Today is that very ancient holiday Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice. It is the day when the sun reachest its highest point in its yearly arc across the sky, and it is the longest day of the year. After this day, the hours of light begin to shorten.
Here is a hokku by Kyoroku that must be translated rather loosely:
Above white cloth Spread out in the sun — Billowing clouds.
If you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the technique used in writing this. It is harmony of similarity. Two similar elements are combined, and the pleasure of the verse is in the combination. Here the elements are very visual: 1. white cloth; 2. billowing clouds. The brightness of the sun brings out the whiteness of both, thus joining the two elements.
Here is the transliterated original:
Teritsukeru sarashi no ue kumo no mine Sun-shining-down bleaching-cotton ‘s above cloud ‘s peaks
As readers know, I often use the ancient concept of the two opposite yet harmoniously-working elements of the universe, Yin and Yang, in explaining hokku. Jia Dao wrote:
Asking the young boy beneath the pine,
He says, “Master is off gathering herbs,
Just someplace in these mountains — The clouds are deep — I don’t know where.”
Aren’t these Chinese mountains amazing? Who would have guessed that such mountains exist anywhere this side of Pandora? Looking at them, we see the high (Yang) mountains rising into the swirling mist and clouds (Yin).
I was fortunate recently to find a photograph locally by Keith Liang. I have it up above my desk as I write this. A friend of mine who does Chinese brush painting stopped by and noticed it immediately. She thought at first it was a painting, because it expresses the spirit found in Chinese landscape painting so well. And she was very taken with its interaction of dark spaces and “blank” spaces, the interaction of mountains and clouds. No doubt that is what drew me to it when I first saw it.
In China, a landscape is called a “mountains-water.” We certainly see both in this photo.
But I want to talk a little about Chinese poetry, which influenced hokku, particularly through the anthology known as the Three Hundred Tang Poems. “Tang” here means the Tang Dynasty. One of the poets in that collection is Jia Dao, who wrote the verse above.
In the original, it is a “five-character” poem, meaning that each of its four lines is composed of five characters. These characters function very similarly to our “essential words” in composing hokku, except that in hokku we add the necessaries of normal English to finish. In literary Chinese, the words remain as they are.
If we look, for example, at the first two lines and translate them literally, they look something like:
Pine under ask child boy
Say master gather medicine go
Those of you who have read Chinese poetry in translation can see from this why different translations of the same verse are often so unlike one another. It is because the very basic elements of literary Chinese make many different ways of translating into English possible.
There is nothing to prevent us from writing our own Nature-based, “Chinese” style verse today, and when we do so, the “essential words” construction of the Chinese poem can be a great help.
I have already said that Jia Dao’s poem is a five-character poem (we can think of it as using five “essential words,” those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar in English). There are also seven-character poems, with seven to a line instead of five. But for practice here, we will try one like that of Jia Dao, in four lines and with five essential words. This will give you a rough idea how to do it. Don’t overthink the essential words — just think of them as nouns, verbs, and prepositions essential to meaning. Don’t worry about grammar, don’t bother too much initially about plural or singular. Then you might get something like:
This year summer late come
Day day cool rain fall
Clouds cover west hill top
Mist swirl on long river
Now we can clean that up to make the verse:
This year summer comes late;
Day after day the cool rains fall;
Clouds hide the west hill summit;
Mist swirls above the long river.
We can leave it at that, or if we like, we can take it one further step from the original, as do many translators of Chinese verse, to put it into more flowing English.
Summer is late in coming this year;
Day after day the cool rains fall.
The western peaks are veiled in clouds;
Mist swirls above the long river.
Even from our little sample here, we can see why we often find short poems written on Chinese landscape paintings. It is because the images and the words go very well together.
I hope that readers here will experiment with writing some “five-character” Chinese poems in English. It is just as easy as I have demonstrated. Don’t worry about making your poems great literature. Just use them to express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, just as in hokku.
This is a very easy and pleasant way to write Nature poetry with a spirit very much like that of hokku, only with more “space,” which is not surprising, because one characteristic of Chinese poetry in comparison to the hokku is that the former usually has a much greater sense of space and distance, while hokku tends to focus on the small and near-by.
Another difference is that hokku works in “threes,” such as the three lines of our English-language hokku, while Chinese verse works in couplets — pairs of two lines. Jia Dao’s verse, then, is a quatrain (four-lined poem) consisting of two couplets (pairs of two lines).
We can, if we wish, write five-character poems longer than four lines, and we can also increase the number of “essential words” per line to seven, to approximate a Chinese “seven-character” poem. However we do it, writing Chinese-style poetry gives us a wonderful option for writing about those experiences of Nature that simply do not fit well into the three lines of a hokku. And we can write them in the same spirit of poverty, simplicity, and transience, exhibiting the changes of Nature through the interaction of Yin and Yang as the seasons come and go.
Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku. The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable. Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:
A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.
That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku. It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.
Why is that? We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way. That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.
Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly. And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.
As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:
The leaping trout,
This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly. Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.
Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku. Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print. Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then. Movement adds energy to a hokku. An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.
Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku. You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason. But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective. That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.
Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse. All are part of learning. But we should be able to tell the difference. That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques. If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them? But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.
Those who read a posting here only now and then will learn little or nothing. Those who read here regularly, with attention, will gain over time a good understanding of the basic principles of hokku.
For example, I recently discussed the two kinds of harmony in hokku, and I discussed the importance of Yin and Yang.
Let’s take a look at a verse by Kyoroku:
The sun shines
On white cotton cloth;
Cloud peaks above.
If you have been reading with diligence here, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh, that is harmony of similarity! The sun is bright, the cotton cloth is white, and the clouds above are also white. And you are likely to also add, “The sunlight is Yang, the white color of the cotton cloth is Yang, and the white of the clouds is also Yang!
That was an easy one, a rather obvious example.
But here is a hokku by Tohō:
The sand of the cliff falls
Grain by grain.
Eventually one will realize that the heat waves are something temporary, transitory. But paradoxically so is the sandy cliff, which is falling grain by grain. So in spite of the vastly different time scale, this too is a hokku with harmony of similarity.
In a way, the latter verse is like the old saying,
“The morning glory differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”
In other words, both are transitory, passing — just on a different time scale.
Incidentally, readers of Blyth’s translations — particularly American readers — are likely to be misled by his translation of Tohō’s verse:
The sand of the cliff
Falls grain by grain.
Americans are likely to see young horses frolicking about in sunshine near the sandy cliff. But “summer colts” is a largely British term that means simply the undulating air near the ground on a warm day — or in plain “American,” heat waves. The Japanese term — for those who are interested — is kagerō.
We just looked at a verse for the time when spring is nearing its end:
From a cloudburst;
Today, by contrast, we shall look at a verse on the other side of the seasonal divide:
Yet no rain falls;
In the first verse we still feel the gentleness and abundance of spring, when the forces of Yang are growing, but softened by the Yin of the rain. But in high summer we come to the time when Yang predominates, and it manifests as heat and dryness. That second verse is by Kōkyō, and he gives us a sense of the harshness of Yang when unmitigated by Yin, just as in midwinter we feel the harshness of the cold Yin unmitigated by the warmth of Yang.
Both heat and cold are extremes, and though they make for unpleasantness and discomfort, they also give us effective hokku because these extremes of heat and cold create strong sensations — sensory experiences — and sensory experience is the basis of hokku.
When using old hokku — which are really Japanese verses — in learning how to write modern hokku, we should generally forget completely that they are Japanese. Instead we should apply them to the country where we live.
That is why when I read Kōkyō’s
Yet no rain falls;
I always think of an American farmer looking upward at the hard blue sky in which a few wisps of whitish cloud appear, only to pass over and dissolve without a single drop of rain falling onto the parched soil. And yes, I know it is a bit old-fashioned, but I always have the feeling of a windmill in the background, completely silent and still in the oppressive heat of a day without even the hint of a breeze. That latter element by itself could be used in a summer hokku:
Silent and unmoving;
In such a verse we feel the heat in the stillness of the windmill, which, we could say, “reflects” the intense sensation of heat through its unmoving silence. That is how hokku works; we combine things that work in harmony to express the season through sensory experience.
I hope readers here — at least long-time readers — are beginning to see how essentially simple hokku is. If we abandon all the intellection, all our notions of what “poetry” should be, and just go for the basics of season and sensation — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature — then we will be going in the right direction for hokku. Anything else will take us away from hokku.
It is worth mentioning that the principles of hokku, unlike those of modern haiku, can be clearly expressed and taught. And when one gets away from those principles, one is no longer writing hokku even if one happens to use the outward form of hokku for such a verse. That clarity and simplicity in our understanding of hokku and its aesthetics and principles and techniques explains why we in hokku do not have the constant bickering and “intellectual” argument one finds among writers of other kinds of short verse. We know what the aesthetics of hokku are, we know what the form is, we know how a hokku is written and what a hokku is to be written “about” — so that leaves nothing for pointless quibbles and mind games.
Why, then, is such abstract bickering endemic on modern haiku sites? It is essentially because those in modern haiku view what they write as “poetry” and themselves as “poets” in the Western sense; they write so many different kinds of verse, all called haiku, that the modern haiku community as a whole has no overall unifying aesthetic or purpose. And that underlying uncertainty and dissension becomes obvious in discussions on modern haiku by those within it.
That is another major difference between hokku and modern haiku. I cannot help pondering this difference whenever I see the wordy, abstract quarreling that takes place on modern haiku sites. It always makes me happy for the peace of hokku.
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 kaya 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
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,
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:
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.