A spring hokku by Charai:
Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Ume no hana yuki ga furite mo saki ni keri
Plum ‘s flowers snow ga falling too blooming at keri
A spring hokku by Charai:
Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Ume no hana yuki ga furite mo saki ni keri
Plum ‘s flowers snow ga falling too blooming at keri
Two years ago (2018), Penguin Classics came out with an anthology titled The Penguin Book of Haiku. One might have thought it would include all kinds of undiscovered treasures of old hokku, but that turned out not be be true. Instead, the best part of the book was its rather iconoclastic introduction, which dispassionately cuts away many of the fantasies associated with the history of the hokku — out of which “haiku” had its beginnings near the end of the 19th century.
The author — Adam L. Kern — has many sensible things to say about what he calls haiku, for example:
“Accordingly, Bashō, the first of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, the poetic genius who single-handedly elevated boneheaded wordplay to bona fide art form called haiku, the undisputed patron saint of haiku, never, strictly speaking, wrote a single haiku in his life. How could he have, when the haiku dates only to circa 1894, two centuries after the man’s death in 1694?”
Now as readers here know, I have been saying for decades that Bashō did not call what he wrote “haiku.”
Somewhat confusingly, however, though in the text Kern makes clear that the old hokku and the later haiku are not the same thing, he goes on to oddly distinguish them in the text by anachronistically italicizing the earlier verse form as haiku, leaving the later category initiated by Shiki un-italicized as haiku. He differentiates them like this:
“… derives from an eclectic variety of collaboratively authored witty linked-verse practices that flourished primarily during Japan’s premodern Edo period (1600-1868) and into the modern Meiji (1868-1912).”
” … Indeed the haiku, far from being traditional, existing long ago and continuing to the present day in the same unadulterated form, is traditionalist, claiming the authority of tradition though actually brought into existence in the mid 1890s. This is hardly ancient by Western standards, let alone Japanese.”
As for the connection with Zen, he writes:
“Haiku is assuredly not Zen poetry. And contrary to popular belief, Bashō was no Zen master. That he shaved his head and donned priestly garb was equivalent, during his lifetime, to wearing a beret to signify one’s status as an artiste.”
Well, that is both true and not true. While one certainly cannot legitimately say that all writers of the hokku (and certainly not the later haiku) were Zen Buddhists, one can legitimately say that the best of old hokku were permeated by the Zen aesthetic that also strongly influenced the other Japanese arts, among them tea, calligraphy, painting, and Noh. And of course Japanese culture in general was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in some form — and Zen is Mahayana (the “Northern” category of Buddhism in contrast to the “Southern” or Theravada).
In short, aside from terminology, there is much in the book’s introduction to recommend for those interested in the history of hokku and of the origins of the later haiku. The problem arises when one goes beyond the introduction into the book itself, which turns out to be a surprisingly (and disappointingly) varied collection of many kinds of brief verse, all of which the author has chosen to throw together under the wide umbrella classification “haiku.”
Now to be fair, the author gives an advance warning of this in the introduction:
“And so two caveats. First, readers of this volume expecting the haiku, or even merely a premodern equivalent, might be in for a shock. Given the silly, satirical, scatological and sensual content of many verses, traditionalists in particular may well be scandalized, fearing that a Trojan horse has been smuggled into the Holy Citadel of Haiku.”
This is a legitimate caution to readers that what they are about to encounter is not going to be what they expect. Instead, one finds a small number of hokku of quality scattered amid a much larger collection that abundantly includes what the author describes as “‘dirty sexy’ haiku.” — indeed, a mixture of forms, including linked verses, senryu, etc — all dumped into the same laundry bag. While one cannot claim not to have been forewarned in the introduction, by the time one gets to page XXVI, where this revelation is made, it is already too late — the reader will already own the book, unless — as I did — it is borrowed from a library.
Then there is the matter of translation. Leaving the question of the author’s choices regarding omission of capitalization and often punctuation, the verses of diverse kinds vary in translation from the quite literal to the sometimes confusingly interpretive.
