BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

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

AN ICY NIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

 

AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

HOKKU MISCONCEPTIONS, HOKKU FACTS

 

Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.

 

David

INTENTION AND TRANSLATION: BASHŌ’S ONE-COLOR WORLD

Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”

David

MY “SCHOOL” OF HOKKU: MOUNTAIN WATER

shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 

qiuying

By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:

(Spring)

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

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as printed:

水墨

The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.

David

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

A BURSTING JUG, AND CHANGING THE SITE COMMENTS POLICY

A very effective hokku by Bashō:

(Winter)

Waking suddenly;
A water pot burst
In the icy night.

I have added the “suddenly” (as Blyth also does in his translation) because it is implied by the event.  The jug has burst because of the frozen water expanding within it.

The hokku is effective not only because of the sensory sound of the bursting pottery jug, but also because it so well expresses the deep cold of a winter night.

Here’s the original:

Kame wareru   yoru  no kōri no   nezame kana
Pot    has-burst night ‘s ice ‘s      waking kana

Now for some “blog business”:

I have tallied reader responses to my question whether comments on this site should be private unless otherwise requested (the long-time policy), or whether all comments should be public unless requested to be kept private by the sender.

The overwhelming consensus of reader opinion was for a change to all comments being made public unless otherwise requested (the exceptions, of course, being spam, irrelevant comments, obscenities, etc.).

So, as of today, that is the new comments policy on this site.  All comments made on any posting, new or old, will from now on be posted as public comments, accessible through the “comments” link at the bottom of the relevant posting.

There will usually be an interval before the comments appear, because they will still go through moderation to sort out the exceptions mentioned above, but they will be posted as soon as I see the incoming comments.

Those who want a comment to be seen by my eyes only need only put the word “private” at the beginning of the comment, and it will not be made public.

I hope we will all be pleased by the results.

 

David

 

 

SNOW CROW

Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.

 

David

 

HOKKU: DON’T THINK, JUST EXPERIENCE

In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:

(Summer)

So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:

(Summer)

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.

 

David

*
Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana

 

 

SNOW AND SELFLESSNESS

In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

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

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created largely through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku.  Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana

David

EVEN THE CROW…

Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.

David

ETSUJIN’S GREY HAIR: SUBTLETY IN HOKKU

It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow —
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow —
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it —
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: INTERNAL REFLECTION AND HARMONY OF SIMILARITY

In the previous posting I discussed the Hokku Wheel of the Year, the hokku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every hokku is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a hokku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of hokku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that by accepted convention indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with the natural simplicity of hokku.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language hokku, we take away the complexity and return to the simplicity favored in hokku, by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every hokku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the hokku. And if a group of such hokku are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning hokku today while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth;
In the day: dawn and morning;
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming.

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age;
In the day: mid-day, noon;
In plant life: maturing, fruiting.

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward;
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling.

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in hokku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this hokku by Bashō, which I give here in English-language hokku form:

Autumn

On the withered branch
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:

Autumn

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling, and that feeling is not quite right. It lacks the harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in hokku as well as harmony of similarity. In the next posting I will discuss a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

By the way, if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characterics of Yin and Yang.

David

HOKKU IS NOT THE SAME AS “HAIKU”

New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):

(Winter)

Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.

David

OLD POND, OLD WELL

As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

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

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

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

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.

David

MORNING MELONS MUDDIED AND COOL, MINUS “THINKING”

Bashō wrote:

In the morning dew,
Muddied and cool —
The melons.

Just one look at that should tell readers that hokku is nothing at all like what we think of as “poetry” in the West, which is why I generally do not refer to hokku as “poems.”  To think of them as “poems” or “poetry” just confuses the reader unfamiliar with hokku.

This is a particularly stark example.  It just presents the reader with four elements — morning dew, mud, coolness, and melons, but those all combine to form one harmonious unity, one sensory impression.

R. H. Blyth used this verse (but in his own translation) as an example of verses that “baffle the commentator.”  He then says,

All he might say is legs to the snake, horns to the rabbit, for these lines bring us as close to the thing-in-itself as possible.”

What he means is that such a hokku is so very close to the primary sensory experience that anything added would take away from or distort it needlessly, like trying to add legs to a snake or put horns on a rabbit.

This verse is a primordial sensory experience, and it is the kind of verse that would come from the mind of child, from the early years when sensory experience is so important — the taste of a thing, its feel when touched, its sound, its visual appearance, its smell — before we grow older and begin adding our own mental elaboration and ornamentation to everything we see.  Or as we say in hokku, “Before thinking and commentary are added.”

The hardest thing, of course, is to be aware enough to note a subject like this, one that is so completely simple yet nonetheless has an inexpressible sense of significance to it.  Move away from that ever so slightly, and it is all lost.

If we were to analyze this verse structurally, it breaks down like this:

Setting: In the morning dew
Subject: The melons
Action: Muddied and cool

Now you may say that technically, “muddied and cool” are descriptive words, not literally “action.”  But remember that in hokku “action” is just a reminder word that hokku should have something moving or changing.

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t see anything moving or changing in this.”  Technically you would be right, but intuitionally we feel the change that early morning brings, with its cool dewdrops that turn the dust on the melons to mud.  And so that is our “action” in this verse.

David

KEEPING THE BEST, DISCARDING THE REST: GOOD TASTE IN HOKKU

Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.  That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.

To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.

What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.

First there is Bashō.  He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective.  Let’s look at some examples.

If held in my hand,
My hot tears would melt it;
Autumn frost.

To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair.  That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.

Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse.  Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination.  We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry.  We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.

The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively.  Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not.  And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood.  In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about.  In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.

Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku.  For example:

One thing —
My life is light.
A gourd.

Again, this requires some explanation.  It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:

Owning one thing,
My life is light —
A hollow gourd.

This too is a poetic exaggeration.  Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc.  But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things.  The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.

By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō.  I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō.  A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.

We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:

The sea darkens;
The wild duck’s cry
Is a faint white.

That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work.  Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it.  We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.

Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:

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

Note the objectivity.  Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring.  Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination.  Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku.  So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.

If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:

Getting a shave —
On a day when Ueno’s
Bell is misty.

It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist.  We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring.  Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse.  That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.

A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:Hasuiml.

The old garden;
Emptying the hot water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon.  It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:

The old garden;
Emptying a water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.

Shiki also wrote:

Spring rain;
Umbrellas all uneven
In the ferry boat.

We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights.  We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas.  So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.

Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good.  Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.

That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.

When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.

David

AUTUMN BEGINS: INCLINING TOWARD THE TRANQUILITY OF HOKKU

In previous postings I have discussed the relationship between Zen and hokku (yes, there is one).  Today I would like to talk briefly about where Zen and hokku differ.

Kodaiji Teahouse Dimage 0159

First, Zen is more inclusive than hokku.  Hokku deliberately restricts its subject matter, avoiding topics that trouble or obsess the mind.  That is why hokku generally avoids (R. H. Blyth says “abhors”) “the sentimentality and romance and vulgarity which Zen will view with equanimity

Zen views such things with equanimity, but ordinary people who have not reached that high level — meaning the people who write hokku — do not, are not yet able.   That is why hokku avoids wars and pestilence and plagues and riots and disasters.  It is done, again as Blyth says, because “we wish to forget them, and must do so if we are to live our short life in any sort of mental ease.”  That is even more true of our modern and very stressful society.  Hokku is a quiet refuge in the midst of the turmoils of life, and all the more valuable for being such.

Hokku, being a contemplative verse form (particularly as I teach it), consequently follows the old tradition of  avoiding violence and sex and romance and all things that unduly disturb the mind.  Instead, it turns our attention to the changing seasons and to Nature, treating humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the subject matter of hokku.

That is in great contrast to modern haiku, which generally has virtually unrestricted subject matter.  In haiku one may write about iphones and digital TVs, about wars and rumors of wars, about social injustice issues and one’s new girlfriend or boyfriend and all the intimate details.  Not so hokku.

That means there is a refreshing peace and purity to hokku.

Bashō expressed this peace and purity somewhat indirectly in an autumn hokku that is very culturally Japanese, but the principle behind it is universal:

Autumn nears;
The mind inclines toward
The four-and-a-half mat room.

That makes a rather awkward and obscure hokku in English until it is explained; what Bashō was saying is that as one feels autumn beginning, the mind feels the need for a withdrawal from “the world” into the peace of the small, spare, aesthetically tranquil little room of the hut in which the tea ceremony is performed, that peaceful, quiet, studied practice that was so important in traditional Japanese culture.

We could translate it in English as

Autumn nears;
The mind is drawn
To the teahouse.

That, however, does not achieve the feeling of the original, because a tea house in English does not convey the earthy, simple aesthetics of the small, grass-matted room in which the Japanese tea ceremony was performed.

So though we cannot use this hokku as a good model for writing in English because of its cultural difference and the need to explain it, we can nonetheless appreciate the desire expressed in it to be in keeping with the nature of autumn, which is a retiring from the busy world into silence and simplicity and a kind of inward contemplation.

