A POEM FOR “JUNETEENTH.”

 

June 19th was the day in 1865 when — quite belatedly — news of the emancipation of the slaves finally reached the people of African descent in Texas — the last state still having slavery — and was proclaimed at Galveston.  It became an annual commemoration and celebration given the colloquial name “Juneteenth.”

It has taken a long, long time for this to reach the consciousness of the rest of America, but now that it has, perhaps it will be on its way to acceptance as a national holiday and celebration.

There can hardly be a better poem for it than this one by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  It requires no lengthy explanation beyond saying that when Hughes asks for America to be America again, he is asking for the realization of the best of American ideals, not a return to some supposedly glorious, idyllic past — because for African Americans, “poor whites,” and Native Americans, those ideals have yet to be fully realized.  As Hughes interjects in the poem, “America never was America to me.”  It is to those ideals that Hughes exhorts all Americans to return, to create a better and more equitable future for all.  He expresses the belief through his oath — still not fully realized in his lifetime — that “America will be.”

LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

To “make America again” means to reshape it to fit the highest, most noble ideals of liberty and equality.  That is a goal to which people of all countries may aspire.

 

David

BLUE, WHITE, AND GOLD

This pure white flower with the golden center,  growing against today’s blue summer sky, is the rather amazing Matilija Poppy.  It is native to the Matilija Wilderness in southern California, as well as other relatively dry areas in southern California and nearby Baja California.

Oddly enough, I first encountered it in a large vacant lot here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  This region is far wetter and often colder in winter than its home territory.  It had been established in that lot for many long years, and had grown many new plants there from sending out rhizomes.

The surprising thing is not only that it grows vigorously well out of its native region, but also that the flowers are the size of saucers, and the example I have in my garden (the one shown here) is about eight feet high.

The catch, though, is that it is very difficult to grow from seed.  The trick seems to be burning pine needles over them.  That appears to imitate the wildfires that periodically and naturally sweep through its native habitat.

The much easier method of propagation is to use root (rhizome) cuttings, but it can be very touchy about being transplanted, so one must treat the cuttings and new plants with care at first.  It is often available in nurseries — at least in the western coastal states, and buying it that way is easiest of all.  Once established, it does very well.

In my region it tends to die back in cold winters, but sprouts energetically again in the spring.

The name Matilija (pronounced muh-TIL-i-hah), it is said, comes originally from that of Matâ’ilha, a Native American Chumash village.  The scientific name of the plant — Romney coulteri — combines the “Romney” from the name of the Irish astronomer Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), with that of Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843), an Irish botanist who first came across the plant while collecting botanical specimens in in 1831-32.

 

 

 

 

BLUNTING THE PEARS

Today we will look at a poem by the Imagist poetess known as H. D. — which she preferred to her more prosaic name, Hilda Doolittle.

Born in 1886, she had a strong interest in expressing herself through what she considered an ancient Greek aesthetic, which was also the case with another noted female of the time, the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).  While Duncan expressed her concept of Greek influence through dance, H. D. used poetry.

When reading H. D. through her earlier poems, one always has the feeling she is trying to write as though she were an ancient Greek, strongly influenced by poems of the Greek poetess Sappho, from the isle of Lesbos.  The earlier poems of H.D. always remind me of the 19th-early 20th century notion of old Greek marble statues and columns — carefully chiselled, pure and white and hard.  But that, of course is a misunderstanding, because as we now know, such statues and temples were originally colorfully painted.

Still, H.D. is often interesting in her sparse aesthetic.
HildaDoolittle

Here is part II of her “Garden” sequence.  This second part is generally better known than the first, probably because it is less obscure and consequently more accessible.  It is commonly titled:

HEAT
O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 
Fruit cannot drop through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes. 
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

The setting of the poem is a very hot and still day — the stillness making the heat even more unbearable. In this discomfort, the poetess invokes the wind (much as an ancient Greek would call upon a god or goddess). In doing so, she treats the heat as a material thing with some solidity.

The poem  has essentially three parts:

In the first part, she speaks of heat as though it were cloth.  She uses the word “rend” (meaning “tear apart”) twice:

…rend open the heat
…rend it to tatters

And she uses “cut”:

… cut apart the heat

Then in the second part, she expresses the solidity of the heat like this:

Fruit cannot drop through this thick air
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes

She is giving her psychological impression of the heat; that it is so thick fruit cannot fall down through it.  Instead, the heat “presses up and blunts the points of pears” — that is, it flattens the bottoms of the pears.  And it presses in and “rounds the grapes,” pressing the softer fruit into small, round globes.

