WINTER NIGHT

Here is a rather loose rendering of a verse by the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Bai Juyi:

NIGHT SNOW

Awakened by the chill of quilt and pillow,
I find the window has turned bright.
Late in the night I know the snow is deep
As now and then I hear the bamboos break.

MISATTRIBUTED TO BASHŌ: BAI JUYI’S “EVENING RAIN”

Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.

bananaleaves

In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:

EVENING RAIN

An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Announced by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:

RAIN AT NIGHT

A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

1.
A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

2.
Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:

baijyiyeyu

Now, with my own banana trees newly in the ground, I can add my own related hokku:

(Spring)

Pattering on the leaves
Of the just-planted banana —
The first raindrops.

David

HOKKU ROOTS: BAI JUYI’S SIXTY-SIX

Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.

David