That tells us a lot about hokku as compared to haiku.  Modern haiku, in general, has lost this intimate connection with Nature, this simplicity and tendency toward contemplative spirituality, as it has evolved to encompass all kinds of subjects and emotions.  But hokku still is what it was — a peaceful refuge in a troubled and stressful world.

That is why we all may feel, as autumn now begins, that our minds — our hearts (the word is the same for both in Japanese) — incline toward this peaceful refuge of hokku, while around us, all of Nature begins to fade and wither and decline and return to the root.

David

ENTERING AUTUMN

Blue morning glory  (asagao) flowers, Gifu, Japan
(Photo credit: Joel Abroad)

Here is a timely repeat of an earlier posting:

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

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

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn. So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.  Morning glories are also associated with impermanence because the flowers bloom and die so quickly.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind; it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling. That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it. That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event. The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing. That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement. It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day. All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them. That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn. We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic. The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes. Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect. All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude. To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts? We know already, because the autumn wind tells us. They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory. For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry. We do not have to ask.

We know.

 

David

THE BLACKBIRD OBSCURED: WALLACE STEVENS AND POETS OF PRIVATE LANGUAGE

Today I would like to talk briefly (you will soon see the reason for brevity) about what I call “poets of private language,” “PPLs” for short.  A poet of private language is one who writes poetry that is often so obscure that only the poet knows for sure what he or she intended, or whether there is any genuine meaning in it or just an assemblage of words.

Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen ...
Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen Head) (Photo credit: Michael Hodge)

A prime example of a PPL is Wallace Stevens, whose shoulders bear a considerable part of blame for the degeneration of  American poetry as the 20th century progressed.

Why do I say it degenerated?  Because other poets, following the lead of such writers as Stevens, came to the conclusion that poetry  does not have to be understandable; instead, it could be read as an abstraction, as one views an abstract painting, which does not depict the “real” world, but rather the “abstract” world of the intellectual mind.

Such poems are often assemblages of words with reasonable grammatical connections, but with very little sense that can be made of them by the reader.  The poet may know what stimuli brought forth certain images from his or her mind, but he does not share this with the reader, who is left adrift in a sea of verbiage without compass,  sail, or rudder.

We may take the fact that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens once got into a row as symbolic of the gap that lies between comprehensible poets (such as Frost) and often incomprehensible poets (such as Stevens).  One may take a Frost poem, and with little difficulty make sense of it.  But a Stevens poem often seems little more than educated gibberish, or as Frost once said of it, “poetry that purports to make me think” (my emphasis).

We can think of PPLs as the literary equivalent of non-representational (what used to be commonly called “abstract”) art.  Abstract because it fits the general definition:

Not relating to concrete objects but expressing something that can only be appreciated intellectually.”

or

Nonrepresentational: not aiming to depict an object but composed with the focus on internal structure and form.”

Abstraction may work in painting, where one can appreciate color, form, texture, and composition even if there is no representation of anything recognizable or meaningful.  But it does not work well in poems, which is a major reason for the general loss of public interest in poetry in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.

Given that the poetry of Stevens is often an attempt at abstraction in words, we must take such poems not for meaning, or even for sound, but in many cases as things that just are, like a non-representational painting hanging on a wall; not as something that means (i.e. is understandable), but rather something that just is.

Now if a poem by Stevens is not something that means, but just is, then one might easily mistake it as fitting precisely the definition of ideal poetry given by Archibald MacLeish in his Ars Poetica, (The Art of Poetry):

A poem should not mean,
But be.

The key lies in how one interprets MacLeish.  If one understands him, incorrectly, to mean that a poem should have little or no discernible meaning, but should just be an abstract assemblage of words pulled from the poet’s imagination,  then Stevens would fit.

That is not, however, what MacLeish meant, as we see from the fact that the poem in which the famous “not mean, but be” is found is itself comprehensible; we understand what his poem means (MacLeish later changed to advocating poetry full of meaning and social commentary).

In fact the ideal example of a “poem” that does not mean, but is, may be found in the hokku, for example in this autumn verse of Bashō:

On the withered branch

A crow has perched;

The autumn evening.

That does not “mean” anything beyond itself; it is not a symbol or a metaphor or a simile of anything else.  It is just a sensory experience, and it has no “speakable” meaning beyond that.

Compare that with the beginning of the well-known (at least among English teachers) Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains

The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds, 
Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman 
Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird 

Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Now on the surface this appears to have some meaning; it is recognizable words assembled in a reasonable grammatical fashion.  But when we try to extract genuine, comprehensible, explainable meaning from it, it is not there.  It is like a building facade on a movie lot; when one walks behind it, nothing is there; it is just a deceptive front with no back.

In attempting to explain Stevens poems such as this, the academics find themselves pulling the kind of “snow job” that almost every student who has no understanding of a subject has tried to pull on a teacher; one uses lots of words, but says virtually nothing, as in this example of interpretation of the poem I found online:

In section I, the given, “Among twenty snowy mountains,” is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy.” Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the “rhyme”-ing, unstressed in “moving” and stressed in “thing.” The final “moving” of the sentence’s subject, the “eye of the blackbird,” moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality–a bird’s eye is anatomically incapable of movement–stresses its metaphorical value.” (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/blackbird.htm)

The only thing useful in that is the fact that a blackbird cannot move its eye.

Now you know when someone is reduced to such academic gibberish as

The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy”,

that they really do not know what the @#! is going on in the poem any more than the reader, but they are working hard to fake it.

The best and most honest summary I have found of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, aside from Frost’s remark that it purports to make one think, is a comment by Elva McCormick, who knew and talked with Wallace Stevens.  She had asked him what his poem The Irish Cliffs of Moher meant.  His illuminating response was, “I don’t think you’d understand this unless you wrote it.”  And McCormick’s very perceptive response to that revelation was, “I think that’s true of many of his poems” (see Parts of a World; Wallace Stevens Remembered, pg. 119).

It is significant that Wallace Stevens never actually went to Ireland, never really saw the Cliffs of Moher; he pulled the words out of his head, and that summarizes his poetry in general; he is a poet of the intellect, the world created in the mind, not of the real world around us.

It is an approach that holds no appeal for me, and that is why I spend so little time on Stevens and poets like him, generally using them only as examples of what to avoid.

David

A LEAKY ROOF

A pleasant spring hokku by Bashō:

Spring rain;
A roof leak trickles
Down the wasps’ nest. 

This reminds me of Blyth’s remark that to write hokku one should live in a house which either has a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.

David

THE SCENT OF — WELL, ACTUALLY THE JAPANESE APRICOT

Here are a few spring hokku by Bashō.

I have divided all but the last into three parts:  First, the romanized Japanese and a rather literal translation; second, a “formal” translation of the original; third, a rewritten “American” version.

(M)ume ga ka ni  notto hi no deru  yamaji kana 
Ume fragrance at   suddenly sun appears   mountain path

At the ume fragrance,
Suddenly the sun rises;
The mountain path.

Fragrant plum blossoms
And a sudden sunrise;
The mountain path. 

The point of the verse is that as the writer smells the fragrant ume blossoms, the sun suddenly rises.  There is a perceived connection between the strong scent and the sudden appearance of the brilliant sun

The ume (Prunus mume) is not actually what we know as a plum in the West.  Instead it is a tree rather halfway between a plum and an apricot , but “Japanese apricot” generally does not fit very well into hokku where ume is used.  The term for an actual plum in Japan is sumomo.

(M)ume ga ka ni   mukashi no ichi-ji   aware nari
Ume fragrance at   past ‘s one character  is sad

In the scent of ume,
The single character “past”
is sad.

At the scent of plum blossoms,
The single word “past” —
How sad! 

The point of the verse is the writer’s smelling the scent of plums while looking at (or writing) the single Chinese character read in Japanese as mukashi — “the past.”  The combination fills him with a sad, nostalgic feeling (aware, pronounced ah-wah-ray) because he knows that all things are impermanent and nothing lasts, least of all the fragrance of the early spring blossoms.

The verse was written as an “occasion” verse for  Bashō’s student Baigan, on the anniversary of the death of the student’s son, which had happened a year earlier.  We can see how indirectly hokku deals with such matters.

(M)ume ga ka ni   oi modosaruru   samusa kana
Ume fragrance at  routed has returned cold kana

At the scent of ume
The routed has returned —
The cold!

In the scent of plum,
What left has returned —
The cold!

Not  a good hokku.  The rather minimal point is that spring has warmed enough to bring out the fragrant ume blossoms, but at the time the writer is smelling the fragrance, a cold spell has occurred.  So the cold he thought had been routed by the warmth of spring has returned.  It shows how changeable early spring weather is.

From bad to worse:

Ume ga ka ya   Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō
Plum fragrance  Shirara Ochikubo   Kyōtarō

The scent of plum blossoms;
Shirara, Ochikubo,
Kyōtarō….

It is little more than an allusion to a line from a Japanese book called the Jōruri-hime Monogatari, in which the question is asked which books a certain Lady Jōruri read, whether that titled Shirara, or Ochikubo, or Kyōtarō, etc.  The reader is supposed to be reminded of a pretty, elegant young woman reading a book of stories as spring begins.  Of course this kind of verse does not survive time and travel to a different culture, and it depends entirely on the reader knowing the literary allusion Bashō is making.  I have included it here only to show how unlike modern hokku some of Bashō’s verses were, and how “literary” in contrast to what we consider the best hokku.  For the western student of modern hokku, which deliberately avoids dependance on such literary allusions, these old “see how well-read I am” verses are quite useless other than as examples of what not to do.

