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

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