An example from Buson:
disgorging its rainbow:
The problem is in the last line. Buson died in 1784. “Dynamo,” whether used of a machine or figuratively of a human, is an English term that came into use in the 1880s for the former, the 1890s for the latter. It is anachronistic and inappropriate here, in spite of Kern’s interpretive intent. He should have been satisfied with simply
Disgorging a rainbow —
Almost a literary crime is Kern’s translation of Hashin’s winter hokku as:
heaven and earth:
neither exists apart from
Snow fluttering down.
While the original says simply,
Ten mo chi mo nashi tada yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not only snow ‘s ceaselessly-falling
No sky nor earth —
Another example — Buson’s
a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.
As a translation it is aesthetically disappointing. To the author’s credit, however, is the explanation he gives in the verse commentaries that follow the anthology, which in the case of this verse is quite good:
“An imaginative visual double take [mitate] of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku, perhaps, replete with the artist’s round seal (insu), emphasized by an extra syllabet. Buson has charmingly taken to its logical extreme the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy, as with the following waka by Tsumori no Kunimoto (c.1023-1102): ‘how they resemble / the lines of a letter / written in light greys — / those geese returning homeward / through darkening skies ….'”
Readers are likely to be mystified by the bizarre arrangement of the verses, which mixes the four seasons in a manner the author thought, it appears, indicative of the “collaborative flow” of old linked verse. It was a serious error that completely neglects the significance of the season and is not at all helpful.
In summation, my view is that paradoxically, the best parts of The Penguin Book of Haiku are first, the introduction, and second, the commentary following the verse collection. The anthology itself, lying in the bulk of remaining pages, is extremely trying for readers, as one searches among the multitude of trivial and pornographic entries for quality verses rising above that low level. Consequently, the book is likely to be of interest primarily to those who want an overview of all the various kinds of brief verse (briefer than waka) written in old Japan, from the pornographic and erotic, the satirical and the humorous, to the fewer hokku of quality included in this multifarious and — I think for most readers — disappointing and regrettable mixture. While one may understand the author’s purpose in using such a collection to puncture romanticized notions about old Japanese verse, that does not lessen the unsatisfying and inconvenient nature of the anthology.
On leafing through it, I could not help being reminded what an excellent job of selection R. H. Blyth did in his four Haiku volumes and two History of Haiku volumes — which together still offer the reader the finest anthology of the best of old hokku available to date — though these books have paradoxically now been out of print for several years.
In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku. In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content. Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.
Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:
宿の春 何もなきこそ 何もあれ
Yado no haru nani mo naki koso nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is
Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:
My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.
Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.
Blyth translates it as:
In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!
This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse. It shows us the “thinking” of the writer. There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing. It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.
That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”
We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:
燭の火を 燭にうつすや 春の夕
Shoku no hi wo shoku ni utsusu ya haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo candle at copy ya spring ‘s evening
Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.
It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other. It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.” It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words. In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.
Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.” That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.
In daoku we do not often use the hokku of Issa as models because he tended to subjectivity in his verses, while daoku prefer objectivity. Occasionally, however, we find a hokku by him that can be used, for example this one:
門々の 下駄の泥より 春立ちぬ
Kado kado no geta no doro yori haru tachinu
Gate -gate ‘s geta ‘s mud from spring risen-has
We may put this into English as:
At every gate,
Spring has begun
With the mud on the geta.
Geta (下駄) are the wooden “platform” sandals worn in traditional Japan.
Now obviously this hokku is too specific to old Japanese culture to use as a daoku model, but we can do so if we make it more “Western,” like this:
At every door,
With the mud on the shoes.
In that verse we see the beginning of spring in the mud on the shoes people have left outside their doors. The mud is a sign of the arrival of spring, because it appears when the snow and frost of winter have receded.
Again, this is a hokku of growing yang (warmth) and diminishing yin (cold) seen in the wet mud on the shoes. The season of spring is growing yang as yin diminishes.
As a reader here perceptively remarked, “All daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.” Today we will begin a look — via old hokku — at just what daoku is. Because it originated in Japanese hokku of a certain kind, we can easily use relevant old hokku translated into the English-language daoku form as daoku examples.
