HOKKU AND POVERTY

As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:

(Autumn)

Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among

 

David

WHAT ZEN IN HOKKU REALLY MEANS

I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.

 

David

BLYTH AS SNAIL

If you happen to see the book of selections from R. H. Blyth titled Essentially Oriental, you will find this verse, written by Blyth in Japanese, given in the introduction:

葉がくれに 青い夢見る かたつむり

Hagakure ni  aoi yume miru  katatsumuri

And the translation given there is:

Behind a leaf
Dreaming a blue dream
A snail.

I would translate it differently:

In the leaf shadows,
Dreaming a green dream —
The snail.

While in modern Japanese aoi can mean blue, in its older use it meant green; it uses a borrowed Chinese character (青/qīng), which could mean blue-green, but in relation to leaves, it would commonly be understood as signifying the color green.

So this is how I understand Blyth’s verse:

A snail is in the leafy shadows, seeing only shades of green, and at that moment,  this is its unthinking life — a green dream.

I strongly suspect that Blyth’s inspiration for this verse was the English poem “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell — specifically the last two lines of this stanza:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

Looked at in the cold light of science, can a snail even see colors?  Well, many say no, but there is some evidence that they can make distinctions, though whether this would be seeing color as we do is yet another question.  Of course if Blyth were to read this, he would probably give a sniff of derision, because his attitude is that of Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu, who, on seeing fish swimming about in the river, commented to his companion that they were happy.  His companion then told him, “You are not a fish.  How do you know they are happy?”  Zhuangzi replied, “You are not I.  How do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”

So basically, in this verse Blyth was writing like Issa, putting himself into the snail.  And that is what we see here: Blyth as snail, dreaming a green dream in the green shade of the leaves.

David

MISATTRIBUTED TO BASHŌ: BAI JUYI’S “EVENING RAIN”

Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.

bananaleaves

In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:

EVENING RAIN

An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Announced by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:

RAIN AT NIGHT

A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

1.
A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

2.
Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:

baijyiyeyu

Now, with my own banana trees newly in the ground, I can add my own related hokku:

(Spring)

Pattering on the leaves
Of the just-planted banana —
The first raindrops.

David

SENSORY EXPERIENCE: THE HOKKU AESTHETIC

R. H. Blyth, in a very convoluted paragraph tucked away in his little-read volume titled Senryu, gives an ultimately simple definition of the hokku aesthetic that I will put into easily-understandable words:

Hokku is a non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

He is talking about what happens when one reads a hokku.  We can take, for example, even this late verse by Shiki, who would have called it a haiku, but it is nonetheless just the old hokku:

(Summer)

Coolness;
Seen through the pine boughs —
Sailing ships.

There is nothing intellectual about it.  It is all an experience of the senses, an involuntary sensory experience created in the reader when it is read,  a reader who suddenly finds herself or himself looking through green pine boughs at sailing ships passing by on the blue water.

The first line is a basic sensory experience of coolness, felt on the skin.  Then comes a visual sensory experience of boughs and ships and water, and the combination of the coolness with the visual sensation makes the whole one simultaneous,  non-rational (by which I mean immediate and not thought out) experience.

In the same volume, Blyth also tells us what he means by “Zen” in hokku.  I don’t even like to use the term “Zen” today, because it has been so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and sullied by use and over-use.  So we can just use the synonym-phrase Blyth gives us:

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

If you leave all the other mind baggage aside, and focus just on what is on this page, you will make a great step forward in understanding what hokku is all about.

Shiki also wrote:

(Summer)

Coolness;
With the lamp gone out,
The sound of water.

One does not need to think about it.  One just needs to experience it.  Moving from “thinking” poetry, which a lot of Western poetry is, to “no-thinking” verse, which is hokku, will give you a completely different way of looking at verse.

 

David

*
Suzushisa ya   matsu no hagoshi no    hokake bune
Coolness ya    pine    ‘s   needles-seen-through ‘s sailing ship(s)

Suzushisa ya    andon kiete   mizu no oto
Coolness ya      lamp   gone-out water ‘s sound

 

 

LONE WANDERING, BUT NOT LOST: BRYANT’S TO A WATERFOWL

Last time, I talked about Thanatopsis, the best-known poem by American poet William Cullen Bryant, who some considered, in his day, the first American poet to meet what had become the “British” standard. Today we will look at the other well-known poem by Bryant — To a Waterfowl.

