A LEADING DOG: DETERMINING QUALITY IN HOKKU

Context makes a huge difference in hokku, even if one uses the same subject.

Let’s talk about dogs.

Issa wrote two hokku — one a summer hokku, one autumn — in which a dog is leading someone somewhere.  But one is a rather mediocre hokku, while the other is quite good.

Here they are.  First, summer:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

When issa says “hermitage dog,” he really just means the dog from his own poor little dwelling.

The verse lacks unity and harmony.  In anyone educated in hokku, there will be the question as to what relationship exists between the dog going ahead, and the looking for a place to view fireflies?  The answer is that there is no apparent relationship, or an unclear relationship, or at least none that arouses a sufficiently suggestive feeling in a reader that might make this a worthwhile verse.

Now let’s look at an autumn verse by the same author, also with a leading/guiding dog:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

That is Blyth’s translation, and it can hardly be bettered.  In this there is a world of difference from the first example.  It is the season of autumn, the time of weakening Yin forces, of Nature dying and returning to the root.  That is in harmony not only with the graves, but also with the old dog himself.  And as I have said before about this particular verse, we have the feeling that the old dog has made this trip to the graves with the family many times in many years, and that gives us the feeling of the passage of time, of aging.  All of this gives the verse depth, and that is why it is much superior to the “firefly viewing” example, which seems quite flat and uninteresting:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

Now if Issa had said instead for his summer hokku something like:

Letting the dog
Choose the way;
Firefly viewing.

That would make at least some improvement.  It would indicate that, like the haphazard appearance of the lights of fireflies, the writer is in keeping with that randomness, letting the dog choose which way to go, while the writer follows after, accepting whatever comes.

No doubt there are many other ways one might improve on Issa’s summer verse, but my point here is just to show how one judges quality in a hokku.  As you can see, suggestiveness and a feeling of unity are good guides.  Without these, a hokku tends to be flat and tasteless.

David

ISLANDS IN THE SEA: TRANSLATING SHIKI

R. H. Blyth, to whom I often refer, called the following verse by Shiki “Shiki at his best” (Shiki would have called it a “haiku,” in keeping with his odd ideas of reform, even though it is a hokku in form and substance).

It is, of course, a spring verse.  In the original (romanized) it is:

Shimajima ni   hi wo tomoshi-keri   haru no umi
Island-island on / lights wo lit have-been / spring ‘s sea

Translated very literally, it would be:

On every island,
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

Blyth, in his translation, actually improved the verse by changing “every island” to “islands far and near,” thereby adding visual depth, even though Shiki says nothing about “far and near.”  Blyth’s version:

The lights are lit
On the islands far and near:
The spring sea.

Blyth also permits a bit of ambiguity between completed action and progressive action.  Does Blyth’s The lights are lit mean “The lights have been lit and are burning?”  Or does it mean “The lights are being lit”?

I suspect Blyth’s answer would have been “Yes.”  He would include both meanings, leaving it to the reader to choose.

The original, however, indicates a completed action, so without taking liberties, I would probably translate it as

On every island
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

I would not say the effect, even though closer to the original, is better than Blyth’s rendering, however.  If I wanted to put it into English with Blyth’s improvement, I would make it

Lights being lit
On islands far and near;
The spring sea.

That gives us a progression similar to what we experience in Blyth’s version, letting us see all the scattered islands, and tiny lights appearing and multiplying in the dusk throughout the whole vista.

I often say that Shiki really did little to hokku except to forbid it being used as the beginning of a linked sequence, and to advocate a more superficial style; yet even in his aesthetics in practice, one can find traces of what preceded his “reforms.”  In this verse we can see that the action does fit spring, even though Shiki may not himself have consciously realized the implications of what he was writing, as he tried so publicly to leave old traditions behind.

In any case, seen as hokku, the verse would indicate the growing Yang energies of spring, because even though the verse takes place at dusk, which is a Yin time of day, we see the appearance and gradual spread and multiplication of dots of light (increasing Yang) on each island in the growing darkness.  So the appearing and spreading points of light are in harmony with the gradual increase of Yang energies in spring.

The  setting of the verse also shows us the importance of season on the effect of a hokku.  Shiki made it:

Haru no umi — The spring sea.

The verse would have quite a different effect if set in other seasons.

David

 

TRANSLATING LANGUAGE, TRANSLATING CULTURE

When we read or write hokku in English, we should be careful to avoid romanticism and exoticism, both of which lead us into illusions and fancy and away from the aesthetics appropriate to hokku.

Old Broken Window
(Photo credit: Big Grey Mare)

That is why, when I translate old hokku, I often like to translate not just from language to language but from culture to culture.

Teiga wrote:

Kusa no to ya   tatami no ue no aki no kaze

If we translate rather literally, we get:

A grass hut;
Over the floor —
The autumn wind.

