THREE VIEWS OF CHERRY BLOSSOMS

There is a famous spring hokku by Bashō:

Cherry blossoms (sakura), often simply called ...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cloud of blossoms —
Is the bell Ueno?
Asakusa?

Through a cloud of blooming cherry trees, the writer hears the sound of a distant, unseen temple bell.  He wonders if it is coming from a temple in Ueno district?  Or perhaps that in Asakusa?
The point of the hokku lies in the “concealing” mass of fresh spring blossoms combined with the unanswered question.

In contrast to that rather “high-class” hokku, there is an anonymous “low-class” senryu.  You will recall that senryu is satirical verse, the “evil twin” of hokku, and no respecter of persons.  So you will not surprised to find that the same expression used elegantly by Bashō — “a cloud of blossoms” (hana no kumo) — is used for a different “concealing”  purpose here:

To hide
The public restroom —
A cloud of blossoms.

There is also another interesting senryu about cherry blossoms, which I translate loosely here:

The clever wife —
She makes him take the child
To view the blossoms.

The point is that the wife does not trust her husband out by himself, so when he casually remarks that he is going to view the cherry blossoms, she uses her wits and makes him take the kid along, to keep the untrustworthy husband out of “not respectable” establishments.

You may recall that in old hokku, the word “blossoms,” when used without a qualifier, was understood to mean cherry blossoms.

 

David

TAIGI AND THE FALLEN BLOSSOMS

Today’s hokku is a spring hokku by Taigi.  To get the meaning of it in English I will take some liberties, then explain the original:

Everything swept up
Is cherry blossom;
The evening temple. 

The original says “Dust/rubbish all cherry-blossom; temple’s evening.”  But if we say, as  Blyth does…

The temple evening;
The dust is all
Cherry blossoms.

…then that sounds odd to American ears, because we do not use “dust” to mean also “rubbish,” as the British do.  They have their “dustbin,” but we have our  “garbage can.”  Blyth, of course, is using “dust” here in the British sense, to mean [in this case] all the debris fallen to the ground – twigs, dead leaves, etc.  But when we say “dust” in America, we tend to think only of tiny particles of dry dirt, etc — that fall out of the air or that blow up from the earth.  That is why Blyth’s “dust” is not the best translation in American English.  But “rubbish” or “garbage” is too severe.  That is why in my version, I have used the overall meaning of the hokku rather than a literal translation of its words.

As for the hokku itself, in spite of being a spring hokku (the time of increasing yang), it has an overall feeling of yin — of age and decay.  The setting is the grounds of a temple at evening, and of course evening is a yin time of day.  Fallen cherry blossoms are also yin — they are dead, returning to the soil.  So in this hokku, paradoxically, we have both harmony of similarity (yin evening, yin blossoms) and harmony of contrast (spring, withered blossoms).

It is a hokku of impermanence.  Only a short while earlier people had flocked to the temple grounds to see the beauty of the blossoms.  Now they are just “yard debris” to be swept up and disposed of.  But nonetheless, we get the feeling that the fallen blossoms are a “richer dust” than the usual sweepings.

We could even translate the verse like this:

The temple evening;
All the sweepings
Are cherry blossom. 

 

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

WILD CHERRIES, WATER WHEELS, AND (shudder!) WIKIPEDIA

It is unfortunate that when Reginald H. Blyth wrote his series of volumes extolling and

English: Yamazakura,_Cerasus_jamasakura
Yamazakura -- Mountain Cherry

explaining what were, for the most part, verses of hokku, he made the mistake of using the revisionist term then popular in the Japan of his day — “haiku.”  But of course for most people in those times, there was no obvious difference; the majority still followed the conservative “Shiki” kind of “haiku” that simply adopted the aesthetics of the old hokku, if somewhat diluted. There were already some radicals who had made drastic changes, but those radicalisms were not favored by most ordinary people.

Today, however, the situation is very different.  In the West modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the old hokku, so that today haiku is justifiably called by a different name.  But the mistake is often made of thinking that the modern haiku is simply a continuation and a replacement of the old hokku, and that is completely wrong.

Modern haiku is in fact largely the creation of those Westerners in the 20th century — particularly in the latter half of the 20th century — who separated the haiku from the traditional hokku aesthetics practiced by Bashō and all the other writers in the centuries prior to the revisionist changes of Shiki, which began near the end of the 1800s.   Modern haiku is, then, largely the result of Westerners misperceiving and misunderstanding the hokku in terms of what they already knew — the aesthetics of Western poetry.

The aesthetics of the hokku are quite different. The advocates of modern haiku were, in many cases, quite unaware of those aesthetics, and the few who did have some inkling of them either ignored or willfully abandoned them.  Consequently, today the hokku and the haiku are for the most part two very different kinds of verse, even though superficially they appear similar; both are brief, both are generally written in three lines.  That is often the only thing they have in common.

