A POEM FOR “JUNETEENTH.”

 

June 19th was the day in 1865 when — quite belatedly — news of the emancipation of the slaves finally reached the people of African descent in Texas — the last state still having slavery — and was proclaimed at Galveston.  It became an annual commemoration and celebration given the colloquial name “Juneteenth.”

It has taken a long, long time for this to reach the consciousness of the rest of America, but now that it has, perhaps it will be on its way to acceptance as a national holiday and celebration.

There can hardly be a better poem for it than this one by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  It requires no lengthy explanation beyond saying that when Hughes asks for America to be America again, he is asking for the realization of the best of American ideals, not a return to some supposedly glorious, idyllic past — because for African Americans, “poor whites,” and Native Americans, those ideals have yet to be fully realized.  As Hughes interjects in the poem, “America never was America to me.”  It is to those ideals that Hughes exhorts all Americans to return, to create a better and more equitable future for all.  He expresses the belief through his oath — still not fully realized in his lifetime — that “America will be.”

LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

To “make America again” means to reshape it to fit the highest, most noble ideals of liberty and equality.  That is a goal to which people of all countries may aspire.

 

David

BLUE, WHITE, AND GOLD

This pure white flower with the golden center,  growing against today’s blue summer sky, is the rather amazing Matilija Poppy.  It is native to the Matilija Wilderness in southern California, as well as other relatively dry areas in southern California and nearby Baja California.

Oddly enough, I first encountered it in a large vacant lot here in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  This region is far wetter and often colder in winter than its home territory.  It had been established in that lot for many long years, and had grown many new plants there from sending out rhizomes.

The surprising thing is not only that it grows vigorously well out of its native region, but also that the flowers are the size of saucers, and the example I have in my garden (the one shown here) is about eight feet high.

The catch, though, is that it is very difficult to grow from seed.  The trick seems to be burning pine needles over them.  That appears to imitate the wildfires that periodically and naturally sweep through its native habitat.

The much easier method of propagation is to use root (rhizome) cuttings, but it can be very touchy about being transplanted, so one must treat the cuttings and new plants with care at first.  It is often available in nurseries — at least in the western coastal states, and buying it that way is easiest of all.  Once established, it does very well.

In my region it tends to die back in cold winters, but sprouts energetically again in the spring.

The name Matilija (pronounced muh-TIL-i-hah), it is said, comes originally from that of Matâ’ilha, a Native American Chumash village.  The scientific name of the plant — Romney coulteri — combines the “Romney” from the name of the Irish astronomer Dr. Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), with that of Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843), an Irish botanist who first came across the plant while collecting botanical specimens in in 1831-32.

 

 

 

 

BLUNTING THE PEARS

Today we will look at a poem by the Imagist poetess known as H. D. — which she preferred to her more prosaic name, Hilda Doolittle.

Born in 1886, she had a strong interest in expressing herself through what she considered an ancient Greek aesthetic, which was also the case with another noted female of the time, the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927).  While Duncan expressed her concept of Greek influence through dance, H. D. used poetry.

When reading H. D. through her earlier poems, one always has the feeling she is trying to write as though she were an ancient Greek, strongly influenced by poems of the Greek poetess Sappho, from the isle of Lesbos.  The earlier poems of H.D. always remind me of the 19th-early 20th century notion of old Greek marble statues and columns — carefully chiselled, pure and white and hard.  But that, of course is a misunderstanding, because as we now know, such statues and temples were originally colorfully painted.

Still, H.D. is often interesting in her sparse aesthetic.
HildaDoolittle

Here is part II of her “Garden” sequence.  This second part is generally better known than the first, probably because it is less obscure and consequently more accessible.  It is commonly titled:

HEAT
O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 
Fruit cannot drop through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes. 
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

The setting of the poem is a very hot and still day — the stillness making the heat even more unbearable. In this discomfort, the poetess invokes the wind (much as an ancient Greek would call upon a god or goddess). In doing so, she treats the heat as a material thing with some solidity.

The poem  has essentially three parts:

In the first part, she speaks of heat as though it were cloth.  She uses the word “rend” (meaning “tear apart”) twice:

…rend open the heat
…rend it to tatters

And she uses “cut”:

… cut apart the heat

Then in the second part, she expresses the solidity of the heat like this:

Fruit cannot drop through this thick air
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears and rounds the grapes

She is giving her psychological impression of the heat; that it is so thick fruit cannot fall down through it.  Instead, the heat “presses up and blunts the points of pears” — that is, it flattens the bottoms of the pears.  And it presses in and “rounds the grapes,” pressing the softer fruit into small, round globes.

That is of course all fanciful, but it expresses her perception of the heat as having volume and force.

In the third and last part, she uses the word “cut” again, but this time she is using the image of a plough cutting through soil, instead of the tearing and cutting of cloth.  She asks the wind to

Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

That again gives the heat a sense of solidity.

In short, the poem expresses the discomfort of a hot and airless summer day, when one longs for a cool breeze to cut through and disperse the oppressive heat.  H.D. does this with few and simple words, and a bit of imagination.

I would like to add a word about nomenclature.  You perhaps noticed (though more likely if you are younger than older) that I used the word “poetess” for a female poet, which has long been standard practice in English.  In recent years however, there has been a movement toward using the formerly masculine-only noun “poet” for both male and female, just as in the theater it is now common to hear the word “actor” applied to females as well as males.

I understand the thinking behind this.  It stems from a sense that the use of “poetess” or “actress” somehow diminishes the work of the female, placing it in a separate category that may be viewed as less in dignity or skill.  That is something added by culture, however, not something inherent in the words.

I have used “poetess” here not with any sense of difference in quality or standing, but simply because to me it is more expressive and specific when referring to a female writer of poetry, just as “poet” does the same job for a male.  I like knowing when a person is male or female, because it evokes a more specific image in the mind.  I know there are today those who like to avoid gender titles, and if that is their preference, that is fine — as long as it does not become a case of invoking the “word police” for those with different preferences, and as long as no disrespect to an individual is intended.

There are some languages in which traditionally the distinction we have in English between “him” and “her” is absent.  That is the case in Persian.  When reading Persian classical poetry, there is no “him,” no “her,” only the word “u” (pronounced “oo”).  Unless there is something in the context that specifically indicates this “u” is a male or female, we simply cannot tell if a fellow was writing about his love for another male or for a female.  No doubt that could prove convenient in repressive times and places.

Similarly, in Chinese the word “” can signify either a male or a female — a “he” or a “she.” Modern Chinese has changed that a bit in reading and writing (though not in speaking) by adding a second character to the writing system that is pronounced the same, but nonetheless is understood to signify a female — using a different character than that used for the male “tā” ().  It was done by simply removing the “man” radical from the left side and replacing it with the “woman” character ().

The thing I would like you to remember is that when I use “poetess” or “actress,” or similar gender-specific words, it is because I like their specificity, and for no other reason.  But if a particular poetess tells me she prefers to be called a “poet,” or a certain actress prefers “actor,” as her title, then I am happy to oblige.

David

 

NOW YOU CAN TRANSLATE POSTINGS HERE

Just a “housekeeping” note.

I want to let readers here whose first language is not English know that I have added a Google Translation function on the right side of the page.  That way readers can get an approximate translation of my postings in their preferred languages.  Google Translate is not at all perfect, but it is a big improvement over nothing.

(Image by Frits Ahlenfeldt on Public Domain Pictures Net)

 

David

WHITE CLOUDS PASSING

Kwanrai (1748-1817) wrote this early summer hokku — a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  I was only able to find the transliteration of the original:

Shira-gumo no sora yuku keshi no sakaru kana
White cloud  ‘s   sky  goes  poppy ‘s  blooming kana

In my translation:

A sky
Of white clouds passing;
Blooming poppies.

It is very simple — almost just an illustration, were it not for the movement of the clouds.  There is a similarity of feeling between the passing evanescent clouds and the frail impermanence of the poppy flowers.

Much in this verse depends on the perceived color of the poppies.  If they were white, they would reflect the whiteness of the clouds; if red or purple, there would be a strong contrast.  In the absence of knowing, it is easy to fill in whatever poppies commonly bloom in our individual regions at this time of year.  In my little garden, it would be either the gold of California poppies — which Steinbeck described in East of Eden as “of a burning color  — not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies”; or it might be the delicate orange or yellow of Spanish poppies — Papaver atlanticum.  In Kwanrai’s time and place they would likely have been Papaver somniferum — opium poppies, which can be anything from white to pink to red to deep purple.

Kwanrai’s hokku consists of two elements placed together.  Here they are sky and earth — the passing white clouds far above, and blooming poppies below.  It is a simple way to write, but often not successful if there is no perceived link or harmony between the two elements.

Shiki also made a two-element summer verse, this time linking earth and water:

Roku-gatsu no umi miyuru nari tera no zō
六         月    の    海   見ゆる なり    寺   の

Sixth  moon ‘s    sea  seen      is  temple’s   images.

The June sea
is seen;
The temple images.

It does not read well that way, which is why Blyth made a more interpretive translation:

The temple Buddhas;
In the distance,
The June sea.

Though not a literal translation, in English Blyth’s rendering is a distinct improvement on the original.  Blyth has clarified that the images are Buddha images in a Buddhist temple, and that makes us think of the shadowed interior of a temple at the coast.  From it, the glittering sea of summer can be seen in the distance —  Blyth has added the word — so we have the contrast of the unmoving Buddha images in the still, shadowy temple with the bright, ever-moving sea in the distance, as well as the contrast of the temple above and the sea below.

 

David

 

THE EFFECT ON THE READER

In a previous posting, I mentioned a third category of hokku — one I do not teach or advocate because it takes us too far away from reality.  It consists of hokku with not just the bit of thinking we find in shinku — but rather with excessive thinking, imagination or fantasy.  We can call this category soku, from a reading of the character — meaning “think,” combined with ku, meaning “verse.”  In English usage we drop the double ō and just call it soku.

But what about verses written from the imagination that seem quite faithful to reality?  Well, those verses are somewhat like the old Chinese ink paintings that were done after one familiarized one’s self with the characteristics of natural landscapes to the extent that one could make a painting that seemed to express the essence of the natural world.  In short, though they are hokku written from the imagination, the practical effect is the same as if they were written from direct experience.  That is because the writer has absorbed memories from past experiences so well that a new verse created from combining elements of those memories has the effect of a verse written from reality.

Now obviously — if such a verse is suitably effective — the writer alone is likely to know if it was written from memories plus imagination, or if it was written from immediate direct experience.  The key here is that it must show no trace of artificiality or “phoniness.”

With many old Japanese hokku, we simply cannot tell if they were written from direct experience or from an accumulation of memories mixed with a bit of imagination.  A great many are the latter.  Nonetheless, if such a verse — whether old or new — reads and feels like reality in English, we treat it as a daoku — an objective hokku — because that is its effect on the reader.

Here is an example of such a verse:

(Summer)

Opening a window
In the stuffy attic;
The wind from the sea.

Now I have experienced stuffy attics and rooms, and the effect of opening a window; and I have experienced the wind from the sea.  But I do not recall ever experiencing them all together.  Nonetheless, because of my memories of each element, I can put them together and feel the oppressive summer heat in the attic and the sense the refreshing gust of coolness from the sea when the window is opened.

But, as I have said, I did not have the precise experience of the entire verse from direct experience.  And I can tell you exactly what gave rise to my writing it.  It was seeing a reproduction of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Wind from the Sea”:

(National Gallery)

I do not advocate making a habit of writing in this manner, because I favor direct experience — but it does no harm if the urge strikes you now and then, and if the realism of the resulting verse is strong enough for it to be read and felt as a daoku (objective hokku).

 

David

 

IN THE WATER JUG

A verse by Shiki as a daoku in English:

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨

water jug   at   frog     floating   is     fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

It is primarily a visual verse that gives us a very harmonious watery feeling.  Water in the jug, water in the rain falling steadily, and the frog connecting them both.

You have probably noticed that in hokku — whether as daoku or shinku — we do not follow any strict syllabic count.  That fits English much better than trying to manipulate it to the very different structure of old Japanese hokku.  It also prevents needless “padding” to fill out a line when composing.  Many old Japanese hokku had a perfunctory kana at the end — a word which frequently seems added only to fill out the standard number of phonetic units (seventeen in Japanese).  Shiki often did that, but fortunately it did not happen in this verse.

There is something very refreshing about rain in May.  It has a feeling quite different than that of rain in autumn or in winter.

 

David

ALL THE WHITE PAPERS

There has been a lot of wind where I live the past few days as the weather has warmed, so this summer verse (a daoku in English) by Shiki seems appropriate:

Natsu-arashi kijō no haku-shi tobi-tsukusu
   夏        嵐     机上 の 白       飛び      盡す
Summer windstorm desk on ‘s white papers fly-exhaust

A summer windstorm;
All the white papers
Fly off the desk.

Unlike most of Shiki’s verses, which often tend toward illustration, this one has strong sensation in the sudden gust of wind and all the white papers on the desk confusedly flying here and there.  There is a kind of harmony between the whiteness of the papers and the wind that becomes visible in their flying about.

