RAIN DRIPPING INTO A BASIN

I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.

David

A WILLOWY WALDEN

Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.

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