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