A TWILIGHT OF THE HEART: DOWSON’S “AUTUMNAL”

We have already discussed Ernest Dowson’s most famous poem, with its memorable line “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”  See https://hokku.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/they-are-not-long-the-days-of-wine-and-roses-the-brief-life-of-ernest-dowson/
Today we shall look at another by him, with the same atmosphere of beauty, brevity and impending loss.  Here is his

AUTUMNAL

Pale amber sunlight falls across
The reddening October trees,
That hardly sway before a breeze
As soft as summer: summer’s loss
Seems little, dear! on days like these!

Autumn (or the Fall, as we say in America) does have its lovely days of honey-golden light.  And it can have its gentle October days filled with the coloring and falling of the leaves, which add their own distinctive fragrance to the season.  One might well think on such days that the passing of summer is little loss.

Let misty autumn be our part!
The twilight of the year is sweet:
Where shadow and the darkness meet
Our love, a twilight of the heart
Eludes a little time’s deceit.

Let us have autumn!, Dowson says.  Autumn is the twilight of the year, as in hokku it is the late afternoon to early evening, and in human life it is the passage into old age — the “autumn of life.”  But here Dowson is talking about a love affair during this twilight of the year — a last love affair — a twilight of the heart — before the passage of time takes it all away.

Are we not better and at home
In dreamful Autumn, we who deem
No harvest joy is worth a dream?
A little while and night shall come,
A little while, then, let us dream.

Is it not better, he says, to stay away from the rest of the world in its harvest celebrations, and keep to ourselves and our “dream of love,” illusory though it may be.  And he thinks no joy in harvest is worth this brief dream of love.  So soon the night will come and the dream will end, but let us dream while we may.  Yes, it is escapism, but poor Dowson, as we have seen in the earlier posting, had reason in his sad life for escapism.

Beyond the pearled horizons lie
Winter and night: awaiting these
We garner this poor hour of ease,
Until love turn from us and die
Beneath the drear November trees

Beyond the pearled (bluish-gray) horizons — that is, beyond the present time, lie winter and night, symbolizing to Dowson the end of things — of life and joy and pleasure and sadness.  So, he says, we garner (take and hold) this “poor hour of ease,” that is, the brief time of their love affair, their dream — until it all comes to an end, and he sees “love turn from us and die / Beneath the drear November trees.  By November, of course, the gentle and lovely October days of bright leaves and leaf-scented walks are past — and cold and rain have replaced them.  And for Dowson, love inevitably would end, would “turn from us and die.”

Basically, this is another “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” poem that tells people life is not easy nor is it lasting.  Matthew Arnold wrote,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

Dowson would certainly have agreed with much of that, though he obviously felt that love itself is a temporary illusion rather than a long and faithful bond; beautiful while it lasts, like the fragrance of a rose — but evanescent and all too soon gone.  That, of course reflects the downward course of his young life, but he did leave some memorable words behind.

David

MORNING WIND

The old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams attributes this autumn hokku to Bashō — though I have not been able to find it in collections of his verses.  In modern hokku terms it would be a daoku, that is, an objective hokku, but whether it was so originally, I cannot say.  Remember that sometimes old hokku were written with a double meaning.  I prefer to take it as objective, which makes it in my view a far better verse than a subjective interpretation would offer:

Morning wind;
Only one wild goose
In the white clouds.

Or we could revise it somewhat to improve the flow:

Morning wind;
Among the white clouds —
A lone wild goose.

Asa          kaze   ya  tada shira kumo  ni     kari          hitotsu
Morning wind   ya  only white clouds at wild-goose one

It gives us a feeling of solitude that one senses in many autumn hokku, when, as Nature begins to turn inward, so do humans.

It often seems to me as I translate, that when writing hokku, English generally gives us far more options for word choices and shades of meaning than the traditional Japanese “hokku” vocabulary.  Is that just a limited perception or reality?  It would be interesting to hear a  learned Japanese view on this.

 

David

 

 

 

 

THINGS TO COME

The news says that where I live — as of now — we have the worst air quality on the planet. That is due to the massive wildfires on the West Coast of the United States.

Whether literally or metaphorically, depending on place, our planet is on fire. The present devastating forest fires burning here in the Pacific Northwest are extraordinary — nothing I have ever seen in my lifetime. And we can look to the complete lack of government climate action as a heavy contributor to that.

