HOKKU IS NOT WRITING “POETRY”

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

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

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

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

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

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

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

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

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

 

David

 

AVOID “CLEVERNESS” IN HOKKU

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

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

落花枝にかへると見れば胡蝶哉 守武

Rak-ka eda ni kaeru to mireba kochō kana

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

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

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

And Sōkan wrote:

Tsuki ni e wo sashitaraba yoki uchiwa kana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gakoku wrote (my loose translation) this spring verse:

Kasumi yori tokidoki amaru hokake-bune

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

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

 

David

 

THE FOUNDATIONS OF HOKKU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPLITTING MELONS

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

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

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

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

Here it is in transliterated Japanese:

ware ni niru na
futatsu ni ware shi
makuwauri

Very literally, it says:

Me resemble not;
Two into cut
Korean melon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David

 

AND MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David

WHITE COLDNESS

Here is a winter hokku I just experienced:

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

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

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

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

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

 

David