That is of course all fanciful, but it expresses her perception of the heat as having volume and force.

In the third and last part, she uses the word “cut” again, but this time she is using the image of a plough cutting through soil, instead of the tearing and cutting of cloth.  She asks the wind to

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

That again gives the heat a sense of solidity.

In short, the poem expresses the discomfort of a hot and airless summer day, when one longs for a cool breeze to cut through and disperse the oppressive heat.  H.D. does this with few and simple words, and a bit of imagination.

I would like to add a word about nomenclature.  You perhaps noticed (though more likely if you are younger than older) that I used the word “poetess” for a female poet, which has long been standard practice in English.  In recent years however, there has been a movement toward using the formerly masculine-only noun “poet” for both male and female, just as in the theater it is now common to hear the word “actor” applied to females as well as males.

I understand the thinking behind this.  It stems from a sense that the use of “poetess” or “actress” somehow diminishes the work of the female, placing it in a separate category that may be viewed as less in dignity or skill.  That is something added by culture, however, not something inherent in the words.

I have used “poetess” here not with any sense of difference in quality or standing, but simply because to me it is more expressive and specific when referring to a female writer of poetry, just as “poet” does the same job for a male.  I like knowing when a person is male or female, because it evokes a more specific image in the mind.  I know there are today those who like to avoid gender titles, and if that is their preference, that is fine — as long as it does not become a case of invoking the “word police” for those with different preferences, and as long as no disrespect to an individual is intended.

There are some languages in which traditionally the distinction we have in English between “him” and “her” is absent.  That is the case in Persian.  When reading Persian classical poetry, there is no “him,” no “her,” only the word “u” (pronounced “oo”).  Unless there is something in the context that specifically indicates this “u” is a male or female, we simply cannot tell if a fellow was writing about his love for another male or for a female.  No doubt that could prove convenient in repressive times and places.

Similarly, in Chinese the word “” can signify either a male or a female — a “he” or a “she.” Modern Chinese has changed that a bit in reading and writing (though not in speaking) by adding a second character to the writing system that is pronounced the same, but nonetheless is understood to signify a female — using a different character than that used for the male “tā” ().  It was done by simply removing the “man” radical from the left side and replacing it with the “woman” character ().

The thing I would like you to remember is that when I use “poetess” or “actress,” or similar gender-specific words, it is because I like their specificity, and for no other reason.  But if a particular poetess tells me she prefers to be called a “poet,” or a certain actress prefers “actor,” as her title, then I am happy to oblige.

David

 

NOW YOU CAN TRANSLATE POSTINGS HERE

Just a “housekeeping” note.

I want to let readers here whose first language is not English know that I have added a Google Translation function on the right side of the page.  That way readers can get an approximate translation of my postings in their preferred languages.  Google Translate is not at all perfect, but it is a big improvement over nothing.

(Image by Frits Ahlenfeldt on Public Domain Pictures Net)

 

David

WHITE CLOUDS PASSING

Kwanrai (1748-1817) wrote this early summer hokku — a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  I was only able to find the transliteration of the original:

Shira-gumo no sora yuku keshi no sakaru kana
White cloud  ‘s   sky  goes  poppy ‘s  blooming kana

In my translation:

A sky
Of white clouds passing;
Blooming poppies.

It is very simple — almost just an illustration, were it not for the movement of the clouds.  There is a similarity of feeling between the passing evanescent clouds and the frail impermanence of the poppy flowers.

Much in this verse depends on the perceived color of the poppies.  If they were white, they would reflect the whiteness of the clouds; if red or purple, there would be a strong contrast.  In the absence of knowing, it is easy to fill in whatever poppies commonly bloom in our individual regions at this time of year.  In my little garden, it would be either the gold of California poppies — which Steinbeck described in East of Eden as “of a burning color  — not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies”; or it might be the delicate orange or yellow of Spanish poppies — Papaver atlanticum.  In Kwanrai’s time and place they would likely have been Papaver somniferum — opium poppies, which can be anything from white to pink to red to deep purple.