David

THE VALIDITY OF HOKKU

Yesterday I discussed a kind of “fundamentalism” one finds among those who talk about hokku and haiku, and I wrote, essentially, that it does not matter to me (except historically) what any of the old hokku writers had to say about the hokku and its nature; what matters is the validity of the verse itself, on its own merits.

English: Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), &q...

Now that can easily be misunderstood. Some people may think it means, “I don’t care what the original writers considered to be hokku, I am going to write it however I please.”

That, in fact, is the attitude and practice of a great many people in the modern haiku community, but it is not mine.

On the other hand, there are those who examine every detail of old hokku and say that the way we write it today cannot vary in any particular from how the hokku writers of the 17th or 18th century — or a certain one among them — wrote it. Some even say it is impossible to write “genuine” hokku in English — that it can be written only in Japanese. That, again, is not my position either.

My position is simply this. In my teaching of hokku, I have taken its essence — what I consider to be the best and most practical aspects of both form and content — and I have adapted those to the English language. The English-language hokku form reflects the essence of the old Japanese form, though of course it is now “reborn” in an English-language format. And the aesthetics I teach are very much the aesthetics of the old hokku.

Because of that, I continue to call what I teach hokku. And I can look at what is written by other people, and I can tell them whether it is hokku, or close to hokku, or only superficially hokku, or not hokku at all in anything but brevity.

So what I teach is hokku, a continuation of the old tradition, but in the English language.
However, as I have said, the kind of hokku I teach stands on its own merits now. Consequently there is no need to refer to Japan at all. If hokku is “good” verse — if it does what it is supposed to do as hokku according to the principles and aesthetics I teach, then if for some reason we had to call it something else and never mention Japan again, it would still be a verse practice with its own value and virtue. It does not have to rely on any 17th or 18th or 19th century historical validation of it merits.

That too, is why I like my students to think of hokku as I teach it as something without a history, so that they may see it as something new, and may learn it on its own terms. Of course it does have a history, and we can trace it back centuries — but for writing it today, all of that is really unimportant except for academic reasons. In the actual practice of writing hokku, it does not matter at all.

The result is that I do not encourage students to take up the study of old literary Japanese, or the sociology of Japan in the Edô period, or any of those things. None are necessary for learning and writing hokku. One may study them if one likes, but to do so is not in the least necessary for the successful learning and writing of hokku. In fact for many people, such things simply become just another distraction and obsession.

Those who learn hokku from me are learning modern English-language hokku. They are not learning Japanese hokku, they are not learning a hokku that requires validation by  Bashô or Buson or Shiki.  They are just learning hokku as I teach it. That is the best way to approach it.

David

AVOIDING HOKKU AND HAIKU AS “RELIGIOUS” FUNDAMENTALISM

Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.

English: Portrait drawing of Henry David Thoreau
HENRY DAVID THOREAU

As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.

Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.

Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.

Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.

There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions.  It all just leads to pointless bickering.  Such discussions  are merely of academic — not practical — interest.

Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples.  It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine.  It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.

I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.

I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.

So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.

That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”

Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.

Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.

And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.

So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.

Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.

You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.

David

STAR CHILDREN

Consider the words of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in his fascinating book A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012):

Galaxies are so large that stars can be consid...

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded.  Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.  We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.

We are not separate from the universe; the universe is us.  We look at the stars, and all we see is ourselves in different form.  There we are, shining in the night sky.   The same when we look at a bird, or a rock, or a tree.  A human is the universe “human-ing.”  A cow is the universe “cow-ing.”  A star is the universe “star-ing.”

Bashō wrote:

From among
The peach trees blooming wildly,
The first cherry blossoms. 

The universe as peach blossoms, the universe as cherry blossoms, the universe as Bashō, the universe as me writing this, the universe as you reading it.

That is the way to hokku — oneness of subject (the writer) and object (that which is written about).

David

LEARNING FROM THE AUTUMN MOON

When we think of the Fall — of Autumn — we think of colored leaves, falling leaves, and of the moon.  We look at the autumn moon for a few moments, and then we move on with our lives, unless we happen to be sitting with someone else, engaged in intermittent conversation, looking repeatedly at the bright moon.

When old hokku was written, there was a seasonal practice of looking at the moon — of moon viewing.  Bashō  wrote a hokku about it.

Clouds now-then people give-rest; moon viewing.

Now when I talk about hokku here, I do not want to do so as though I am brushing the dust off old fossils in a museum.  I discuss it only so that readers may learn how to write NEW and original hokku.  Otherwise there is little point in repeating this or that old hokku over and over.  So the literal version of this verse does us little good unless we can see how to put it into English.  We can be very literalistic, which is how one should be in emphasizing the original verse, like this:

Clouds now and then
Give people a rest;
Moon-viewing.

But my purpose here is to bring these old verses into today, as well as into the English language, so I would begin to play with it:

Passing clouds
Give us a rest;
Moon viewing. 

But I do not want to stop there, because long-time readers here will recall the old principle of hokku that one thing generally has more significance than many.  Here is what happens when we apply it to this verse:

A passing cloud
Gives us a rest;
Moon viewing.

It is a small change, but it makes a significant difference.  I hope you can feel that in the “revised” version.  If we say “passing clouds,” it widens the time expanse of the hokku.  In the first version, it covers the time of several clouds passing in front of the moon; in the second version, our focus is right on one cloud passing in front of the moon, right on what is happening now.

Not all hokku have this strong focus on the present, but those that do are often improved by it.  

Now you can easily see that the “single cloud” version is different from the original by Bashō, which covers a wider time expanse.  Some people may protest the revised version  because it is not exactly “what Bashō said.”  But that leads us to another principle of hokku — that it is a living thing, not a fossil in a museum.  

We are meant not only to enjoy old hokku, but to learn from them, so that hokku may remain a living practice.  And we can only do that by making them our own, or even by improving them.  Bashō was not infallible in his writing, and he wrote literally hundreds of verses that are not really memorable.  So we are perfectly free — particularly in teaching how to write hokku today — to change old hokku, whether to localize them (make them more American, or British, or Welsh, or whatever), or to improve them.  

In hokku as I teach it, we use the best of old hokku as models.  But as our practice develops, we must treat these models like clay that can be molded into new forms and into completely new verses.  As long as we keep to the principles and spirit of the old hokku, our new verses will be hokku as well.  We should not treat these old hokku like pieces of delicate porcelain that we are afraid to wash or carry for fear of “breaking” them.  

If you look in the archives here, you will find many old postings on hokku that tell you how to write it.  Generally in using the old verses, I have been rather literal, so that readers might see just how old hokku were constructed.  Now I am going to begin a new phase of instruction here, in which we learn to be more comfortable with our relation to the old verses.  I may often still tell you exactly how they were phrased in their old (Japanese) versions.  But in addition, I will put more emphasis on making them into hokku of today, so that they become even more useful to us in writing a hokku appropriate both to the English language and to our locale (which in my case is American), and to the modern world.

That does not mean I shall violate any of the basic principles of the old hokku — that would make a verse no longer hokku.  For example, being part of the modern world does not mean that our verses should reverse the old hokku omission of incompatible “technology,” because hokku today is still an important testimony to the vital importance of Nature and the natural environment that gives us life.  It simply means that we are learning to relax a bit in our hokku practice, to become more free in how we look at an event and depict it in our writing.  

That means, for example, that whereas old hokku generally had only a single internal break represented in English by internal punctuation, we are perfectly free to widen that punctuation and use it twice internally, if it makes a better verse.

Bashō wrote another “moon viewing” verse:

Bright moon; children lined-up temple verandah

The “bright moon” is a Japanese conventional term for the full moon of Autumn,   So Bashō is telling us:

The autumn moon;
Children lined-up
On the temple verandah. 

But we don’t have to leave it like that.  We can make it:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front porch.

 We can even change “front porch” to “front steps” if we wish:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front steps.

Or, given that we mark every hokku with its season, and will know it is an autumn verse, we can make it:

The full moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.  

Or we can change “full moon” back to “Harvest Moon”:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.

Or, recalling again the principle that one thing often has more significance than many, we can also create an alternate version:

The Harvest Moon;
A little boy sitting
On the garage roof. 

And of course we can make the little boy a little girl if we wish.  The possibilities for change are endless, and feeling free to make those changes is part of how we learn to write hokku.

And notice that in the last version, the reader is required to make a small, intuitive leap:  Harvest Moon + little boy sitting on garage roof = Little boy gazing at the Harvest Moon.  Such intuitive leaps should be very natural and easy for those schooled in hokku aesthetics.  They should be as simple as stepping from stone to stone when crossing a stream, and should not require any straining of the imagination.  That was not always the case with old hokku, and that is something modern hokku corrects.