 

David

NIGHT WATER

A summer hokku by Issa:

Suzushisa ya yo mizu no kakaru ido no oto
涼    しさ  や  夜   水    の かかる 井戸の  音
Coolness ya night water ‘s pour well ‘s sound.

Coolness;
By night the sound of water
Pouring into the well.

It is a bit vague about the water, however, so R. H. Blyth added admirable clarity in his translation:

The coolness
Of the sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

But we can simplify it by restoring the pause that should be there in hokku (the ya in Japanese — here the punctuation separating the two parts in daoku) while keeping that clarity:

Coolness;
The sound of water at night
Falling back into the well.

It is an old-fashioned well with a well bucket.  When the bucket full of water is pulled up, some of it spills over and falls back into the dark depths of the well.  The sound of that water falling into the unseen water below, combined with the surrounding darkness of the summer night, gives a deep sense of coolness.

From a Yin-Yang perspective, we have the yin of the falling water reflected in the yin of the night — and vice versa.  Coolness is yin, water is yin, night is yin — and that is why in the heat of summer, this is a very refreshing daoku (objective hokku) in English.

 

WHAT JOY!

A summer hokku by Buson — one of his best because of its sensory nature:

Natsu kawa wo kosu ureshisa yo te ni zōri
夏          河     を   越すうれしさよ 手 に  草履
Summer river wo cross joy yo hand in sandals

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

This simple verse is just a cry of happiness at the pleasant sensory experience of crossing a river barefoot in summer, with the feeling of the cooling water on the legs, and the sun shining brightly.

It is an expression of the use of contrast so common in summer hokku, with the contraries of heat and coolness — the Yang of the summer sun and heat, and the Yin of the coolness of the river water.  We call this kind of thing “harmony of contrast,” because even though it uses opposites, there is still a sense of harmony in their combination.

 

David

BASHŌ OVERDOES IT

Yes, Bashō sometimes wrote hokku with too much “thinking” — verses classified here as soku.

Here is an example — a summer verse:

Inazumi ni satora-nu hito no tattosa yo
稲    妻    に  悟ら   ぬ    人  の   貴   さ よ
Lightning at satori -not person ‘s venerableness y0

This is very tricky to translate into English because of the apparently ironic use of the words satora-nu — which can mean both someone who has not attained satori —  enlightenment, and someone who does not talk like he has attained.  That is why I have translated it very loosely (but I think more accurately) as:

At the lightning,
How venerable the person
Who does not talk Zen.

What Bashō intended was praise of those who follow the dictum of the Daoist philospher Lao-zi:  “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know.”  He sees the person who does not pretend to spiritual wisdom in Zen Buddhism that he does not really have as venerable — worthy of honor and respect.

Why might someone start talking of Zen or Buddhist philosophy on seeing lightning?  To answer that, we need only look to the Diamond Sutra.  Here is a popular rendering of the relevant portion in verse:

So should you see all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

R.H. Blyth translates the verse without explanation, and one reading his translation might easily misunderstand what Bashō intended:

How admirable
He who thinks not “Life is fleeting,”
When he sees the lightning flash.

In that rendering, the interpretation becomes, “How admirable is the person who can see a flash of lightning without thinking how quickly life passes.”  Seen that way, the person is just in the moment — seeing the flash of lightning without adding his “thinking” to it — without adding the seeing of it as a symbol of human transience.

Oddly enough, though Blyth’s translation does not seem to reflect Bashō’s original intent, the person honored in it is more in keeping with the spirit of daoku:  he has experience without adding interpretation.  Nonetheless the verse as a whole still says too much — has too much thinking added by Bashō to be daoku, no matter which version one prefers.

In writing hokku in English — whether as daoku (objective hokku) or shinku (hokku with minimal thinking added) we must also know what not to do — and Bashō here offers a good example of what not to do.

 

David

FIFTH-MONTH RAINS

Sampū (1647-1732) composed this summer verse:

Samidare ni kawazu no oyogu toguchi kana
五 月  雨  に      蛙      の およぐ  戸口        哉
Fifth moon rain at frog ‘s swimming door kana

In the May rains,
Frogs are swimming
Right at the door.

This verse emphasizes the heaviness of the summer rain, which overspills the ponds and brings frogs swimming right up to the door.  It is a very watery-feeling verse.

Though the Fifth month/moon would be May in the modern calendar, by the old Japanese calendar it extended into June — which was a time of heavy summer rains in Japan — so one could translate the first line “In the June rains,” or even “In the summer rains.”

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, this verse is more appropriate for May, and currently we are having intermittent showers from day to day — some of them quite heavy.  It makes the vegetation grow very lush.

Blyth appropriately connects this verse with another and quite good example by Shiki (1867-1902) that we have already seen (in my translation) — both of them daoku in English):

Mizu-game ni kawazu uku nari satsukiame
水       がめ  に    蛙      うく なり  五  月   雨
water jug   at    frog   floating is  fifth moon rain

In the water jug,
A frog is floating;
The rains of May.

This feeling of “water, water, everywhere” — and with it, frogs — has somewhat the feeling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s child’s verse:

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

Notice that in both “Fifth month rain” verses, we find only complete objectivity.  There is no “thinking,” by the writers added, no commentary, no interpretation.  That is pure daoku (objective hokku).

That objectivity — as well as the close connection with Nature — has often disappeared entirely in many verses produced by the modern haiku movement, which has chosen to go a different way.  In my view, much was lost by that choice

David

QUACKING IN ENGLISH

A  summer hokku by Kikaku, which makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ya ie wo megurite naku ahiru
夕立      や 家 を  めぐりて  く あひる
Sudden-shower ya house wo circle crying ducks

A sudden shower;
The ducks run quacking
Around the house.

It is a very simple, almost childlike verse, but effective nonetheless, because we feel the effect of the sudden rain in the startled excitement of the ducks, expressed in their equally sudden running and quacking around the house.

We could describe this as a verse of the common setting/subject/action format, which works well in a great many daoku:

Setting:  A sudden shower
Subject:  The ducks
Action:  Run quacking around the house

Of course this is just a handy formula we can use in writing new verses, and it is a good tool if we do not apply it too strictly.  As we see in this verse, there is really action not only in the running and quacking of the ducks, but also in the sudden shower.

You may recall that action is often very helpful in hokku, giving life to what otherwise might be just a still “illustration.”  So keep in mind while composing that if a verse seems too passive and dull, it is often because it lacks something moving or changing.

Also, keep in mind the importance of the pause that separates the two parts of the daoku.  In the Japanese original of this verse it is indicated by the particle ya.  In our daoku translation, it is indicated by the semicolon after shower:

A sudden shower;

That gives us the meditative pause so essential to the verse.

And of course it is easy to see why this hokku by Kikaku makes a daoku (objective hokku) in English.  There is no “thinking” added to it by the writer, no added commentary or interpretation.  Kikaku just presents the event, and lets us experience the sudden shower, and the excited running and quacking of the ducks.

It is worth mentioning that in some respects, the English language is more expressive than the Japanese in the writing of hokku.  An example is the word naku used in Kikaku’s verse.  It can be used for everything from the croaking of frogs to the singing of birds to the crow of a rooster.  But English is much more specific in distinguishing the various cries, which is why we can onomatopoetically speak of the “quacking” of the ducks, in imitation of the sound they make.

 

David

 

A WOMAN ALONE

Hokku is very good at evoking subtle psychological states through events in Nature.  An example is this summer verse by Kikaku (1661-1707) — a daoku (objective hokku) in English:

Yūdachi ni hitori soto miru onna kana
夕立       に ひとり 外   見る    女    かな
Summer-shower at alone outside looks woman kana

The summer shower;
A woman alone,
Gazing outside.

It evokes that delicate feeling of solitary sadness that the Japanese call sabishii, and it is done without the writer adding any of his own thinking or commentary.  As Blyth says, this hokku “requires us to be as thought-less as the rain.”  That is a real insight into the nature of daoku — objective hokku:  that thought-less-ness — that complete absence of thinking — which makes such verses so pure and satisfying.

It is remarkably simple:  a sudden summer shower, and a woman inside — all alone — looking steadily out into the falling rain.  It is so brief in content that Kikaku ended it with that all-purpose and nearly meaningless padding word — kana — that we find so often ending the verses of Shiki.  Of course in English-language daoku, we do not have to fill out a standard number of phonetic units, so we are free of needless padding in composing.

If we remove the grammatically-necessary articles “the” and “a,” that leaves us with these few elements:

Summer shower
Woman alone
Gazing outside

But of course the articles are required for normal English, and in hokku we should use normal English.

Again in this verse, we may apply the “setting/subject/action” model, like this:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  A woman alone
Action:  Gazing outside

It is really quite remarkable how very little is required for a good hokku — but selecting the right elements is all-important.  In this hokku we feel the harmony between the summer shower and the woman alone gazing out into it.  Hokku should always have this sense of harmony among its elements.  It should not be random things thrown together with no relation among them.  This close harmony between the woman and the rain illustrates what is meant when we say that hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

In spite of being over three hundred years old, it is a verse that could have been written yesterday, and has lost none of its effectiveness.

 

David

BRIEF DREAMS

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

Octopus pots;
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.

 

David

DAOKU IS SIMPLE

Writing daoku (objective hokku) in English is really very simple.

First, you need an experience involving Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  And for that, of course you need a connection to the natural world.  One cannot expect to sit in a city apartment all the time and still write daoku, because there is no connection with Nature in such a place.

That means to write daoku, one must get out and connect with Nature, whether in a home garden, a park, or a trail through a field or forest, or a place by a stream, a pond, a river, the seashore, and so on.  You get the idea.

Next, do not think of daoku as “poetry.”  Do not think of yourself as a “poet.”

Think of daoku as recording an experience of the senses —  whether seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, smelling, or a combination of any of these.  But it is not just any experience.  It has to be one that for some inexplicable reason, we feel to be significant.  If someone asks us why it is significant, we cannot say —  and that is why it is expressed in the simple words of daoku.   The daoku evokes the experience, and with that comes the feeling of a significance beyond the words.

In daoku the words should be the means of transmitting the experience.  And to keep that experience pure and strong, the writer should not add any of his or her own thinking about the experience.  Daoku should just transmit the experience, free of any commentary or interpretation or elaboration by the writer.

When we write such a verse in English — or translate an old Japanese hokku with those characteristics into English — the result is a daoku — an objective hokku.

Here is a hokku in transliterated Japanese:

Hirou mono mina ikite iru shiohi kana

And here is the daoku it becomes in English:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving!

Chiyo is walking along the beach at low tide.  She reaches down to pick up some seemingly lifeless shells, but is surprised to feel and see them moving in her hand; they are not dead, but alive.

Now as you can see, all that the writer needed to do was to put that experience into simple words.  In English, we divide the result into three lines consisting of two parts — one longer, one shorter, and those two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  Each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

It is just that easy.

Of course there are some things to keep in mind.  A hokku is not just a random assemblage of things.  We should feel a relationship among the elements of a hokku, just as the “moving things” in Chiyo-ni’s verse relate to the beach at low tide.  And every hokku as daoku is set within the context of a particular season, which we add as a heading in parentheses, so it will be transmitted to the reader.

Hokku — and consequently daoku — should be written and read within the appropriate season, which keeps us in harmony with the seasons and their changes.  The exception is that when learning, examples out of the appropriate season may be used.

It is also helpful to write daoku that show us something experienced in a new way, from a different perspective.  That helps to keep the experience fresh and new.  And never forget that feeling of un-speak-able significance.  If a daoku is not felt to have that significance, it tends to be just uninteresting and mediocre.

Remember to keep daoku brief.  In English there is no fixed number of required syllables.  Use ordinary, everyday words.  Above all, transmit the experience, not your thoughts about the experience.

 

David

NO MORE ADS!

Dear HOKKU subscribers and visitors —

I have been writing on this WordPress site for many years now.  When it began — and for years afterward — it was wonderfully free of advertising.  Recently a great many distasteful ads — which I have not chosen and do not benefit from in any way — have been appearing on my site due to a change in WordPress policy.  I find this so strongly objectionable that, though my blog has been without monetary cost to me all these years, I have decided to pay to “upgrade” my site and thus make it again free of such advertising.  My site has never had commercial intent, and I want to keep it that way for readers as long as I am writing here.

Due to the added expense of keeping my WordPress sites ad free, I will be discontinuing my Hokku Forest site — which was specifically for hokku, daoku, etc., and will again deal with that subject on the HOKKU site from time to time, as I did previously.

Some of you may know that I also have the (surprisingly if weirdly popular) Icons and Their Interpretation site, which I shall also continue on an upgraded, advertising-free basis.

I am looking forward to my readers once more  being able to come to my sites without any bother from distracting, undesirable, and irrelevant advertising.

 

David

 

 

WALLS

Some poems of Robert Frost lend themselves well to allegorical interpretation, though that was not always the intent of the poet.  The following poem is one often quoted in that regard.

This poem is set in the New England countryside, where stone walls are common as separators of one property from another.

I will divide it into segments for ease of explanation.

