BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

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