THE PERSISTENCE OF NATURE

Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.

 

David

 

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SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

AUTUMN ENDS

Autumn ends;
Again the cries of wild geese
Passing overhead.

Yes, autumn is ending, according to the old calendar.  And it ends with Halloween, the night before the old Celtic holiday of Samhain — (pronounced Sah-win) –which is only a few days away.  Then comes the beginning of winter — the time of turning inward.

 

David

 

THE AGING YEARS

As people grow old, their friends and acquaintances begin more and more rapidly disappearing, one by one — leaving this life.

Last night I dreamed I was talking with some elderly ladies in a sort of “do-it-yourself” retirement home.   They mentioned someone who was gone, and I said to them,

You go someplace
And you knock on the door,
And the person who was there
Isn’t there anymore.

Just then I began waking up, and realized it rhymed, and formed a kind of simple poem that summarized the common experience of those in their later years.

 

David

 

“POETIC” HOKKU AND DAOKU

I often express the view that the best hokku are those that keep the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That means hokku expressing an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, through one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

There were, of course, many hokku that did not do this — even though written by the same author.

In the West, we are not accustomed to poetry that focuses on a sensory experience of Nature.  It is, in fact, rather rare in English-language poetry.  People encountering sensory hokku for the first time therefore often fail to recognize it for what it is, being accustomed to verses in which a poet expresses feelings about something, or expresses a point of view, or uses an event in Nature as a prelude to a poem discussing personal emotions or opinions.  So in general, there is a lot of “I” in English poetry — a lot of the “self,” a lot of the poet expressing opinions and emotions, or else simply trying to be clever in words.

What all this means is that when a Westerner first encounters hokku, she or he will commonly view it in terms of Western poetry, which is, for the most part, quite different from sensory, objective hokku — so different, in fact, that even thinking of such hokku as poetry only contributes to the misperception.  That is why I say that in trying to understand hokku — by which I generally mean sensory, objective hokku — it is best not to think of it as poetry, because we in the West are not accustomed to viewing objective sensory experience as poetry.

Westerners are generally far more at ease with verses such as this one, by Buson:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku   yume no hit0-dori
Morning-mist picture in painted dream’s people-passing

Morning mist;
Painted into a picture —
Dream people passing.

That is a verse completely unlike sensory, objective hokku.  Instead, Buson (who was also an artist — a painter) has added his imagination to the verse.  “Morning mist” is sensory enough, but the remaining two lines of the hokku are simply Buson’s imaginative interpretation of an event.  The event itself  consists of people passing through the morning mist.  Buson, however, has used his imagination to make it into an analogy with painting:  in his interpretation, the morning mist becomes the white paper, and those passing though it become misty watercolor people.  It makes an interesting image, and for what it is, it is rather good poetry — but it does not at all do what sensory, objective hokku do, which is to take us away from the imagination and intellect into pure sensory experience.

Compare Buson’s verse with this, by Kikaku:

Tombō ya  kurui-shizumaru   mikka no tsuki
Dragonflies ya disorder-calms  third-day moon

We have to gloss it a bit to get the meaning in English:

Dragonflies;
They cease their wild flight
As the crescent moon rises.

This is a simple statement of what is happening.  The sensory experience is primarily visual.  We see the erratic, wild flight of the dragonflies end with the rising of the crescent moon.  There is no likening it to something else, no interpretation.  It is just what it is, with no “thinking” or emotion added.

Now historically, both Buson’s “dream people” verse and Kikaku’s “dragonflies” verse are both technically hokku — but they are worlds apart, two completely different kinds of verse using the same form, but using different aesthetics to fill it.

When the Western haiku (as distinct from hokku) movement really got underway — which did not happen for all practical purposes until the 1960s — many of its enthusiasts automatically gravitated toward verses using “thinking” and imagination rather than sensory, objective verses.  That is because the former are much more like conventional English-language poetry than the latter.  As time passed, this trend only became magnified, which resulted in Western haiku moving ever farther away from its inspirational origins in Japanese hokku.

As long-time readers here know, I favor sensory, objective hokku.  I do so because they are what was unique and innovative in old hokku.  Their existence can be traced to the influence of Daoism and Zen Buddhism on Japanese aesthetics, so one could refer to such objective hokku as “Zen” hokku — but not because of any connection to Zen as a religious organization.  It is their simplicity and purity  that makes the connection.

Because of these historical, aesthetic influences on sensory, objective hokku, I like to refer to this category of hokku as daoku — “Dao” or “Tao” verses: hokku that give us an objective experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature through one or more of the five senses, without the addition of the writer’s ego, imagination, intellection, or interpretation.  Those verse are really — in my view — the best that Japanese hokku had to offer, a unique gift to the world.  And those are the verses that make the best models for learning objective hokku — or daoku — today.

Daoku, by the way, borrows the word Dao — meaning the Way — the Way of the Universe, the Way of Nature — from the Chinese language, and the word ku — meaning “verse” — from Japanese.

AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Though the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David