MENDING WALL

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frost says there is something in Nature that does not like walls, something that shows that dislike by causing a swell in the ground beneath the wall, caused by the freezing and expansion of moisture in the soil.  In saying this, Frost gives Nature a personality.  The swell beneath the wall raises the rock wall above it, causing boulders to topple, leaving a hole in the wall so large that even two men could walk through it side by side.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.

Another way stone walls are damaged is not by Nature, but by hunters chasing after a rabbit.  The rabbit will hide in a space between the stones in the wall, and to get him out, the hunters will take the wall apart in that place, not leaving one stone on another.  Frost says they do so “to please the yelping dogs,” who want to get at the rabbit.

…The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

Frost adds that as for the gaps he is talking about — the further evidence that something in Nature does not like walls — nobody seems to see the holes in the wall made, or hear them made.  Nonetheless, in the spring, when it is time to do the yearly mending of the stone walls — those mysterious gaps are always found.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

He tells his neighbor who lives beyond the hill know about the gaps in the wall, and they pick a day and meet at the wall, walking along it and repairing the gaps by replacing the stones — they “set the wall between us once again,” closing holes where one might walk through, and making the stone wall a firm and strong barrier again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

As they work along the wall, each walks on his own side of it — on his own property.  Each man picks up and replaces the boulders that have fallen on his own side.  Some of the stones are shaped like loaves of bread, which are easy to place; but some are so close to ball-shaped that Frost says playfully, “We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’  In other words, they just re-place the ball-like stones and hope they will stay in place as the men move on down the wall — though sometimes the round stones do not remain where they should.

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

Handling the stones makes the fingers of the men rough.  Frost sees it as a basic kind of outdoor game, one man on one side, one man on the other, each moving at his own speed and skill.  Nothing more important, just another country chore to be done.

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

The poet thinks there should be some purpose to a wall, and where this wall is, it is not needed.  His neighbor’s side has pine trees, and the poet’s side has an apple orchard.  He tries to make the point that the wall is not necessary by telling his neighbor that the apple trees will never cross the property line and eat the pine cones beneath the neighbor’s pine trees.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

The neighbor, however, is traditional and conservative, and repeats a saying he has likely always heard:  ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’  By this is generally meant that a good fence will keep neighbors from overstepping their bounds, without someone having to remind them — and that makes less likelihood of trouble between neighbors.

But spring is making the poet feel mischievous, and he says that he would like to put a new notion in his neighbor’s conservative head by making him think:  Why do good fences make good neighbors?  Isn’t that for farms that have cows, to keep one farmer’s cows out of a neighbor farmer’s meadows and gardens?  But in this case, neither neighbor owns cows.  So why is the wall even needed?  And he wants to tell his neighbor,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

That is what he would like his neighbor to think about.  Before building a wall, the poet would use reason and common sense, and ask what the result would be — he would want to first know exactly what he was walling in (keeping to himself) or walling out (excluding).  And he adds, he would want to know if building the wall would be likely to offend someone.  This is the part of the poem most likely to be quoted in many different circumstances.  Before we build walls between ourselves and other people — whether actual walls such as the “border wall” proposed between Mexico and the United States — or psychological walls, such as excluding people in one way or another from our lives or institutions — we should think carefully about why we are doing it, whether it is really a good idea, and whether we are likely to cause offense to others by it.

And now the poet finishes the notion he would like to place in his neighbor’s hard head,  returning to his original, beginning statement:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.

He wants his neighbor to see that there is something in Nature that does not like — that is opposed to and works against — walls, and wants them down.  The poet could use the term “Elves,” to personify that mysterious anti-wall force in Nature, but he knows it is not actual elves, and he would rather the neighbor might come to  the realization of that anti-wall force for himself.

Now the poet ponders his tradition-bound neighbor as he watches him mending the wall:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

The poet looks at his conservative neighbor carrying a stone in each hand to place on the wall, and says he is like “an old stone-age savage armed.”  Frost sees him as someone who is primitive in mind and driven by tradition and belief rather than reason and common sense.  He sees the neighbor moving “in darkness” — not just the darkness of the woods, or the darkness of the shade of trees, but the darkness of the absence of rational thinking — the lack of the ability to think new and different thoughts.  But the neighbor will not use his head or his heart, and will not violate the saying he heard from his father:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”  He is like a fundamentalist to whom the Bible is law and final, and will not allow reason or thinking to affect him.  And he likes recalling the simplicity and finality of what his father taught him so well that he repeats it again:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Some people are like that.  It is common among fundamentalists of several religions to hold beliefs so rock-hard that they will not permit any reason or argument to penetrate or question them.  One often finds the same thing in political beliefs, or in long-held racial or other prejudices.  But in any kind of “wall building,” physical or psychological, one should always seek to know just what is being excluded and why, and should always bring reason and good sense to bear on such matters, mixed with a very good and essential dose of human compassion.

A PART OF ME, AS I AM A PART OF YOU

 

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) that speaks so clearly it needs no commentary other than to say that the “Bessie” mentioned among favorite music was the noted blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937).

 

THEME FOR ENGLISH B

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

 

Particularly significant now are his words,

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.

Yes, that’s American, and we should never forget it for a moment.

 

David

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT OPENLY VIOLATES THE FIRST AMENDMENT

As long-time readers here know, I rarely talk about politics.  But I am fervently an advocate of free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is a shocking event and a severe threat to freedom to see a President of the United States having peaceful protesters cleared out by security forces and tear gas simply so he could have a photo opportunity standing with a Bible in his hand in front of a church — a church that did not want him there.  It was simply more stagecraft, more propagandistic nonsense to convince his gullible Evangelical Christian followers that he is a divine gift to them — for the purpose, of course, of getting their votes again.  It was the support of Evangelicals that unfortunately put Trump in the White House, setting off a disastrous chain of events, and it should be a clear demonstration to all how morally distorted their backward dogmatism is.

My first thought when I saw the forces dispersing peaceful protesters with tear gas was, “This is America, not Hong Kong!”  It is a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, and that any would support Trump’s dictatorial action — more a mixture of Mussolini and Carrie Lam than behavior any American President should display — just shows to what a dangerously deplorable state this country has fallen under Trump and his cronies.

Of course Trump should be removed from office.  He is simply not mentally or emotionally fit to be President.  His current behavior is clear evidence of that.  But with servile and self-serving Republican support, his removal does not appear likely.  That means it is vitally important to vote him and all of his supporters out of office as soon as elections make that possible.  That is for the benefit of the country, of the environment, and of the world.

 

 

BASHŌ FLOWERS

Some of you long-time readers here may recall that when I moved to this new location, I planted a Bashō — a hardy banana (Musa basjoo).  It is the plant from which the Japanese hokku/haikai writer took his pen name.

Since then it has grown amazingly tall.  I was looking out my window a few days ago, and was surprised to see a giant bud hanging from it.  I was very curious, having never seen a banana bud before, so I have kept watch.

Now the bud has opened so the flowers are visible.

Here is a closer look at the small flowers near the top:

From what I read, I can expect the very tall stalk to die when the flowering cycle is completed, but it has sent up shoots that are now nearly as tall as the main stalk, so they will continue to produce the same huge and very long and pleasantly green leaves that are so shading in summer, and so satisfying to see from beneath as the sun illuminates them.

 

David

A PATH DIVIDES …

We are close to the end of April, and in the hokku calendar, that means the ending of spring.  By that old calendar summer begins on May Day — May 1st.

This is probably a good time to let readers here know that the discussion of hokku and its English-language categories of daoku (objective hokku), shinku (hokku with a bit of “thinking” added) and soku (hokku with too much “thinking” or imagination) will now take place mostly on another site.  That site is:

http://www.hokkuforest.wordpress.com

Over time, it appears that the topic of hokku has rather gotten lost in the discussion of other kinds of poetry and other subjects — which will continue here on the hokku.wordpress.com site.  But those who are particularly interested in hokku will now no longer have to sift through those other postings to find information specifically on that topic, because discussion of hokku will be concentrated on the hokkuforest.wordpress.com site.

We are presently living through strange and troubling times, though of course past generations had to endure much worse.  We have been rather spoiled by decades of relative ease and calm.  A large number of Americans were far too foolish in electing a President who, it should have been obvious at the outset, was not in any way fitted for the office.  Now we are all suffering the consequences of that serious absence of good judgment.  The result has been very damaging and destructive for the United States and for the planet.  I can only hope that this damage will be at least begin to be partially remedied by Americans coming to their senses and voting out as many Republicans as possible in the next election — including above all the astoundingly incompetent U.S. President and his sycophantic cronies who have kept him in office long after he should have been legally removed for the public good.

I hope that as spring departs, we may look forward to gradually getting things back on track — paying attention to scientists rather than deceptive, foolish, or self-serving politicians, and focusing once again on trying to lessen the pace of climate change and the loss of species.  In short, we all need to remember that we are a part of — not apart from — Nature, and that when Nature suffers, so do we.

David

A “PEACE PILL” FOR DIFFICULT TIMES

Some time back, I made a pleasant discovery, and perhaps you would like to know about it — or rather him — too.

Though he never mentions hokku, you can better understand its spiritual foundations by listening to John Butler of Bakewell, England.  He may use “Christian” terminology because of his upbringing,  but his application of it is quite undogmatic and universal — and could just as well be said in Buddhist or Daoist terms.  I think you will find listening to him very relaxing, a kind of “peace” pill for the times in which we presently find ourselves:

When he talks about the transitory nature of the virus compared to the eternal Stillness underlying it,  I cannot help thinking of the spring hokku by Bashō:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

If you would like to hear more of John Butler — and I suspect you will, given present circumstances — you will find his talks here:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi0TFuqj6eND-mJRf8i2Tnw

 

David

 

 

THE ROAD TO DAOKU AND SHINKU

Over twenty years ago, I was dismayed by what I was seeing of the poor quality of modern haiku on the Internet.  Though many were writing it, none seemed to have an understanding of how — or even if — what they were writing related to the aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku.  Most had never even heard the term hokku in those days, and thought old writers such as Bashō and Onitsura had written only haiku — not realizing that haiku was just an innovation begun at the end of the 19th century, long after Bashō’s time.

In an effort to remedy that, I began teaching online the basics of writing a brief verse form in English that was more closely related to the old hokku, and better reflected its aesthetics.  The approach of the modern haiku community, by contrast, was simply to write whatever one wished as haiku, regardless of subject matter or aesthetics, as long as it was brief.  The old hokku connection with Nature and the seasons was largely abandoned.  The result was that modern haiku became whatever a given writer chose to call haiku — which is still very much the situation today.  Modern haiku has no universally accepted standards, other than perhaps brevity. It ranges from the very conservative to the extremely innovative.  So “haiku” today is an umbrella term  that covers a confusingly wide range of often very different kinds of verse.

It was important in avoiding confusion, to distinguish the modern adaptation of hokku I was teaching from modern haiku, so I called it what it had originally been named for the greater part of its history — hokku.  I did so because what I taught was a continuation of what I felt were the best qualities of old Japanese hokku.  I left needless cultural and linguistic baggage behind, and taught a hokku that bridged the gap from the old and often more complicated hokku of old Japan to the simpler needs of a modern hokku reduced to its essentials, yet still based on the best of the old aesthetics.

Over time, however, it became obvious that even the term “hokku” needed some adjustment.  It could (somewhat confusingly) signify either modern verses inspired by old hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, or old hokku in Japanese.  Further, what I taught expressed my view that a large part of what what included in the practice of old Japanese hokku was not, in my view, worth continuing as a modern practice in English.  In earlier times there were different kinds of Japanese hokku, ranging from the very objective to the extremely subjective.  My preference always tended to the more objective, which to me expressed not only hokku at its best, but also the deep roots of hokku in the aesthetic influences of Chinese Daoism and Zen Buddhism.

That is when I decided to call the modern English-language adaptation of the old objective hokku that I teach and prefer “daoku.”  It clearly distinguishes that category of modern verse not only from old hokku in Japanese, but also from other modern forms of brief verse such as the varieties falling under the umbrella term “haiku.”

Occasionally, however, one might wish to write a slightly more subjective verse that shows some “thinking” instead of pure objectivity.  We see that kind of “thinking” in this verse by Bashō:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the addition of “thinking” — a subjective interpretation or commentary on the objective first line of the verse.

For such slightly subjective verses I have adopted the name shinku, to distinguish them from the pure objectivity of daoku.  The word shinku comes from a Japanese pronunciation of the old Chinese character for mind — “shin” — and the word for verse — “ku.”

Many old Japanese hokku are far too subjective — have too much thinking or intellectualizing by the writer — to fall under either of these classifications.  I do not think they represent the best of old hokku, so they may safely be left to the literary history books.

When excessively subjective verses are removed, the two remaining classifications — daoku and shinku — offer  a practical and convenient path forward for those wishing to follow the best essential aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku by applying them to writing new hokku for the modern English-speaking world.  And of course what I say here about writing daoku and shinku in English may also generally be easily applied to writing them in other modern languages as well.

Of the two categories, my recommendation for writers is to focus mainly on daoku — objective hokku — while using shinku only sparingly.

When writing shinku, keep in mind that the subjective aspect should be slight, and it is best to generally combine it with objectivity, as we saw in Bashō’s “Octopus Traps” verse.