That is why it is so outrageous when a widely-used Internet source such as Wikipedia defines hokku thus:
…the latter term [haiku] is now generally applied retrospectively to all hokku appearing independently of renku or renga, irrespective of when they were written. The term hokku continues to be used in its original sense, as the opening verse of a linked poem.

In other words, they want the unwary reader to believe that the hokku has simply been re-named “haiku” in all cases where it is not used specifically to mean the first of a series of linked verses.  According to that notion, all hokku not linked to other verses somehow automatically become “haiku.”  But that is quite mistaken and inaccurate. How did such gross misunderstandings arise?

They began with the accumulation and piling of error on error.   Sadly, some of these misunderstandings can be traced to Western readers who came upon the volumes of R. H. Blyth.

Blyth’s original purpose in writing was to explain the aesthetics of the hokku to Westerners completely ignorant of it, and he illustrated those aesthetics by translations that were sometimes glosses that went beyond or modified what was actually written in the originals.  His intent was good; he wished to convey aspects of hokku that a Japanese reader would automatically understand, but which a Westerner would simply not “get” if the verse were translated literally and left at that.

Here is a typical example.  A female student of Bashō (Chigetsu) wrote the following hokku, which I will give in both transliteration and my literal translation:

Yamazakura chiru ya ogawa no mizuguruma

Mountain-cherry falls; stream’s waterwheel.

That’s it.  No wonder Blyth felt more was needed for a Westerner to even begin to understand this verse.  So Blyth glossed it as:

Mountain cherry petals
Fall and scatter
Over the water-wheel of the brook.

That certainly conveys what a Japanese reader would get from the original, because Japanese hokku has a long history of requiring something more of the reader — the ability to make an intuitive poetic leap.  Blyth has simply supplied all the words in his English version that a Japanese would intuit.  Blyth is thus fulfilling his intent in writing — he is conveying the overall meaning of the hokku — not just what was written on the page, but also what was to be understood — intuited.

Unfortunately, readers of Blyth often assumed that because he presented the verse in a run-on sentence divided into three lines, it was perfectly all right to compose new verses using that form.  But of course that was not the form of the original hokku.

That original hokku consists, as do modern hokku, of two parts, one longer, one shorter. We will better understand the form if we look at each Japanese word comprising the verse:

Yamazakura = yama (mountain) sakura (cherry) chiru (falls) ya (a cutting particle indicating a meditative pause, generally represented in English-language hokku by a semicolon or dash) Ogawa (o = small, kawa = river) no (a genitive particle equivalent here to ‘s in English, which could also function as a cutting word) mizuguruma (mizu = water, kuruma = wheel).

Blyth, again, did not indicate a separation of the two parts in his gloss because he simply wanted to convey the overall impression of the hokku, and he did so quite well.  But this was all too often understood by Westerners to mean that there were not two parts to the hokku, that there was no separation.  They saw Blyth’s gloss, even though divided into three lines, as one sentence:

Mountain cherry petals fall and scatter over the water-wheel of the brook.

And so came about a basic misunderstanding of the form of the hokku, which of course, following Blyth’s use of the anachronistic term, they called “haiku.” Multiply this misperception many times, and you have the beginnings of the creation of modern haiku in the West.  That is why today modern haiku is in such a fragmented and disparate condition. The best verses one finds in modern haiku are often those few that are most like the hokku.  But such verses are few and far between.

That is why, for the most part, modern haiku is a new Western verse form quite separate both from the old hokku and from Shiki’s original conservative haiku, which was hokku in all but name.

Getting back to our sample verse,  if we were to re-write it in modern hokku form, it would look something like this:

Wild cherry blossoms –

They scatter over the water-wheel

Of the brook.

As you can see, that maintains a two-part division of the old hokku.  It also has a pause, indicated in this case by the dash, separating those two parts.  Modern English-language hokku is simply a continuation of the essentials of the old hokku, though with minor adaptations for a different language.  That is why we can legitimately still consider modern hokku a part of the old hokku tradition; it keeps the essentials of form and the essence of the traditional aesthetic.

That cannot be said of modern haiku, which again is, for the most part, a new and separate kind of verse, though loosely based on the brevity of the old hokku. Modern haiku generally lacks the principles and aesthetics of the genuine hokku.

Incidentally, if any of you are wondering why, in the Japanese transliteration, some words appear in two forms — zakura/sakura, gawa/kawa, guruma/kuruma, then you will want to know that it is just a phonetic change that occurs when certain initial consonants are used in combinations with certain other words, and it does not indicate a change in how the word is actually written in Japanese nor any change in its meaning.   I promise not to always be so detailed when discussing individual hokku, because no knowledge whatsoever of Japanese is necessary if one learns to write hokku correctly in English and other languages other than Japanese.  But one must know the correct English-language form and the underlying principles and aesthetics.  Otherwise what one writes is likely to turn out as “haiku” and not hokku.