I had hoped the heavy wildfire smoke blanketing my area of the city would be gone when I woke this morning, but it is as thick as ever outside, and visibility is very low — the smoke equivalent of a fog. I smell it indoors, but there is nothing I can do about it. By the time I get an air purifier delivered, the matter of smoke here will likely have resolved for the time being, as we are to have a weather change Sunday or Monday (it is now Friday) that may help to keep the smoke at bay.

I just read that the fire is creeping closer to the city suburbs, but I think it is still comparatively distant, and there is not thick forest all around the city as there is where the fires are burning now. So I suspect our major problem here will be the dense and harmful smoke. And of course there are many homeless people out in it.

As for now, it is just something we have to endure. Large numbers of people in the rural areas have already been burnt out or ordered to evacuate.

As someone said, if warnings such as these massive fires were to be compared to the canary in a coal mine, we would be knee-deep in dead canaries now.  And we are only at the beginning of the coming world-wide climate and environmental troubles.

This is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of planetary survival. We absolutely must remove from office government leaders who will not seriously deal with climate change.  And in the United States, we can begin in the upcoming election.

David

FOR THE ELECTION, 2020

On reading this poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), one cannot help but be struck by the great contrast with the present American administration.  It could have been written specifically for the dismal situation in which we now find ourselves in the United States.  It reminds us of values and ideals many Americans seem to have forgotten or to have discarded in favor of base emotions, crass tribalism, and personal gain.  For “God” we can easily substitute a plea to the national conscience, and to “men” we must of course add “women”:

GOD, GIVE US MEN

God, give us men!
A time like this demands
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office can not buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.

Read the daily news, and you will see endless examples of wrong ruling the land and justice sleeping.  A great deal, not only for the United States but for the planet, is at stake in the upcoming election.  One can only hope that those who voted in the disastrous administration we have had these last four years will come to their senses and return to the highest ideals held forth by the best and brightest souls this country has produced over the years.  Then perhaps the country can begin to climb out of the dark slough into which it has fallen.

 

David

 

LISTENING TO THE WIND

As I often say, some old Japanese hokku were needlessly vague — something we want to avoid when writing new hokku.  There is, for example, this verse by Sora:

yomosugara akikaze kiku ya ura no yama
よ も すがら 秋  風    聞くや  裏    の    山
All night autumn wind hear ya behind ‘s mountain

As it is written in Japanese, one would read it as:

All night long
Listening to the wind;
The mountain behind.

That, however, fails in English to adequately make the link between the wind and the mountain/mountains (remember that in Japanese there is no written plural)

I would prefer this understanding, in daoku form:

All night long,
Listening to the wind
On the mountains behind.

That way we we know that the writer is listening all the night to the wind blowing through the trees on the mountains behind where he is lodging.

Historically, Sora was apparently kept awake by an illness when he wrote this, but a hokku should not be linked firmly to its original circumstances if it is to become our experience as well — as a hokku should.  There are many reasons for being awake all the night, with only the sound of the wind on the hills.

David

 

WHY THIS, NOT THAT?

English is an interesting and useful language, but I am glad I grew up speaking it instead of having to learn it as a second language.  That is because it is filled with countless idiomatic usages and traditional ways of saying things.

What does this have to do with hokku?  It relates to how we use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) — particularly in first lines.

Look at these examples of possible first lines:

Autumn moon;

Cold rain;

Morning light;

Evening star;

Hot stone;

Cool water;

An English speaker automatically feels that the following require “the”:

The autumn moon;
The evening star;
The hot stone;

However these can be either with or without “the”:

Cold rain/The cold rain;
Morning light/The morning light;
Cool water/The cool water;

Trying to come up with a fixed rule to fit all possibilities would be devilishly difficult, because it is often just a matter of traditional usage and common speech — in short, what sounds right to one brought up speaking English.  For those learning the language, it is a constant effort to determine what is normal in each particular case.

This is often an initial difficulty for those coming to hokku from long exposure to modern haiku, which tends to frequently avoid the use of articles, thinking that there is a virtue in making a verse as grammatically minimal as possible.

