A LEADING DOG: DETERMINING QUALITY IN HOKKU

Context makes a huge difference in hokku, even if one uses the same subject.

Let’s talk about dogs.

Issa wrote two hokku — one a summer hokku, one autumn — in which a dog is leading someone somewhere.  But one is a rather mediocre hokku, while the other is quite good.

Here they are.  First, summer:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

When issa says “hermitage dog,” he really just means the dog from his own poor little dwelling.

The verse lacks unity and harmony.  In anyone educated in hokku, there will be the question as to what relationship exists between the dog going ahead, and the looking for a place to view fireflies?  The answer is that there is no apparent relationship, or an unclear relationship, or at least none that arouses a sufficiently suggestive feeling in a reader that might make this a worthwhile verse.

Now let’s look at an autumn verse by the same author, also with a leading/guiding dog:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

That is Blyth’s translation, and it can hardly be bettered.  In this there is a world of difference from the first example.  It is the season of autumn, the time of weakening Yin forces, of Nature dying and returning to the root.  That is in harmony not only with the graves, but also with the old dog himself.  And as I have said before about this particular verse, we have the feeling that the old dog has made this trip to the graves with the family many times in many years, and that gives us the feeling of the passage of time, of aging.  All of this gives the verse depth, and that is why it is much superior to the “firefly viewing” example, which seems quite flat and uninteresting:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

Now if Issa had said instead for his summer hokku something like:

Letting the dog
Choose the way;
Firefly viewing.

That would make at least some improvement.  It would indicate that, like the haphazard appearance of the lights of fireflies, the writer is in keeping with that randomness, letting the dog choose which way to go, while the writer follows after, accepting whatever comes.

No doubt there are many other ways one might improve on Issa’s summer verse, but my point here is just to show how one judges quality in a hokku.  As you can see, suggestiveness and a feeling of unity are good guides.  Without these, a hokku tends to be flat and tasteless.

David

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