We see that slight subjectivity also in this spring verse by Buson:

As the petals fall,
The branches of the plum
Grow older.

It is not hard to see that “As the petals fall” is the objective part, and “the branches of the plum / grow older” is the subjective part — the interpretation of, or commentary on the petals by the writer.

It is sometimes more difficult to distinguish subjective and objective, as in this spring verse by Seifu:

The faces of dolls;
Without intending to,
I have grown old.

Still, we can see that “without intending to” is a bit of “thinking” added by the writer.

Verses like that of Seifu above show how one can still “tell the truth” in slightly subjective verses — and that is what we want in hokku of either kind:  telling the truth, whether purely objective, or slightly subjective.

 

David

 

David

THEY DO NOT LIE, BUT HERE THEY SIT

As a boy, I was fascinated with Native Americans — then called “Indians.”  I read everything I could find about them.  It is not surprising, then, that early on I became familiar with today’s poem, which was written by the American Philip Freneau (1752-1832).

It has an odd topic — the position in which the dead were buried.

THE INDIAN BURYING GROUND

In spite of all the learn’d have said;
I still my old opinion keep,
The posture, that we give the dead,
Points out the soul’s eternal sleep.

In spite of all that the well-educated have said, Freneau tells us, he nonetheless holds the view that the posture in which European-Americans bury their dead — lying down — points out that the soul will sleep forever.  He then says that was not true of the Native Americans:

Not so the ancients of these lands —
The Indian, when from life releas’d
Again is seated with his friends,
And shares gain the joyous feast.

The original inhabitants of the northeastern United States, the poet continues, did not bury as the European-Americans did.  Instead, they buried in a seated position, as though the dead were again seated with their friends, sharing a happy feast of abundant food.

His imag’d birds, and painted bowl,
And ven’son, for a journey dress’d,
Bespeak the nature of the soul,
Activity, that knows no rest.

They were buried with images of birds, and painted bowls, and venison (deer meat) prepared for a journey; these expressed the real nature of the soul, the poet tells us — which is restless activity.

His bow, for action ready bent,
And arrows, with a head of stone,
Can only mean that life is spent,
And not the finer essence gone.

In the bow buried ready for use, with its stone-tipped arrows, Freneau sees the meaning that though life on earth may be spent — used up — gone, it is not so in the other world, where the finer essence of the person — the spirit — lives on.

Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way.
No fraud upon the dead commit —
Observe the swelling turf, and say
They do not lie, but here they sit.

The poet cautions passers-by who may happen upon the native burial mounds that swell the earth above the burial, that they should not speak untruths about the native dead; do not say they lie here in the ground.  They sit.

Here still lofty rock remains,
On which the curious eye may trace,
(Now wasted, half, by wearing rains)
The fancies of a older race.

Freneau tells us he knows of a high rock on which a curious person can still make out — though worn by years of rains — the drawings or petroglyphs created there through the creative imaginations of “an older race” — older because they were in eastern North America long before the arrival and colonization of eastern America by European-Americans.

Here still an aged elm aspires,
Beneath whose far — projecting shade
(And which the shepherd still admires
The children of the forest play’d!

The poet also draws our attention to an ancient elm tree.  A European-American shepherd may in Freneau’s time appreciate the wide shade it casts, in which one may rest, but the poet sees it as a place where in earlier times “the children of the forest play’d — “the children of the forest” being a lovely description of the young of the woodland tribes of eastern America.

There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there.

Here the poet goes into his imagination, with a rather romantic imagining of a Native American “queen” (though of course they did not have queens; Freneau is just thinking of a noble and prominent woman); he describes her as a pale “Shebah” using a biblical reference to the Queen of Sheba — with braided hair.

By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews,
In habit for the chase array’d,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!

Continuing in this romanticized imagining, Freneau imagines the spirit of a Native American, dressed for the hunt, chasing a deer — who is also a spirit (“shade”) — beneath the midnight moon and across the dewy ground.

And long shall timorous fancy see
The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And reason’s self shall bow the knee
To shadows and delusions here.

Freneau ends the poem by saying that those with a somewhat timorous (timid, apprehensive) imagination will long continue to see, at the burial mounds, “the painted chief, and pointed spear” — imagining a Native American tribal chief there — and “reason’s self shall bow the knee” — the living man’s reason will give way and surrender to his imagination — and he will see there the shadows and delusions, the mental images of the early Native Americans — that being at the grave mounds will call forth in his mind, as though their spirits were still present.

the Jesuit, Père Pierre Biard, of Grenoble, wrote of the Algonquin tribes:

They bury their dead in this manner: First they swathe the body and tie it up in skins; not lengthwise, but with the knees against the stomach and the. head on the knees, as we are in our mother’s womb. Afterwards they put it in the grave, which has been made very deep, not upon the back or lying down as we do, but sitting. A posture which they like, very much, and which among them signifies reverence. For the children and the youths seat themselves thus in the presence of their fathers and of the old, whom they respect . . . When the body is placed, as it does not come up even with the ground on account of the depth of the grave, they arch the grave over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb . . . If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles; as eager in that for glory as we are in our marble and porphyry. If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows; and shield; if a woman, spoons, matachias [strings or  bands of beads and or porcupine quills], or jewels, ornaments, etc. I have nearly forgotten the most beautiful part of all; it is that they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage, even his dogs if they have not been eaten. Moreover, the survivors add to these a number of other such offerings, as tokens of friendship . . . These obsequies finished, they flee from the place, and, from that time on, they hate all memory of the dead. If it happens that they are obliged to speak of him sometimes, it is under another and a new name.”

WHERE ONCE …

For years on this site, I have explained hokku in terms of their basic aesthetics.  I wonder how many of you can do so at this point.  So here is a question:  what qualities or characteristics of hokku do you find, or not find, in this verse?  What do you feel — or not feel — on reading it?  If you would like to answer, or to say anything else about this hokku, just leave a comment.

(Spring)

In withered weeds
Where once a house stood —
Blooming daffodils.

 

David

DAFFODILS

Today we will look at the well-known poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” sometimes simply known as “Daffodils.”

Now we might think Wordsworth went out for a springtime walk near the water in the Lake District of England, came across masses of blooming daffodils, and went home, sat down, and wrote this poem.

The truth, however, is that British poet William Wordsworth wrote the original version of this well-known poem — based on an experience he had in 1802 — in 1804.  And he wrote it after reading his sister Dorothy’s journal account of their joint experience of walking by the lake known as Ullswater two years earlier.  She had written on April 15, 1802:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – We rested again and again. The Bays were stormy and we heard the waves at different distances and in the middle of the water like the Sea.

Having been moved by Dorothy’s journal entry to write the poem in 1804, Wordsworth had it first published in 1807.  The version commonly known, however — and that given here — is his slight revision,  published in 1815.

We shall go through it part by part.

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Wordsworth writes that he “wandered lonely as a cloud / that floats on high o’er vales and hills.  Do not misunderstand his use of “lonely” here.  He is using it in the old sense, meaning simply “alone,” not in the sense that he was missing human company.  So the meaning of this is just, “I wandered alone, like a cloud that floats high over valleys and hills.”  Now as we know, Wordsworth is using “poetic license” (meaning the freedom of a poet to change things) here, because when he originally saw the daffodils, he was walking with his sister by the lake.

He says, he saw “a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils.”  “Host” in old writings can mean “army” (it is so used in the King James translation of the Bible), but here it simply means “a large number, many.”  So Wordsworth saw a large number of daffodils beneath the trees by the lake, all fluttering and “dancing” in the breeze.  By using “dancing,” Wordsworth likens the daffodils to human dancing, which is projecting human qualities onto plants, but his purpose is to emphasize that they looked cheerful.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

He says the areas of blooming daffodils were continuous — that is, clustered together in a long stretch — “as the stars that shine / and twinkle on the milky way….”  So he compares them to a long stretch of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which in his day and location was far more clearly visible at night than it is now, due to our modern pervasive light pollution by cities. It may seem odd to compare a night scene of stars to a daylight scene of daffodils, but Wordsworth wants to emphasize their continuous numbers, and stars and daffodils both are “bright” in a sense.  And by the way, it was not until 1923 that it was proven galaxies other than the Milky Way exist.

He saw the daffodils blooming in a “never-ending line / along the margin of the bay,” which is a bit of exaggeration/hyperbole, just to emphasize how many flowers were blooming there.  And he uses a large number “ten thousand” that he supposedly saw at one glance, for the same purpose — to emphasize how many flowers were there.  Of course he did not actually count them.  Again, he projects human characteristics onto the flowers: they were “tossing their heads in a sprightly [“lively”] dance.”

Now we get into more human imagery projected onto non-human things for effect:

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:-
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

Wordsworth says “the waves beside them [the daffodils] danced.”  Here again he uses dancing to make the scene seem cheerful.  We, being more rationally inclined, would just recognize that the waves of the lake were undulating quickly in the breeze, but that does not give the effect he wanted to achieve with “danced.”  He goes on to say “they [the daffodils] outdid the sparkling waves in glee.”  By all this he means that though the waves raised by the breeze looked cheerful in their “dancing,” the daffodils looked even more cheerful in theirs — they exceeded the waves in glee/joy.  Seeing this, he tells us, a poet — someone with a “poetic soul” — could not help being gay (yes, I know what you are thinking, but he just means “happy,” “cheerful”) in such jocund (“cheerful,” “lighthearted”) company — the company of the “dancing” daffodils.

The poet “gazed — and gazed” at the fluttering daffodils, but did not realize “what wealth the show to me had brought,” meaning what a valuable thing the large scene of blooming daffodils had put into his mind.

And now he tells us why:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.

The sight of the daffodils brought him unexpected “wealth” because now, when he lies on his couch, whether not thinking of anything (vacant) or in a pensive (thinking) mood, he often again sees the daffodils fluttering by the lake in his memory:

“They flash upon that inward eye (memory, imagination) that is a pleasure in being alone.”  And then Wordsworth’s heart (emotions) fills with pleasure, as though it is dancing (there’s that word again) together with the daffodils in his memory of that day by the lake.

Now of course Wordsworth could simply have said,

“I was walking alone by the lake, and saw a large tract of blooming, golden daffodils fluttering and bouncing in the breeze.  It all looked so cheerful.  I paused for a long time to enjoy the sight, but did not attach great importance to it.  Later, however, I often find the memory of the daffodils coming to mind, and it greatly cheers me when I recall them.”

But that would not be poetry, would it?

Yes, Wordsworth’s old-fashioned phrasing seems a bit contrived to us today, but nonetheless his poem give us an enduring, pleasant picture of a spring by an English lake over two centuries ago.

 

David

AGAIN AND AGAIN

Onitsura wrote this spring hokku:

又もまた花にちられてうつらうつら
Mata mo mata hana ni chirarete utsura utsura

Here it is in daoku form:

Again and again
As the blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

It is a very relaxing verse, with the gentle falling of the blossoms and the drowsiness of the experience.  Notice how it is expressed with no need for the word “I.”  Notice too that this is a good example of something seen in a different way — which is very helpful in composing good daoku.

A Japanese would know from the word hana in the original that the blossoms are most likely cherry blossoms, but in English it could be any blossoming tree scattering its petals in the spring.

We could be more specific, like this:

Again and again
As cherry blossoms fall —
Nodding off.

 

David

THE RHODORA

In a previous posting, we looked at the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.”  Much that was said there is also appropriate to a discussion of today’s poem, “The Rhodora,” by another American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882).  Bryant’s poem was published in 1818, and Emerson wrote today’s poem in 1834.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As with Bryant’s poetry, we must keep in mind a characteristic of much 19th century poetry: the general feeling that everyday language was too common for something as “exalted” as poetry, so poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek,” and “wert” for “were.”

Though it was not at all their everyday language, such out-of-date phrasing was nonetheless very familiar to them from common public knowledge of the King James translation of the Bible, which in those days was considered the Bible.  All of this old-fashioned English can seem just too “precious” and overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine, as I said previously, such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.  Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.  Keep that in mind as we go through Emerson’s poem.

You will also need to know that the Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is a wild shrub with colorful pinkish-purple blossoms that appear on the bare branches before they have yet leafed out, or just as leaves are beginning to sprout.  In Massachusetts — which was where Emerson lived — it blooms in damp and swampy wetland areas in May.  Its range extends from Pennsylvania northward into southern Canada.

You will also want to be reminded that the now seldom-seen word “whence” means “from where,” just as its companion word “whither” means “to where.”  In spite of their clarity and usefulness, both have largely fallen out of use in modern English.  So when we see the title of today’s poem —

THE RHODORA
On being asked, whence is the flower?

We know that it means in ordinary English:

THE RHODORA
On being asked, “Where is the flower from?”

In other words, someone likely asked Emerson, “Ralph — where did you get the flower?” — and that gave him the excuse for writing a poem.

Now let’s look at the poem, which I will discuss part by part.

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.

