previously.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to Shirane’s two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”

That is why I said earlier that Shirane was speaking a half-truth.  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality, and this is what Shirane failed to explain.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.

In hokku that should not be done.  An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

That is why we must not be too hard on Shirane.  He was emphasizing the original, “occasion” function of the verses he discussed when he was trying to find a suitable English word to explain that function.  But in doing so, he forgot or neglected to tell the reader about the vitally important other half of the equation.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in hokku.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.


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