AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

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LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Though the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.

DEFINING HOKKU

Many people first discover hokku after having been involved with other forms of short verse — even short verse that was inspired by and in an historical sense “developed out of” hokku and may even superficially look like hokku — but has taken a different path and a different name — the modern “haiku.”

If you look for a clear definition of the verse form that was inspired by the hokku and that gained popularity in the West from about the middle of the 20th century onward — the “haiku” — you will find that people generally say it can be “described but not defined,” meaning there is no clear definition for it.  It is whatever a writer says it is.

From that alone, we can see that modern short verses that may look like hokku and were originally inspired by hokku are nonetheless not hokku, because hokku can be clearly defined.

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse expressing an experience of Nature and/or humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.  It consists of two parts, a longer of two lines and a shorter of one line, with either beginning the verse.  The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation, and the first letter of each line is capitalized, and the whole ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.  It is characterized by brevity, simplicity, concreteness (dealing with things rather than our ideas about things) and objectivity.  It focuses on sensory experience (seeing, hearing touching, tasting, smelling) rather than abstract thought, and when dealing with states of mind such as sadness or joy, it presents them objectively.  It avoids violent topics as well as other topics that disturb the mind, such as sex and romance.  It deliberately de-emphasizes the ego, and when mentioning the writer, it does so objectively, as one would deal with a bird or a stone.

So that is hokku.  We could go deeper into the mental attitude behind hokku, but that is enough of a definition for now.

The aesthetics of hokku are so very different from those of Western poetry that it is misleading to even think of hokku as poetry, because that only causes confusion.  That is why the best way to regard hokku is to see it like this:

A hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the undulating waves of the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem; it is a thing-event put into simple words.

Buson wrote:

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening, set in the context of a season.

Nonetheless, when we look at the sea there is poetry in the experience, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

If we do not consider a hokku poetry, what then is it?  It is simply a thing-event — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

In hokku that means the poetry is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead,  with hokku poetry is something awakened in the reader by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.  So the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize and experience the poetry in it, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event is experienced by the reader — and that experience “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”  So again, the poetry is not the hokku, but it is rather the experience the hokku evokes in the mind of the reader.

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.  That is why, when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

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

That is why in hokku 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.  When we write a clear, objective hokku about the ripples in a stream, the universe as ripples in a stream is able to speak through the universe as writer.  The writer disappears, and only the ripples are heard.

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.  Hokku simply presents us with the thing-event “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”

Because in hokku the writer gets out of the way to let Nature speak, 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….”  It restores our sense that humans are not apart from, but are just a part of Nature — something that is needed now more than ever, with the world teetering on the edge of a serious climatic and environmental crisis.

Those of you who may wish to learn to write hokku, rather than just read about it, will find practical lessons and methods for doing so on my Hokku Inn site:
https://hokkuinn.wordpress.com/

David

WHAT TO DO WITH BUSH CLOVER

Some old Japanese hokku do not work very well in English because we are not familiar with all of the elements, for example in this autumn hokku by Sesshi:

Oriori ya            amado ni     sawaru     hagi no koe

Occasionally ya shutters at touching  bush-clover ‘s voice

Here is a rather loose translation, which English requires in this case:

Now and then,
The sound of the bush clover
Rubbing on the shutters.

Because this is an autumn hokku, we should intuit, as students of hokku, that it is the autumn wind causing the bush clover to rub against the shutters, making a scratching, rasping noise.  But the problem for most of us in the West is that we have never actually seen or experienced bush clover, which detracts somewhat from the effect.

That problem, however, can be turned to an advantage.  As students, this gives us a good opportunity to make some changes in order to practice writing new hokku.  Begin by asking yourself what would be likely to rub against the shutters where you live, and what would be in keeping with autumn?

We could just be general and a little vague, for example,

Now and then,
The sound of branches
Rubbing on the shutters.

Or we could be more descriptive:

Now and then,
Bare branches scratching
On the shutters.

Or we could be more definite:

Autumn gusts;
The sound of pine needles 
Brushing the shutters.

There are many possible variations involving, in some way, Autumn, the wind, shutters, and the sound of something against the shutters.  We could even go farther afield, being more inventive:

A shutter slams
On the abandoned house;
The autumn wind.

Or

The sound of wind
Through tattered curtains;
The abandoned house.

As you can see, using an old hokku as a model for practice in writing new verses can lead us off in many directions.  That is how we use models in writing, as jumping-off points for many different possible variations and new hokku.

In the original verse, the shutters are likely more what we would think of as storm doors that go over the sliding doors on a Japanese house.  In the West, however, they would be the shutters that close over windows to protect them from storm and wind.

When using old hokku as models, always bring the elements in them to where you are, to your own biosphere and local cultural background.

Again, do not forget that in writing hokku in English, you should always label the finished verse by season, like this:

(Autumn)

Now and then,
The scratch of bare branches
On the shutters.

David

LEARNING FROM PEAR JUICE

It may seem odd that we can use some verses of Masaoka Shiki to demonstrate how to write hokku, given that Shiki provided the impetus for what became the erratic “haiku” movement, but as I have said many times, much of what Shiki wrote was just hokku under a different name.  Shiki’s verses were in general quite different from all that people now know as modern haiku in English.

Here is one such verse, which is an autumn hokku.  Usually I use my own translations, but in this case one can hardly better the translation by R. H. Blyth:

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

Shiki was likely seeing an Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), one of those yellowish round ones that have both a shape similar to an apple and something of its crispness.  But the verse is even better in English, because we picture one of the more soft and juicy Western pears (Pyrus communis), which are what we traditionally think of as “pear-shaped.”

But the point I want to make today is what students of hokku can learn from this verse, which is in every respect not only a hokku but also quite a good one.