Kwanrai’s hokku consists of two elements placed together.  Here they are sky and earth — the passing white clouds far above, and blooming poppies below.  It is a simple way to write, but often not successful if there is no perceived link or harmony between the two elements.

Shiki also made a two-element summer verse, this time linking earth and water:

Roku-gatsu no umi miyuru nari tera no zō
六         月    の    海   見ゆる なり    寺   の

Sixth  moon ‘s    sea  seen      is  temple’s   images.

The June sea
is seen;
The temple images.

It does not read well that way, which is why Blyth made a more interpretive translation:

The temple Buddhas;
In the distance,
The June sea.

Though not a literal translation, in English Blyth’s rendering is a distinct improvement on the original.  Blyth has clarified that the images are Buddha images in a Buddhist temple, and that makes us think of the shadowed interior of a temple at the coast.  From it, the glittering sea of summer can be seen in the distance —  Blyth has added the word — so we have the contrast of the unmoving Buddha images in the still, shadowy temple with the bright, ever-moving sea in the distance, as well as the contrast of the temple above and the sea below.

 

David

 

THE EFFECT ON THE READER

In a previous posting, I mentioned a third category of hokku — one I do not teach or advocate because it takes us too far away from reality.  It consists of hokku with not just the bit of thinking we find in shinku — but rather with excessive thinking, imagination or fantasy.  We can call this category soku, from a reading of the character — meaning “think,” combined with ku, meaning “verse.”  In English usage we drop the double ō and just call it soku.

But what about verses written from the imagination that seem quite faithful to reality?  Well, those verses are somewhat like the old Chinese ink paintings that were done after one familiarized one’s self with the characteristics of natural landscapes to the extent that one could make a painting that seemed to express the essence of the natural world.  In short, though they are hokku written from the imagination, the practical effect is the same as if they were written from direct experience.  That is because the writer has absorbed memories from past experiences so well that a new verse created from combining elements of those memories has the effect of a verse written from reality.

Now obviously — if such a verse is suitably effective — the writer alone is likely to know if it was written from memories plus imagination, or if it was written from immediate direct experience.  The key here is that it must show no trace of artificiality or “phoniness.”

With many old Japanese hokku, we simply cannot tell if they were written from direct experience or from an accumulation of memories mixed with a bit of imagination.  A great many are the latter.  Nonetheless, if such a verse — whether old or new — reads and feels like reality in English, we treat it as a daoku — an objective hokku — because that is its effect on the reader.

Here is an example of such a verse:

(Summer)

Opening a window
In the stuffy attic;
The wind from the sea.

Now I have experienced stuffy attics and rooms, and the effect of opening a window; and I have experienced the wind from the sea.  But I do not recall ever experiencing them all together.  Nonetheless, because of my memories of each element, I can put them together and feel the oppressive summer heat in the attic and the sense the refreshing gust of coolness from the sea when the window is opened.

But, as I have said, I did not have the precise experience of the entire verse from direct experience.  And I can tell you exactly what gave rise to my writing it.  It was seeing a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Wind from the Sea”:

(National Gallery)

I do not advocate making a habit of writing in this manner, because I favor direct experience — but it does no harm if the urge strikes you now and then, and if the realism of the resulting verse is strong enough for it to be read and felt as a daoku (objective hokku).

 

David

 

IN THE WATER JUG

A verse by Shiki as a daoku in English:

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨

water jug   at   frog     floating   is     fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

It is primarily a visual verse that gives us a very harmonious watery feeling.  Water in the jug, water in the rain falling steadily, and the frog connecting them both.

You have probably noticed that in hokku — whether as daoku or shinku — we do not follow any strict syllabic count.  That fits English much better than trying to manipulate it to the very different structure of old Japanese hokku.  It also prevents needless “padding” to fill out a line when composing.  Many old Japanese hokku had a perfunctory kana at the end — a word which frequently seems added only to fill out the standard number of phonetic units (seventeen in Japanese).  Shiki often did that, but fortunately it did not happen in this verse.

There is something very refreshing about rain in May.  It has a feeling quite different than that of rain in autumn or in winter.

 

David

ALL THE WHITE PAPERS

There has been a lot of wind where I live the past few days as the weather has warmed, so this summer verse (a daoku in English) by Shiki seems appropriate:

Natsu-arashi kijō no haku-shi tobi-tsukusu
   夏        嵐     机上 の 白       飛び      盡す
Summer windstorm desk on ‘s white papers fly-exhaust

A summer windstorm;
All the white papers
Fly off the desk.

