Here is a repeat of something I wrote some four years ago:
As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples — good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.
It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the Japanese originals. There are commonly poems so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat. Hokku are not like that. The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience. The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units, the result being a rhythm like that of the following lines, used purely to demonstrate that rhythm:
Would you like to go?
If I wanted I could go —
But I cannot now.
In other words, it has beats like this:
Of course such inherent rhythm is lost when hokku change language:
This road —
No one is on it;
The autumn evening.
That gives us this pattern of beats:
So it is a fact that in English we give little importance to retaining the 5/7/5 rhythm of the originals, because it would severely limit transmitting the verbal meaning in translation and it would have severe creative limits in composing original verses in English. But we can say that once that original 5/7/5 rhythm standard is dropped, hokku generally transmit easily from language to language.
This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback. It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it. While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not. It is in fact such “superfluities” of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember. This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as “haiku” in the English-speaking world.
Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse. We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:
How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices —
Pine and cedar trees.
That is easy to remember because of the rhyme — much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:
A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*
As Henderson’s translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original. Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning. And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku — even his favorites — into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found. That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.
But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it. And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear. It is, rather, a verse of the eye. Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may with benefit be read aloud.
Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh — the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, “tongue-craft.”
Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.
That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form. The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply “nonsense” written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form. The form was his goal, not substance.
The result, however, was quite unanticipated. Morys writes of it,
“Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense. But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences. I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written.”
See for yourself. you may read My First Love was a Plover at:
Go to page 114.
After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories. We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings.
Where does all this leave us with hokku? Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it. Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.
Is it any wonder, then, that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention, and that what attention it has received has been as the mutated haiku — a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry? In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself — that is the actual words — are so quickly forgotten. In poetry the form — the words — may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.
“I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village. He won’t see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.”
That is substance over form. It may be “poetic” in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre “haiku” and even mediocre attempts at hokku.
But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
That is of course Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
All of this simply shows us once more that hokku is not poetry as we usually think of it. What must be repeated and remembered is that in hokku, the poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words. And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience. Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with. Is one “better” than the other? Better for what?
Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well. It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry. And poetry does what it is intended to do. Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:
Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.
Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human experience, as in Hopkins’ lines:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry. But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language “haiku.” That is an error we must not make in writing original hokku in English.
* The Japanese word koe, approximating “voice” in English, is often used in hokku where English would use “sound” or even another word such as “cry” or “chirp,” as in the koe of a cricket” or the koe of pines in the wind.