THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good hokku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:

(Spring)

Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

cropped-trout.jpg

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.

WHAT IS A FROG DOING IN AUTUMN?

As long-time readers here know, hokku is seasonal verse.  Every verse is an event set in the context of a particular season.

Photograph of a Green Frog en ( Rana clamitans...

In old hokku (which was Japanese), this became too systematized, so that if one wrote about frogs, it was automatically assumed that such a verse was a “spring” verse.  But in modern hokku, a frog verse can be for any season in which a frog appears.  For us in the temperate zone, that would be in spring, summer, or early autumn.

Ordinarily we do not write or read hokku that are out of season, but an exception is made for general instruction, and that is why today, on a very chilly and wet day in autumn, I am going to briefly discuss a couple of “frog” hokku.

The kind of language used in writing Japanese hokku was telegraphic, which means a translation of such a verse is often likely to come out longer in English.  Here is an example by Wakyu:

Hitotsu tobu   oto ni mina tobu   kawazu kana

That literally reads, “One jumps sound at, all jump; frogs….

Put into ordinary English, we would say,

At the sound of one jumping, they all jump; frogs.

But of course in English that is not as clear as we would like it, because English tends to be more definite than Japanese.  We would want it to say,

At the sound of one frog jumping in, they all jump in; frogs.” That way it is clear that they are not jumping on land, but jumping into water.

R. H. Blyth translated the verse very much like that, only he took the very last word — “frogs” — and moved it into the main body of the verse, like this:

At the sound of one jumping in,
All the frogs
Jumped in.

That comes out top-heavy and a bit awkward visually, though it makes sense and is clear. That kind of out-of balance verse often results from trying to translate everything in an original into English.  But we could achieve essentially the same thing and gain the brevity so helpful in hokku by leaving out the word oto — “sound,” like this:

The frogs;
When one jumps in,
They all jump. 

That is better balanced, and it is very close to the sense of the original without being overly long.

We could do the same for another “frog” hokku (by Ryōto) that Blyth places right after that one in his anthology.  In the original, it is:

Hashi wateru hito ni shizumaru kawazu kana

Bridge cross person at quieten frogs kana

Blyth again makes it too top-heavy in his translation.  That is acceptable when one is trying to  convey the meaning of the original, which was what Blyth was doing and doing well, but it is not good in writing hokku in Engish.  Blyth has:

Someone passed over the bridge,
And all the frogs
Were quiet.

An additional problem is that the translation reads a little to much like a single run-on sentence. We could achieve the same effect by putting it into better form:

Crossing the bridge;
All the frogs
Go silent.

There are multiple ways of translating the same verse, and multiple ways of writing such hokku in English.  The trick is not to go too far, not to try to put too much into a verse.  Keep it simple and direct.  Did you notice in that last verse that even though the first line looks considerably longer than the other two, it is still only three words, just like the second line?

Just an additional remark, and that will be it for now.  You probably saw the untranslated word kana at the end of each Japanese hokku.  The Japanese used it as a kind of meditative pause at the end, but they also, quite honestly, often used it just to pad out the required seventeen phonetic units standard in Japanese hokku.  In English, punctuation does the trick when a sense of pause is needed, but actually in many cases it does not need to be reflected in the translation at all, given that in so many cases it is just “filler.”

David

THE RAIN IS RAINING ALL AROUND

The fundamental principle of hokku is that it is about Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature — set in the context of the seasons.  Here is a hokku by Shōha emphasizing the human part of that.  It is particularly appropriate to the last few weeks of weather where I am:

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

This verse is not about a boy or a kite or the rain.  It is about a-boy-and-a-kite-and-the-rain, all as one thing.  Full of impatient and frustrated hope, the poor little guy waits and waits for the rain to stop so he may fly his kite.  And his parents feel his pain, the suffering of childhood.