That mistaken notion is partly derived from seeing literal translations of Japanese hokku; Japanese does not have articles or plurals.  But English is quite unlike Japanese, and to try to mix English words and Japanese grammar just comes out as odd.  This trend toward excessive minimalism in modern haiku is also partly the influence of the experimentalism in English-language poetry of the first half of the 20th century, which sometimes found even eliminating punctuation desirable.

Of course if we carried this idea of minimalization by elimination of articles to its logical conclusion, we would be writing hokku, such as the verse I posted yesterday, in a form like this:

Autumn moon;
On floor
Pine shadow.

Instead of like this:

The autumn moon;
On the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

In short, we would be writing in pidgin English.  And of course many in modern haiku would even eliminate the capitalization and punctuation.  But in contemporary hokku, we do not go for the peculiar.  We use ordinary English in ordinary ways.

When people come to hokku from modern haiku, they are often so accustomed to the partial (or even complete at times) elimination of articles and punctuation that seeing a hokku written in normal English seems initially peculiar to them, because they have been mistakenly conditioned to think that writing a verse requires some kind of special, abbreviated language.  But in hokku, we just write of ordinary things in ordinary English.

It is true that in hokku we keep to the principles of poverty and simplicity — that is, eliminating all that is unnecessary so as to make a stronger verse.  That does not, however, extend to the deliberate distortion of common English usage to fit a preconceived and mistaken notion that by doing so, a verse is somehow made better.

 

David

PINE SHADOW

Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.

The autumn moon;
Across the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

Literally, in Japanese it is:

Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage
   名   月    や     畳     の 上  に   松     の     影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow

The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon.
Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.

We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:

The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.

It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.

We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:

Autumn moonlight;
A pine shadow
Across the floor.

As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku.  If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.

David

CHORA’S CLOUDS

Here is a hokku by Chora that requires a rather interpretive translation to make sense in English.

Autumn begins;
In the flowing clouds
The wind is seen.

The flow of clouds in the sky reveals the wind — the first sign of the wind of autumn that will become more and more obvious as the season progresses.  It is the wind that carries the clouds across the sky.

In the Japanese original, it is like this:

Autumn begins;
Clouds flowing —
The wind is seen.

If one reads that before the interpretive translation however, English speakers are likely to fail to see the connection between the clouds and the wind, which is why an interpretive translation makes the relationship clear — and thus is better.

Aki tatsu ya kumo wa nagarete kaze miyuru
秋   たつ や    雲     は  ながれて   風   見 ゆる
Autumn begins ya cloud wa flow wind is-seen

Remember that a hokku should be simple and clear; one should not have to puzzle it out.  Its effect on the reader should be immediate.  Vagueness was sometimes found in old Japanese hokku, but it was a flaw rather than a virtue, and should not be emulated when composing in English.

 

David

WHITE AND GREY

A hokku in daoku form by Shōha:

(Autumn)

On the white wall,
Shadows of dragonflies
Flitting by.

         壁  に  蜻  蛉  過ぐる  日 影    かな
Shira-kabe ni tombō suguru hikage kana
White wall on dragonfly pass shadow kana

The shadows of the dragonflies and their translucent wings on the white wall in the autumn sun are fleeting, and their impermanence is in keeping with  the sense of autumn as a time when impermanence is much in evidence.

This hokku is a study in grey and white — the whiteness of the wall, and the faint grey shadows of the dragonflies — so it is very simple, but also effective.

This daoku (objective hokku) is a good example of the “setting/subject/action” form because they are so clearly separated here:

Setting:  On the white wall
Subject:  Shadows of dragonflies
Action:  Flitting by

The S/S/A form is a very good one for beginners in hokku because it enables them to arrange the significant elements of a hokku experience easily, and countless hokku can be written using it.  Because it is simple does not mean, however, that it is only for beginners.  It is a good tool for writers of hokku at any stage, from beginner to very advanced.

For those of  you who may come to hokku from other short verse traditions such as modern haiku, be sure to note the definite characteristics of the daoku form:

It consists of three lines.
The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts to the verse, one long and one short.
The two parts are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.
The daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Remember that unlike modern haiku, contemporary hokku in English has not only a definite form, but also definite aesthetic principles that the student of hokku must gradually learn and absorb.  Also unlike much of modern haiku, hokku keeps the strong connection with the seasons found in old hokku, so every verse has a seasonal heading in parentheses, as you see above.