Unlike most of Shiki’s verses, which often tend toward illustration, this one has strong sensation in the sudden gust of wind and all the white papers on the desk confusedly flying here and there.  There is a kind of harmony between the whiteness of the papers and the wind that becomes visible in their flying about.

 

David

NIGHT WATER

A summer hokku by Issa:

Suzushisa ya yo mizu no kakaru ido no oto
涼    しさ  や  夜   水    の かかる 井戸の  音
Coolness ya night water ‘s pour well ‘s sound.

Coolness;
By night the sound of water
Pouring into the well.

It is a bit vague about the water, however, so R. H. Blyth added admirable clarity in his translation:

The coolness
Of the sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

But we can simplify it by restoring the pause that should be there in hokku (the ya in Japanese — here the punctuation separating the two parts in daoku) while keeping that clarity:

Coolness;
The sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

It is an old-fashioned well with a well bucket.  When the bucket full of water is pulled up, some of it spills over and falls back into the dark depths of the well.  The sound of that water falling into the unseen water below, combined with the surrounding darkness of the summer night, gives a deep sense of coolness.

From a Yin-Yang perspective, we have the yin of the falling water reflected in the yin of the night — and vice versa.  Coolness is yin, water is yin, night is yin — and that is why in the heat of summer, this is a very refreshing daoku (objective hokku) in English.

 

WHAT JOY!

A summer hokku by Buson — one of his best because of its sensory nature:

Natsu kawa wo kosu ureshisa yo te ni zōri
夏          河     を   越すうれしさよ 手 に  草履
Summer river wo cross joy yo hand in sandals

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

This simple verse is just a cry of happiness at the pleasant sensory experience of crossing a river barefoot in summer, with the feeling of the cooling water on the legs, and the sun shining brightly.

It is an expression of the use of contrast so common in summer hokku, with the contraries of heat and coolness — the Yang of the summer sun and heat, and the Yin of the coolness of the river water.  We call this kind of thing “harmony of contrast,” because even though it uses opposites, there is still a sense of harmony in their combination.

 

David

BASHŌ OVERDOES IT

Yes, Bashō sometimes wrote hokku with too much “thinking” — verses classified here as soku.

Here is an example — a summer verse:

Inazumi ni satora-nu hito no tattosa yo
稲    妻    に  悟ら   ぬ    人  の   貴   さ よ
Lightning at satori -not person ‘s venerableness y0

This is very tricky to translate into English because of the apparently ironic use of the words satora-nu — which can mean both someone who has not attained satori —  enlightenment, and someone who does not talk like he has attained.  That is why I have translated it very loosely (but I think more accurately) as:

At the lightning,
How venerable the person
Who does not talk Zen.

What Bashō intended was praise of those who follow the dictum of the Daoist philospher Lao-zi:  “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”  He sees the person who does not pretend to spiritual wisdom in Zen Buddhism that he does not really have as venerable — worthy of honor and respect.

Why might someone start talking of Zen or Buddhist philosophy on seeing lightning?  To answer that, we need only look to the Diamond Sutra.  Here is a popular rendering of the relevant portion in verse:

So should you see all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

R.H. Blyth translates the verse without explanation, and one reading his translation might easily misunderstand what Bashō intended:

How admirable
He who thinks not “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning flash.

In that rendering, the interpretation becomes, “How admirable is the person who can see a flash of lightning without thinking how quickly life passes.”  Seen that way, the person is just in the moment — seeing the flash of lightning without adding his “thinking” to it — without adding the seeing of it as a symbol of human transience.

Oddly enough, though Blyth’s translation does not seem to reflect Bashō’s original intent, the person honored in it is more in keeping with the spirit of daoku:  he has experience without adding interpretation.  Nonetheless the verse as a whole still says too much — has too much thinking added by Bashō to be daoku, no matter which version one prefers.

In writing hokku in English — whether as daoku (objective hokku) or shinku (hokku with minimal thinking added) we must also know what not to do — and Bashō here offers a good example of what not to do.

 

David

FIFTH-MONTH RAINS

Sampū (1647-1732) composed this summer verse:

Samidare ni kawazu no oyogu toguchi kana
五 月  雨  に      蛙      の およぐ  戸口        哉
Fifth moon rain at frog ‘s swimming door kana

In the May rains,
Frogs are swimming
Right at the door.