So again, what this all means is that we should not treat the old hokku used as models here as inviolate objects; we should instead play with them, re-arrange them, use them as jumping-off points for our own exploration of the world and of hokku as we express the seasonal manifestions of Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

 

David 

A CAMELLIA FLOWER

A spring hokku by Bashō:

In falling,
It spilled its water —
The camellia flower.

Camellias are flowers of the cold and wet beginning of spring.  As they age, they fall with a “plop.”  This one, in falling, has spilled the rain water that has collected in it when it was still on the bough.

Bashō gives us a simple image of transience, showing us that even in Spring — the time of youth and beginnings — time and aging are already at work.  A sense of transience is always an important element of hokku, which never allow us to forget that all things are changing and impermanent.

This hokku, like all the rest written over the centuries, is not “great poetry.”  Hokku do not try to be either “poetry” (in the conventional understanding) or “great.”  They simply present us with a sensory experience of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, showing us how the season manifests its character in what happens within it.  This camellia flower dropping its water is Spring.

It is when we try to make “poetry” of hokku that we run into trouble.  That has been the unfortunate fate of the 20th century offshoot of hokku, the haiku.  In the West the hokku came to the attention of people brought up on western notions of poetry, people who unconsciously read those Western notions into their experience of hokku, and then re-made it as the haiku, which is a kind of peculiar hybrid of the brevity of the hokku with a substance composed of what people in the West were accustomed to think of as “poetry.”

When that happened, of course, the whole point of the hokku was lost.

David

WRIGHT OR WRONG?

The automatic statistics of this site tell me that frequently people come here hoping to see something illuminating about the “haiku” of Richard Wright — just why, I am not certain, given that this site favors hokku and generally considers “haiku” only a mutant degeneration of it.

Nonetheless, I suppose those visitors, given their frequency, should go away with something, so here are a few words about Richard Wright and his “haiku.”

The primary book for Wright’s verses is Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998).  It oddly combines an anthology of his “haiku” with a considerable amount of historical information about what is really Japanese hokku, much of which does almost nothing to illuminate Wright’s verses.

The reason is, of course, that anyone reading the book from an historical perspective discovers very quickly that Wright had the same difficulties, and followed essentially the same course, as almost all those whose verses were written under the influence of R. H. Blyth’s works titled Haiku — works which were really largely about hokku.

In short, Wright followed the standard mid-20th century pattern of reading Blyth and then writing his own verses based upon a distorted Western view of Blyth’s translations — the result of unconsciously mixing one’s own Western preconceptions about poetry with the brevity of the hokku.

Wright’s “haiku” can largely be divided into these categories:

1.  Verses that are essentially brief “Western” poems;
2.  Poems written as variations or studies on Japanese hokku translated by Blyth;
3.  Poems written in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, which Wright somehow concluded was “standard” for his haiku in English;
4.  Verses written in a 5-5-5 syllabic pattern; and
5.  Verses written in an uneven syllabic pattern.

By examining a few of them, we get a very good picture of the whole of his work:

There are verses that are simply images:

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

(One wonders if that was influenced by William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”).

The very first verse in the book is this:

I am nobody.
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.

It is not a hokku, so we shall have to put it in that vast and vague category of poems that look superficially like hokku but are not — ‘haiku.’  It is too personal, too “me” oriented for hokku.  Essentially it is a brief modern Western poem that would not even qualify as a “Shiki” haiku.  Structurally it consists of three lines, each of which has precisely five syllables.

We will find a great many of Wright’s verses are like this.  And that tells us a great deal about Wright’s approach to verse.  First and foremost, to repeat, it was the result of the unconscious mixture of Western notions of poetry with the brevity of the hokku, a problem endemic in the “haiku movement” of the second half of the 20th century.

As with most beginners in hokku, we find among Wright’s verses the usual, obviously Issa-inspired examples using the technique I call “talk to the animals”:

Make up your mind, snail!
You are half inside your house
And halfway out!

There is no real value in such verses, but one may suppose that through them Wright was experimenting, trying to find his way.  He obviously read a lot of Blyth, but of course as I often lament, Blyth left no clear and specific instructions for writing the hokku in English.  So all too often, his readers were unable to extract the principles of writing hokku in English from the matrix in which Blyth left them embedded in his writings, valuable as those writings are.  So it is no surprise that Wright was left looking about for a path.

Sometimes he detours into what looks like Issa-flavored senryu rather than hokku:

“Shut up you crickets!
How can I hear what my wife
Is saying to me?”

None of the verses given up to this point are hokku, nor are they worthwhile as “Western” verses in general.  But that does not mean Wright’s attempts at haiku are without value.  It just means that we have to sift the better examples out of all the inferior verses.

We find, for example, this:

A summer barnyard;
Swishing tails of twenty cows
Twitching at the flies.

That is hokku.  It is set in a season.  It has Nature as its focus.  And it is in two parts, a longer and a shorter.  Wright seems to have fixated on the predilection of that time for sequences of 5-7-5 syllables as the “right” standard for his verses, which led to a bit of padding, but nonetheless this verse qualifies as a real hokku, and even more importantly, it works as a hokku.   We could improve its form a bit, like this:

A summer barnyard;
The tails of twenty cows
Swishing flies.

But even left as it is, this verse by Wright qualifies as hokku.

One frequently wants to re-write his verses, to free them from the cage of 5-7-5, as in this example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials, which we might do thus:

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

Here and there we find verses that essentially repeat an old Japanese hokku, for example Wright’s

The webs of spiders
Sticking to my face
In the dusty woods.

That is just a run-on rephrasing of Buson’s

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

And we note of course that Wright has returned here to his 5-5-5 syllable phrasing.

We find other Wright verses all too obviously based upon old hokku, but in doing so we may recall that such variations on old verses are a good way for beginners to learn.  Wright wrote:

Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
To turn the lake black.

That is a variation upon Bashō’s

Cold rain –
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Another Wright verse is obviously influenced by Shiki:

That abandoned house,
With its yard of fallen leaves
In the setting sun.

A Shiki predecessor was:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

So we can see that Wright was heavily influenced by the material Blyth provided, even at times too obviously influenced by it.

One sees this influence repeatedly, sometimes for the worse, sometimes — as in this example, for the better:

Wright’s verse:

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

One cannot but think that was inspired by Seibi’s  Japanese original:

Swatting flies,
I begin to think
Of Killing them all.

In Blyth’s version it is:

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.

Exactly the same feeling of starting small and feeling the urge to carry a matter to extremes.

The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics.  So we can repeat a quick analysis:  Some of his verses are mere images; some are variations on old Japanese verses translated by Blyth; some are “modern” free verse poems with the brevity but not the substance of hokku or of Shiki’s “haiku.”

Sometimes Wright tries to be too “clever,” which is a failing of modern haiku in general, with its heavy emphasis on Western poetic notions:

In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.

At times he strives too obviously and artificially for effect:

To see the spring sky,
A doll in a store window
Leans far to one side.

One could spend a great deal of time commenting on each verse in the book, looking for obvious antecedents in Blyth, noting where Wright, like almost the entire Western “haiku” movement, went wrong in unconsciously substituting his own preconceptions for the inherent aesthetics and techniques of the hokku and of the Shiki “haiku.”  Such an effort would be very enlightening in showing just how and how thoroughly Western haiku went astray in the middle of the 20th century, but it would also be rather disappointing and futile in that it is too late to correct Wright’s misperceptions and missteps, too late to give him the guidance he needed to rise to the level of old Japanese hokku instead of falling into common misunderstandings.

That is, fortunately, not the case with those still writing today.  But the problem in this case is finding those with the potential poetic intuition of a Richard Wright who are also humble enough to be willing to start over and do hokku the right way.

A great deal more could be said about the “haiku” of Richard Wright, and perhaps I shall have more to say when time permits.  But for now I shall only repeat that reading Wright’s “haiku” leaves one with the disappointing feeling of a potential unfulfilled due to lack of informed guidance, the same feeling one gets on reading the better examples of present day writers of “haiku,” who never quite understand what they are doing or why, and who consequently are always walking but never getting anywhere.

David

TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON

Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:

SPRING

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

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.

David

HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU, AND VICE-VERSA

From time to time I like to remind people why I use historically-accurate terminology here, instead of the inaccurate, anachronistic, and very misleading and confusing term “haiku.”  Bashō called what he wrote hokku, as a part of his practice of haikai; that was true whether the verses appeared independently or in linked verse or in travel journals.  The same is true of all writers of the verse form in the centuries prior to the 20th.  And of course those who write hokku rather than modern haiku today continue to use the same term  — hokku — as was used in past centuries.

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify, yet the modern haiku establishment persists in trying to obscure it.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that among scholars is well known to be a mistake .  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from its spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the  hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

SUBJECTIVE HOKKU, OBJECTIVE HOKKU

We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

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

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

Beneath
The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”

David

“TRUE” AND “UNTRUE” HOKKU

In the past I have talked about the four kinds of verse, which can further be reduced to two kinds:

1.  The “facts” of the verse viewed subjectively.

2.  The “facts” of the verse viewed objectively.

An important stage in the development of one’s understanding of hokku is the realization that these two categories apply to old hokku just as they do to other kinds of verse.  So we have “subjective” hokku and we have “objective” hokku.