First, we can see that it has the necessary two parts of a hokku, one long, one short, separated in Japanese by a cutting word and in English by its functional equivalent, a punctuation mark.

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

Of course these are fitted into the standard English-language three-line hokku form.

The first part of the hokku functions as the setting.  What is a setting in hokku?  It is the overall environment or circumstance or context in which something takes place.  In this verse that context — that situation — is “Peeling a pear.”

Next, this verse is quite typical of the most common hokku structure in that it has both a subject and an action, placed within the context of the setting.

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

The action (something moving or changing) is “…trickle down the knife.”

So that is it.  An absolutely normal but quite good hokku written by the fellow people think of (somewhat confusedly) as the founder of the modern haiku movement, in spite of the fact that most of Shiki’s verses have little or nothing in common with much that is written as “modern haiku” in English and other European languages today.

The other respect in which this verse is a good model for hokku is that it simply shows us an event related to Nature (the pear and the sweet drops) and humans as a part of Nature (the peeling action and the knife).  No commentary or explanation is added, and there is no symbolism or metaphor.  And it has very good sensation.  Remember that sensation in hokku is an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Think of it as seeing a closeup of the event in a clear mirror.  It reflects exactly what is happening:

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

Now imagine that the clear mirror is really the mind of the hokku writer.  Just like a real mirror reflecting what is there, the writer presents us with just what is happening, without adding frills or comments, and does so in very simple, easy-to-understand, everyday language.  That is what a writer of hokku does.  He or she is a mirror reflecting events happening in the context of the seasons.

Blyth tells us that this verse is also an example of what he feels to be the “real function of poetry, — to hold the mirror up to nature in such a way that we perceive its workings.

That is very different from what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, which often has quite a different purpose.  But this verse does in fact show us, as Blyth says, “the nature of a pear, the nature of a knife, the relation between the two….

All these are reasons why this verse makes a very good model for students of hokku — something that cannot be said of all of Shiki’s verses.

It is very important to keep in mind that hokku are written in one of the four seasons, and that the season is the underlying subject of the verse, which as a whole thereby expresses the character of that season.  So when you write hokku in English or other non-Japanese languages, you should always mark them with the season in which they are written, like this:

(Autumn)

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

David

 

 

 

TWO VIEWS OF AN AUTUMN DANCE — AND OF OLD HOKKU

Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

The woman Sogetsu-ni wrote:

(Autumn)

After the dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

This is a good example of two things.  First, it shows us the very old hokku technique of using two things united by a third.  The two things here are the wind in the pines and the cries of insects, and the uniting third element is “after the dance.”

Second, it shows us is how a hokku can take on quite a different meaning in the West than it originally had.  When we read this hokku, we perhaps picture an outdoor dance in the open air, with strings of lights and lots of couples having a good time, with perhaps a hint of young romance.  There is a sense of nostalgia that the dance has ended, that people have dispersed, and after all that rhythmic human sound and activity, one is left with the vastness of the evening, the sound of wind through the pines, and here and there the cries of crickets.

Originally, however, what is translated here as “the dance” was Bon Odori, which refers to an annual folk form of circle dance — not in couples — that was part of the celebration to welcome back the spirits of the dead.  We would think of it as rhythmic walking in a circle with hands thrown alternately up to one side and down to the other in time to the music.

Bon odori ato wa       matsu-kaze mushi no koe
Bon Dance after wa    pine-wind   insect  ‘s   voice

So literally, the hokku is:

After the Bon Dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

Given its connection with the dead and the fact that this dance began very early in autumn by the old hokku calendar (which placed the beginning of autumn in August), we can think of it as a ceremony recognizing that the coming of autumn meant a waning of the Yang energies of life and the coming of the Yin energies of the dying of the year.  The living are Yang; the dead are Yin.  So the dance is one welcoming the other.

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primar...

That is something no one would even imagine by reading the verse in English, in the West, and without its original cultural background.

That raises the whole matter of the reading of old hokku by Westerners who generally have no notion of their intended cultural context.  Sometimes such old hokku can take on a meaning quite different from that originally intended.

If one is studying old hokku and its original significance in the cultural and literary traditions of Japan, knowing the actual context is very important.  But if, on the other hand, one is looking at what an old hokku can mean to Westerners today, in a European, Australian, New Zealand, or American cultural context, then we must just take the hokku as it stands, without its old cultural context, and see what it means to us now.  Many old hokku will have no meaning at all, because they are too closely linked to the old Japanese culture.  But many will take on quite a different context when read in the West, and that is as it should be, because we want to write new hokku in a Western cultural context.

There are two approaches to hokku, then.  One is to see it only in its old Japanese context.  The other is to take it, read it, and see what it means to us in a Western context, without necessarily any reference to what it meant originally.  In doing so, we may feel free to modify the text to allow it to become Western instead of Japanese.  We could even make it:

After the barn dance,
The wind in the pines —
The crickets chirping.

Of course a Bon dance and a barn dance are two completely different things, but again, we are using the original to learn to write hokku in English, not trying to translate literally now.

My view of the matter is that if old hokku are to be read and appreciated only in their original cultural context, then they become literary museum pieces, interesting for what they are (or rather, were), but of little use to people writing verse today.  But if, on the other hand, they are used, sometimes with appropriate modifications, as examples to show us how to write new hokku today, in the English language and in a Western cultural context, then they still have a purpose in the world beyond simply being curious antique literary artifacts.

That has always been my approach to hokku — that old hokku can provide us with good models for writing new hokku, if we use them for learning rather than regarding them merely as interesting relics of the past.  By doing so, we keep the old hokku tradition alive, along with its very important connection to Nature and the seasons, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

David