In past postings I have mentioned “occasional” hokku — verses written for a specific occasion. You may recall that they have to work on two levels — one the literal meaning, and the other the “occasion” meaning. A very common reason for some such verses was as a greeting to or thanks to a host.
I have often said that in addition to some quite good hokku, Bashō also wrote a great many rather mediocre hokku — in fact they form the bulk of his collected verses. And sometimes those unsatisfactory verses are “occasional” hokku.
Let’s look at an example.
In the summer of 1685, Basho was staying with a fellow named Hayashi Tōyō. On leaving he wrote this verse, which appears in his travel diary Nozarashi Kikō / 野ざらし紀行. No-zarashi / 野ざらし signifies bones exposed in a field, and kikō / 紀行 means “traveler’s journal.” We could translate it as “Journal of Field-bleached Bones.” Not a lovely title, but there it is.
The hokku is:
Botan shibe fukaku wake izuru hachi no nagori kana
Peony pistil deep-in separate-go-out bee ‘s parting-sadness kana
The botan (牡丹) is the tree peony common to China and Japan, not the herbaceous peony better known in the West. Shibe (蘂) refers to the pollen-bearing stamens and the pistil of the plant. Fukaku (深く) means to be deep into something. Wake izuru (分け出づる) means to separate from and go out of something. A hachi (蜂) is a bee. No (の) is a genitive particle that we can translate as ‘s. Nagori (名残り) is the sadness in parting. And finally kana (哉) is that particle often described as giving emphasis, but in reality it was often used in hokku just to pad out the required number of phonetic units. Shiki often over-uses it like that. Nonetheless we find it at the end of this unusually lengthy verse, which exceeds the standard 17 phonetic units.
Now let’s make something in English out of all that.
The bee leaves from deep in the stamens
of the peony.
That is the meaning, but it is often translated something like:
The bee emerges from the stamens
Of the peony.
Translated rather literally it comes out awkwardly long for a hokku.
It is not a very good hokku in any case, and the reason why is precisely its intended double duty. Bashō is expressing his sadness on leaving Tōyō’s home and hospitality, so to make his point he has to artificially pretend that a bee sadly leaves the stamens of the peony when it is gathering pollen. And artificiality and pretense are never good in hokku. The problem is that he does not keep the two levels of the verse completely distinct, but projects his own feelings of sadness on parting from Tōyō onto the bee leaving the inside of the flower. That is why good “occasional” hokku are rather difficult to write; each side of the meaning must be strong and clear in itself, without any admixture.
That was a summer hokku. But there was another Tōyō in Bashō’s life. He was a 14 year old boy named Kumenosuke, who inherited the Izumiya Inn with its relaxing hot spring waters at Yamanaka. Bashō gave the boy the pseudonym Tōyō. Tō is another word for the peach (momo) and yō comes from the expression momo no yōyō, meaning the beauty of a young peach, a phrase derived from the Book of Songs (“Poetry Classic) of Confucius. Bashō may have felt a certain attraction to Kumenosuke, as it was not unusual for Japanese men of the time to be attracted to handsome youths. The “occasional” hokku Basho wrote for Tōyō was:
Momo no ki no sono ha shirasu-na aki no kaze
Peach’s tree ‘s its leaves do not scatter/strip Autumn’s wind.
Do not blow away
The leaves of the peach tree,
The literal meaning is entreating the autumn wind not to strip the peach tree of its leaves. The other meaning is a wish that the youthful charm of Kumenosuke might not be taken away by the passage of time. As you recall, autumn is the time of things aging and withering, and that is its underlying significance in hokku.
In any case, that too is not a good hokku, which is often the result of trying to write hokku that function well on two levels. Even Bashō was not very good at it.