Because the kind of hokku I teach and prefer is “objective” hokku, we need to know and recognize the difference.  We can find both kinds even within the verses of a single writer, for example in the hokku of Bashō:

There is the well-known verse:

The sea has darkened;
Cries of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.

That is, however, a hokku tainted with subjectivity.  Why?  Because we know that the cries of the ducks are sounds, and sounds cannot be “faintly white.”  There is an exception for the very, very tiny number of people who experience synesthesia, who are able to “see” colors — but we have no evidence that Bashō or any of his readers had that ability.  We must say, then, that Bashō has phrased the hokku in this way to make it obviously “poetic,” that is, to add his fantasy to it instead of just letting it be what it is.

Bashō also wrote:

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the tree shade.

Bashō saw an historically-significant flute at Suma Temple, and he tells us he heard the sound of that unblown flute.  Well, no, he did not.  What he heard at best was a sound he imagined in his mind, leaving aside the issue of how this verse borrows from an old waka verse.  What Bashō has done is to take the silent flute and to romanticize it, to add from his own fantasy to consciously make it more “poetic.”

And of course Bashō also wrote:

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

That, by contrast, is an objective verse, without the added fantasy of the writer.  Now some might say, “Well, Bashō did not really see this exact event, so he did use fantasy,” and they would be right.  But the distinction we want to make here is between those verses that use obvious additions from the imagination for “poetic” effect in contrast to those verses that are — or in the case of this last verse, that seem — to be entirely without the addition of fantasy from the imagination of the writer.  In other words there is nothing “untrue” about the experience of seeing a frog jump into an old pond and hearing the watery “plop!”  But there is something untrue in saying that the cries of wild ducks are “faintly white,” or that one hears an “unblown flute.”  We know right away that neither of these things is “true” to reality, and that is the distinction we make in hokku between subjective, “”untrue” hokku supplemented from fantasy to make them seem more poetic, and objective, “true” hokku that do not say anything out of keeping with the way things are in reality.

Now note this:  The truth of hokku does not mean a verse happened exactly the way the writer gives it.  But the writer must not put anything in it that could not have been experienced in just the way the hokku presents it.  In other words, Bashō may have seen a frog jump into water at some time, and he may have tried to come up with a fitting first line, trying different settings, such as mentioning a kind of flowering shrub.  But in any case, he finally decided on “The old pond” as the appropriate setting.  And the verse has a “true” effect when read.

Remember that in writing hokku, we use the principle of the old Chinese painters — that one went out into nature, looking at mountains and rivers, trees and birds, blossoms and stones, studying their character.  And then one went home and composed an ink painting using the character of the elements one had seen.  The painter likely did not see precisely the landscape in the final painting.  But because he had studied the nature of these things, back in his studio he could combine them into paintings that have the effect of being “true.”

It is the same with hokku.  We write from actual experience, but a particular hokku may combine experiences from more than one occasion, in order to express the character of a season.  But what we cannot do in the kind of hokku I teach is to add fantasies from our imagination that make a hokku obviously “untrue.”  For example, if I write a spring verse about apple blossoms, and throw in that I hear the whistling of Johnny Appleseed as I view them, then obviously I am adding fantasy, and am being “untrue” in hokku.

This matter of adding fantasy from the imagination to a verse, throwing over it what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination,” is very important in understanding the aesthetics behind our kind of hokku — objective hokku — which carefully avoids adding such coloring of the imagination.

Why?  Because our verse is contemplative hokku.  We want to be faithful to Nature and to its character, so we cannot simply add fantasies to events to make them seem more romantic, more “poetic.”  In our kind of hokku the poetry is not on the page, it is in the sensory experience of the verse — touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing.  When one has that, one needs nothing more.

I hope readers will think carefully about this, and will look again at old hokku by different authors to see which are “true” hokku, and which are “untrue.”

David


IN SEARCH OF THE ELUSIVE METAPHOR IN HOKKU

 

We already know that a metaphor, simply speaking, is saying one thing is another.  And we know a simile is saying one thing is like another.  An allegory is “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary.  In simple terms that is “saying one thing, but meaning another.”  A symbol is “something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else,” as the same dictionary tells us.

Knowing all this, we are now prepared to take a look at two verses:

Shiragiku no   me ni tatete miru    chiri mo nashi
White-chrysanthemum ‘s eyes at raise look  dust even not

White chrysanthemums;
Lifting the eyes to look —
Not a speck of dust.

This verse was written as a greeting to Bashō’s hostess.  This was a common function of the hokku when used as the first verse of a series of linked verses (haikai no renga).

Botan shibe fukaku   wakeizuru hachi no   nagori kana
Peony pistils deep   separate-emerge  bee ‘s parting-reluctance kana

Reluctantly,
The bee emerges
From the peony pistils.

This verse was written as a parting verse for one of Bashō’s hosts.

Now it is immediately obvious that both of these verses were written for special occasions — the first as greeting, the second as parting — and so they fall into a particular class of hokku that we call “occasion” hokku (in the old haikai practice, a greeting verse could be the opening verse of a series of linked verses).

Long-time readers of this site will recall that we have talked about  “occasion” hokku before, explaining how they differ from regular hokku.

To understand the peculiar nature of “occasion” hokku, we must understand just what they are.  Keep in mind always the dictum that the best hokku (we are not talking now about bad hokku or the occasional exception here) are not symbols for anything, are not metaphors.  Instead, they make use of layers of associations.  They do not say one thing is another (metaphor), nor do they say one thing is like another (simile).  This is a matter difficult for some people to understand, because they are so accustomed to simile and metaphor in Western verse that they see it even where it does not exist.

There is an interesting yet very simple summer hokku written by Chine-jo (the -jo suffix tells us the writer is a woman).

Easily it glows —
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We could say that this verse has a double meaning, because it was written as Chine-jo’s death verse — but that is not entirely accurate.  To say that the verse is a metaphor for Chine-jo’s death and leave it at that would also be misleading, because the verse uses the old principle that in hokku, one small thing can hold the meaning of something much larger.  For example, we say that in hokku one leaf is all of autumn.

In this verse, the firefly’s glow going easily out expresses all such things in Nature, the fact that if the ego is not struggling against Nature, everything becomes “easy” in life and death, because the individual will dissolves into Nature’s will, as it is put in Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso:

Anzi è formale ad esto beato esse
tenersi dentro a la divina voglia,
per ch’una fansi nostre voglie stesse;

Rather it is necessary to this blessed existence
To keep one’s self within the Divine will,
So that our wills may be one..
.”

E ’n la sua volontate è nostra pace:

And in His will is our peace.”

That is the mind of Chine-jo, whose will has become one with the firefly, with Nature, so that

Easily it glows,
Easily it goes out;
The firefly.

We will often find hokku that, while having their own meaning, to be read as referring to nothing beyond themselves, are yet applied to events in life that are expressed through them.  We find them — as here — in death verses, in verses written for greetings and partings and other such occasions, which is why we call such hokku “occasion” hokku.

That brings us back to the earlier two examples — the white chrysanthemum and the emerging bee.  As “occasion” hokku, these have a double meaning.  The chrysanthemum applies to Bashō’s hostess, on one side; but on the other, it is simply a hokku about a chrysanthemum.  Similarly the emerging bee verse on one side is simply about that; on the other it applies to Bashō’s reluctant departure.  Chiyo-ni’s verse, on one side, is about human death; but on the other side, it is about the light of a firefly going out.

We must not minimize or subordinate either meaning in occasion hokku, but neither should we confuse them simply as allegory or metaphor by saying:  “This says A, but it means B.”  The correct answer is, “This means A and it means B.  Sometimes we will want to read it as A, but for this particular occasion and purpose, it means B.”  Half of the dual function of an occasional verse is, in the words of the O.E.D., speaking otherwise than one seems to speak, which is the definition of allegory; and Bashō quite obviously did, for particular occasions, compose hokku in which he was doing so, as did other composers of such verses.  But we must not forget the non-occasion use of the same hokku, when the original occasion has passed and the hokku still exists and must be appreciated not as allegory but for itself alone.

The solution to the matter lies in the difference between subordination and equality.  If we say, for example, that the verse about the spotless chrysanthemum is a metaphor, or an allegory, or a symbol for Bashō’s hostess, but fail to point out that the verse must also function perfectly as a hokku completely on its own and independent of that allegorical use, then we are subordinating the “ordinary” meaning of the hokku to the allegorical meaning.  If a hokku is strong in its allegorical significance, but weak independent of allegory, then it fails as good hokku.

An “occasion” hokku must be able to function equally well in both its application as “allegory” and in non-occasion, non-allegorical use — at its own obvious “face value,” so to speak.

It is critical when writing occasion hokku that we do not cross the line into making them meaningful only when applied to the event, in which case they would be mere allegories.  All too often the old writers of hokku — particularly those used as the first verse of haikai-no-renga did this.   Instead, they must be fully strong within and as themselves — like the “firefly” verse of Chine-jo — and yet fully expressive of the occasion for which they are written — as we also find in that verse.

Having said all this, what then, do we do with the occasional old hokku that does use metaphor in some way?  We find, for example, Bashō’s autumn hokku:

Yuku aki ya   te o hirogetaru   kuri no iga
Going autumn
ya hands o opened chestnut’s bur

Autumn departing;
With open hands —
The chestnut burs.