Concord, Massachusettswhere Emerson lived — was some 35 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the East.   He wrote the poem in Newton, which was only about 12 miles from the sea.  In May the sea breezes — the easterly winds from the sea — are frequent in that region.  So Emerson tells us that in May, when the winds from the from the sea blew into “our solitudes,” meaning the uninhabited, woodsy places outside the towns — the wilder and more lonely places — he found the newly-blooming Rhodora in the woods.  It spread out its “leafless blooms” — which as we saw is characteristic of the shrub — in a damp recess of the forest — “to please the desert and the sluggish brook.”

By “to please the desert and the sluggish brook,” Emerson is merely telling us that the shrub was not blooming to please anyone — because until he came along and found it, there was nothing where it grew but “the desert,” by which he means its wild location with no people (desert in its old use signified a wild, uninhabited place) — and the “sluggish brook” — a slow-moving little stream.

The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.

Emerson saw purplish petals of the Rhodora that had fallen into a pool of water, making the blackish, rather stagnant water look “gay” with their beauty.  This is of course an older use of “gay” — not the modern “same-sex preference” definition.  Emerson is saying that the petals fallen into the dark pool make it look bright and colorful.  He adds that the red-bird might come to that pool “his plumes to cool,” meaning to cool his feathers — or in simpler words, to splash about.

The Red-bird/Redbird was and is a common name for the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis):

He adds the fanciful notion that the red-bird might “court the flower that cheapens his array,” meaning the red-bird might try to impress (as a male would a female) the flower that makes his own bright feathers look “cheap” — less impressive than the petals of the Rhodora.

Now Emerson gets to the philosophical part of the poem:

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;

He says, if the sages/wise men ask the Rhodora why its charm is wasted “on the earth and sky — that is, wasted on this world, growing in places where people may not even see it — then the answer — in Emerson’s view — is this: that just as eyes exist so one may see, beauty exists so it may be beautiful — whether someone is there to see and appreciate it or not.  His analogy is a bit shaky, and of course this notion of sages talking to a flower and getting an answer from it is just Emerson’s rhetorical way of making  a point — that beauty needs no excuse.  It just is.

He continues, in his old fashioned English, by presenting the question again:

Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!

By that he asks, what is the reason for the blossoming in a wild, lonely place of a flower that in its beauty rivals the rose — “Rhodora, why were you there?”

And then he gives his own answer:

I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

When he was in the woods looking at the blooming Rhodora, he just enjoyed its beauty, not even thinking to wonder why it was there — and he never really knew why it was there — but he has a supposition about it:

“But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

Really, the whole point of the poem is in those last two lines.  Emerson was a New England Transcendentalist, who felt that Divinity pervaded all of nature, and was the power behind all that happens.  So when we read that Emerson supposes

“The self-same power that brought me there, brought you” …

He is saying essentially the same thing that Bryant said in “To a Waterfowl”:

“He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.”

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

And that is Emerson’s

The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

 

David

SPRING SNOW

A spring hokku by Charai:

Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Still blooming.

Ume no hana   yuki ga furite mo   saki ni keri
Plum  ‘s  flowers  snow ga falling too  blooming at keri

 

David

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF HAIKU

Two years ago (2018), Penguin Classics came out with an anthology titled The Penguin Book of Haiku.  One might have thought it would include all kinds of undiscovered treasures of old hokku, but that turned out not be be true.  Instead, the best part of the book was its rather iconoclastic introduction, which dispassionately cuts away many of the fantasies associated with the history of the hokku — out of which “haiku” had its beginnings near the end of the 19th century.

The author — Adam L. Kern — has many sensible things to say about what he calls haiku, for example:

“Accordingly, Bashō, the first of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, the poetic genius who single-handedly elevated boneheaded wordplay to bona fide art form called haiku, the undisputed patron saint of haiku, never, strictly speaking, wrote a single haiku in his life.  How could he have, when the haiku dates only to circa 1894, two centuries after the man’s death in 1694?”

Now as readers here know, I have been saying for decades that Bashō did not call what he wrote “haiku.”

Somewhat confusingly, however, though in the text Kern makes clear that the old hokku and the later haiku are not the same thing, he goes on to oddly distinguish them in the text by anachronistically italicizing the earlier verse form as haiku, leaving the later category initiated by Shiki un-italicized as haiku.  He differentiates them like this:

Haiku:

“… derives from an eclectic variety of collaboratively authored witty linked-verse practices that flourished primarily during Japan’s premodern Edo period (1600-1868) and into the modern Meiji (1868-1912).”

Haiku:

” … Indeed the haiku, far from being traditional, existing long ago and continuing to the present day in the same unadulterated form, is traditionalist, claiming the authority of tradition though actually brought into existence in the mid 1890s.  This is hardly ancient by Western standards, let alone Japanese.”

As for the connection with Zen, he writes:

“Haiku is assuredly not Zen poetry.  And contrary to popular belief, Bashō was no Zen master.  That he shaved his head and donned priestly garb was equivalent, during his lifetime, to wearing a beret to signify one’s status as an artiste.”

Well, that is both true and not true.  While one certainly cannot legitimately say that all writers of the hokku (and certainly not the later haiku) were Zen Buddhists, one can legitimately say that the best of old hokku were permeated by the Zen aesthetic that also strongly influenced the other Japanese arts, among them tea, calligraphy, painting, and Noh.  And of course Japanese culture in general was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in some form — and Zen is Mahayana (the “Northern” category of Buddhism in contrast to the “Southern” or Theravada).

In short, aside from terminology, there is much in the book’s introduction to recommend for those interested in the history of hokku and of the origins of the later haiku.  The problem arises when one goes beyond the introduction into the book itself, which turns out to be a surprisingly (and disappointingly) varied collection of many kinds of brief verse, all of which the author has chosen to throw together under the wide umbrella classification “haiku.”

Now to be fair, the author gives an advance warning of this in the introduction:

“And so two caveats.  First, readers of this volume expecting the haiku, or even merely a premodern equivalent, might be in for a shock.  Given the silly, satirical, scatological and sensual content of many verses, traditionalists in particular may well be scandalized, fearing that a Trojan horse has been smuggled into the Holy Citadel of Haiku.”

This is a legitimate caution to readers that what they are about to encounter is not going to be what they expect.  Instead, one finds a small number of  hokku of quality scattered amid a much larger collection that abundantly includes what the author describes as “‘dirty sexy’ haiku.” — indeed, a mixture of forms, including linked verses, senryu, etc — all dumped into the same laundry bag.  While one cannot claim not to have been forewarned in the introduction, by the time one gets to page XXVI, where this revelation is made, it is already too late — the reader will already own the book, unless — as I did — it is borrowed from a library.

Then there is the matter of translation.  Leaving the question of the author’s choices regarding omission of capitalization and often punctuation, the verses of diverse kinds vary in translation from the quite literal to the sometimes confusingly interpretive.

An example from Buson:

bursting open
disgorging its rainbow:
peony dynamo!

The problem is in the last line.  Buson died in 1784.  “Dynamo,” whether used of a machine or figuratively of a human, is an English term that came into use in the 1880s for the former, the 1890s for the latter.  It is anachronistic and inappropriate here, in spite of Kern’s interpretive intent.  He should have been satisfied with simply

Bursting open,
Disgorging a rainbow —
The peony.

Almost a literary crime is Kern’s translation of Hashin’s winter hokku as:

heaven and earth:
neither exists apart from
Snow fluttering down.

While the original says simply,
Ten mo chi mo   nashi tada yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not  only snow ‘s ceaselessly-falling

Literally,

No sky nor earth —
Only snow
Endlessly falling.

Another example — Buson’s

a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.

As a translation it is aesthetically disappointing.  To the author’s credit, however, is the explanation he gives in the verse commentaries that follow the anthology, which in the case of this verse is quite good:

“An imaginative visual double take [mitate] of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku, perhaps, replete with the artist’s round seal (insu), emphasized by an extra syllabet.  Buson has charmingly taken to its logical extreme the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy, as with the following waka by Tsumori no Kunimoto (c.1023-1102): ‘how they resemble / the lines of a letter / written in light greys — / those geese returning homeward / through darkening skies ….'”

Readers are likely to be mystified by the bizarre arrangement of the verses, which mixes the four seasons in a manner the author thought, it appears, indicative of the “collaborative flow” of old linked verse.  It was a serious error that completely neglects the significance of the season and is not at all helpful.

In summation, my view is that paradoxically, the best parts of The Penguin Book of Haiku are first, the introduction, and second, the commentary following the verse collection.  The anthology itself, lying in the bulk of remaining pages, is extremely trying for readers, as one searches among the multitude of trivial and pornographic entries for quality verses rising above that low level.  Consequently, the book is likely to be of interest primarily to those who want an overview of all the various kinds of brief verse (briefer than waka) written in old Japan, from the pornographic and erotic, the satirical and the humorous, to the fewer hokku of quality included in this multifarious and — I think for most readers — disappointing and regrettable mixture.  While one may understand the author’s purpose in using such a collection to puncture romanticized notions about old Japanese verse, that does not lessen the unsatisfying and inconvenient nature of the anthology.

On leafing through it, I could not help being reminded what an excellent job of selection R. H. Blyth did in his four Haiku volumes and two History of Haiku volumes — which together still offer the reader the finest anthology of the best of old hokku available to date — though these books have paradoxically now been out of print for several years.

 

David

SOMETIMES IT’S DAOKU, SOMETIMES IT’S NOT

In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku.  In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content.  Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.

Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:

宿の春   何もなきこそ   何もあれ
Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso   nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is

Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:

My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.

Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.

Blyth translates it as:

In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!

This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse.  It shows us the “thinking” of the writer.  There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing.  It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.

That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”

We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:

燭の火を   燭にうつすや   春の夕
Shoku no hi wo    shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo  candle at copy ya   spring ‘s evening

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other.  It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.”  It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words.  In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.

Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.”  That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.

 

David

 

David

AT EVERY DOOR

In daoku we do not often use the hokku of Issa as models because he tended to subjectivity in his verses, while daoku prefer objectivity.  Occasionally, however, we find a hokku by him that can be used, for example this one:

(Spring)

門々の  下駄の泥より   春立ちぬ
Kado kado no   geta no doro yori    haru tachinu
Gate -gate ‘s     geta  ‘s   mud from  spring risen-has

We may put this into English as:

At every gate,
Spring has begun
With the mud on the geta.

Geta (下駄) are the wooden “platform” sandals worn in traditional Japan.

Now obviously this hokku is too specific to old Japanese culture to use as a daoku model, but we can do so if we make it more “Western,” like this:

At every door,
Spring begins
With the mud on the shoes.

In that verse we see the beginning of spring in the mud on the shoes people have left outside their doors.  The mud is a sign of the arrival of spring, because it appears when the snow and frost of winter have receded.

Again, this is a hokku of growing yang (warmth) and diminishing yin (cold) seen in the wet mud on the shoes.  The season of spring is growing yang as yin diminishes.

David

BEGINNING DAOKU THROUGH HOKKU

As a reader here perceptively remarked, “All daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”  Today we will begin a look — via old hokku — at just what daoku is.  Because it originated in Japanese hokku of a certain kind, we can easily use relevant old hokku translated into the English-language daoku form as daoku examples.

First — like hokku in general — each daoku is set in the context of one of the four seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words to put a verse in its context, but the system became very complicated and unwieldy over time, requiring years to master.  In daoku we simply head each verse with the season in which it is written.  Daoku are never written out of season.  One does not write a spring verse in autumn, or a winter verse in summer.  The season heading is placed in parentheses above the daoku, like this:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Now it may seem redundant to have the heading (Spring) above a verse that has the word “spring” in it, but it saves a lot of confusion when a group of hokku of the same season are grouped together, because many daoku will not have the season mentioned in the verse.  When presenting several daoku of the same season together, the season heading is placed only above the first verse in the sequence.

Let’s examine the form:

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Each line begins with a capital letter.

The daoku is in two parts, a shorter part and a longer part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.  In the case of this verse, the separating mark is the semicolon at the end of the first line.  The comma at the end of the second line is there to guide the reader easily through the verse.

The verse also ends with an appropriate punctuation mark — in this case, a period.

The invariable punctuation marks in a daoku are the separating mark and the ending mark, though of course the kind of punctuation marks used may vary.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.  Usually they total only between about seven to thirteen words. The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.  The daoku above contains only ten words, which falls easily within the normal range.

There are several characteristics of daoku.  Prominent among them are these:

Poverty
Simplicity
Selflessness
Transience

Poverty in daoku is the opposite of materialism.  It means being satisfied with little instead of much, both in writing and in life.  It is a kind of minimalism.  It avoids the grand and flamboyant. We find povery not only in the aesthetics of hokku, but also in its minimal use of words, while retaining normal grammar.

Simplicity means that daoku deal with ordinary things in ordinary words.  The difference is that daoku is at its best when dealing with ordinary things seen in a new or different way.

Selflessness means that in daoku, it is the verse — or rather what it conveys — that is important, not the writer.  The writer in daoku should be invisible, so that the reader may become the experiencer.  We say the writer gets out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That is why use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” is kept to a minimum in daoku, and avoided when it is not awkward to do so.  Writers of daoku do not think of themselves as “poets” writing “poetry.”  Instead, the writer of daoku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, just as a still pond clearly reflects the moon.

