“PARTING” HOKKU AND THE LONG POETIC TRADITION

A Chinese landscape painting by Wang Shen

It used to be common — and still is, to some extent — for people in the modern haiku movement to see Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) as a “rebel” of the end of the 19th century.  But actually, Shiki was in general far more conservative than one might think.

A good part of his “haiku,” for example, are really hokku in form and content.  And he retained not only the hokku form, but also the customary link with the seasons that characterizes the hokku.

We may consider Shiki then, in either of two roles:  on the one hand as the last major “hokku” writer,  and on the other as the man who set the “haiku” off on its erratic course.

Today I want to discuss a verse — still essentially a hokku — by Shiki, one that shows just how very conservative he often was.  It is a “parting” or “farewell” hokku, which is a poetic genre that one can trace all the way back to the Tang Dynasty of China and beyond — a thousand years and more.  It is a verse written to commemorate saying farewell to a dear friend who is leaving and will be gone for a very long time, perhaps forever.

The hokku poets — Shiki included — were heavily influenced by the poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, in this particular genre by such poets as Li Bai (Li Po, 701-762), who is the author of this example:

Seeing  Meng Hao-ran off from Yellow Crane Tower

My friend is leaving the West from Yellow Crane tower,
Through the haze and blossoms of March down to Yangchou; 
A distant, single sail –the endless blue hills —
Then only the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. 

Li Bai watches as his friend goes downriver in a boat with a sail.  He watches it drift off though spring blossoms and haze into the distance of limitless blue hills, then it disappears, and he sees only the long river flowing to meet the sky.

Here is Shiki’s verse in this same genre but in hokku form, rather literally translated:

Boat and shore willow separates  parting kana

Kana is an ending word with no definite meaning.  It was often used simply to fill out the required number of phonetic units in a Japanese hokku.  We may think of it as a kind of pause or ellipsis here, indicating continuation, ongoing movement and the passage of time.

In ELH (English-language Hokku) form, we can present it as:

Boat and shore
Are separated by a willow;
Parting ….

You may recall that many hokku — particularly Japanese hokku — often require the participation of the reader’s poetic mind to fill in what is not said in words.  This one requires a bit of that, but it is rather easy.

By boat and shore, the writer means both the shore and the person on it, and the boat and the person in it.  As the boat is oared out into the river and begins to move downstream,  it rounds a headland on which a willow tree grows, which blocks the view of the departing boat from the shore.  That separation of boat and shore, friend from friend, is an internal reflection of the third line of the verse, which of course is the key to understanding the verse as a whole — “parting.”

Two verses in different forms, yet in the same genre and poetic tradition, though separated in time by more than a thousand years.  And that from a supposed “rebel.”  We see through such examples that in general, Shiki was often simply a hokku writer who used a revisionist name for his verse.

We can also see, from comparison of these two examples, how very long the poetic tradition that nourished and gave rise to the hokku was — a thousand years and more.

David

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