This verse emphasizes the heaviness of the summer rain, which overspills the ponds and brings frogs swimming right up to the door.  It is a very watery-feeling verse.

Though the Fifth month/moon would be May in the modern calendar, by the old Japanese calendar it extended into June — which was a time of heavy summer rains in Japan — so one could translate the first line “In the June rains,” or even “In the summer rains.”

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, this verse is more appropriate for May, and currently we are having intermittent showers from day to day — some of them quite heavy.  It makes the vegetation grow very lush.

Blyth appropriately connects this verse with another and quite good example by Shiki (1867-1902) that we have already seen (in my translation) — both of them daoku in English):

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨
water jug   at    frog   floating is  fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

This feeling of “water, water, everywhere” — and with it, frogs — has somewhat the feeling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s child’s verse:

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Notice that in both “Fifth month rain” verses, we find only complete objectivity.  There is no “thinking,” by the writers added, no commentary, no interpretation.  That is pure daoku (objective hokku).

That objectivity — as well as the close connection with Nature — has often disappeared entirely in many verses produced by the modern haiku movement, which has chosen to go a different way.  In my view, much was lost by that choice

David

QUACKING IN ENGLISH

A  summer hokku by Kikaku, which makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ya ie wo megurite naku ahiru
夕立      や 家 を  めぐりて  く あひる
Sudden-shower ya house wo circle crying ducks

A sudden shower;
The ducks run quacking
Around the house.

It is a very simple, almost childlike verse, but effective nonetheless, because we feel the effect of the sudden rain in the startled excitement of the ducks, expressed in their equally sudden running and quacking around the house.

We could describe this as a verse of the common setting/subject/action format, which works well in a great many daoku:

Setting:  A sudden shower
Subject:  The ducks
Action:  Run quacking around the house

Of course this is just a handy formula we can use in writing new verses, and it is a good tool if we do not apply it too strictly.  As we see in this verse, there is really action not only in the running and quacking of the ducks, but also in the sudden shower.

You may recall that action is often very helpful in hokku, giving life to what otherwise might be just a still “illustration.”  So keep in mind while composing that if a verse seems too passive and dull, it is often because it lacks something moving or changing.

Also, keep in mind the importance of the pause that separates the two parts of the daoku.  In the Japanese original of this verse it is indicated by the particle ya.  In our daoku translation, it is indicated by the semicolon after shower:

A sudden shower;

That gives us the meditative pause so essential to the verse.

And of course it is easy to see why this hokku by Kikaku makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  There is no “thinking” added to it by the writer, no added commentary or interpretation.  Kikaku just presents the event, and lets us experience the sudden shower, and the excited running and quacking of the ducks.

It is worth mentioning that in some respects, the English language is more expressive than the Japanese in the writing of hokku.  An example is the word naku used in Kikaku’s verse.  It can be used for everything from the croaking of frogs to the singing of birds to the crow of a rooster.  But English is much more specific in distinguishing the various cries, which is why we can onomatopoetically speak of the “quacking” of the ducks, in imitation of the sound they make.

 

David

 

A WOMAN ALONE

Hokku is very good at evoking subtle psychological states through events in Nature.  An example is this summer verse by Kikaku (1661-1707) — a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ni hitori soto miru onna kana
夕立       に ひとり 外   見る    女    かな
Summer-shower at alone outside looks woman kana

The summer shower;
A woman alone,
Gazing outside.

It evokes that delicate feeling of solitary sadness that the Japanese call sabishii, and it is done without the writer adding any of his own thinking or commentary.  As Blyth says, this hokku “requires us to be as thought-less as the rain.”  That is a real insight into the nature of daoku — objective hokku:  that thought-less-ness — that complete absence of thinking — which makes such verses so pure and satisfying.

It is remarkably simple:  a sudden summer shower, and a woman inside — all alone — looking steadily out into the falling rain.  It is so brief in content that Kikaku ended it with that all-purpose and nearly meaningless padding word — kana — that we find so often ending the verses of Shiki.  Of course in English-language daoku, we do not have to fill out a standard number of phonetic units, so we are free of needless padding in composing.

If we remove the grammatically-necessary articles “the” and “a,” that leaves us with these few elements:

Summer shower
Woman alone
Gazing outside

But of course the articles are required for normal English, and in hokku we should use normal English.