Transience — which we may also call impermanence — means that daoku as a whole have an underlying sense of the constant change in Nature — that things do not last, but are in a continual state of transformation.  Dawn appears only to become noon, then night; frost appears only to melt and disappear.  Leaves grow only to mature and wither.

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

I like to use this verse at the beginning of spring (according to the old hokku calendar, which is also the daoku calendar) because it so clearly expresses the time when the cold (yin) of winter lingers, but the warmth (yang) of spring is growing.  We see the former in the frost on the leaves, and the latter in the young leaves themselves.  Further, growing warmth and light (yang) are reflected in the dawn.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring. Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day. So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring. Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness. But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the “diminishing yin” seen in the temporary morning frost on the leaf of the barley. This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature. Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

曙や   麦の葉末の   春の霜

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no    haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

In the original by Onitsura, the word translated here as “barley” — mugi (in kanji, むぎ in hiragana) can also mean wheat, oats, etc. — it is a general term for grain crops.

If any readers here have questions about the nature or techniques of daoku, please ask, now that spring is again beginning.  Unlike other forms of brief verse that have grown out of or been inspired by hokku, daoku has specific standards, principles, and aesthetics.  It is more challenging to learn, but also — for those who find it speaks to their condition, more rewarding.

 

David

AN END TO THE “HAIKU WARS”

Perhaps it has occurred to some of you that by introducing daoku as a Western form of brief verse in the aesthetic tradition of old objective hokku, we have eliminated a great deal of bother and needless controversy.

In presenting it as a verse form with its own fixed form and aesthetics, no room is left for the bickering and ongoing controversies that so marred the discussions of hokku and haiku from the mid 20th century onward.  One may argue about hokku and haiku and the appropriate terminology and aesthetics for these, but daoku — as a modern verse form in the tradition of old Japanese objective hokku — is what it is, and there is nothing to argue about.  What a sense of relief and peace!

If someone asks us what we write and practice, we can just reply, “Daoku, based on the aesthetic tradition of old Japanese objective hokku.”  If someone asks us if it is just like old hokku, we can say, “No — it is based on essence of the best of the old objective hokku aesthetics that developed out of the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, but being written in English, it has its own definite form and standards and aesthetics.”

Daoku remains so close to old Japanese objective hokku in its aesthetics that we can use many of those old hokku — translated into modern English daoku form — to teach it.  That enables us to honestly say that daoku continues the aesthetics of the best of that old tradition in our modern world.

Further, daoku takes us completely out of the ongoing “haiku wars” that began in print in the mid 20th century and continue on into our times on the Internet.  Because daoku has fixed form and aesthetic standards, there is no need to argue with others over the form and aesthetics of modern haiku or old hokku.  All may write whatever kinds of verse they prefer, whether some category of old hokku, or some variation of modern haiku — or, as we do — the now clearly defined modern verse form daoku.  No argument over terminology is needed any longer.

I will continue to use the term hokku to describe the old Japanese verse form, because that is not only its original name as used for centuries, but it is also the correct modern academic term.  When discussing modern haiku (which I may on occasion need to do), that terminology will refer to the variations of brief verse that were loosely inspired in the 20th century by the old hokku, continuing into the present.  When describing the kind of verse that gave rise to the aesthetics of daoku, I will likely refer to it as “old Japanese objective hokku.”  I may sometimes loosely refer to individual old Japanese objective hokku — when they fit daoku standards — as “daoku,” but only with the understanding that this is only a convenient aesthetic descriptor, not the original name.

It should gradually become clear through all of this that theoretically, one could read and write daoku with no reference to its roots in the old Japanese hokku at all.  No need to know anything of Japanese hokku and its history and aesthetics, as long as the definite aesthetic standards of daoku itself are maintained.  There is, however, no need to do that, and old objective Japanese hokku are very helpful in learning the aesthetics and spirit proper to daoku, when translated into the daoku form.

In my view, daoku is a very practical and appropriate way to continue the old objective hokku tradition in our modern world.  As the best of that old objective hokku tradition stripped to its essentials, it leaves aside the great weight of baggage that has accumulated around hokku and haiku over the centuries and more specifically in the West, from the mid 20th century onward.  It enables a fresh, new beginning, very appropriate to the coming of spring in just a few days from now.

If daoku speaks to your condition, it is there for you.  And if you prefer following another path, everyone is free to choose.  In any case, those who decide to learn and practice daoku can now happily say goodbye to the ongoing arguments and animosity of the “haiku wars.”

 

David

 

DAOKU IS THE SEED OF POETRY

Daoku — once one understands the form and aesthetics — is really very simple.

First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of daoku:  romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language daoku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the daoku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, daoku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience rather than ideas or opinions about them.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing and cleverness — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of daoku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the overall oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  That sense of unity is very important.  Everything in a daoku should be related, instead of just being a random assemblage of things.  Without that aesthetic, daoku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your daoku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Daoku is in the objective hokku aesthetic tradition.  Let’s look at an objective hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English daoku form:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer) and has that season as its heading.  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), a season heading is added in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern daoku are shared.  Not all old hokku contain the season name, and it is important in reading both them and modern daoku to know the season.  In modern daoku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.  The season of a daoku should always go with it when it is shared with others or published.

Though daoku may be used out of season when teaching, ordinarily a daoku should be written and read in its appropriate season, rather than in another.  That give us a greater sense of unity — of being in harmony with the season.

So you see, writing daoku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to it, because people are so accustomed to verses that either tell a story, or express what we think about something, or comment on things, or are all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good daoku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  objective hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is daoku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in daoku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.

We do not describe daoku as poetry, because the verse itself is not poetry.  With daoku, the poetry is the deep feeling the reader gets on reading it.  The daoku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.  So the poetry of daoku is not on the page; it is in the mind.

 

David

THE DAOKU FORM

Daoku in English has very definite standards and principles, and these extend even to the appearance of a verse on the page, specifically to lineation, capitalization, and punctuation.

An English-language daoku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts, a longer and a shorter.
The two parts of daoku are separated by appropriate punctuation.
The daoku ends with appropriate punctuation.

When shared, each daoku is given an appropriate seasonal heading, whether spring, summer, fall/autumn or winter.  This heading is commonly placed in parentheses.

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of  daoku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In daoku, everyone follows the same form.  That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth.  But equally important, it gives no occasion to  bickering over form.  It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in daoku.  We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Now regarding punctuation, its great virtue is that it guides the reader through the daoku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion.  It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a daoku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate daoku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause.  It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a daoku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The summer wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause, in cases such as

The summer wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The summer wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in daoku is never answered:

The summer wind?

The exclamation mark is seldom used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A summer wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause.  It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the summer wind,

A daoku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

In length, a daoku is usually between seven and thirteen words.  The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.

This flexibility is very important to English language daoku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid.  The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in daoku we use just a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.

That is daoku form in a nutshell.

There is thus nothing peculiar about the appearance of daoku in English.  It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation.  And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a daoku visually, it is only the content that will make a real daoku.

David

DAOKU — THE KIND OF HOKKU I TEACH

As I have said before, when I began teaching hokku — using that term –on the Internet — most people did not even know what the word meant.  They were accustomed to the anachronistic term “haiku,” which they retroactively applied to the short verses of Onitsura, Bashō, and all the rest — even though that was not what those writers called them.

The reason I revived the term hokku for my use in teaching was not only that it was the original name of the verse form, but also it became quite obvious that it was very important to distinguish it from what modern haiku had become.  Though modern haiku was loosely inspired by the old hokku — largely as a misperception and misunderstanding of it — in general it no longer reflected (nor does it today) the aesthetic values of hokku.

Today, hokku and haiku are two often widely divergent verse forms.  My preference is for the hokku, while those who want a less challenging form may prefer modern haiku.

Now that we are about to enter spring — the time of new beginnings — it is also time for me to make yet another distinction.  As readers here know, I have always favored hokku that reflect the traditional aesthetics hokku developed due to its roots in Buddhism — specifically Zen, which had a deep effect on Japanese culture — and in Daoism.  Those origins gave hokku its specific character — its appreciation of Nature and the changing seasons, its sense of the transience of all things, as well as its selflessness and simplicity.

Old Japanese hokku did not always live up to those qualities.  Mixed in among what to me were the best hokku, there were also a great number of hokku that displayed varying degrees of subjectivity.  Subjectivity in hokku is adding the thoughts, opinions, comments, cleverness, intellection (“thinking”) and self of the writer.  While subjective hokku may be interesting — or even quite good — as poetry, they cannot go beyond that.  They leave an emphasis on the writer as “poet” and on what is written as “poetry.”

By contrast, in my view the unique contribution of the best of old hokku was its objectivity — presenting an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature directly, without “thinking” or cleverness or the writer getting in the way.  It does not convey an experience through ideas, but rather through sensory experience — seeing, tasting touching smelling, and hearing.

What all this comes down to is that we may divide old hokku (and even modern hokku, to some extent) into subjective and objective verses.  Subjective verses are more like what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, though of course considerably briefer.  Objective hokku, however, are often quite unlike the bulk of Western poetry, though fragments of objectivity may be found within it, here and there.

To me, objective hokku were the best the old hokku had to offer, and that is what I like to teach.  The term by itself, however, may be subject to some misunderstanding, because what is objective hokku to me — which of course includes Nature and the seasons as its foundation — may not be what others think of when hearing that term.

That is why — some time ago — I first introduced the word daoku for the kind of hokku I teach.  The word is a combination of the Chinese dao — meaning “way” — the way of Nature, the way of the universe — a way of being in harmony — and the Japanese term ku, meaning “verse,” though it was borrowed from China and originally meant “song.”  That gives us daoku — which we may think of as the verse of harmony with Nature.

Because it is a newly-coined term, it can be given a very specific meaning, and that meaning is basically what I have been teaching all along as hokku — more specifically objective hokku — and now very specifically as daoku.  I think the use of this term — when supplied with a more complete definition — will prevent much misunderstanding as to precisely what I am talking about when I discuss the aesthetics, principles, standards, techniques and practice of hokku — the kind of hokku I prefer and teach.

Consequently, in future postings here, you will read less about hokku (though of course the term will still be used when appropriate) and much more about daoku — the particular form of objective hokku that to me exemplifies the greatest contribution old hokku made to the world.  So when  you see me referring to this or that verse of an old Japanese hokku writer as daoku, you will know that I am referring to a particular kind of largely Nature, season, and sense-based hokku.  Yes, it is still hokku, but the use of the new terminology will enable me (and you as well, should you choose to adopt the term) to be very specific and clear as to precisely the kind of verse I teach, very clearly distinguishing it from all other kinds of objective hokku and hokku in general.

Expect more on the principles and practice of daoku as we enter spring (according to the old calendar) with Candlemas and the beginning of February.  For long-time readers here, it will look very familiar as what I have long taught as simply “hokku” but now finer distinctions will be possible, and should lead to greater clarity in understanding.

 

David

HOKKU IS NOT WRITING “POETRY”

A major difference between the kind of hokku I teach and the verses of modern haiku lies in a fundamental divergence in what one considers the verse form to be.  In modern haiku, verses written are considered “poetry,” and the writers “poets.”

Now this brings with it all kinds of cultural and literary baggage, because writing “poetry” puts the emphasis on the writer as well as on the cleverness of what is written.  That is a long-standing tradition in Western poetry, and it is precisely why — in my view — so many people never gain an understanding of hokku.  At its best, hokku is something quite different than “poetry.”  It is a momentary experience of the fundamental unity of humans and Nature.

If one is to experience that unity, then Nature must be allowed to speak through the writer — instead of the writer manipulating Nature in words — or even manipulating words while ignoring Nature entirely, which is often the case now with modern haiku.

If one regards hokku as poetry created by a poet, then an obstacle is put in place preventing a direct experience of Nature.  In writing hokku, ideally the writer should disappear, so that the reader may become one with the experience, with no poet or poetic cleverness getting between the reader and the experience.

To do that, a writer of hokku must — at least momentarily — become selfless; by doing so, all that remains is the experience, without poetic ornamentation, without cleverness:

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is pure experience.  In it, there is no overt poetry.  The poetry is in the experience — beyond the words.  When it is read, there is no “poet,” no “poetry” — just

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is the selflessness of hokku, with the writer disappearing so that Nature may speak.

 

David

 

AVOID “CLEVERNESS” IN HOKKU

Many people are confused about just what hokku is because historically, it has differing levels with different qualities.

Hokku originated as the first verse of a kind of communal poetry game, so it is not suprising that there are many old hokku on a low quality level.  There is for example, the verse of Moritake:

落花枝にかへると見れば胡蝶哉 守武

Rak-ka eda ni kaeru to mireba kochō kana

A fallen flower
Returning to the branch?
Looking — a butterfly!

This is just a clever twist on an old comment by the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) teacher Baoji Xiujing, that became a Japanese folk saying:

Rakka eda ni kaerazu, hakyou futatabi terasazu
The fallen blossom doesn’t return to the branch; a broken mirror will not illuminate again.

And Sōkan wrote:

Tsuki ni e wo sashitaraba yoki uchiwa kana

If to the moon
A handle were attached —
What a good fan!