Also, it is very important to remember that unlike much of modern haiku, contemporary hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

If you are unfamiliar with the term daoku, it simply means an objective hokku — one without any opinions or comments of the writer added, or as we commonly say, “no thinking.”  Daoku form means the standard form we use in writing contemporary hokku — the form shown above.

 

David

 

DUST AND RAIN

I have discussed today’s verse before (in 2017), but it is worth mentioning again in a little more detail.  It was written by Kyoshi, whose prolific verses on the whole tend to be rather bland, and who wrote in and beyond the time of Shiki.  He even took over as editor of the magazine — Hototogisu — that Shiki had formerly edited.  That means we are in the “haiku” period, even though like Shiki, Kyoshi kept season words and a more conservative kind of verse that was sometimes indistinguishable from hokku — which is why I am discussing a verse by him today as daoku (objective hokku) in English.  Here it is:

Falling
On the dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
石    の  上 の       埃  に  降るや   秋  の   雨
Stone ‘s on ‘s   dust   at  falling ya autumn ‘s rain

I think of this as one of those transitional verses written at the time when one season has begun merging into another, in this case summer has transitioned into autumn.  We still feel the lingering heat and dryness of summer in the dust on the stones, but the rain is the rain of autumn, and its drops spatter the dust on the stones into mud.  It is a very objective verse, and quite good because it not only lets us feel the seasonal change clearly, but it also has a strong appeal to the senses in its mixture of dryness (Yang) and wetness (Yin).  So we see it is a verse with harmony of contrast.

You may recall that harmony of contrast is a technique used in hokku through combining things felt to be opposite or contrary in a way that reveals an underlying harmony, as in this combination of dust and rain, dryness and wetness, that nonetheless create a very satisfying combination.

We could translate the verse very closely to Kyoshi, like this:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

There is something a bit awkward about that, however, as we often find when we try to translate more literally.  So we could translate a bit more loosely, while still keeping the meaning:

Spattering
The dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

You may recall that I once made a slight variation on Kyoshi’s verse in this daoku:

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

R. H. Blyth spoke of the poet “dissolved in the object,” by which he meant the same as we say in hokku: that the writer must get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That selflessness is the objectivity of daoku.  Today’s verse, therefore, well qualifies as daoku– objective hokku.

David

 

HOKKU AND POVERTY

As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:

(Autumn)

Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among

 

David

AUTUMN, HOKKU AND HAIKU

We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year.  Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature.  In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see.  The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).

In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight.  In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age.  It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter.  In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.

Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life.  We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.

The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles.  I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them.  If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.

Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation.  In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry.  That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today.  Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku.  The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.

The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been.  But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.

What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?

First, there is the form.  As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably.  Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.  All of these are permissible in modern haiku.

In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized.  A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two.  It is divided into two segments:  a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one.  The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end.  The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku).  The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation.  This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.

A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season.  In hokku season is crucially important.  Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season.  Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season.  That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku.  In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:

(Autumn)

That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.

Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature.  In hokku, Nature is all important.  The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.”  Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.

Then there is the matter of topics.  Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality.  That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence.  Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.

In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible.  That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”).  In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical.  The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak.  In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.”  In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku.  Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).

Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it.  I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku.  And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude.  How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.

Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.

Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple.  Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write.  Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku.  Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku.  Many people have never heard of the hokku.  When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.”  And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.

That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.

Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference.  Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires.  Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal:  to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.

For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.

 

David

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: HAIKU ENLIGHTENMENT

Ivan M. Granger — founder and editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website — (https://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/ ) — has bravely sent me a book for review.  I say “bravely,” because he knows I am very critical of the modern haiku movement, and the book received is definitely about haiku.  And if I do not even spare nice old ladies who put into print bad renderings of Bashō , what am I likely to say about a new book advocating the writing of haiku — that mutated offshoot of the old hokku?

Well, let’s see.  Off we go.

Haiku Enlightenment
by Gabriel Rosenstock
Published by Poetry Chaikhana
2019

The first thing one notes about this book is the author’s enthusiasm.  Whatever one may conclude about his views, one cannot deny that Gabriel is sparklingly enthusiastic about his subject, which is evident in the book from beginning to end.