Again in this verse, we may apply the “setting/subject/action” model, like this:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  A woman alone
Action:  Gazing outside

It is really quite remarkable how very little is required for a good hokku — but selecting the right elements is all-important.  In this hokku we feel the harmony between the summer shower and the woman alone gazing out into it.  Hokku should always have this sense of harmony among its elements.  It should not be random things thrown together with no relation among them.  This close harmony between the woman and the rain illustrates what is meant when we say that hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

In spite of being over three hundred years old, it is a verse that could have been written yesterday, and has lost none of its effectiveness.

 

David

BRIEF DREAMS

A summer hokku by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya hakanaki yume wo natsu no tsuki
蛸        壺   や   はかなき   夢    を     夏    の    月
Octopus-pots ya transient dreams wo summer’s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses that do not travel well, because one has to know a bit of Japanese culture and the background of the verse in order to understand it.

It is said that Bashō composed this hokku while on a boat in Akashi Bay, southwest of Kobe, Japan.  It is a place traditionally noted for seafood, and for octopus in particular.  And summer is the height of the octopus-catching season.

The method used for catching octopus was very simple.  The fisherman would go out in his boat, and lower a weighted rope into the water.  Pottery jars were tied to the rope at intervals.  When an octopus saw such a submerged jar on the sea floor, it would view it as a shelter, and would crawl inside.

The pots were left in the water overnight, with their location marked by a buoy or float.  Very early in the morning, the fisherman would return and pull up the pots, catching any octopi that had spent the night in them.

That is why some translate the first line of this verse as “octopus traps” instead of literally as “octopus pots,” but in doing so, one misses seeing the pottery jars, and may instead imagine some kind of cage — at least without the background explanation.

We can tell from the words “brief dreams” that this is not a daoku — not an objective hokku.  Bashō is adding his imagination, supposing the octopus to be dreaming in the pot — dreams all too soon cut short when the fisherman hauls up the pots.  He is adding his interpretation to the scene.

Because of this, the verse is frequently applied to human life; we are all going about the emotional ups and downs of daily existence, accumulating objects, seeking fame or fortune or romance, not realizing the trap we are dreaming in — and how soon it is all to end.  But whatever Bashō’s intentions with this verse, hokku should not be openly metaphorical — not hokku at its best.

That is why it is very important to know the difference between daoku — objective hokku that do not have any thinking, interpretation, or imagination added by the writer — and those verses with a little or a lot of “thinking” added.

 

David

DAOKU IS SIMPLE

Writing daoku (objective hokku) in English is really very simple.

First, you need an experience involving Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  And for that, of course you need a connection to the natural world.  One cannot expect to sit in a city apartment all the time and still write daoku, because there is no connection with Nature in such a place.

That means to write daoku, one must get out and connect with Nature, whether in a home garden, a park, or a trail through a field or forest, or a place by a stream, a pond, a river, the seashore, and so on.  You get the idea.

Next, do not think of daoku as “poetry.”  Do not think of yourself as a “poet.”

Think of daoku as recording an experience of the senses —  whether seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, smelling, or a combination of any of these.  But it is not just any experience.  It has to be one that for some inexplicable reason, we feel to be significant.  If someone asks us why it is significant, we cannot say —  and that is why it is expressed in the simple words of daoku.   The daoku evokes the experience, and with that comes the feeling of a significance beyond the words.

In daoku the words should be the means of transmitting the experience.  And to keep that experience pure and strong, the writer should not add any of his or her own thinking about the experience.  Daoku should just transmit the experience, free of any commentary or interpretation or elaboration by the writer.

When we write such a verse in English — or translate an old Japanese hokku with those characteristics into English — the result is a daoku — an objective hokku.

Here is a hokku in transliterated Japanese:

Hirou mono mina ikite iru shiohi kana

And here is the daoku it becomes in English:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving!

Chiyo is walking along the beach at low tide.  She reaches down to pick up some seemingly lifeless shells, but is surprised to feel and see them moving in her hand; they are not dead, but alive.

Now as you can see, all that the writer needed to do was to put that experience into simple words.  In English, we divide the result into three lines consisting of two parts — one longer, one shorter, and those two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  Each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

It is just that easy.

