THE STRANGE TALE OF HOW AN EXCELLENT REVIEW BECAME A SCATHING REVIEW

Some of you, in looking about on the Internet,  may have come across search topic headings like these:

People familiar with my writing are often puzzled to find those search entries, because they lead to a very negative article that does not seem to fit what they know of me and my views.

The article is a review published in a journal (to which I have never been a subscriber) called Modern Haiku.  It was written by the late William J. Higginson.

Those who know the real history of this review and who compare it with the actual book will likely see it as a particularly disingenuous manifestation of what was apparently Higginson’s peculiar literary territorialism and antipathy to any attempts to revive the traditional hokku.  And from all evidence, Higginson certainly wanted the hokku thoroughly dead and buried and forgotten, as evinced by his active effort to get reference publications such as dictionaries and encyclopedias to declare the word “hokku” obsolete, and his opposition to the more traditional views of Harold Gould Henderson, who was one of the two foremost Western writers on the topic in the mid-20th century, the other being the incomparable R. H. Blyth.

Paradoxically, Higginson’s very negative and seemingly deliberately misleading review was published in an issue of that journal called the Robert Spiess Memorial Issue.  Robert Spiess was the editor of Modern Haiku who had passed away shortly before the “memorial” issue appeared.

What is paradoxical about this is that Spiess himself, before his passing, had surprised me with a letter, telling me that he had read my book and that he would give it a “very fine review” in Modern Haiku.  However, he passed away before that promised “very fine review” appeared, and in its place suddenly and strangely appeared Higginson’s bitter review, expressing a view of the book quite the opposite of that held by the late editor, whom that particular issue was purportedly memorializing.

This had seemed rather odd to me, given what Spiess had promised, so I sent the new editor of Modern Haiku a copy of the letter Spiess had sent me, suggesting it be published as a more accurate reflection of the late “memorialized” editor’s views, and as a counterbalance to Higginson’s review.  I received not a word in response, and of course the letter of Spiess that would have made his own opinion of my book quite clear was never seen by readers of Modern Haiku, and is never mentioned in copies of that review on the Internet.

In any case, those who have read the book may form their own opinions.  I do not and have never subscribed to Modern Haiku.  I teach hokku, not modern haiku, and consequently would not have submitted anything to that publication for review — which accounts for my surprise on receiving the commendatory letter from Spiess.   As for the promised review of my book that editor Robert Spiess originally intended for publication in Modern Haiku, it of course was mysteriously replaced with that of Higginson; but here is the actual letter Spiess wrote me, so readers may see for themselves what Spiess thought of my book — in contrast to what Higginson had to say.

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PLACE NAMES AND PINE NEEDLES: OLD AND MODERN HOKKU

Yesterday I mentioned the problem of allusion in old Japanese hokku, and how if one does not know or understand the allusion, one cannot understand such a verse at all.

There is also — in old hokku — the additional complication of place names. It is all too easy to misunderstand these as well, because of course in traditional Japanese writing there were no capital letters to indicate a proper name.  So one either understood that the writer was using a place name or one did not.

An example is this hokku, which in Blyth’s translation is:

A clear waterfall;
Into the ripples
Fall green pine needles.

It is a pleasant, cool summer hokku (and according to the traditional hokku calendar, we are now in summer).  But Blyth does not tell the reader that “clear waterfall,” (kiyo taki) in the original verse is actually a proper name, Kiyotaki, a mountain stream near a place in Japan also called Kiyotaki.  So Bashō was really writing:

Kiyotaki;
Into the ripples
Fall green pine needles.

Whether Blyth knew this or not is immaterial, because his translation has made the verse significant and accessible for Westerners, whereas the “proper name” version would mean little to them.

The Japanese reader would have known that Kiyotaki was a place name that meant literally “Clear Waterfall,” but the Kiyotaki in Japan is a particular, narrow mountain stream and not a waterfall, located near a place also called Kiyotaki.  For the Westerner to take all of this into account does not help the verse at all as a hokku.  So we could either take it rather literally, as Blyth did in his translation, or we could go with what the Kiyotaki actually is, like this:

A clear stream;
Falling into its ripples —
Green pine needles.

or:

A mountain stream;
Green pine needles
Fall into its ripples.