First — like hokku in general — each daoku is set in the context of one of the four seasons. Old hokku used specific season words to put a verse in its context, but the system became very complicated and unwieldy over time, requiring years to master. In daoku we simply head each verse with the season in which it is written. Daoku are never written out of season. One does not write a spring verse in autumn, or a winter verse in summer. The season heading is placed in parentheses above the daoku, like this:
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Now it may seem redundant to have the heading (Spring) above a verse that has the word “spring” in it, but it saves a lot of confusion when a group of hokku of the same season are grouped together, because many daoku will not have the season mentioned in the verse. When presenting several daoku of the same season together, the season heading is placed only above the first verse in the sequence.
Let’s examine the form:
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Each line begins with a capital letter.
The daoku is in two parts, a shorter part and a longer part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. In the case of this verse, the separating mark is the semicolon at the end of the first line. The comma at the end of the second line is there to guide the reader easily through the verse.
The verse also ends with an appropriate punctuation mark — in this case, a period.
The invariable punctuation marks in a daoku are the separating mark and the ending mark, though of course the kind of punctuation marks used may vary.
Daoku is written in three brief lines. Usually they total only between about seven to thirteen words. The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding. The daoku above contains only ten words, which falls easily within the normal range.
There are several characteristics of daoku. Prominent among them are these:
Poverty in daoku is the opposite of materialism. It means being satisfied with little instead of much, both in writing and in life. It is a kind of minimalism. It avoids the grand and flamboyant. We find povery not only in the aesthetics of hokku, but also in its minimal use of words, while retaining normal grammar.
Simplicity means that daoku deal with ordinary things in ordinary words. The difference is that daoku is at its best when dealing with ordinary things seen in a new or different way.
Selflessness means that in daoku, it is the verse — or rather what it conveys — that is important, not the writer. The writer in daoku should be invisible, so that the reader may become the experiencer. We say the writer gets out of the way so that Nature may speak. That is why use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” is kept to a minimum in daoku, and avoided when it is not awkward to do so. Writers of daoku do not think of themselves as “poets” writing “poetry.” Instead, the writer of daoku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, just as a still pond clearly reflects the moon.
Transience — which we may also call impermanence — means that daoku as a whole have an underlying sense of the constant change in Nature — that things do not last, but are in a continual state of transformation. Dawn appears only to become noon, then night; frost appears only to melt and disappear. Leaves grow only to mature and wither.
On the tips of the barley leaves,
I like to use this verse at the beginning of spring (according to the old hokku calendar, which is also the daoku calendar) because it so clearly expresses the time when the cold (yin) of winter lingers, but the warmth (yang) of spring is growing. We see the former in the frost on the leaves, and the latter in the young leaves themselves. Further, growing warmth and light (yang) are reflected in the dawn.
“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring. Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day. So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring. Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness. But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the “diminishing yin” seen in the temporary morning frost on the leaf of the barley. This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature. Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.
曙や 麦の葉末の 春の霜
Akebono ya mugi no hazue no haru no shimo
Dawn ya barley ‘s leaf-tip ‘s spring ‘s frost
In the original by Onitsura, the word translated here as “barley” — mugi (麦 in kanji, むぎ in hiragana) can also mean wheat, oats, etc. — it is a general term for grain crops.
If any readers here have questions about the nature or techniques of daoku, please ask, now that spring is again beginning. Unlike other forms of brief verse that have grown out of or been inspired by hokku, daoku has specific standards, principles, and aesthetics. It is more challenging to learn, but also — for those who find it speaks to their condition, more rewarding.
Perhaps it has occurred to some of you that by introducing daoku as a Western form of brief verse in the aesthetic tradition of old objective hokku, we have eliminated a great deal of bother and needless controversy.
In presenting it as a verse form with its own fixed form and aesthetics, no room is left for the bickering and ongoing controversies that so marred the discussions of hokku and haiku from the mid 20th century onward. One may argue about hokku and haiku and the appropriate terminology and aesthetics for these, but daoku — as a modern verse form in the tradition of old Japanese objective hokku — is what it is, and there is nothing to argue about. What a sense of relief and peace!
If someone asks us what we write and practice, we can just reply, “Daoku, based on the aesthetic tradition of old Japanese objective hokku.” If someone asks us if it is just like old hokku, we can say, “No — it is based on essence of the best of the old objective hokku aesthetics that developed out of the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, but being written in English, it has its own definite form and standards and aesthetics.”