Now we may think this sort of “cleverness” in hokku went out with Bashō, but that did not at all happen.  In fact in the 1700s, Buson wrote this autumn verse:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 )– “one line” calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.

Though superior as poetry, Buson’s “line of wild geese” verse is very much like Sōkan’s verse.  Where Sōkan added a handle to the moon and made an uchiwa (a kind of roundish fan), Buson has turned a line of wild geese flying in the sky into a line of calligraphy, and has turned the moon above the foothills into a painter’s round signature seal to complete the scroll.  Both have used “cleverness” of imagination to make something in Nature into something made by humans.

Now one may find such verses interesting as a form of poetry because of their “cleverness,” but cleverness is not really a part of the best hokku.  In good hokku, geese are geese, not a line of calligraphy; the moon is the moon, not a fan or a seal on a painting.  In good hokku Nature is allowed to be what it is, undistorted by the cleverness of the writer.

Gakoku wrote (my loose translation) this spring verse:

Kasumi yori tokidoki amaru hokake-bune

Out of the mist
From time to time —
A sail appears.

In that, the mist is mist, the boat sail that appears now and then above the mist is a sail.  Each is what it is, nothing is made into or imagined to be or symbolizes something else.  Hokku at its best should not exhibit human cleverness, but rather should be a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

 

David

 

THE FOUNDATIONS OF HOKKU

In only about eleven days, we shall be at Candlemas (February 1/2) — the traditional beginning of spring in the hokku calendar.  In the intervening days, I would like to review the aesthetic foundations of hokku.

It has been common to say that hokku came out of Zen, but people often do not understand what that means.  Historically, Zen is a form of Buddhism that grew out of the encounter in China of Buddhism with Daoism.  It tends to asceticism and simplicity of life, along with a sense of the intimate relationship between humans and Nature — in fact humans are a part of Nature — and so in a sense are Nature — not separate.

But what does Zen in hokku mean?  R. H. Blyth put it very simply and well:

…it is that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.

So if you want a definition of Zen in hokku, that is it.  We are all a part of Nature — of the universe — and yet we are not separate from it.  We are ourselves, and yet we are the universe.

A great deal of misunderstanding arose in the West in the 20th century through the confusing of hokku with poetry.  By “poetry” here is meant the standards and perspectives of literary poetry as it developed in the West — and for us English speakers, it means specifically the cultural viewpoint as to what is and is not “poetry.”  The problem here was that when hokku came West as “Japanese poetry,” people assumed that it was just a shorter and simpler but exotic-looking version of English-language poetry.  They interpreted it in terms of what they already knew, instead of looking at it with fresh eyes and seeing how really different from Western poetry it is.  Some of the early translators of hokku even rendered it in rhyme, which is quite alien to hokku, but again reflects the Western errors in perceiving it in terms of one aspect of Western poetry.

Because the interest in hokku — though presented under the anachronistic name “haiku” — really grew in the latter half of the 20th century, many applied to it characteristics of experimental 20th century poetry such as that of E. E. Cummings, which led to Westerners writing what they now called “haiku” with minimal or no punctuation or capitalization, and often a lack of common grammar.

Now you know why I do not refer to the verse form hokku as poetry.  It is not at all what we in the West have been conditioned to think of as poetry, and the sooner that is learned, the sooner one can progress in understanding it.

One of the common characteristics of traditional Western poetry is lyricism, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the beautiful expression of personal thoughts and feelings in writing or music.”  Hokku avoids lyricism.

Hokku also avoids mind-coloring — the imposition of our personal interpretations and imagining and commentary — again something common in Western poetry.

Hand in hand with mind-coloring is intellectualism — using “thinking” in place of sensory perception — saying what one thinks or reasons about a thing or event instead of just letting it be what it is.  That too is common in Western poetry, but is avoided in hokku.  In hokku we do not interpret Nature or go off on flights of fancy about it.  We just present it as it is.

Symbolism and metaphor and simile are also very common in Western poetry, but are absent in the best of hokku.  That again is part of letting things be what they are, without interpreting or manipulating them for “poetic” ends.

The poetry in hokku is not in the form or the words, but rather is found, as Blyth wrote, in “a representation in words of the real world,”  of Nature as it is, and humans as a part of that, not separate.

Hokku takes us out of the constant chatter of our thinking minds into the real world of things — of rain falling on cedars, of water rushing around stones in a stream, of blossoms opening and blossoms falling, and the harsh cry of a crow.

Hokku records moments in time  — experiences of Nature and the seasons — that are felt to have a particular significance, and it is presenting those in all their simplicity and directness that characterizes hokku and makes it different from all other kinds of verse.  The poetry of hokku is in each individual moment of significance, and not in the outward form of the verse on the page or in its words.  The words are only a finger pointing to the poetic experience — the unspoken significance — beyond them.

See how very different this winter hokku is from Western poetry:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

In it, we feel the winter and the cold and the silence of night broken by the bursting jug.  It gives us a particular poetic feeling of the moment and the season and our place as a part of it.  We hear it and feel it — simple sensory perception, without analysis or any of the frills of elaboration or commentary.  It puts us in a particular state of mind that is not separate from the cold or the bursting water jug.  We become the event — the experience.  That is the great virtue of hokku, and what gives it its power and particular worth and distinction among literary forms.

Hokku does not aim for beauty, but rather for that feeling of significance, that sense of the unity of things.  There is a beauty in hokku, but it is not conventional — and it is a kind of humble beauty that is sensed behind and with the unspoken significance of a hokku experience.  As Blyth wrote, “The real nature of each thing, and more so, of all things, is a poetical one.”

Originally, and often due to the nature of the language, Japanese hokku were sometimes rather vague, giving rise to different interpretations of the same verse.  It could happen that one had to guess at what the writer meant, and guesses differed.  This was one of the faults of old hokku in my view, because it did not enable the reader to have a clear and strong experience of the hokku event.  In English-language hokku this is no longer such a problem, because English enables one to be more definite in writing.  Nonetheless, each person will experience a hokku in a slightly different way, because we all have a different personal memory of things and experiences.  When, for example, we read

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

— we will each see a different pond, a different frog, hear a different plop — but the essence remains the same.  In hokku, one old pond is all old ponds, one frog is all frogs, one “plop!” is all “plops.”

In my view, it is very unfortunate that hokku was so misunderstood and misinterpreted when it was introduced to the West.  Those misperceptions gave rise to the modern “haiku” movement, but hokku itself was very nearly completely lost in the process.  It was so far abandoned that until very recently, many people had no idea that the verses of Bashō, Taigi, Onitsura and all the rest were originally called hokku, not “haiku.”  In fact, when I began telling people on the Internet that many years ago, they simply did not believe me.  Now the term hokku is making a comeback, but is still greatly misunderstood and underestimated.  For many years now, I have been trying to remedy this by returning to the basic traditions of the old hokku, presenting its aesthetic essence — based on the best of the old tradition — but in English language form.

I often begin by telling people that hokku and “haiku” are not the same.  Since the term “haiku” began to be retroactively applied to the hokku — something that was a gradual development in Japan around the beginning of the 20th century — it has only been the cause of great confusion and misunderstanding as hokku and “haiku” have diverged ever more widely over the decades.  Today, in their principles and aesthetics — hokku and “haiku” really have become in general two very different things.  Hokku is still based on the essence of the aesthetic traditions of the old hokku, its foundation in Nature and humans as a part of Nature, within the context of the seasons.  “Haiku” by contrast has become whatever one wishes to be, with its standards left up to the individual writers.  That has made it very popular, because with no common standards, it is very easy to write a verse and call it “haiku.”

Hokku, however, is more challenging.  It requires not only a knowledge of its English-language form and techniques, but also an understanding and appreciation of its fundamental aesthetics, which are often very different than those in the modern “haiku” community.  Unlike “haiku,” hokku is not and should not be simply a hobby or pastime — it should be a way of life.

From my perspective, if you want instant gratification, write “haiku.”  But if you want something deeper and more spiritual, then it is likely hokku will, as the Quakers put it, “speak to your condition.”

 

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPLITTING MELONS

An old verse — not really a hokku in spirit, but more just an admonition — by Bashō is sometimes cited by modern haiku enthusiasts.  They generally understand it to mean that one should not write using the same aesthetics as old Japanese hokku — but must be rebellious and iconoclastic and avant-garde in writing verses — forgetting about Nature as subject matter, forgetting about a connection with the season, forgetting about what is appropriate and what is not for a hokku to be a hokku.

Well, in my view that is not at all what Bashō meant.

The circumstances of this verse were that a young merchant of medicines  — in short a businessman — had come from Ōsaka to request admission to Bashō’s school of hokku.   One of the characteristics of Japan in Bashō’s day was the rise of the merchant class, and their desire to “get some culture” by learning how to write haikai — the linked verse form in which the hokku was the opening verse.

In accepting him, Bashō gave him this admonitory verse, which as you can see has none of the characteristics of good hokku.  It was to serve a different purpose — the advice of a teacher to a new student:

Here it is in transliterated Japanese:

ware ni niru na
futatsu ni ware shi
makuwauri

Very literally, it says:

Me resemble not;
Two into cut
Korean melon

The Korean or Chinese or “Oriental” melon (Cucumis melo) is a kind of muskmelon with light greenish flesh, very watery and not nearly as sweet as the muskmelons common in the United States.  But is not the kind of melon that is important here, just the fact that when cut in half, the two sides look just the same, like twins.

Now what Bashō meant by this — in my view — was certainly not that one should stop using the standard hokku form, or that one should disconnect hokku from Nature and the seasons.  We can see that historically he never advocated that, which is why these were common characteristics of hokku even into the time of Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, Bāsho meant that one should not slavishly copy his writing “style,” or even imitate his particular life — because his new student was a “city businessman” and Bashō was an itinerant teacher of haikai, dependent on income from his students and well-wishers for his livelihood.  If one were to just be an imitation of Bashō, it would be difficult to write verses that were fresh and new.  And keep in mind that Bashō is talking here about the whole practice of writing linked verse — not just about the independent hokku.

In fact just what Bashō advised against in this verse actually happened over the years.  People began to regurgitate and copy and repeat the same kinds of linked verse and hokku over and over again, without fresh inspiration.  They became somewhat like those in our time who learn some simplistic landscape painting techniques on television, and then go on to paint new imaginary landscapes in the same simplistic manner, remaining in their houses and never actually going out into Nature to learn from it.  That repetitive imitation led to a severe decline in quality of hokku that became very evident in the 19th century, a decline that was a major factor in Shiki’s attempt to renew hokku (and simultaneously eliminate haikai) — though as we can see, his re-packaging of hokku as “haiku” and his addition of some unwise notions led ultimately to its further destruction.

In any case, Bashō was not telling his new student to wildly go off on his own course by drastically changing hokku (what, then, would have been the purpose of studying under Bashō?), but rather he was telling him not to just imitate the style and phrasing of his teacher — but to let his own style develop naturally, through living his own life and absorbing his own inspiration — something that could not happen through imitation only.

Now it is often normal both in writing and in the arts of painting, architecture, pottery, music etc. that a student will begin by imitating the style of an admired teacher, but one can generally easily see when someone is merely being imitative.  However, as one grows in ability and understanding, one will naturally begin to exhibit what one has learned, by assimilating it and expressing it through one’s own nature and inspiration.  That was what Bashō was aiming for.

There is, by the way, an odd translation of Basho’s admonitory verse that is spread all over the Internet lately:  it is by Robert Hass, presented this way:

Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

But what Bashō actually said was more like this (and yes, it is just a teaching maxim and has no value as a hokku):

Don’t resemble me;
A melon cut
Into two halves.

Well, as you can see from the literal translation given earlier, the Hass version is not a translation so much as an interpretation.  Bashō says nothing about being “as boring” as the two halves of a melon.  Instead he just implies by saying “Don’t resemble me,” and adding “A melon cut into two halves,” that as a student learns, his writing and that of the teacher should not be just the same — which of course is the only way a student can really progress beyond the stage of imitation.

So in short, what Bashō was telling his student was this:  As you learn, don’t try to be just the same as me in your writing or in your life.  I will be me.  You be you.

 

David

 

AND MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP

Bringing the hokku back from near oblivion is a long and unsteady process.  It was nearly lost completely in the 20th century.  Part of that is due to historical confusion, and part is due to the misguided efforts of enthusiasts of the Western “haiku” movement, which experienced a surge of growth in the 1960s.

I have seen it all, and have watched the distinct changes in the attitude of the “haiku” movement toward hokku over the years.

First, there was refusal to even admit the existence of hokku.  When I began telling people online, about 1996 — that Bashō and the rest did not call the independent brief verses they wrote “haiku,” but rather hokku, they simply did not believe me.  They thought I was making it up.

A contributing factor to that ignorance was the persistent efforts of members of the Haiku Society of America to have the word “hokku” declared obsolete in dictionaries, etc.  Their premise was that under their authority, everything was now “haiku,” even the centuries of hokku written before the term “haiku” began to be popularized in Japan about the first half of the 20th century.  Such anachronistic historical revisionism did the recognition and survival of the hokku no good.