Here, in a greeting verse written for a linked-verse-composing party, Bashō is apparently referring to the mature, opened halves of the chestnut bur as “palms” (he actually says “hands” but it is assumed that the means the halves have opened like the hollowed palms of two hands).

The answer is that we do nothing at all.  referring back to the first part of this article, you will recall I said that the best old Japanese hokku do not use obvious metaphor or simile.  And this rather mediocre verse is no exception to that rule.

In our practice of hokku we do not use such verses as models precisely because the use of metaphor or simile detracts from what we want to achieve in the kind of hokku I teach.  A metaphor or simile in verse is essentially a split image, requiring the reader to visualize two different things, such as the chestnut bur halves and the opened palms in the verse by Bashō.  But in hokku we want the focus undivided, direct and strong.

To summarize then:

1.  The best old hokku (and of course good modern hokku) do not use metaphor or simile.

2.  Some old hokku applied to certain occasions such as greeting, parting, and death had the ability to function on two different planes of meaning; one function approximates that known in English as allegorical; the other function was entirely non-allegorical; neither function is subordinated to the other in the best hokku, making such a verse non-allegorical (and non-metaphorical) in the common English sense of the word, which requires the subordination of one function to the other.

Do you still find all of this somewhat confusing?  No problem.  Just let the academics bicker pointlessly over it, but remember not to use metaphor or simile or allegory in your hokku, with the possible exception of the double function of “occasion” hokku as explained above — if from time to time you may feel moved to write an “occasion” hokku.  If you do not feel so moved, you may ignore them entirely.

David

THERE’S A BELL AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA

Old hokku sometimes included historical, literary, or cultural allusions that make them very difficult for modern English-language readers to understand.  As I have already explained, we say that such verses “Do not travel well.”  That means they require so much explanation even after translation that any strength that might have been in the hokku is largely lost.  It is like having to explain a joke after one has told it.  Nearly all the effect is gone.

And of course many such allusive hokku were not very good to begin with.  Nonetheless, when the average Westerner reads them, completely unfamiliar with the background to such verses, the likelihood of misunderstanding becomes very high.

As we have seen, from the late 19th century and all through the 20th and even into the 21st century, most Westerners have completely misunderstood the hokku, and have seen it through their own colored glasses, tinted to make it seem like the Western poetry with which they are already familiar.

One such allusive verse by Bashō is:

Tsuki izuku    kane wa shizumeru   umi no soko
Moon where?  bell wa sunken       sea   ‘s   bottom

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

A Western enthusiast reading this without the context of hokku (I won’t name him) thought this an example of imaginative surrealism in Bashō — that Bashō just “made up” a fanciful verse.  As I always say, Westerners just misinterpret hokku in terms of what they already know — or think they know.

Actually, however, Bashō is not being surreal or exhibiting a wild imagination; he is referring to an historical event, one of many that took place during the gruesome and violent political history of Japan.  Without going into detail, there was a military defeat and suicides at a beach, and a large bell associated with the event sank into the sea.  From that alone we can see that what we find in the verse is not surrealism — just historical allusion.

In our practice of hokku we do not much care for such things.  I tend to discourage allusion in hokku because it demands a background that many do not have; and further, because it often detracts from the sensory experience of the hokku and takes us into intellectualism.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that historically it was sometimes found in hokku, and that numbers of old verses cannot be fully understood without recognizing such allusions.

But from our perspective, what interests in this hokku (even though it is not a very good hokku) is something else.  Let’s look at it again:

Where is the moon?
The bell has sunk
To the bottom of the sea.

If you are a long- time reader here and have been absorbing what is taught, it should dawn on you that this is a hokku using what we call “harmony of similarity.”  That means a verse combining things that are similar in some way, even if only in feeling.  In this verse we have two kinds of similarity:

1.  Similarity of absence:  the moon is absent, the bell is absent.
2.  Similarity of shape:  the moon is round, the bell (which in the story of this verse is turned upside down in the sand at the sea bottom) is also round (its basal opening is round).

That does not mean we should imitate such verses in their use of allusion, because that is not something that fits our approach to hokku; nor should our verses require explanation.  Even to understand the second similarity, it helps to know that divers tried to retrieve the sunken bell, but because it was upside-down in the sand on the sea floor, they could not.  We can, however, keep in mind and use when appropriate the “harmony of similarity.”

The average Western reader, however, ignorant of the allusion and of the technique alike, will likely end up with some confused notion of what the verse is all about — perhaps even describing it (quite inaccurately) somewhat as the fellow mentioned earlier did — as imaginative and surreal.

David


THIS FLOATING WORLD

A reader, having seen one of the hokku of Bashō, asked me exactly what is meant by the term “floating world.”  Was Bashō in it?  Are we in it?

It all depends on the sense in which we understand the term.  Here is the hokku in question (an autumn verse):

Kiso no tochi   ukiyo no hito no    miyage kana
Kiso  ‘s horse-chestnuts    floating-world ‘s people ‘s souvenir kana

We can translate as:

Horse-chestnuts from Kiso —
A souvenir for people
Of the floating world.

Kiso was a region in the mountains, isolated from the urban areas of Japan.  Chinese horse chestnuts grew there, and they were often considered a kind of symbol of the isolated, hermit life, and were even used as food by hermits.  so Bashō says he will bring them back to the people of the “floating world” as a souvenir.

From this alone we can see that Bashō made a distinction between a rural, hermit life (which of course he considered the “poetic” life) and the life of the city, which at that time meant primarily life in the big city of Edo, which later became Tokyo.

So for Bashō, the “floating world” meant, in part, the life of the denizens of the city with their sensuous pleasures, their plays, their restaurants and teahouses.  And though it meant in particular the way of life in the Yoshiwara, the “red light” district of the city, Bashō intends it here in a more general sense to mean those who are caught up in the life and entertainments of the “world” — exemplified by life in the city — as opposed to the rural countryside.

We can understand the meaning of the term better if we realize that it is, to some extent, the equivalent of the Chinese Buddhist term “The World of Dust,” which means the world of going after pleasures of the senses, after money, fame, and delights.  In fact the term ukiyo (uki = floating, yo = world), if written differently in Japanese but pronounced the same, also means “The World of Sorrow,” which is the world in which we all live, the world of birth and death and suffering.  A person on a spiritual path seeks to transcend this floating world, this world of sorrow, by turning away from the pleasures and interests that obsess and absorb the ordinary person.

So what is the “floating world”?  Very specifically, it is the Yoshiwara district and its life.  More generally, it is the pleasure, money, and fame-seeking life of the city.  But even more generally, it is the world of all people not on a spiritual path, of people spending their days and years in trying to have a good time and make money, people who do not give a thought to a simple life and to spiritual development.

For Bashō, the horse chestnuts of Kiso had the underlying significance of a simple, hermit-like life, which again he considered to be the “poetic” life.  In contrast to that was the “floating world,” the world of those caught by the illusions of pleasure and money and position, and it was to those people in “the world” that Bashō wished to bring the horse chestnuts of Kiso.  It is a distinction between the “worldly” and the “unworldly.”

That this was Bashō’s understanding is confirmed by a variant of the hokku in which the simple term yo (the world) is used instead of uki-yo = (the floating world).

We can see, then, that this is a hokku of contrasts — the rural horse chestnuts on one side, the city dwellers — those in the World of Dust, on the other — and both are linked by Bashō, who unifies the two.

It is the kind of hokku that is understood in Japan but does not “travel well,” meaning that it requires too much cultural explanation to be effective when translated from one language and culture to another.

And by the way, the horse chestnuts in question are not the chestnuts (Castanea sativa) that we roast at Christmas.  They are a coarser, bitter kind (Aesculus chinensis) that require considerable preparation to make them edible because they have a high toxin content.  They are more like the horse chestnuts known in Britain as “conkers,” and often in America as “Buckeyes,” generally considered inedible.

David


THE SCENT SOAKS INTO YOUR GARMENTS

What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.

David


THOUGHT AND THE FRETTING BOY

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Yesterday we saw a verse that, while dealing with emotion, treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

NO MODERN HAIKU, THANK YOU!

R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.

David

WHY “HOKKU”?

Newcomers here often wonder why I use the word “hokku” for the small “Nature” verses I often discuss.  I use that word because it is the very word that has been used to describe them for over 300 years.  It is the word used by Bashō and Gyōdai, Taigi, and Buson, and all the other writers up to the time near the end of the 19th century when a journalist named Shiki began calling what he wrote “haiku” instead, though many of his verses were still essentially hokku in all but name.

As a result, over time a lot of people began speaking of those earlier, preceding centuries of old hokku as “haiku” too.  But I do not do that, and there are very good reasons.  First, as I have already said, it is not the “real” name of the verse, not what the writers of these verses themselves called them.  But even more important, after Shiki the “haiku” began to be written in so many different ways that it grew more and more unlike the hokku.  Today the word “haiku” is just a foggy and fuzzy umbrella term used to describe a great number of kinds of brief verse.  It has become so vague as to be nearly meaningless, and it certainly does not clearly or accurately describe the kind of verses written in the centuries before Shiki, nor does it describe the hokku we write in that old tradition today.

