Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated. It is, in Japanese:
冬 枯 れ や 世は一色に 風の音 Fuyu-gare ya yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni kaze no oto
The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:
You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.
Fuyu means “winter.” Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.” Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.
Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that. It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.
Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:
Winter desolation: In a world of one colour The sound of the wind.
We can translate it very literally as:
Fuyu-gare ya yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni kaze no oto Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound
Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”
We could say,
Winter bleakness; In a one-color world The sound of the wind.
That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….
Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku. “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse. But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”
Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.
As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.
Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.
Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.
Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.
There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions. It all just leads to pointless bickering. Such discussions are merely of academic — not practical — interest.
Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples. It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine. It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.
I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.
I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.
So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.
That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”
Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.
Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.
And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.
So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.
Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.
You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.
Consider the words of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in his fascinating book A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012):
“One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.”
We are not separate from the universe; the universe is us. We look at the stars, and all we see is ourselves in different form. There we are, shining in the night sky. The same when we look at a bird, or a rock, or a tree. A human is the universe “human-ing.” A cow is the universe “cow-ing.” A star is the universe “star-ing.”
From among The peach trees blooming wildly, The first cherry blossoms.
The universe as peach blossoms, the universe as cherry blossoms, the universe as Bashō, the universe as me writing this, the universe as you reading it.
That is the way to hokku — oneness of subject (the writer) and object (that which is written about).