Through a cloud of blooming cherry trees, the writer hears the sound of a distant, unseen temple bell. He wonders if it is coming from a temple in Ueno district? Or perhaps that in Asakusa?
The point of the hokku lies in the “concealing” mass of fresh spring blossoms combined with the unanswered question.
In contrast to that rather “high-class” hokku, there is an anonymous “low-class” senryu. You will recall that senryu is satirical verse, the “evil twin” of hokku, and no respecter of persons. So you will not surprised to find that the same expression used elegantly by Bashō — “a cloud of blossoms” (hana no kumo) — is used for a different “concealing” purpose here:
To hide The public restroom — A cloud of blossoms.
There is also another interesting senryu about cherry blossoms, which I translate loosely here:
The clever wife — She makes him take the child To view the blossoms.
The point is that the wife does not trust her husband out by himself, so when he casually remarks that he is going to view the cherry blossoms, she uses her wits and makes him take the kid along, to keep the untrustworthy husband out of “not respectable” establishments.
You may recall that in old hokku, the word “blossoms,” when used without a qualifier, was understood to mean cherry blossoms.
Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness. That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.
To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.
What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.
First there is Bashō. He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective. Let’s look at some examples.
If held in my hand, My hot tears would melt it; Autumn frost.
To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair. That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.
Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse. Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination. We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry. We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.
The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively. Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not. And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood. In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about. In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.
Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku. For example:
One thing — My life is light. A gourd.
Again, this requires some explanation. It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:
Owning one thing, My life is light — A hollow gourd.
This too is a poetic exaggeration. Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc. But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things. The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.
By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō. I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō. A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.
We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:
The sea darkens; The wild duck’s cry Is a faint white.
That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work. Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it. We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.
Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:
The old pond; A frog jumps in — The sound of water.
Note the objectivity. Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring. Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination. Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku. So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.
If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:
Getting a shave — On a day when Ueno’s Bell is misty.
It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist. We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring. Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse. That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.
A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:
The old garden; Emptying the hot water bottle Beneath the moon.
That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon. It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:
The old garden; Emptying a water bottle Beneath the moon.
That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.
Shiki also wrote:
Spring rain; Umbrellas all uneven In the ferry boat.
We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights. We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas. So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.
Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good. Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.
That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.
When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.
R. H. Blyth once translated a verse by Meisetsu, a late writer (1847-1926) influenced by Shiki, (the fellow who began calling verses that were generally really hokku in form “haiku”):
Ryūboku ya taburi-taburi to haru no kawa
Translating it is a bit tricky, partly because the first word, ryūboku, means here “a piece of drifting wood”; then comes a description of the manner of its floating, and finally we have the wider setting, haru no kawa, “spring’s river” — the spring river. Given all that we need to include, one can hardly do better than Blyth’s rendering:
A piece of wood, Bobbity, bobbity, floating down The spring river.
I would alter it slightly, keeping the slight intuitive leap required by the original, and more of its brevity:
A piece of wood Floating bobbity, bobbity; The spring river.
I have kept Blyth’s very fitting “bobbity, bobbity.”
What is striking about Blyth and this verse is that he intuitively understood the principle of Yang and Yin in hokku, though he never mentions it. He says merely that what Meisetsu saw “is the piece of wood in its relation to spring, its restless tranquillity.” Blyth adds that “In any other season it would have no meaning.”
That is precisely in keeping with hokku as I teach it. The strength of this verse lies in the bobbing, active motion of the piece of wood on the ripples and dips of the spring river, a motion expressing Yang energy as it manifests in the liveliness of spring, which is the season of growing Yang. That is precisely why the “restless tranquility” of the bobbing piece of wood would, as Blyth correctly stated, have no meaning in any other season.
By “no meaning” in any other season, Blyth meant that the bobbing energy of the floating peace of wood on the river is in harmony with the active energy of spring. In summer, when the Yang energy is much steadier and stronger, it would not have the same meaning, in fact it would lose its harmony with the setting, and the same could be said for the declining Yang of autumn and the strong Yin of winter.
This is a very subtle point, and that Blyth grasped it without ever openly discussing the principle behind it shows his remarkably intuitive understanding of the aesthetics of hokku.