I believe that in order to teach something, one must know precisely what one is teaching.  One must be able to describe and explain it so the student will understand.  That is why I use the historically correct term hokku to apply to the kind of verse I teach and discuss.  It is the same word that was used by all who wrote it, and I can think of no good reason to change that.  I have seen what happens when people do try to change it, and the result is just hopeless confusion.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that there is a lot of new brief verse out there that is called “haiku.”  I always tell people that hokku is NOT haiku, and historically that is quite accurate.  But more important, hokku has its own standards and principles and aesthetics.  These have been largely forgotten or abandoned by most people who write haiku.  For many of these people, haiku is just a modern brief poem about the length of a hokku, but without most or all the characteristics of a hokku.  Often a modern haiku cannot be distinguished in any way from other short poems of roughly the same length that people do not call or consider to be haiku.

To avoid all that confusion, I just keep to the original, correct term.  That saves a lot of bother for everyone.  Fortunately, hokku is also the term still used by scholars when they want to be technically correct.  So even they know that using “haiku” when what is really meant is “hokku” can be confusing.

My attitude toward modern haiku is that it began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers who mistakenly thought the hokku was like Western poetry, just shorter.  That is why a lot of modern haiku can hardly be distinguished from other short poems that are not haiku.  Some people actually prefer this “hybrid” kind of verse, and if they do that is fine.  But I do object when they try to convince people that what they write is in the same tradition as the old hokku writers, or when they try to convince people to call hokku “haiku.”  That is simply adopting confusion instead of clarity.  Here I only teach hokku.

Of course many people who write experimental kinds of modern haiku consider the hokku, without any good reason, outdated. They think that verse forms must always be changed and transformed and turned into something else to be any good.  But I think that is a foolish notion.  If something works well at what it is supposed to do, there is no reason to change it.  And change just for the sake of change is pointless.

Of course the way we write hokku today is not exactly how the old writers did it, because they wrote in Japanese and we write in English.  But we still follow their old techniques, their old aesthetics, and we still look to Nature and the changing seasons as the focus of our verse, just as they did.  That is why we can speak of a continuity between the old hokku and new hokku.

Learning hokku is more difficult than learning haiku because one cannot just make up one’s own rules.  There are certain guidelines we should follow, or else a verse will not be a real hokku.  But once we learn the guidelines and techniques and principles, then we can begin to write with real freedom, because we will have absorbed the spirit behind all the guidelines that is the real essence of the hokku.

David

RAIN DRIPPING INTO A BASIN

I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.

David

LIKE CLOUDS — OR IS IT GEESE, OR MAYBE….

Someone recently kindly asked me to participate in an online group project to translate — or at least present Englished versions of — all the hokku of Bashō.  I declined for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it is stretching it a bit to say that even 20% of the approximately 1,000 verses attributed to Bashō are either worthwhile or transfer well from culture to culture.

But another reason I could have given is that some of Bashō’s hokku are so obscure in the originals that they defy definite translation, like this autumn verse:

Kumo to hedatsu   tomo ka ya kari no  ikiwakare
Cloud as separate  friend ka ya wild-geese  ‘s live-parting

It is devilishly difficult to understand precisely how Bashō intended this to be read.   Does it mean, as David Landis Barnhill has it (I have changed his format, not his words),

Like clouds drifting apart,
A wild goose separates, for now,
From his friend.

Or does it mean, as Oseko presents it,

Friend beyond the clouds!
Just as wild geese
Part company.

Might it mean

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose’s departure.

…as Makoto Ueda has it,

Or perhaps does it mean, as Russian translator  Dmitri Smirnov gives it,

Облака разделят  нас друг с другом навсегда,  словно двух гусей.

Which I would translate as:

Clouds separate us,
Friend from friend forever,
Like two wild geese.

Should it begin,

Like clouds…

or perhaps

Just as clouds…

Making a simile (which most hokku do not use, as I have pointed out previously), or does the apparent simile apply not to the clouds, but rather to the wild geese, as others would have it?

This is the kind of stew into which one jumps when one takes on translating the entire body of Bashō’s verse.  Really, life is too short to spend it on this kind of thing, particularly when the result will inevitably be inconclusive and colored by the personal aesthetics of the translator.

Of course such problems have not deterred others from giving it a try, yet even David Landis Barnhill stops at translating about 725 of the near 1,000 extant hokku.  Toshiharu Oseko earlier went farther, coming out with two large hardcover volumes of Bashō translations, with extensive notes.  And they are not the only ones to take on the task — just the most useful authors so far, in my view.

So how would I translate the verse in question?  First, I would just openly admit its obscurity. and then I would probably come up with some “amended” version like this:

Friends separate
Like passing clouds;
Wild geese leaving.

Quite honestly, it makes a terrible hokku, because it does not do what a hokku should do, which is to avoid simile and too much comparison.  I do not think any translation I have seen of this verse of Bashō makes a good hokku.  And of course what Bashō really intended remains unclear even to native Japanese readers, so what you just read in my “translation” is a mixture of Bashō and Coomler.

The reason for difficulty in this verse, no doubt, is that Bashō was mixing images from old Chinese poetry  — parting friends, clouds, and wild geese — and he poured the result into the very tiny mold of hokku, and in this case it just did not work.  Instead he should have written it in another and more expansive verse form, leaving hokku for what works well in hokku.

Blyth once said with affectionate hyperbole that a bad verse of Bashō is better than the best of lesser writers of hokku, but I do not find that to be literally the case.  Many of Bashō’s verses make poor models for modern hokku, but we need not dwell on those when we have the best of his hokku given us in the translations of Blyth.  As students of hokku it is best to concentrate on those that are good, using the mediocre and the bad only as examples of what to avoid.

And for those who do want to dwell on those numerous, lesser attempts of Bashō, there is always the large selection offered in paperback by David Landis Barnhill and the two very useful volumes (outrageously expensive now that they are out of print) of Toshiharu Oseko.  If you are budget-minded, go with David Landis Barnhill.  If you are interested in “popular” personal interpretations by someone who is a lover of poetry though not a real translator, you might like to peruse Jane Reichhold’s “complete” versions of Bashō’s verses, but keep in mind that it will be hard to distinguish what is Reichhold with her “modern haiku” aesthetics from what is legitimately Bashō.  Those looking for deeper insight and accuracy will prefer Barnhill and Oseko.

As for me, I will leave the translating of the complete works of Bashō to others.  My view is that modern hokku is legitimately based on the best of all writers of hokku prior to the beginning of the 20th century, and there is no need to spend much time on inferior or confusing old examples that contribute little or nothing to the building of modern hokku in English and other languages.

As for which of the many translations of the verse given above is really the best, one can only say that the best verse as a poem is that of  Dmitri Smirnov, followed by that of Barnhill.  But in doing so, one must separate what is good as a poem from what is good as a hokku.  Something may be good as poetry yet bad as hokku.

David

CHERRY BLOSSOMS COME BLOWING

Bashō wrote a very spring-like verse almost too pretty for hokku:

From the four directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing in;
Lake Nio.

We could be a bit less literal and make it:

From all directions,
Cherry blossoms come blowing;
Lake Nio.

Most of us have not the slightest idea what Lake Nio, also called Lake Biwa, looked or looks like.  So we naturally do what we do with all hokku — we automatically come up with an internal image of a lake, with cherry blossoms blowing into it from all directions.  For each of us the image will be slightly different, depending on our past experience of lakes.  And that is the way with all hokku.  Each reader has a different experience depending on his or her internal stock of images.

If we were to examine this verse structurally, we could say that the setting is Lake Nio; the subject is cherry blossoms, and the action is “come blowing from all directions.”

We could even present the verse that straightforward way, putting the setting last:

Cherry blossoms
Come blowing from all directions;
Lake Nio.

David

FROG WORLD

Issa wrote:

Waga kado e    shiranande hairu    kawazu kana
My       gate   e unknowing coming-in  frog     kana

Entering
My gate unaware —
A frog.

Six words.

The whole point of the verse lies in the word “unaware.”

Our world is a “people” world in which frogs are found.  A frog’s world is a frog world in which people are found.

It makes one wonder of what we are unaware.

Notice the difference between this “frog” verse and the famous one by Bashō:  In Issa’s verse, there is an observer (indicated by “my gate”) and an observed (the entering frog).  In Bashō’s verse, however, there is only

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

There is no writer-frog separation.  One could say there is no writer-old pond-frog separation.  The subject (the writer) has disappeared, has become the object (that written about), so that a “twoness” becomes a oneness.

David

WAGONS, NO JETS

One of the great differences between hokku and modern haiku is found in subject matter.  In modern haiku one finds verses about all the things that hokku, for one reason or another, rejected.  I say “for one reason or another,” but actually there are two principal reasons.

First, hokku avoids topics that tend to disturb or obsess the mind.  That of course means romance and sex and violence.  The omission of such things comes from the spiritual origins of hokku in Mahayana Buddhism.   If we think of hokku as one of the contemplative arts — which it is — then it becomes readily obvious why these things are not used.