Both of those are meaningful to the Western reader, and could be used as models for further writing.

There is much about old Japanese hokku that does not fit modern Western hokku.    But as I have said many times, Western hokku deliberately does not adopt every element in old hokku.  Instead it preserves its essence, that which is best about it and that which is of universal application.  That is why in Western hokku we leave behind certain things often found in old hokku, such as literary allusion and a confusing use of place names.

Of course it is all right to use a place name in Western hokku, but unless it is a commonly recognized name such as “Grand Canyon” or “Yosemite,” it will mean very little to a reader unfamiliar with that particular place, just as Kiyotaki means virtually nothing to the average Western reader until it is explained.

 

David

THE SCENT OF — WELL, ACTUALLY THE JAPANESE APRICOT

Here are a few spring hokku by Bashō.

I have divided all but the last into three parts:  First, the romanized Japanese and a rather literal translation; second, a “formal” translation of the original; third, a rewritten “American” version.

(M)ume ga ka ni  notto hi no deru  yamaji kana 
Ume fragrance at   suddenly sun appears   mountain path

At the ume fragrance,
Suddenly the sun rises;
The mountain path.

Fragrant plum blossoms
And a sudden sunrise;
The mountain path. 

The point of the verse is that as the writer smells the fragrant ume blossoms, the sun suddenly rises.  There is a perceived connection between the strong scent and the sudden appearance of the brilliant sun

The ume (Prunus mume) is not actually what we know as a plum in the West.  Instead it is a tree rather halfway between a plum and an apricot , but “Japanese apricot” generally does not fit very well into hokku where ume is used.  The term for an actual plum in Japan is sumomo.

(M)ume ga ka ni   mukashi no ichi-ji   aware nari
Ume fragrance at   past ‘s one character  is sad

In the scent of ume,
The single character “past”
is sad.

At the scent of plum blossoms,
The single word “past” —
How sad! 

The point of the verse is the writer’s smelling the scent of plums while looking at (or writing) the single Chinese character read in Japanese as mukashi — “the past.”  The combination fills him with a sad, nostalgic feeling (aware, pronounced ah-wah-ray) because he knows that all things are impermanent and nothing lasts, least of all the fragrance of the early spring blossoms.

The verse was written as an “occasion” verse for  Bashō’s student Baigan, on the anniversary of the death of the student’s son, which had happened a year earlier.  We can see how indirectly hokku deals with such matters.

(M)ume ga ka ni   oi modosaruru   samusa kana
Ume fragrance at  routed has returned cold kana

At the scent of ume
The routed has returned —
The cold!

In the scent of plum,
What left has returned —
The cold!

Not  a good hokku.  The rather minimal point is that spring has warmed enough to bring out the fragrant ume blossoms, but at the time the writer is smelling the fragrance, a cold spell has occurred.  So the cold he thought had been routed by the warmth of spring has returned.  It shows how changeable early spring weather is.

From bad to worse:

Ume ga ka ya   Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō
Plum fragrance  Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō

The scent of plum blossoms;
Shirara, Ochikubo,
Kyōtarō….

It is little more than an allusion to a line from a Japanese book called the Jōruri-hime Monogatari, in which the question is asked which books a certain Lady Jōruri read, whether that titled Shirara, or Ochikubo, or Kyōtarō, etc.  The reader is supposed to be reminded of a pretty, elegant young woman reading a book of stories as spring begins.  Of course this kind of verse does not survive time and travel to a different culture, and it depends entirely on the reader knowing the literary allusion Bashō is making.  I have included it here only to show how unlike modern hokku some of Bashō’s verses were, and how “literary” in contrast to what we consider the best hokku.  For the western student of modern hokku, which deliberately avoids dependance on such literary allusions, these old “see how well-read I am” verses are quite useless other than as examples of what not to do.

David