Those who are regular readers here will recall past discussions of the principle of harmony in hokku, as well as of the principle of Yin and Yang. You may also have noted that this verse is a “standard,” hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.
A piece of wood Floating bobbity, bobbity; The spring river.
The setting is the wider environment in which something takes place. Here it is “the spring river.”
The subject within that setting is what the poem is “about.” Here it is “a piece of wood.”
The action is movement or change. Here it is “floating bobbity, bobbity.”
I have recently seen the statement made that hokku is not Nature verse — that instead, it is “time verse,” with its foundation in the four seasons.
The answer to that, of course, is that hokku is all of the above; it is “Nature” and “season” and “time” verse, but these things are not separate. The seasons are a part of Nature, Nature is a part of the seasons, and of course everything happens within time, and there is nothing more natural than that.
Perhaps the mistake that led to the odd notion that hokku is not “Nature verse” arose from a misunderstanding of what we mean by Nature — that by Nature in hokku we mean only the natural world at its wildest and most unspoiled, untouched by human hands. But Nature is everywhere, though of course more readily obvious in some places than in others. There is Nature in the back yard, there is Nature in the vacant lot, there is Nature in the countryside fields and forests, and there is Nature in relatively untouched wilderness.
There is even Nature in the fern sprout pushing its way out between the bricks or cracked concrete of a city building or sidewalk, though of course in concrete and asphalt cities we must look actively for Nature, something not necessary in semi-rural and rural settings.
One can write hokku about any degree of the presence of the natural world, from old-growth forests many miles from the nearest human habitation to the hedgerows and fields of farming areas, to what is happening in one’s neighborhood or flower or vegetable garden. One seldom finds hokku about “wild wilderness” simply because most people do not spend a great deal of time there. But of course those who do may write hokku about it.
As for hokku being “time verse,” well, it was always that. Transience is a fundamental aesthetic principle of hokku — the fact that all things are constantly transforming, arising and disappearing, whether it be a mayfly on a spring day or a mountain range in Australia worn down by aeons of weathering. As the old hymn has it,
Change and decay in all around I see….
That inevitable sense of transience and the passage of time and things in hokku is something it inherited from its spiritual roots, from Buddhism and from Daoism.
The problem then, in this misleading notion that hokku is “time verse” and not “Nature verse,” is that those holding that view are like the blind men examining the elephant; each knows a part, but none sees the whole. In hokku, Nature and the seasons and time are not separate things, but rather different aspects of the same reality.
The realm of hokku has seldom been untouched wilderness simply because most people do not generally experience Nature as untouched wilderness. The majority experience it with some human influence. Even Henry David Thoreau, America’s most famous “Nature” writer, is best known for his book Walden, which is named for Walden Pond, where he lived from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. And how does he first describe it?
“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts….”
Living on a pond in Concord, a mile from a neighbor, is hardly the unspoiled wilds of Patagonia. A teacher I once had used to say that Thoreau was never far from the sound of the Emersons’ dinner bell. That in no way diminishes his great contribution; it just approaches it realistically and without romantic illusions.
The Nature of hokku, historically, is more like Thoreau’s rural Walden than William Cullen Bryant’s
…continuous woods Where rolls the Oregon and hears no sound Save his own dashings…. [from Thanatopsis]
So hokku, traditionally, has been more the Shire than the Misty Mountains, more Walden Pond than trackless wilderness. its realm was “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature,” but usually manifesting as something intermediate, something between, on the one hand, the technological modern city that seemingly attempts to wipe out all traces of Nature, and on the other, untrammelled wilderness.
We see that intermediate realm in this spring verse by Shōha:
The wagon nears; A butterfly flits up From the grasses.
You will recall that in addition to hokku, there is another and visually very similar kind of verse called senryu.
How does one tell a senryu from a hokku? First, senryu does not have a seasonal setting. Second, while hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, senryu deals instead with the quirks of human psychology, usually in a satirical way that highlights human foolishness. I often say that senryu is the “evil twin” of hokku.
Here is an example:
The new bridge opens; Timidly they dirty it With their footsteps.
To understand this, one must know that it was written in the pre-automobile era of wooden bridges, not the concrete and asphalt kind we know today. So the point of the senryu is that it is opening day for a newly-constructed bridge. The wooden bridge is all fresh and clean and newly-finished wood. The first people to cross it do so hesitantly, timidly, because they sense there is something not quite right in dirtying the new bridge. The foolishness of this lies in the fact that bridges are made for walking.