David

TO SEE THE CHERRY HUNG WITH SNOW

I have always been very fond of the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman.  He is not a verbal fireworks poet like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He is more straightforward, with a sense of transience remarkably like that of the Japanese hokku writers.

Housman told the truth.  Unlike Mary Carolyn Davies, who tells us that “pain rusts to beauty,” Housman had a more realistic view of things.  He would not say that like iron, pain rusts to beauty.  He would say that as the blade of a knife is dulled by time and wear, so the sorrows of life may be dulled by the passage of  days and years.  In his poem The Rain it Streams on Stone and Hillock, he says to someone who has died,

Tomorrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And he adds,

Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

But the dulling of sorrow by time does not lessen the pain of the human condition:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

So Housman knows life; he knows the brevity of youth; he knows that what is will alter, whether it be joy or pain.  And that leads us to one of his best-known poems, Loveliest of Trees:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

 Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

First, let’s go though the poem part by part, so that we may be certain we understand the poet’s phrasing and vocabulary:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman tells us the cherry is the loveliest of trees; the cherry trees stand all along the woodland road, and they are covered in (“wearing”) white (white blossoms) for Eastertide.  White, for those who have lost touch with religious custom, was associated with Easter.  “Eastertide” means here Easter time — the time of year when Easter happens. “Tide” is an old word meaning “time.”

Many Americans misunderstand “woodland ride” as meaning that Housman must have been astride a horse or sitting in a carriage, but in British usage, a woodland ride was just a rural road, a reasonably wide and worn pathway through a wood.  It comes from the days before cars, when a path broad enough for horse riding was called a “ride.”  But riding is not actually intended by the term.  So we may assume that the poet is walking leisurely and thoughtfully along a woodland road where many lovely cherry trees are in bloom at Easter time.

Next, Housman does something surprising in poetry: he talks mathematics, and his mathematics are based on what to “church folk” in those days was common knowledge gleaned from the Bible, from Psalm 90:10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

So Housman reckons,

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Housman (or rather the young man speaking through Housman) tells us that out of his life, out of his threescore (a score is twenty, so threescore is sixty) years plus ten years, meaning out of the seventy years allotted to him for his lifespan, twenty will not come again.  So we know he is a young man in his twentieth year, a young man of twenty.  For him, those twenty years are “past” — at least almost — and will never come again.  Subtract those twenty (a score) years from the seventy years of a man’s lifespan, and that leaves our fresh young man only fifty years of life.  He tells, us, with bittersweet good humor,

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Realizing that he only has fifty more years in which to live, our young man, who obviously loves things of beauty, knows nonetheless that they are transient, impermanent, as he himself is.  So he tells us that the fifty springs he has ahead of him are little enough time (“little room”) in which to look at such lovely things as the blossoms of spring; therefore he is going to take the time to walk through the woodlands while the cherries are covered in white bloom, to “see the cherry hung with snow” (the “snow,” of course, is the white blossoms).

There is a rather odd misunderstanding of the last line of the poem flitting about on the Internet, asserting that by “to see the cherry hung with snow,” Housman meant he would not only go in spring to see the blossoms, but also in winter to see snow on the cherry trees.  It should be obvious, however, that he was simply using a descriptive metaphor:  snow = white blossoms.  How do we know this?  First from the poem itself:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The first line tells us: “And since to look at things in bloom….”  Winter snow is not “things in bloom,” and that is obviously the subject.  We may add that a cherry tree in winter does not hold snow on its bare limbs luxuriantly, as an evergreen tree does.  So a cherry in winter is not a stunning sight like a cherry covered with spring bloom.

We also know this from Housman’s use of the snow = white blossoms equation in the first verse of his poem #XXXIX from A Shropshire Lad:

‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

We may also turn to other English poets for similar usage — first to  Robert Bridges for the snow = white blossoms equation, in his poem Spring Goeth All in White:

Spring goeth all in white,
   Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
   O’er heaven the white clouds stray:

White butterflies in the air:
   White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
   Scatter their snow around.

“Milk-white may” in the first line means white hawthorn blossoms.  “Prank” in the sixth line means “adorn,” “decorate,” “ornament.”

We may also take a quick look at the first lines of Springtime in Cookham Dean, by Cecil Roberts:

How marvellous and fair a thing
It is to see an English Spring,
He cannot know who has not seen
The cherry trees at Cookham Dean,
who has not seen the blossom lie
Like snowdrifts ‘gainst a cloudless sky
And found the beauty of the way
Through woodlands odorous with may…. 