Next comes a surprise.  Unlike the majority of the present pundits of the modern haiku community, which has done its best to completely separate haiku from its spiritual origins,  Gabriel has no qualms about passionately advocating just the opposite:  a very strong grounding of his brand of haiku in non-dogmatic spirituality.  That is evident even in his use of the loaded word “Enlightenment” in the book’s title.

Well, as I have always said, no one ever became enlightened by writing hokku.  I can safely say the same of haiku.  But that one might get a “little” and lower-case enlightenment is something even stated by R. H. Blyth.  It is not the upper-case “big” enlightenment of Buddhism — but it is a very momentary and transitory experience in which the writer or reader becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (that which is written about) disappears.  That is why we can speak of hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  So one cannot fault Gabriel for the connection, though it is very important not to confuse the “little” and “big” enlightenments.  Bashō spent a lifetime teaching and writing haikai and hokku, yet he is said to have regretted at the end of his life that he had obsessively devoted so much time to that instead of seeking the “big” enlightenment through Buddhist meditation.  So though writing verse may be an ancillary to a spiritual path (and it is important to note that it may also be a hindrance), it will not enlighten anyone in the “big” sense.

Given that, one may feel that Gabriel has oversold his case for his kind of haiku as a spiritual path, but at least he has remarkably and with fervor restored a connection between verse and spirituality that has long been discarded and scorned in much of the modern haiku community.

In avidly presenting his case, he quotes many different “spiritual” writers and teachers, but one wishes he had stopped before including excerpts from such dangerously destructive personalities as the Tibetan “guru” Chögyam Trungpa and “Osho” — the head of the cultic Rajneesh movement.  Their presence in the book tends to detract from those more legitimate.

Aside from that, Gabriel’s book offers a sizable anthology of verses, including a number of “haiku format” versions of old Japanese hokku — unfortunately sometimes in inferior and even misleading translations, and of course presented anachronistically as “haiku” in keeping with the topic of the book .

Examples of  such translations include this unwise rendering of Bashō:

ancient pond …
a frog jumps
into the sound of water

The translation of its second and third lines is not at all what the verse means in the original.

And this erratic version of Chiyo-ni:

dragon-fly hunter
where has he wandered off to?
where?

In that verse — written about a son who died — the writer was not asking “where has he wandered off to?” but rather kyō wa doko made itta yara — “today what place has he reached, I wonder” — referring to the child’s journey in the afterlife.

Now as we can see from the format of these two examples, Gabriel offers no firm guidance as to form and punctuation, but seemingly accepts the wide variations of practice found in modern haiku — leaving the novice to decide whether to capitalize and when or even if to punctuate.  He does advise “you might prefer to avoid using capital letters, except, perhaps, for the first word”  But he gives no reason for such a preference.

The book includes many verses by recent and contemporary writers of haiku, giving the reader a good idea of tendencies in the haiku community, though generally excluding the more far-out and experimental examples one finds in the more arbitrary writers of today.

Here and there, Gabriel gives some genuinely good advice, such as  “Avoid the use of “I” and “me,” and “mine” as much as possible.”  But it is frequently offset by less helpful suggestions such as “Discarding punctuation can sometimes lead to an engaging ambiguity.”  That is a view quite contrary to the contemporary hokku dictum that an ambiguous verse is a weak and generally failed verse, but in his favor he could easily have pointed to the ambiguity of many old Japanese hokku, in support of a tendency toward occasional vagueness in writing.

He further advises the beginning writer: “Read the haiku classics [by which he means hokku] over and over again, and read the best of the moderns, such as Santōka.”  The problem here is that he neglects to mention the importance of the quality of translation of the old verses one is looking to for help.  There are many bad translations of old verses out there, and several are used in Gabriel’s book, providing bad examples for the learner.  Further, the gap between the form and aesthetics of traditional Japanese hokku and more exploratory and individualistic writers like Santōka is so wide that it is likely to result in much confusion in new writers about just what a verse should be and how it should look — a confusion that is already endemic in modern haiku.

Now it should be obvious that in reviewing Haiku Enlightenment, I am seeing it from the perspective of a long involvement with — and preference for — the hokku;  and the paths of hokku and modern haiku frequently diverge.  In choosing whether to write hokku or haiku, some new writers may prefer the wider and more indefinite boundaries offered by Gabriel’s spiritually-oriented haiku approach, which extends even, at times, to verses that depart greatly from the hokku practice of omitting that which “disturbs the mind.”

