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
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.