Again, “may” in the last line means hawthorn blossoms, not the month.

But back to Housman.  There is, as I said, a kind of bittersweet humor in this verse.  One might call the poem a young man’s “apology for his use of time,” his response to someone accusing him of “slacking.”  But Housman knew that what would really be wasted was the all-too-brief beauty of the cherry trees in blossom along the woodland road (the woodland ride), and so knowing that life is brief, he gives us this little argument for appreciating things of beauty, for seizing the day, complete with the mathematics to back it up.

Housman was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and particularly a professor of Latin.  One might therefore think him dry as dust, all endless conjugations and grammar and “Mr. Arbuthnot, please translate line three on page 37,” but obviously he had poetry in his soul and he understood the brevity of life and the sweetness of spring.

There is an odd kinship between this poem and Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  But we have the feeling that the latter is a mature man’s poem, while Loveliest of Trees is a young man’s poem.

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

YOURS TRULY INTRODUCES THE WALDEN

Buson wrote a spring verse that is very tricky to put into English:

Hana ni kurete   waga ie tōki   no-michi kana
Blossoms at darkened   my home far   field-road kana

Blyth, who often preferred to convey the overall meaning of a verse rather than its absolutely literal meaning, gave this as:

Among the blossoms, it grows late,
And I am far from home —
This path over the moor.

That does well what Blyth wanted it to do, but it is not at all what we would do when composing a hokku in English.  It is too unbalanced, too long.  The problem is that literally, what Buson is saying is something like

It grows dark on the blossoms;
My home is far;
The field road.

But that too is unusably awkward in English.

We could try

The blossoms dim,
My home is far;
The road through the fields.

But essentially, Buson has presented us with two parallel lines and a third, and that makes translation into English hokku form problematic.  We need not feel troubled by it, however, because Buson has really packed too much into the small space for a hokku.  The information contained in the verse requires a wider format, either the waka or four lines of “Chinese” verse.

I would translate it into my own version of the waka.  But first I must explain a bit:

A waka (literally “Japanese song” or “Japanese verse”)  put into English form comes out as three lines of the same length as a hokku.  But it ends with two additional lines that are the length of the longest (the middle) line of the “hokku-like” part.  Where hokku avoids overt “poetry,” the waka does not.  And the waka, which does not shy away from romance, tears, longing for the loved one, etc. etc. etc., also tends to use a very elevated and elegant language, using only what we might call “high” subjects though presented in the context of Nature.  It is all moonlight and singing birds and cherry blossoms.  No toads, no pumpkins.

We may say that while our tradition of hokku took a middle path in old Japan, neither falling into mere puns and wordplay and witticism nor using only elevated subjects, the waka always remained on a very elevated level.  Subjects often found in hokku would be considered too “common” or “low” for it.

Quite honestly, that has always been why I have never had much interest in writing the waka.  I have no interest in its deliberate romanticism and its “ivory tower” attitude toward the ordinary things of life.  In waka everything must be conventionally beautiful and elegant and aristocratic.  Waka fails to see that there is also beauty in the ordinary and plain, and for me that is a fatal flaw.

What I have always wanted to do, then, is to make up for the flaw by writing a kind of “hokku-fied” waka, verse combining the high and low, which of course I could not continue to call waka because its aesthetics would be different — like those of the hokku.  My kind of waka, then, would be the waka form minus its complexities, and having the “contemplative” aesthetics of the hokku.

So here I give Buson’s overly-packed (for a hokku) verse rewritten in my longer, hokku-fied waka form, which I hereby name the “walden” in honor of Henry David Thoreau:

With evening,
The cherry blossoms
Grow dark;
Through empty fields,
The long road home.

Buson has lingered too long admiring the blossoms, and as they darken, he turns his eyes to the long road through the fields and begins his homeward journey.

If any of you would like to try the “walden” as well, just keep in mind that it has the same aesthetics as the hokku, and the same avoidances.  Its subject matter is Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and it omits romance, sex, violence — things that disturb the mind in general, as well as “technology.”

It is simply an extended hokku in its aesthetics.  And every now and then, one may need an extended hokku.  Outwardly it looks like a waka but it is not a waka; nor is it what is today called a tanka.  It is a walden.

Enjoy.

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

INEVITABLE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing.  Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.

Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom.  Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.

We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life.  So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.

In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.

This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms.  One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….

Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:

All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.

In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms.  The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.

Even Issa has this reverent attitude:

Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Cherry blossoms!

Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.

Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:

Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
Cherry blossoms.

This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.

Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:

Stillness;
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.”  We could also translate it like this:

Stillness;
The rustle of falling
Cherry blossoms.

Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku.  The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.

David


ENTERING AUTUMN

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.

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