Without the rain there would be no hokku; without the kite there would be no hokku; and without the child there would be no hokku.  It takes them all together to present us with this verse, a verse that shows us “humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.”

Shiki wrote:

In the water jug
A frog is floating;
Summer rain.

This is a very watery, Yin verse — water in the jug, water in the rain, and a watery frog.  It makes one think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verse,

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

David

THE HOKKU, THE WALDEN, AND NOW THE LOREN

Kyorai, one of Bashō’s students, wrote:

Hito aze wa    shibashi naki yamu    kawazu kana
One path wa for-a-while  cries silent   frogs kana

An aze is specifically a path through rice paddies.

When Blyth translated this, he changed the verse, and also — in my view — its meaning:

One field of frogs
Croaks for a time,
And then is silent.

There is nothing wrong with that except that one loses the intrinsic meaning, and without the explanation one wonders why a field is full of frogs.  Blyth tells the reader in an added comment that “actually it is ‘one footpath between the fields'” of frogs.  But of course one cannot have

One footpath between the fields;

as a first line of a hokku.  It is just too long.

Moreover, we cannot possibly get everything in the Japanese version into the space of a hokku in English.   That means we need a verse form slightly longer than the hokku:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

Two days ago I introduced an English variant on the old Japanese waka that I call the “walden,” which has essentially the form of the old waka but the aesthetic content of the hokku.  The walden form is:

short
long
short
long
long.

Today I introduce a second variant, a third writing option, for those times when the space of a hokku (as in this case) is too short, but a walden is too long.  I’m going to call it a “loren” after one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley.  As you can see from the example, the structure of a loren is:

short
long
short
long
short

If we were to put the three verse types in old “Japanese” measure, they would look like this:

Hokku:  5-7-5
Loren:    5-7-5-7-5
Walden  5-7-5-7-7

NOW we have the full tools for dealing with virtually any case that may arise, using a short verse form.  We have the hokku for the shortest, the loren when a hokku is just a bit too short, and the walden when the loren is not quite long enough.  And of course all three follow the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But back to Kyorai’s verse, which we have expressed in a loren because the hokku is too short in English:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

The rice paddies are filled with the croaking of frogs.  But as Kyorai proceeds down a footpath between the paddies, his presence is sensed and suddenly the frogs all go silent.

Having said all that, there is a way to translate Kyorai’s verse in hokku form:

A paddy path;
Suddenly the frogs
Go silent.

But of course the real point of this posting is to introduce another option for those cases that are virtually impossible to condense into the short hokku.

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

JUMPING FROG, WALKING BIRD

The previous posting dealt with the correct translation of Bashō’s spring “Old Pond” hokku into English.  But what is significant for us is understanding the verse as an example of hokku.

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

Unlike most hokku, in English (not in Japanese) this one has a double pause, indicated by the punctuation at the ends of lines one and two.  This is usually not done, but it can be done when appropriate, as here.

You will recall that the sense of the verse — following the Japanese more literally — is:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

That, of course, needs only one pause.  But for the effect we want in English, it requires two:

First, the firm, strong pause at the end of line one, which enables the reader to see and experience the old pond without hurry, before moving on to the next line.

Second, the dash at the end of line two, which gives us a very quiet and smooth connective transition (note how a dash is more connective than a semicolon in feeling):

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

It is important to note that if we did not do this, the verse might be open to the same kind of peculiar misinterpretation that I corrected for a reader in yesterday’s posting, the notion that the frog is jumping into “the sound of water.”  So it is not:

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

Just that brief connective pause makes all the difference.  Punctuation is so endlessly useful in hokku!

You will recall that we introduced a second and structurally-similar verse, Ryūshi’s “Stillness” hokku, which in Japan is a winter verse, but more appropriate to late autumn in my region:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

It is not hard to see that this is very much the form of the “Old Pond” in a more literal translation:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

The structure in English, in fact, is virtually identical.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by using and varying appropriate patterns, hokku never becomes old-fashioned or out-of-date.  It can always be the vessel that holds a new experience, even if it is presented in a very old pattern.

