SPRING AND SUPERFICIALITY: DETERMINING DEPTH IN HOKKU

One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku.  It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”

What do I mean by “level” in hokku?  Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words.  In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words.  There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”

Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku.  But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth.  Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.

Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku.  But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations.  I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida.  It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.

Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:

Spring rain;
Holding an umbrella,
Looking at picture books in a shop.

You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place.  This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.

If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:

Torrey Pines State Reserve
(Photo credit: slworking2)

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea.  So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.

Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:

Bags of seeds
Becoming soaked;
The spring rain.

To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart.  Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life.  So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse.  That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth.  In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.

Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious.  In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.”  And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.

It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that.  The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written.  If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.

 

David

THAT DEAREST FRESHNESS

A hokku is an experience of Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of a season. Everything else about hokku — the two parts, the punctuation and capitalization, the techniques — exist simply to convey that experience with clarity and simplicity and effectiveness.

Because it is an experience, hokku generally omits thoughts and commentaries about an experience, preferring the experience itself, with no frills or ornamentation.

Looked at this way, hokku is the most austere of verse forms.  It is like the best of Shaker furniture, designed for a purpose, with all that is extraneous omitted.

The job of the writer of hokku, then, is just to convey such an experience to the reader without “getting in the way” of the experience.  That means there is no room for preaching or moralizing, or for “souping up” or decorating a verse.  The best writer of hokku is one who is not noticed at all, leaving only the experience.

That is why I have always de-emphasized the notion of the writer of hokku as “poet,” which is a completely unnecessary and misleading title.  The writer of hokku is just someone who allows Nature to speak through him.  That is only possible when the writer gets out of the way, giving up all pretensions to being a “poet” or “poetic.’

That is why if you want to make a name for yourself in the literary world or on the Internet, you should write other kinds of verse.  Hokku is only for those who take up the path of humility.  It is a kind of contemplative verse, meaning it is verse that takes away thoughts and ego and leaves one only with the pure essence of a thing or experience.

Spring rain;
Between the trees is seen
A path to the sea

Otsuji’s verse shows the poverty and simplicity of hokku.  It is only when one is willing to become that simple that one can take up the practice of hokku.  If one has greater aspirations in verse, one should not even bother with the hokku.  Hokku is really a verse form fitting for hermits and monastics and ascetics, people who are done with all the nonsense of the world and who just want to get directly at

“That dearest freshness deep down things”

as Gerard Manley Hopkins so aptly put it.

David

A PATH TO THE SEA

We have seen how to begin working with models in hokku, using the method of substitution.  It is important to keep in mind,however, that this is only a beginning.  It will enable one to follow the form and structure of hokku, but that means little if one does not understand the aesthetic basis.

That is why I talk about the principles of poverty, simplicity, transience, etc. that one finds in hokku.  Unlike modern haiku, hokku has a particular aesthetic approach to the composition of verses.  The aesthetics of hokku are generally those held in common with the other meditative arts in Japan such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, ink painting, gardening, etc.  Unlike the aesthetics of Western art, in Japan these practices had the “same flavor,” and if one understood the essence of one, one understood the essence of them all.

We must keep in mind, therefore, that the aesthetics of hokku are critical to writing it, and that without an understanding of those aesthetics, knowledge of structure alone is inadequate.  The student must learn both.  Of the two, structural understanding comes more quickly.  The aesthetics of hokku must be absorbed over time.

Otsuji wrote:

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is a simple verse, plain but effective.  as Blyth says of it, “There is something pleasant and lasting about poems that do not try the reader, that do not pander to popular taste.”

David