Many of us feel the same odd sense that there is something not quite right in violating what is fresh and new. For example, I know of someone whose old slippers were completely worn out, but when new ones were delivered, he hesitated to wear them “because they are new.” It is the story of the wooden bridge all over again.
The point to remember in this is that while hokku deals in subtle states of mind created by experiencing events in Nature, in the context of a particular season, senryu is really only interested in poking fun at the quirks of human psychology.
That is very evident in another old senryu about someone who relies on another for food and shelter:
It is uncomfortable to eat, And painful not to eat; The dependent.
There were and are countless family (and some non-family) situations in which this happens. The brother who has no job and lives in the house of his sister and brother-in-law, for example, feels this when all are sitting around the dinner table. He is not comfortable in putting all the food he would like to eat on his own plate, and yet when he does not do so, he suffers at the sense of lack.
Writing senryu requires a different kind of mindset than that for writing hokku. One cannot help feeling that there is always something a little “mean” about the writer of senryu. Nonetheless, in reading them we frequently recognize the psychological peculiarites of ourselves and our friends, of humans in general.
In the late 1800s and first third of the 1900s, it was common for students in elementary and secondary schools to do “recitations,” a dramatic reading of a poem before a group, with the intent to make it have a strong effect on the listeners. Often these were recited as “show pieces” for school programs and other events. Poems chosen for this purpose were generally narrative poems, that is, poems that tell a story. So there were countless amateur performances of poems then popular among ordinary people, such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “The Highwayman,” and of course “Casabianca,” with its once well-known beginning:
The boy stood on the burning deck Whence all but he had fled; The flame that lit the battle’s wreck Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood, As born to rule the storm; A creature of heroic blood, A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on–he would not go Without his Father’s word; That father, faint in death below, His voice no longer heard.
Now such poems are generally considered very dated and “old-fashioned” and, to use an expressive American term, rather “corny.” You may even have heard the satire on the beginning of “Casabianca”:
The boy stood on the burning deck Eating peanuts by the peck. The deck grew hotter, His feet got toasted; But he kept on eating — He liked ’em roasted.
The “roasted” is of course referring to the peanuts the boy is eating.
All of this is just a lead-in to a narrative poem from 1912 that has held its interest over the years. It is in most of the standard anthologies. But it differs from other narrative poems in that it is a story not fully told, but only hinted at, and the effectiveness of the poem lies in its combination of the incomplete narrative with a very poetic use of words to create a mysterious atmosphere. So it is the atmosphere thus created that keeps this poem popular and interesting.
It was written by the British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), who composed many poems (like this one) that are works of romantic fantasy, intended to delight by evoking a mood. Today’s poem, which I shall discuss in parts, is called
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door; And his horse in the silence champed the grasses Of the forest’s ferny floor. And a bird flew up out of the turret, Above the Traveller’s head: And he smote upon the door again a second time; ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
The poem begins with a mystery. We are shown a traveller, but we do not know who he is, or where he is from, or why he has come. This immediately raises a questioning in the mind of the reader that continues throughout the poem; but, as we shall see, it is a question that is never answered. The poet increases the sense of mystery by setting the event at night, in the moonlight. The Traveller knocks on the door of a house (we are not told whose it is or where exactly it is) that seems abandoned. The only response to his knock is a bird that flies up out of a turret on the house. But there is no human response. It is so quiet that we hear the Traveller’s horse chomping on the grass “of the forest’s ferny floor.” That just adds to the mystery — a house in a forest? Is the house beginning to be overgrown by weeds and trees?
But no one descended to the Traveller; No head from the leaf-fringed sill Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes, Where he stood perplexed and still.
Notice the importance given what is NOT there in the poem:
No one descends — comes downstairs — to the Traveller.
No one looks out over a window sill (the ledge at the bottom of a window), now overgrown by leaves, into the Traveller’s grey eyes.
The Traveller stands there in the silence, puzzled by the absence of a response.
But now we find what the poem is really about. It is a ghost story:
But only a host of phantom listeners That dwelt in the lone house then Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight To that voice from the world of men: Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair, That goes down to the empty hall, Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken By the lonely Traveller’s call.