Kusa no to literally means a grass hut, and of course tatami are the woven grass mats that cover the floor of a traditional Japanese home.  But Blyth translates well the overall rather than the literal meaning:

A poor hut;
The wind of autumn
Blows over the tatami.

A grass hut is a poor hut, made of the cheapest of materials.

If we translate this hokku culturally, we might say:

An old shack;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we see a dilapidated old house with broken places in the windows and gaps in the walls.  Such a house cannot be said to keep out the wind, and that is the point.

But we might want to emphasize the poverty, as does Blyth.  We could then translate:

A poor house;
The wind of autumn 
Blows over the floor.

That way we know it is not simply an old abandoned shack, but a house of poverty; it is lived in, and that has significance.

Its poorness is in keeping with the poverty that is part of the “feeling” of autumn as it deepens.

The original, as you can see from the literal version, does not have the word “blows,” but it is helpful to add it in English to convey the effect intended.

The point of this little posting is not only the effects achieved by variations in translation,  but also the the differences of effect we get when we write original hokku in English.  The principle is the same.

David

THE ESSENCE OF HOKKU

Because it is so important to understanding hokku, here is a repeat of an earlier posting:

I have never been an admirer of Confucius, yet one can say of the teaching of hokku what Confucius said:

“The Master said, “Do you think, my disciples, that I have any concealments?  I conceal nothing from you.  There is nothing which I do that is not shown to you, my disciples; that is my way.” (Analects 7:23)

That does not mean a teacher demands nothing of the student:

“The Master said, “I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out any one who is not anxious to explain himself.  When I have presented one corner of a subject to any one, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects 7:8)

Well, unlike Confucius, I present one corner of the subject, and when the student cannot produce the other three from his or her own resources, I explain even further, and I repeat the lesson over and over, because it is initially very difficult for Westerners to grasp how completely different hokku is from what they are accustomed to think of as poetry.  Those in modern haiku, for example, have never understood the difference, which is why haiku has devolved into just another kind of short-form modern verse in the West, becoming simply free verse divided into three lines.

One could say that the method of learning hokku is in these words:

“The Master said, “Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge.” (Analects 2:17)

We can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature.  Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.”

Here Blyth, like Confucius, clearly shows us one corner, and we are to supply the other three.  But Blyth demanded a great deal of Western readers, and for the most part they failed him, unable to supply the other three corners — and the result was modern haiku.

Quite simply and clearly, what Blyth meant was that hokku is nothing like what we think of when we think of poetry.  To even call it “poetry” is to mislead, because it obscures and distorts hokku with mistaken presuppositions.

We are accustomed to making a distinction between inner and outer, between the thing seen “out there” in the world and the thoughts about the thing in the mind.  But in hokku the thing out there is the thing in the mind, if we only let the mind reflect it like a bright mirror, not obscuring it with all our thoughts and commentaries.

A clear and flawless mirror reflects without adding anything.  The mind that is obscured with thoughts will reflect the thing clothed and distorted by those thoughts, remaking the thing “in our own image.”  So in hokku it is vitally important to distinguish between what we see in Nature and our thoughts and ideas about what we see in Nature.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is the great distinction between hokku and modern haiku.  Modern haiku has become inseparably attached to “what the poets [meaning the writers of modern haiku themselves] have said about them.”  In haiku (in contrast to hokku), the “poet” is the most important thing, which is why those in haiku are so remarkably attached to the individual’s whim in writing, the inviolable sanctity of the will of the POET, which one is tempted to write in grand Gothic Blackletter type.

In hokku, by contrast, there are no poets.  The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature.  It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will.  The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice.  Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense.  It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

–where is the writer?  Where is the reader?  Both have disappeared.  There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field.  The truth is revealed for all to see, as Blyth says:

“Each thing is preaching the Law incessantly, but this Law is not something different from the thing itself.”

Quite simply, hokku “is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”

That is precisely what Mokudō does.  He presents us with the thing (the spring wind, the sound of water running through the barley) “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration.”

There is no poet Mokudō.  There is only the thing simultaneously both outside and inside the mind, the bright mirror mind that reflects without adding or distorting.

Modern haiku has never understood this because it is too attached to being a “poet” and to “writing poetry.”  But hokku, as Blyth told us plainly and truly, is not poetry; it is not literature.  Instead, it is “the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

In this lies the great difference between hokku and modern haiku.  In hokku we do not even use the term “poet” in talking about ourselves and we do not use the word “poem” to describe hokku.  Hokku is simply the writer getting “himself” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  When we add our own thoughts and commentary, we drown out the voice of Nature.  That is why in hokku we just present the thing as it is, unobscured by our thoughts.

Hokku, then, is a remarkably humble form of verse.  We do not take on the pride of being “poets” and writing “poetry.”  When we write “poetry,” the writer as “POET” stands in the way of the thing.  In hokku the writer disappears so that the thing is revealed just as it is, with nothing obscuring it.

It is very important to understand these things, because without such understanding one simply will be unable to read or to write hokku.

David