And notice too the effect of both verses.  Each begins with something still and lasting:

The old pond;
Stillness;

And then in that “stable” setting something brief and more obviously transient happens:

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
The sound of a bird walking on fallen leaves.

It is, as everyone can see and is shown by the fame of the “Old Pond” verse, a very effective approach.  Essentially what we see is:

Stillness;
Action;
Return to stillness.

That pattern has a very deep and unspoken — even un-speak-able — meaning.

David

ANOTHER LEAP INTO THE OLD POND

Someone asked me today about the correct translation of Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku, a spring verse.  What prompted the reader’s question was seeing a version in a recent book in which the last two lines were rendered as,

“…a frog jumps into the sound of water.

The question was, is this what Bashō intended — a frog jumping INTO THE SOUND OF WATER, and not as we find it in more traditional translations?

The answer is no.  This bizarre new version is just a personal rendering or re-writing, not an accurate translation of the original.

Here is a closer look at the original and its meaning:

Furu ike ya =  Old pond ya

Kawazu tobikumu =  Frog jumps-in

Mizu no oto =  Water  ‘s sound

The faulty translation “…jumps into the sound of water” seems misled by the division in English of the Japanese into three lines, separating “the sound of water” from the rest.  But in Japanese, it is to be understood like this, as the two parts of the hokku:

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

Old pond;
Frog-jumps-in-water ‘s sound

That is the old “hokku” Japanese way of saying simply,

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.

In other words, the Japanese “kawazu tobikomu mizu” (frog-jumping-in/into-water) is to be taken as a syntactical whole — and as such, it functions as an adjective qualifying the sound.

So what did Bashō hear?

He heard a “frog-jumping-into-water” sound, or in Japanese, a

Kawazu tobikumu mizu no oto.

The particle no in Japanese means “of or belonging to.”  So what is intended is not “…a frog jumps into the sound of water,” but rather “the sound of a frog jumping into the water.”

There is a similar verse by Ryūshi, a winter hokku in Japan though more appropriate to late autumn in my part of the world:

Shizukasa ya   ochiba wo ariku    tori no oto.
Stillness ya fallen-leaves wo walking bird ‘s sound

Again, we are to understand it as the two parts of hokku, like this:

Shizukasa ya
Ochiba wo ariku tori no oto

Stillness —
Fallen-leaves-on-walking-bird ‘s sound

Again what is heard is a “fallen-leaves on walking bird ‘s sound

or in English form,

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

Getting back to the “Old Pond,” if we wanted to translate the hokku to more literally reflect the meaning of the Japanese original, we would write:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

But while quite accurate, it is not as euphonic, nor does it have the sensory effect of

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

We should keep in mind Blyth’s admonition that we are not to understand this as cause and effect; it is not

Cause:  a frog jumps in
Effect:  the sound of water

Instead we are to understand it, as we have seen, as “the sound of a frog jumping into the water,”  thus a unity, not an “after this, therefore because of this.”

As an added historical note, Toshiharu Oseko mentions that “This was the first time a jumping frog without any voice appeared in the history of Japanese poetry.”

Though the croaking of frogs was found in older verse, it is their appearance without their cries that interested Bashō here, and typifies his mixture of high and low elements in his verse — a new departure.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that given the nature of hokku Japanese, with its lack of singular-plural distinction and the absence of articles, we could translate the verse also as:

The old ponds;
The frogs jump in —
The sound of water.

We could make “pond” plural or singular, and “frogs” singular or plural.  But of course that would violate the aesthetics of hokku, in which one thing has more significance, generally, than many things.

David

DIRECT EXPERIENCE AND CREATIVE SELECTION

In hokku as I teach it, we may write both from direct experience and from creative selection.