There are beings in the silent, moonlit house, but they are not the living; they are phantoms — ghosts — spirits of the dead. The poet tells us there is a “host,” a large number of them. And they listen in the quiet shadows, pierced here and there by moonlight, to the Traveller’s “voice from the world of men,” that is, to a voice from the world of the living. The dead hear the voice of the living Traveller, as they throng the dark stairway with faint moonbeams falling on it, the stairway that goes down to an empty hall. They listen in the “air stirred and shaken” by the “lonely Traveller’s call.” The noise of his knocking and the sound of his call disturb the deathly silence in the house.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness, Their stillness answering his cry, While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf, ‘Neath the starred and leafy sky; For he suddenly smote on the door, even Louder, and lifted his head:— ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered, That I kept my word,’ he said.
In the silence, in the absence of any answer to his loud knocking or to his call, the Traveller somehow senses there are beings inside the house, but that there is something strange and uncanny about them. He can feel their presence, even though all is so still that the only motion and sound he notices is that of his horse still biting off and chewing the dark grasses.
The voice of the Traveller reverberates loudly in the stillness as he raises his head and calls out to whoever — whatever — is inside, asks the strange residents to “Tell them I came,” to tell them “That I kept my word.” Obviously there is a much larger unspoken story here, and the poet is giving us only a hint of it, which makes it all the more mysterious.
Never the least stir made the listeners, Though every word he spake Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house From the one man left awake:
The listeners — the phantoms in the house, make not the slightest motion or response, even though every word the traveller speaks echoes his words through the shadows of the house, words from “the one man left awake.” That means “the one man left alive.” Left alive? One left alive of many now dead? What is the larger tale the poet is not telling us? Why is the Traveller the only one left alive? What is his connection to this house and those who once lived there? Why do ghosts — and so many of them — remain in the abandoned house?
All we have are these unanswered questions, the silence, the moonlight.
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup, And the sound of iron on stone, And how the silence surged softly backward, When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The Traveller realizes there is nothing more he can do. He had tried to fulfill some important, past promise, for some unexplained purpose, but the response is only silence. Too much time has passed. But the phantoms inside the shadowed house, are aware of everything. They hear his foot touch the stirrup of the horse when he mounts it to leave. They hear the sound of the iron horsehoes on stone cobbles as the horse turns to go with its rider. And the phantoms hear
…how the silence surged softly backward, When the plunging hoofs were gone.
The alliteration — the repeated “s” sounds — are like a last whisper, replaced by the heavy silence that surges back like a wave to replace the temporary disturbance, when the last sound of the horse’s pounding hoofs (“plunging hoofs”) fades away.
The overall effect of the poem is to make us deeply feel a rather “spooky” but nonetheless strangely beautiful mystery in all this. Who is the Traveller? What promise had he made, and to whom, and why? And what happened in the intervening years, leaving only ghosts within an abandoned and decaying house in a forest? None of this is explained, and it leaves us wondering in the silent moonlight, which is exactly what the poet intended, and why the poem is so successful that it is still read today.
As you can see, there is not a great deal to this poem, nothing really profound or intellectual. There is nothing difficult to understand. It is just a mood, an atmosphere, a “poem of the imagination,” and the poet’s chief tool in creating that atmosphere is his lack of explanation, his refusal to tell us more. It is a poem created out of shadows and moonbeams and spider webs, a word picture of deep silence and stillness troubled only momentarily by sound and movement, like a small pebble tossed into a quiet, dark well.
It is not surprising that Walter de la Mare, in addition to his poetry, wrote a few ghost stories, though nothing much remembered today. But if you like an occasional movie with a shivers-up-the-spine feeling somewhat similar to this poem, you would probably enjoy the film “The Others,” which came out in 2001.
There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.
There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:
Osoki hi no tsumorite tōki mukashi kana Long day ‘s accumulating far past kana
The long days Accumulate; The distant past.
The point of the verse is this:
In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past. As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time. It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.
The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future. Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line? Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.
Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:
Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!
His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper. He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.” That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.
This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”
Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:
Sunahama ni ashiato nagaki haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on footsteps long spring-day kana
On the sandy beach, A long line of footsteps; The spring day.
The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight. I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.
Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:
On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.
In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.
If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.
Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them. That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world. That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.