It could be said that Gabriel’s book continues the fundamental mistake made by writers on the subject of Japanese hokku and haiku in the 20th century — the error of offering beginners too little guidance regarding form and content and aesthetics, leaving it up to the student to decide those very important matters.  But on the other hand, he is writing in the modern haiku tradition that developed as a consequence of that lack of early guidance — and so it is not surprising he favors a more all-encompassing approach that leaves much (too much from the hokku perspective) up to the novice writer.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gabriel has a decided preference for the verses of Issa — verses with which the Western reader can easily identify, though they are also very popular among ordinary Japanese readers.  While that is partly a matter of taste, I think it also indicative of a lack of familiarity with the deeper aspects of the old aesthetics of Japanese hokku, which are largely absent in the book, and which were never really transmitted when the hokku came West and was re-interpreted there as what became modern haiku.

What can be said of the book is that its restoration of spirituality to haiku, and its strongly and frequently repeated advice that the composer of haiku should “disappear” — both of which are important to hokku as well — offer would-be writers of modern haiku a decided improvement over what is generally proffered to new learners by the more anarchic and self-absorbed trends so common today in the modern haiku community.

 

David

 

HARVEST HOME: SUMMER’S END 2020

Tomorrow — August 1st — marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn by the old hokku calendar.   It is the ancient celebration Harvest Home — the beginning of the harvest season.  To some, it is known by its Gaelic name Lughnasadh/Lunasa — pronounced LOO-nuh-suh.

As some of you know, I often repost an article to mark that time when I sense the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter.

It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day it will come, but already I felt again that weakness in the air, and this morning a kind of vast stillness, a pause of the atmosphere in breathless silence.   The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall is beginning.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite. And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year. The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August. Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave. And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of hokku. We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event. And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in hokku. In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a daoku (objective hokku) I wrote some years ago:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, and feel it, can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood? Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku. It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, that everything changes, that nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing. It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows. It is not necessary to tell that to the children.

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer moves toward an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

David

SWISHING

A hokku by Banko:

Suzushisa yo ushi no o wo furu kawa no naka
Cool          (!)  cow   ‘s  tail wo  wag river ‘s in

(Summer)

How cool!
The cows in the river
Swishing their tails.

It is unfortunate that in our modern and increasingly urbanized society, fewer and fewer will see such rural scenes.

 

David

 

COOL MOONLIGHT

Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer.  In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.

In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day.  But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:

Tsuki suzushi   uma arai iru  kawa no oto
moon cool        horse wash-is  river ‘s sound

We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:

(Summer)

Cool moonlight;
The sound of horses
Bathing in the river.

It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.

 

David

THE TAINT OF THE PAST: ELINOR WYLIE’S “AUGUST”

Today’s poem — by American poet Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) — is one I find simultaneously both interesting on a sensory level and very troubling.  I think you will see why.  It depicts the heat of August through the image of a man of African ancestry wheeling a barrowful of (presumably) “Black-eyed Susan” flowers — also called Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) –down the hot August street.

In the imagery of this poem, Wylie creates very obviously what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls — in her essay titled “Racialized Cultural Work” (Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act: University of Illinois Press, 2000) — a “black-white binary” — in short, a presentation of presumed opposites.  There can be great danger in this when applied to humans of different appearance.

Here is Wylie’s poem, which, following its imagery, we shall take in two parts:

AUGUST

Why should this Negro insolently stride
Down the red noonday on such noiseless feet?
Piled in his barrow, tawnier than wheat,
Lie heaps of smouldering daisies, sombre-eyed,
Their copper petals shriveled up with pride,
Hot with a superfluity of heat,
Like a great brazier borne along the street
By captive leopards, black and burning pied.

Wylie expresses displeasure with the heat through her image of the dark man pushing the “smouldering” barrow of flowers — both symbolizing the intensity of  August — down a street in the noonday sun.  She begins, “Why should this Negro insolently stride ….”