Of course there are some things to keep in mind.  A hokku is not just a random assemblage of things.  We should feel a relationship among the elements of a hokku, just as the “moving things” in Chiyo-ni’s verse relate to the beach at low tide.  And every hokku as daoku is set within the context of a particular season, which we add as a heading in parentheses, so it will be transmitted to the reader.

Hokku — and consequently daoku — should be written and read within the appropriate season, which keeps us in harmony with the seasons and their changes.  The exception is that when learning, examples out of the appropriate season may be used.

It is also helpful to write daoku that show us something experienced in a new way, from a different perspective.  That helps to keep the experience fresh and new.  And never forget that feeling of un-speak-able significance.  If a daoku is not felt to have that significance, it tends to be just uninteresting and mediocre.

Remember to keep daoku brief.  In English there is no fixed number of required syllables.  Use ordinary, everyday words.  Above all, transmit the experience, not your thoughts about the experience.

 

David

NO MORE ADS!

Dear HOKKU subscribers and visitors —

I have been writing on this WordPress site for many years now.  When it began — and for years afterward — it was wonderfully free of advertising.  Recently a great many distasteful ads — which I have not chosen and do not benefit from in any way — have been appearing on my site due to a change in WordPress policy.  I find this so strongly objectionable that, though my blog has been without monetary cost to me all these years, I have decided to pay to “upgrade” my site and thus make it again free of such advertising.  My site has never had commercial intent, and I want to keep it that way for readers as long as I am writing here.

Due to the added expense of keeping my WordPress sites ad free, I will be discontinuing my Hokku Forest site — which was specifically for hokku, daoku, etc., and will again deal with that subject on the HOKKU site from time to time, as I did previously.

Some of you may know that I also have the (surprisingly if weirdly popular) Icons and Their Interpretation site, which I shall also continue on an upgraded, advertising-free basis.

I am looking forward to my readers once more  being able to come to my sites without any bother from distracting, undesirable, and irrelevant advertising.

 

David

 

 

WALLS

Some poems of Robert Frost lend themselves well to allegorical interpretation, though that was not always the intent of the poet.  The following poem is one often quoted in that regard.

This poem is set in the New England countryside, where stone walls are common as separators of one property from another.

I will divide it into segments for ease of explanation.

MENDING WALL

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frost says there is something in Nature that does not like walls, something that shows that dislike by causing a swell in the ground beneath the wall, caused by the freezing and expansion of moisture in the soil.  In saying this, Frost gives Nature a personality.  The swell beneath the wall raises the rock wall above it, causing boulders to topple, leaving a hole in the wall so large that even two men could walk through it side by side.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.

Another way stone walls are damaged is not by Nature, but by hunters chasing after a rabbit.  The rabbit will hide in a space between the stones in the wall, and to get him out, the hunters will take the wall apart in that place, not leaving one stone on another.  Frost says they do so “to please the yelping dogs,” who want to get at the rabbit.

…The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

Frost adds that as for the gaps he is talking about — the further evidence that something in Nature does not like walls — nobody seems to see the holes in the wall made, or hear them made.  Nonetheless, in the spring, when it is time to do the yearly mending of the stone walls — those mysterious gaps are always found.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

He tells his neighbor who lives beyond the hill know about the gaps in the wall, and they pick a day and meet at the wall, walking along it and repairing the gaps by replacing the stones — they “set the wall between us once again,” closing holes where one might walk through, and making the stone wall a firm and strong barrier again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

As they work along the wall, each walks on his own side of it — on his own property.  Each man picks up and replaces the boulders that have fallen on his own side.  Some of the stones are shaped like loaves of bread, which are easy to place; but some are so close to ball-shaped that Frost says playfully, “We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’  In other words, they just re-place the ball-like stones and hope they will stay in place as the men move on down the wall — though sometimes the round stones do not remain where they should.

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

Handling the stones makes the fingers of the men rough.  Frost sees it as a basic kind of outdoor game, one man on one side, one man on the other, each moving at his own speed and skill.  Nothing more important, just another country chore to be done.

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

The poet thinks there should be some purpose to a wall, and where this wall is, it is not needed.  His neighbor’s side has pine trees, and the poet’s side has an apple orchard.  He tries to make the point that the wall is not necessary by telling his neighbor that the apple trees will never cross the property line and eat the pine cones beneath the neighbor’s pine trees.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

The neighbor, however, is traditional and conservative, and repeats a saying he has likely always heard:  ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’  By this is generally meant that a good fence will keep neighbors from overstepping their bounds, without someone having to remind them — and that makes less likelihood of trouble between neighbors.