The next step took a long time.  It is only in the last few years that people in the modern “haiku” movement began to take an interest in reviving linked verse, which was practiced in old Japan under the name haikai.  But that revival created a problem for them.  Suddenly the would-be revivalists were faced with the historical fact that the opening verse of a linked verse series — the beginning verse — was always called the hokku.  So the modern haiku movement began using that term again, after decades of having abandoned it.  But there was a catch.  They began to say that yes, there really was such a thing as hokku, but it was only the first verse of a series of linked verses.

Now that, of course, is historically completely inaccurate; hokku were often written as independent verses even in the time of Bashō (mid-17th century), who also taught the use of hokku in linked verse.

Now the modern “haiku” movement is entering yet another stage.  Some prominent individuals in the modern “haiku” movement are beginning to admit that, well yes, all the independent hokku written before Shiki were in fact called hokku, not “haiku.”  And even more striking, they are also beginning to admit that, yes, there is a distinct difference between the old hokku and what is written as “haiku” today.

Now as long-time readers of my site know, I have been saying this for literally decades, but up to now have been a voice crying in the wilderness.

So now we are entering a new period in which some advocates of modern “haiku” (though certainly not all of them yet) are finally willing to admit not only that all the independent verses written by Bashō and others before the revisionism of Shiki around the turn of the 20th century were hokku, not “haiku,” but also that there are distinct differences between those hokku and what is written as modern “haiku” today.

Now that is a major step forward, but nonetheless, this knowledge still has not filtered down to the masses of the “haiku” movement — so it will take some time to spread — if indeed it does spread.  And I must say, it should not have taken all these many years for the simple facts — which I have been stating all through that period of confusion in the “haiku” movement — to be accepted.

There is still, however, a major problem.  Aside from the time it will take for this reversal in view to filter throughout the modern “haiku” community (and one hopes it will), there is still a serious ignorance — even among those “haiku” advocates recognizing and admitting the existence of the differences between hokku and modern “haiku” — of the characteristics of the genuine hokku.  In other words, having accepted that hokku and modern “haiku” are two different things, those in the modern “haiku” community who have made the mental change still have no real and practical understanding of the aesthetics and techniques that make hokku what it is.

The result is that some in the modern “haiku” community are willing to admit and accept hokku as a separate category, but they think all that distinguishes it from “haiku” is that it is “about nature,” and they attribute that to the fact that hokku flourished in pre-industrial Japan — largely before the rise of modern technology there in the 19th century under Western influence.

Now to describe the difference between hokku and “haiku” as simply that the former is “about nature” while the latter need not be, has so far led — in the modern “haiku” community — only to further misunderstanding of what the hokku really is.  The result is that lots of newly-written verses being called “hokku” are really nothing but modern “haiku” with a dash of “nature” thrown in.

The problem in short is that the modern “haiku” community still has no understanding of the aesthetics of the hokku, and in attempting to write what they now call hokku, they are in the position of the blind being led by the blind.  Those who are instructing them do not themselves know how to write hokku.  For an example of this, read the discussions and pseudo-“hokku” on this modern haiku site page:

https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php?topic=10402.0

The reason, of course, is that when the modern “haiku” movement gained speed in the mid-20th century, it set off on its erratic course without ever having understood what the inherent aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku were.  Instead, as I repeatedly say, those in the movement misperceived and misinterpreted the hokku — which they called “haiku” — in terms of what they knew of Western poetry and Western poets.

That was a drastic and destructive error, because the aesthetics of the Japanese hokku at its best are quite unlike the aesthetics of the bulk of Western poetry in English and other European languages.

The result is that after all these years, aside from myself, I still do not know of anyone who teaches hokku in English according to the traditional aesthetics.  That is very unfortunate and entirely unnecessary.  It is certainly not to be taken as a boast, but rather as a sad recognition of how the aesthetic tradition of hokku has been largely ignored and nearly lost in the English-speaking world, due to the rise of modern “haiku” and its obscuring influence.  That there should be only one teacher of traditional hokku aesthetics where there should be many teachers indicates how very far hokku yet has to go in becoming an established tradition in the West.

In saying that I am the only teacher of hokku according to traditional aesthetics that I know of at present,  I must add the proviso that hokku as I teach it carries on the essence of the best of the old hokku, relying on the spirit, not just the letter.  It preserves the essential hokku aesthetics and leaves aside those traits that were merely cultural or linguistic baggage, or not in keeping with the best of the hokku spirit, and so not appropriate or helpful for hokku written today in an English-language context.

Hokku, then, still has a very long way to go before it recovers from the many long years of neglect and obscurity that it has experienced in the West.  Whether it will in fact survive depends on how many are able to recognize its virtues and depth in a world that is now teetering on the edge of environmental disaster.

 

David

WHITE COLDNESS

Here is a winter hokku I just experienced:

Peeling a daikon —
How cold it is
In my hand!

The thick whiteness and density of the daikon only seem to enhance the chill.

When I was a young boy, I had never seen a daikon.  It only began to appear in the markets in my region much later.  Even today, grocery checkers will sometimes ask me, “What is it?” when I put a long daikon on the counter to buy.  So Americans are still not entirely familiar with it.

It is, however, a very old staple of the Japanese diet, and was even made into rather tasty pickled form that is not easy to find in American markets.  In Asian medicine it is considered to be good for the lungs, and so is a common ingredient in foods for the winter “colds and flu” season — a good thing to add to soups and stews — which is exactly what I was preparing when this hokku happened.

If one has not seen a daikon (or better yet, held and tasted one), this verse will not be fully experienced.  That is why one’s personal memory of things is so important to how hokku works.

 

David

THE ABANDONED BOAT

R. H. Blyth translated a winter verse by Shiki this way:

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

Only eight words.  There is almost not enough for a hokku here — but just enough, because of the feeling of loneliness created by the sharp sound and sight of the hail bouncing in many angles and directions off the sloping sides of the derelict boat.  It is one of Shiki’s better verses.

It reminds me of a handwritten verse I once saw many years ago — so long that I only remember the concept, which I would put into hokku like this, as an autumn verse:

In the abandoned boat,
A single red leaf
Is floating.

But that, of course that has a different feeling, and is for another season.

 

David

AT YEAR’S END

Now that we are about to enter the year 2020 (yikes! — is it that late?), it is probably a good time to talk about why the peculiar fellow who runs this blog site keeps talking about “hokku,” when most people are talking about something called “haiku” (if they are talking about either at all).

Well, as those of you who have been readers here a long time know, in my mind hokku (the name of the verse form for centuries) and “haiku” (the name some Japanese people began giving to hokku around the turn of the 20th century) –have developed over time into two very different things.

We can clearly see the difference if we look at some very blunt statements made in a little essay by Haruo Shirane, a scholar and an advocate of modern haiku.  You will find the whole text here, if you wish to read it:

http://www.haikupoet.com/definitions/beyond_the_haiku_moment.html

Shirane writes:

Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku, as much recent English-language haiku has revealed, and should be considered part of nature in the broadest sense.

From the hokku perspective, I find this appalling.  It expresses essentially the same controversial view that arose after the founding of the Haiku Society of America in the 1960s, and it caused a sharp controversy then between Harold Henderson — who wrote one of the first significant English-language books on what was then called “haiku” — and another member of the society.  Henderson held the traditional position that Nature is Nature, and the other person held that anything and everything is Nature — whether a stainless steel elevator or a fighter jet.  Henderson could not and did not agree.

In my view, that anyone could or would hold such a view of Nature as Henderson’s opponent is just a symptom of how alienated the contemporary world has become from Nature.  We live in the era of creeping concrete, when shopping malls and vast housing developments are flooding over what once were meadows, fields, and forests.  We also live in a time when a great extinction of natural life — birds, beasts, insects, and creatures of all kinds — is well under way — all due to the human devaluation of Nature — or perhaps I should say, the valuation of Nature only in terms of corporate dollars.  If matters do not change, then even the extinction of human life on this planet is a possibility, given how disrupted the world climate has become — and it is only getting worse in the absence of serious efforts to slow and reverse it.

Shirane goes on to say:

However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics. For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.”

Well, that is modern haiku for you. This is what it has become.  By contrast, writers of hokku would not worry at all about whether it is “serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have an impact on other non-haiku poets….”  To me that seems a very academic and if I may use the term, “unspiritual” view, and not at all in the natural spirit of hokku.  A writer of hokku would not be bothered with all that, but instead would be concerned only with writing verses that are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of a particular season, and expressed simply and directly so that the reader might share the sensory, non-intellectual experience of the writer, to the greatest extent that is possible through the medium of ordinary words.

As I have written in the past, to me the fundamental essence of old Japanese hokku was revealed in the writings of R. H. Blyth, though he too used the then-current Japanese term “haiku” in writing of it.  But “haiku” today is not even what it was in Blyth’s day (the mid-1900s), and so to call the verse form “haiku” now is simply to confuse and mislead readers.  That is why I long ago returned to using the original name for the verse form — hokku — to distinguish it from the modern haiku that was developed out of it.  “Haiku,” by contrast with hokku — as we see in Shirane’s description — has departed from Nature, and has set its sights instead on being “literature,” and “with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, [etc.]….”

In short, modern haiku seeks to become poetry like any other modern poetry, only with a bit more brevity.  That means for those who practice it as such — as I foresaw long ago — the death of the important aesthetics of the old hokku at its best.

Now by writing this, I am not saying that one should not write verses about the urban world, about subways and airports and computers and modern technology.  People are free to write about what they will.  All I ask is that these verses not be confused with the old pre-20th century hokku or with hokku as it is written today.

Now admittedly, it is more difficult to write Nature-based hokku in an urban environment.  But that should only be an encouragement for urbanites to seek a closer relationship with Nature, to search it out, whether in parks or gardens or visits to the countryside or seashore or mountains, or even in closely observing such things as a seedling sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk.  We are all creatures of Nature, and the more divorced we are from it, the more unnatural we become.

When Shirane says, “Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan” — he is giving a very accurate picture of modern Western haiku as opposed to hokku.  But in hokku, the “ground rules” are not completely different from what they were in Japan. Instead, hokku keeps the spirit rather than only the letter of old hokku.

It is true that writers of hokku no longer use specific “season words,” but those are replaced quite well by seasonal categorization in hokku.  Every verse falls under the heading of either Spring, Summer, Fall/Autumn, or Winter.  And it is true that hokku in English does not limit itself to 17 phonetic units as was the standard (not always followed) in old Japan, but that is because grammatically the languages are quite different, and just keeping to brevity serves the purpose well while maintaining the spirit of the old verse.  It is also true that unlike some old hokku, hokku today does not use one thing to mean another, nor does it favor historical or literary allusions, but that is quite in keeping with the essence of the best old hokku.  A Japanese today would not find the aesthetics of contemporary hokku out of keeping with the best of what was written two or more centuries ago in Japan.

I have been advocating the revival of the old hokku aesthetics for well over two decades now, but it takes a particular kind of person to appreciate and to write hokku.  In contrast to Shirane, I do not even like to use the term “poetry” in describing hokku, because at its best, it is so completely unlike what most people consider to be poetry in the West.  In fact it was the confusion of the aesthetics of the hokku with those of Western poetry (particularly English-language poetry) that led to the misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku that gave rise to the modern English-language “haiku” movement in the 1960s — and as we see from Shirane, the situation has only worsened since then.  From the point of view of hokku and its aesthetics, modern haiku is a degeneration of that which originally inspired it.

Now I know I have a number of regular readers here who nonetheless write modern haiku, and that is fine, as long as they do not confuse what they write with hokku.  All I ask of them is that if they are writing haiku, using the loose standards of haiku, then call it haiku — and if writing hokku, using the definite aesthetics of hokku, then call it hokku (but be sure that is what you are writing!).  Writing hokku is, in my view, much more challenging than writing haiku, and requires quite a different spirit and attitude toward life and Nature.  Please do not mix the two terms, because  — I repeat — they now generally refer to two very different things.

If anyone has any questions about all this, I would be happy to answer them.

 

David

 

DEEPENING

Here is a loose translation of an old winter hokku by Issa:

Deepening
The loneliness —
Frost on the window.

There is something about the cold and clear austerity of winter that makes us feel our solitude even more deeply.

 

David

NIGHT, COLD, AND AGE

Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.

 

The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

 

One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

AN ICY NIGHT

I have discussed this winter hokku by Bashō previously, but I would like to go over it again because it is such a strong verse.  It can be translated in a number of similar ways.  Here is one:

A water jar breaks;
Awakened from sleep
On an icy night.

Or we could be more loose and direct, and say:

Jolted awake;
A water jar broke
In the icy night.

Either  way, the point of the verse is the cracking of the water jug broken by the water expanding in it as it froze.  And the sudden splitting of the jug in the darkness is so loud that it woke the writer — making him one with the splitting jug, its sound, and the icy night.  Everything is unified.  It gives the reader a very strong sensory perception, which often makes for good hokku.

It is a very wintery hokku and expresses the season well, and in fact is one of those hokku actually given a title (yes, sometimes it was done).  Bashō called it in Chinese characters 寒 夜, meaning “Cold Night.”

David