Now that phrasing raises clanging alarm bells in my head immediately, because it recalls the standard deprecating racist term used in the past to describe American men (and women) of African ancestry who behaved with self-confident assurance: “uppity.”  Not only that, but old news articles from racist times and locales in America actually had headlines using the very phrase “insolent negro.” Her use of that racist phrase is only magnified by her description of the daisies as “shriveled up with pride.”

So Wylie uses the imagery of the dark-skinned man silently wheeling the barrow full of tawny (orange-brown) daisies down the street to signify the oppressive heat of summer — a heat smouldering and excessive.  Then she takes the image to a greater level of fantasy by comparing the barrow of “smouldering” coppery-petaled flowers to a brazier (a metal container of burning coals) carried along the street by captive leopards that are two-colored (pied) — both black and “burning” (the black spots over the lighter orange-brown of a leopard’s fur, like the gold-brown of Gloriosa daisies).

Having shown us the August heat through this imagery, Wylie expresses her dismay that there is no ready alternative to it:

Are there no water-lilies, smooth as cream,
With long stems dripping crystal? Are there none
Like those white lilies, luminous and cool,
Plucked from some hemlock-darkened northern stream
By fair-haired swimmers, diving where the sun
Scarce warms the surface of the deepest pool?

She asks, in the presence of the “heat” imagery, is there not something cool and refreshing — no water lilies with long stems dripping crystal drops of water — no lilies like those picked in some northern stream shadowed by hemlock trees, white lilies that are luminous and cool?  And to add to the contrast, she sees these lilies as “Plucked — by fair-haired [blond] swimmers” who dive into water where the sun hardly warms even “the surface of the deepest pool.”

Now it is not hard to see that this is a black-white, hot-cool contrast, or as Rachel Blau DuPlessis put it, “a black-white binary.”  The hazard in this is depicting the “black” side as “insolent” oppressive heat, and the “white” side as cool and refreshing — with the danger that a reader may expand these images into opposite racist stereotypes of society in general.

Now if this poem had not been written under the racist overtones of its time, we could simply take the imagery for what it is — a contrast of bothersome heat and refreshing coolness — without expanding those images into harmful and greatly misleading racial stereotypes.  As such, the imagery would be interesting.  But it is very difficult to read this poem simply as such, without the taint of the racist past of the United States interfering with the colorful and effective imagery.  It is very hard to get past that first line without wincing, as we look back on all the devastating troubles that thoughtless use of words has caused Americans of African descent.

 

David

 

THE FOURTH

Fourth of July Parade: Alfred Cornelius Howland, 1884; High Museum of Art

Well, if you are up for it, today we will look at — or rather listen to — not a poem, but a unique musical composition by a unique American composer — Charles Ives.

Ives was an insurance man, but music was his love.  He was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut.  His father George had been a bandmaster — in fact the youngest — in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Son Charles began composing music at 13, and by the age of 14 he was the youngest paid church organist in the state.  Ives went on to study music at Yale.  But after that, he became a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company.  One might think that would end his musical career, but instead — gradually free of the musical “establishment” of the time — Charles went on to compose whatever he liked, however he liked — which accounts for his exception place in American musical history.  Ives took a partner, formed his own insurance company, and composed prolifically on his own time.  He died in 1954.

His work The Fourth of July was the third of four parts of his larger composition A Symphony: New England Holidays.

Prepare yourself.  Ives’ Fourth of July, in his own words, represents

” … a boy’s ‘4th—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquences by ‘grown-ups’—no program in his yard! But he knows what he’s celebrating—better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it’s like—if everybody doesn’t—Cannon on the Green, Village Band on Main Street, fire crackers, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, Church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam-chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White, and Blue runaway horse,—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the Church-steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town-Hall on fire.”

It is the musical equivalent of a dream-like memory of the past.  In it there are bits and snatches of once very well known but now mostly forgotten patriotic songs of 19th-century America, such as:  “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and even a few notes of “Reveille.”

Ives wrote of it:

“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it. And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things etc., and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played—although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades.”

It begins slowly –like the day itself — and grows into a noisy, loud mixture as the day progresses.  You may like it, you may hate it — but it well expresses the cacophony of the Fourth of July as it once was, through the sensory experiences of a boy — transformed into a remarkably nostalgic musical composition.  Though it sounds very modern, it is really echoes from an ever more distant past.

 

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 was 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

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