But spring is making the poet feel mischievous, and he says that he would like to put a new notion in his neighbor’s conservative head by making him think:  Why do good fences make good neighbors?  Isn’t that for farms that have cows, to keep one farmer’s cows out of a neighbor farmer’s meadows and gardens?  But in this case, neither neighbor owns cows.  So why is the wall even needed?  And he wants to tell his neighbor,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

That is what he would like his neighbor to think about.  Before building a wall, the poet would use reason and common sense, and ask what the result would be — he would want to first know exactly what he was walling in (keeping to himself) or walling out (excluding).  And he adds, he would want to know if building the wall would be likely to offend someone.  This is the part of the poem most likely to be quoted in many different circumstances.  Before we build walls between ourselves and other people — whether actual walls such as the “border wall” proposed between Mexico and the United States — or psychological walls, such as excluding people in one way or another from our lives or institutions — we should think carefully about why we are doing it, whether it is really a good idea, and whether we are likely to cause offense to others by it.

And now the poet finishes the notion he would like to place in his neighbor’s hard head,  returning to his original, beginning statement:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.

He wants his neighbor to see that there is something in Nature that does not like — that is opposed to and works against — walls, and wants them down.  The poet could use the term “Elves,” to personify that mysterious anti-wall force in Nature, but he knows it is not actual elves, and he would rather the neighbor might come to  the realization of that anti-wall force for himself.

Now the poet ponders his tradition-bound neighbor as he watches him mending the wall:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

The poet looks at his conservative neighbor carrying a stone in each hand to place on the wall, and says he is like “an old stone-age savage armed.”  Frost sees him as someone who is primitive in mind and driven by tradition and belief rather than reason and common sense.  He sees the neighbor moving “in darkness” — not just the darkness of the woods, or the darkness of the shade of trees, but the darkness of the absence of rational thinking — the lack of the ability to think new and different thoughts.  But the neighbor will not use his head or his heart, and will not violate the saying he heard from his father:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”  He is like a fundamentalist to whom the Bible is law and final, and will not allow reason or thinking to affect him.  And he likes recalling the simplicity and finality of what his father taught him so well that he repeats it again:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Some people are like that.  It is common among fundamentalists of several religions to hold beliefs so rock-hard that they will not permit any reason or argument to penetrate or question them.  One often finds the same thing in political beliefs, or in long-held racial or other prejudices.  But in any kind of “wall building,” physical or psychological, one should always seek to know just what is being excluded and why, and should always bring reason and good sense to bear on such matters, mixed with a very good and essential dose of human compassion.

A PART OF ME, AS I AM A PART OF YOU

 

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) that speaks so clearly it needs no commentary other than to say that the “Bessie” mentioned among favorite music was the noted blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937).

 

THEME FOR ENGLISH B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

 

Particularly significant now are his words,

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.

Yes, that’s American, and we should never forget it for a moment.

 

David

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT OPENLY VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT

As long-time readers here know, I rarely talk about politics.  But I am fervently an advocate of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is a shocking event and a severe threat to freedom to see a President of the United States having peaceful protesters cleared out by security forces and tear gas simply so he could have a photo opportunity standing with a Bible in his hand in front of a church — a church that did not want him there.  It was simply more stagecraft, more propagandistic nonsense to convince his gullible Evangelical Christian followers that he is a divine gift to them — for the purpose, of course, of getting their votes again.  It was the support of Evangelicals that unfortunately put Trump in the White House, setting off a disastrous chain of events, and it should be a clear demonstration to all how morally distorted their backward dogmatism is.

My first thought when I saw the forces dispersing peaceful protesters with tear gas was, “This is America, not Hong Kong!”  It is a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, and that any would support Trump’s dictatorial action — more a mixture of Mussolini and Carrie Lam than behavior any American President should display — just shows to what a dangerously deplorable state this country has fallen under Trump and his cronies.

Of course Trump should be removed from office.  He is simply not mentally or emotionally fit to be President.  His current behavior is clear evidence of that.  But with servile and self-serving Republican support, his removal does not appear likely.  That means it is vitally important to vote him and all of his supporters out of office as soon as elections make that possible.  That is for the benefit of the country, of the environment, and of the world.