Second, hokku avoids modern technology.  It is very common for those in the modern haiku community to think that this is because such technology did not exist for the greater part of the history of hokku, but that is incorrect.  Hokku avoids technology because the real subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  Technology tends to take us away from Nature, and the farther we go in that direction, the farther from hokku we are.

That is why those in modern haiku who say “If Bashō were alive today he would write verses about texting and iPods and jets and freeways” (I cannot tell you how often I have heard that in one form or another) are simply exhibiting their ignorance of the fundamental aesthetics of the hokku.

It is not hard to see when and why technology began to be admitted to Japanese verse.  It happened near the end of the 19th century.  We can blame it on Shiki, who nonetheless did hold to the traditional standards in theory — that a verse should not be just about technology.  Nonetheless some of Shiki’s verses go a bit too far in admitting technology, and haiku (not hokku) writers who came after him saw that as license to go all the way.  That is why in modern haiku one may find a verse about nothing more than an elevator opening and closing.  That is very far from hokku, but often characteristic of modern haiku.

A few days ago we looked at the last stanza of a poem by Edward Shanks (one of the “Georgian” poets of England) called “A Night-Piece.”  An earlier stanza in that verse exhibits the kind of transition in English verse that we find also when Shiki began writing borderline verses:

All’s quiet in the wood, but, far away,
Down the hillside and out across the plain,
Moves, with long trail of white that marks its way,
——The softly panting train.

We see the gently puffing steam engine moving across the valley far away, though we are standing surrounded by Nature.  Its puffing is only gentle because it is distant.  Shiki, however, brought it much too close when he wrote a verse about smoke from a passing train and then draws our attention to “the young leaves.”  This is really too much for hokku.  Technology is beginning to overwhelm Nature.

The general rule of thumb in hokku is that Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature must always be the chief focus of a verse.  We of course often find the presence of human artifacts in hokku, but they are generally “pre-Industrial Revolution” kinds of things, like pots and and kites and wagons, things that do not interfere with our perception of Nature.  To use anything else in hokku requires both skill and a thorough understanding of its aesthetics, and is generally best avoided by both beginning and advanced students.

We must not make the childish mistake of thinking in “either-or” terms.  “Either I must write about modern technology in hokku or I cannot write about it at all.”  Again we must keep in mind the adage, “the right tool for the right job.”  There are many kinds of verse in which one may freely write about modern technology.  Hokku just does not happen to be one of them, because it has, and has always had, an entirely different purpose.

David

KNOWING WHEN TO BE SILENT

Edward Richard Burton Shanks wrote a poem titled “A Night-Piece” in the “Georgian” period of English poetry (1910-1936) — a work a bit overlong that ends with these words:

Again . . . again! The faint sounds rise and fail.
So far the enchanted tree, the song so low . . .
A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?
——Silence. We do not know.

That is often the way of poetry.  It says too much.  It speaks when silence is more appropriate and more significant.  It does not know when and where to stop.

The most important part of the last stanza is this:

A drowsy thrush? A waking nightingale?

But then the poet spoils it all by saying

——Silence. We do not know.

Hokku, in one of its frequent patterns, does not make that mistake.  I am speaking of the “question” hokku, the essence of which is to ask a question that not only remains unanswered but should not and must not be answered.  That is because the whole point of a question hokku is the feeling one gets from not knowing, “The Unanswered Question,” as the American composer Charles Ives titled one of his works.

The question hokku avoids the finality of knowing.  Knowing ends a multitude of possibilities.

Bashō wrote one of the best-known question hokku:

Hana no kumo   kane wa ueno ka asakusa ka
Blossom ‘s cloud  bell wa Ueno ?  Asakusa ?

A cloud of blossoms;
Is the bell Ueno?
Is it Asakusa?

The first line “A cloud of blossoms” gives us the wider setting of the verse.  It is spring, and cherry blossoms are everywhere.  Through this cloud of blossoms comes the deep tone of a sounding bell.  Where does it come from?  One cannot tell.  Is it from a temple at Ueno?  Or one at Asakusa?

To tell us would spoil the verse completely, would ruin its point, which is just that feeling of not knowing.

We could take Shanks’ lines and make them into a proper hokku:

The distant wood;
A drowsy thrush?
A waking nightingale?

One does not, of course, need a question on each of two lines, as in Bashō and in our reworked Shanks.  One need only be sure that the question mark is placed so as to leave the reader with the unanswered question:

Let’s look at an out-of-season verse by Ōemaru:

Meeting the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.

That verse also relies on the feeling it arouses in the reader.  But we can get another interesting feeling by making a question hokku of it:

Is that the cow
I sold last year?
The autumn wind.

Which one uses will depend on the feeling one wishes to convey.  Notice that we do not need to tell the reader what to feel.  He or she just feels it upon reading each of these verses.  That is the virtue of not saying too much, one of the many virtues of the hokku.

David

QUIET, STILL AND SURGING

I have always been very fond of the hokku of Onitsura, the other of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses have a very simple elegance, like that found in an old person who, however poor and mended his clothes, is always immaculately clean and mannered.  In Onitsura we do not find the kind of obsession with verse that we sometimes sense in Bashō, and it adds a quietness to them that is very pleasing:

Hana chitte   mata shizuka nari   Enjō-ji
Blossoms fallen  again quiet is     Enjō Temple

We can translate it as:

Blossoms fallen,
Again it is quiet;
Enjō Temple.

or as:

Quiet again,
With the blossoms all fallen;
Enjōji Temple.

The noisy, trampling crowds that came for the annual viewing of the cherry blossoms have departed.  With their leaving, everything has reverted to the stillness present before their coming.  It is a refreshing, peacefully pleasant quiet.

It has none of the dark and ghostly silence found in the last lines of Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners“:

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Those of you who pay attention to the Japanese transcriptions of the original verses that I sometimes give (and you need not pay them the slightest attention if you do not wish) may want to know that in words with a macron above a vowel — as in Enjō or Bashō, etc. — that vowel is to be pronounced twice as long. So the first is not simply Enjo, but rather En-jo-o, the second Ba-sho-o, not Basho.  It is not the difference between “long” and “short” vowels in English, but rather the amount of time taken to say the vowel, which is twice as long if the vowel has the macron.

I want to emphasize again, however, that one need not know a single Japanese word (except of course, hokku) to learn hokku, because we write in English here.  And of course how we write hokku in English is also applicable to other languages such as Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, etc. etc. etc., which is probably why speakers of various languages read this site.

David

BRIEF DREAMS

I was very amused by a comment in the Guardian by a fellow who attended a Quaker meeting:

“...you sit there in silence. Five minutes goes by. You shift a bit in your seat. Another five minutes goes by. Did I say goes? These five minutes crawl by like drugged somnabulating slugs. Nothing happens at all…  Another five minutes passes. It is excruciating now.”  (guardian.co.uk)

What this fellow sees as nothing happening is actually something happening, but because he is completely unfamiliar with the context, he is totally bewildered by all those people silently sitting and doing apparently nothing, and cannot recognize what is really taking place, which is something of deep significance.

It all reminds me so very much of how modern haiku enthusiasts react to hokku.  There is something happening in it, but they do not understand the aesthetic context.   Undeterred by that, they apply to it what they think should be happening in verse — and one of those things is metaphor.

If there is any verse to which modern haiku pundits might apply metaphor, surely it would be this summer verse by Bashō:

Takotsubo ya    hakanaki yume wo    natsu no tsuki

Octopus-pot ya fleeting dreams wo summer  ‘s moon

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

The octopus finds a cozy, earthenware pot that looks to be a useful shelter.  But when dawn comes, the pot and octopus will be pulled from the water, and his life will be over.  The pot is a trap.

Those frantic to see metaphor in hokku will say the octopus pots are metaphors for human life.  But they will be wrong.  In hokku an octopus pot is an octopus pot. Human life is human life.  There is no need for metaphor, which actually detracts from what the writer of hokku intends.

Westerners are accustomed to overstatement, to endless analysis.  Hokku merely presents the reader with something happening in Nature.  The point of the hokku is in what is happening, just as the point of a Quaker meeting is in the gathered silence.  A Quaker needs no minister or priest standing at the end of the room sermonizing or ritualizing.  The silence, which seems to be “nothing,” is quite full in itself.  And the hokku needs neither metaphor nor simile — it too is quite sufficient in itself.

To grasp hokku, one must really abandon what one thinks one knows about poetry, all the baggage and explanation that goes with English literature.  The last thing one needs is to misapply all that baggage to something that neither requires nor is illumined by it.

Getting modern haiku enthusiasts to see this, however, is is remarkably difficult, because they come to hokku with expectations and notions that simply do not apply to it.  Very few are able to abandon those expectations and misapplied notions, to free their minds so they are able to at last perceive how very different hokku is from everything they have thought of up to this point as poetry.

Most in modern haiku do not even try, and are quite content to write free verse in three lines and label it haiku, never questioning how — or even if — it relates to all that was written by all the hokku writers prior to Shiki’s presentation of the “haiku” to Japan.

That is why I always tell students that to learn hokku, one should not even think of it as poetry.  By abandoning that context altogether, one is finally free to see hokku for what it really is:

Octopus pots;
Brief dreams beneath
The summer moon.

David