What is meant by direct experience?  It is a hokku written from viewing an actual event, with everything in it faithful to that experience, whether the hokku is written on the spot or hours or days or weeks later.

This principle goes back to a very old practice common in Chinese painting — that one entered and contemplated Nature, mountains and rivers, rocks and streams, trees and birds — and if one did this with sufficient awareness and perception, one would absorb the characteristics of such things, so that when one returned home to paint, one would paint a scene that, while not a photographic representation of Nature, nonetheless faithfully expressed the spirit of what was seen.

In life we accumulate a great many direct experiences of Nature.  We see spring rains and autumn rains, trees in bud and trees withered, wild geese arriving and leaving.  We see fog and snow, lightning and windstorms, twilights and dawns.  All of these experiences, if noticed with sufficient awareness, are stored away in the memory as a kind of library or vocabulary of sensory experience of Nature.

When writing a hokku, then, we have these options:

1.  One may write a verse faithfully from an immediate experience, a hokku of a single, actual event.  I did this with my verse:

Summer’s end;
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap.

Every part of that hokku is faithful to an event I experienced.

2.  One may write a verse from a mixture of direct experience and creative selection, meaning that while part of the verse reflects an actual “immediate” event, another part may be selected from the mental vocabulary of past sensory experience.

For example, one may have seen:

Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

But that requires a setting.  Perhaps the “real” setting is that you saw the shadows passing on the grass.  But you think the verse would be more expressive with a different setting, so you might make it:

The paper screen;
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

The actual old Japanese hokku from which I have made this example was:

On the white wall,
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

So one has the freedom to use creative selection in composing, based on one’s own personal vocabulary of things and events.  The key is to make it “real,” by which is meant keeping it in harmony with Nature.  And to do that, one must have direct experience of Nature.

3.  One may write a hokku entirely from creative selection, meaning the verse is not a reflection of a particular actual event, but rather a combination of elements from different past events, yet united and harmonious.

A good example of this is Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse:

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

Now Bashō did not write this verse from direct experience, according to old accounts.  He had the last two lines, and was looking for a setting, so the story goes.  He tried many possibilities; someone suggested beginning it with the yamabuki, the yellow shrub Kerria japonica, often translated, rather confusingly, as “mountain rose” in the West.

 

But in a sudden inspiration, Bashō spoke “Furu ike ya,” — “The old pond”; and according to the possibly apocryphal story, everyone was thunderstruck.

Whatever the truth of the story, we know that Bashō would have experienced many frogs jumping into water in his life, and would have seen many old ponds.  He just did not happen to see this precise event when he composed the verse.  Instead it was composed from his mental vocabulary of past sensory events.  It was thus written from experience, but not from immediate experience.  This is an important point.

Some old hokku never happened.  Buson, for example, wrote a verse about stepping on his dead wife’s comb; but his wife was not dead!  He did it merely for effect.

One could write like that, but there is a great danger of artificiality.  The more we draw from our own imagination instead of from actual experience — whether immediate or from our mental vocabulary of past experiences — the less likely our hokku are to seem real and in keeping with Nature.  Too many of Buson’s hokku thus seem artificial and contrived for effect.

That is why I discourage students from writing strictly from the imagination.  In today’s world we are more and more separated from Nature, and because of that, our verses — if not directly connected by immediate experience or by creative selection from genuine past experience — tend to be rootless and “phony.”  And so we must keep in mind the old advice that when writing about pines, one goes to learn from the pine — meaning that if you want to express Nature faithfully, you must go and learn from Nature, absorbing it until you can express it naturally and without artificiality.

In our way of hokku we have the principle that the writer must get the ego out of the way, must be a mirror reflecting Nature.  That applies whether the experience is immediate or creative selection.  Our purpose in writing is to restore the unity of humans and Nature, not to escape into the imagination.

Our course is directly the opposite — out of abstract fantasy and back to Nature as the true home of humans, our mother and father, our origin and our ending.

David