Daoku remains so close to old Japanese objective hokku in its aesthetics that we can use many of those old hokku — translated into modern English daoku form — to teach it. That enables us to honestly say that daoku continues the aesthetics of the best of that old tradition in our modern world.
Further, daoku takes us completely out of the ongoing “haiku wars” that began in print in the mid 20th century and continue on into our times on the Internet. Because daoku has fixed form and aesthetic standards, there is no need to argue with others over the form and aesthetics of modern haiku or old hokku. All may write whatever kinds of verse they prefer, whether some category of old hokku, or some variation of modern haiku — or, as we do — the now clearly defined modern verse form daoku. No argument over terminology is needed any longer.
I will continue to use the term hokku to describe the old Japanese verse form, because that is not only its original name as used for centuries, but it is also the correct modern academic term. When discussing modern haiku (which I may on occasion need to do), that terminology will refer to the variations of brief verse that were loosely inspired in the 20th century by the old hokku, continuing into the present. When describing the kind of verse that gave rise to the aesthetics of daoku, I will likely refer to it as “old Japanese objective hokku.” I may sometimes loosely refer to individual old Japanese objective hokku — when they fit daoku standards — as “daoku,” but only with the understanding that this is only a convenient aesthetic descriptor, not the original name.
It should gradually become clear through all of this that theoretically, one could read and write daoku with no reference to its roots in the old Japanese hokku at all. No need to know anything of Japanese hokku and its history and aesthetics, as long as the definite aesthetic standards of daoku itself are maintained. There is, however, no need to do that, and old objective Japanese hokku are very helpful in learning the aesthetics and spirit proper to daoku, when translated into the daoku form.
In my view, daoku is a very practical and appropriate way to continue the old objective hokku tradition in our modern world. As the best of that old objective hokku tradition stripped to its essentials, it leaves aside the great weight of baggage that has accumulated around hokku and haiku over the centuries and more specifically in the West, from the mid 20th century onward. It enables a fresh, new beginning, very appropriate to the coming of spring in just a few days from now.
If daoku speaks to your condition, it is there for you. And if you prefer following another path, everyone is free to choose. In any case, those who decide to learn and practice daoku can now happily say goodbye to the ongoing arguments and animosity of the “haiku wars.”
Daoku — once one understands the form and aesthetics — is really very simple.
First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature. Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Then there are the things that should be left out of daoku: romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.
There is also the format. A modern English-language daoku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation. And the daoku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.
As for aesthetics, daoku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience rather than ideas or opinions about them. It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing and cleverness — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.
Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it? All of that is easy for people to do.
The most difficult part of daoku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the overall oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons. That sense of unity is very important. Everything in a daoku should be related, instead of just being a random assemblage of things. Without that aesthetic, daoku does not really attain what it should. And the way to get that into your daoku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.
Daoku is in the objective hokku aesthetic tradition. Let’s look at an objective hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English daoku form:
A woman sitting alone,
Eight words. That is all it takes in English. It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated. It takes place in a given season (summer) and has that season as its heading. It has two parts: 1. Summer rain; 2. A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”). It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain. The words are simple and direct.
Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), a season heading is added in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern daoku are shared. Not all old hokku contain the season name, and it is important in reading both them and modern daoku to know the season. In modern daoku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season. The season of a daoku should always go with it when it is shared with others or published.
Though daoku may be used out of season when teaching, ordinarily a daoku should be written and read in its appropriate season, rather than in another. That give us a greater sense of unity — of being in harmony with the season.
So you see, writing daoku is really not difficult at all. It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to it, because people are so accustomed to verses that either tell a story, or express what we think about something, or comment on things, or are all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good daoku. As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s objective hokku to get between the reader and the experience. There is only the experience itself, and that is daoku.
We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly. That omission is important. The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in daoku. Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.
We do not describe daoku as poetry, because the verse itself is not poetry. With daoku, the poetry is the deep feeling the reader gets on reading it. The daoku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read. So the poetry of daoku is not on the page; it is in the mind.