This poem illustrates a common gimmick used in poetry of Bryant’s time and earlier. If you wanted to write a poem about a certain subject and then draw a lesson or moral or conclusion from it, the way to do it was to write it as though speaking directly to the person or thing you were talking about. That is why so many poems of the 19th century are are titled “to” this or “to” that. And it is why Bryant’s poem is To a Waterfowl.

Before we go on, remember another characteristic of poetry in Bryant’s time: the general feeling was that everyday language was too common for poetry, so the poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek.” All of this can seem just too overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.

Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.

So here, part by part, is To a Waterfowl:


Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Bryant is using the convention mentioned above of addressing the subject of the poem. It is an evening in December (as we shall see). The sky in the West still glows with the last light from the setting sun, and the ground is cooling, causing dew to form on the grasses and plants. In this setting, Bryant says to the bird, “whither (meaning ‘to where’) are you going on your way all alone?

“Whither” and its useful mate “whence” have unfortunately largely dropped out of modern English. I say “unfortunately” because they are very useful words, with “whence” meaning “from where,” and “whither” meaning “to where.” As the now largely-forgotten early Oregon poet Samuel L. Simpson wrote, life’s old questions are “whence” and “whither,” that is, where do we come from, and where are we going? As we shall see, that has a lot to do with today’s poem as well.

Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

The fowler — that is, the fellow out to hunt birds — might “mark” (notice) the distant flight of the waterfowl to do it wrong, meaning to shoot and kill it, because the dark form of the bird stands out sharply against the red sky of evening.


Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaféd ocean side?

Bryant is still on the “whither” question: He asks the bird if it seeks the “plashy brink” of a weedy lake. “Plashy” here means both wet and “splashy” — where the waters of the lake splash gently against its edges (brink), its shore. Or does the bird seek the “marge” or bank of a wide river, or perhaps where the “rocking billows” — the rolling waves — rise and fall by the “chaféd ocean side,” meaning the shoreline of the ocean where the waves constantly rub against it. Bryant indicates by the accent in chaféd that he wants us to pronounce it as two syllables — chay-fed — instead of the usual one.

Now comes the first of two stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about (he leaves the second for last):

There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.

There is some Power in the universe, Bryant says, that teaches the waterfowl its way along the coastline, even though there is no marked path — a Power (he capitalizes it for emphasis) that guides it through the “desert” (empty, deserted) and illimitable (endless) air — through the empty sky, that is, as the bird wanders alone in its flight, alone and seemingly wandering, but not lost.

All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.

The bird is on a long, migratory flight; its wings have flapped the air all day, up where it is cold and thin, yet the bird does not “stoop” (meaning “go downward” here) to the earth, though the bird should be weary, and dark night is near.

And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest.

Soon, however, the toil (labor) of the long and wearying flight shall end, and the bird will find the end and goal of its migratory path in a land far in the South where the weather is that of summer, and it will then rest and raise its cries among other birds of its kind; and it will build a sheltered nest in a marshy place over which the reeds will bend.

Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.

The bird Bryant has been watching is gone; it has flown out of sight, its form vanished in the great emptiness (abyss) of the sky (heaven), but the poet tells us that it has left a message in his heart (by which he means his mind) that will not go away but will long be with him.

What is that lesson? Here we come to the second of the stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about:

He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path from one place to another through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

Bryant refers to this “Power” as “He” in the final stanza, which is the traditional way of speaking of the God of Christianity, but to Bryant it is more the Deistic “Nature and Nature’s God,” as we saw in the discussion of Thanatopsis. That is why this poem seems so very akin to the writings of the Transcendentalists, in which everything that happens is guided by a transcendent Power. It is the same faith in “Divine Providence” that moved Thoreau to say, when asked on his death bed if he did not want to make his peace with God, “I am not aware that we have ever quarreled.” So even though Bryant was slightly too early to be considered a part of the Transcendentalist Movement, he was certainly a precursor and kindred spirit to it.

And not a kindred spirit just to American Transcendentalism. I cannot read To a Waterfowl without thinking of the much earlier poem written by the Japanese Zen Master Dōgen (1200 – 1253), which R. H. Blyth translates as:

The water-bird
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace
Yet her path
She never forgets.

Though Bryant would never have even heard of Dōgen, To a Waterfowl seems like just a longer and wordier version of the earlier and much shorter poem, with both having the same sense that a transcendent Power guides all paths, whether of bird or human.

J.R.R. Tolkien said in a poem in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost.” Bryant and Dōgen would have said that none who wander are really lost, even though they may seem to be. It is just that some trust their steps are guided while others do not.

Though Bryant is said to have had the experience that led him to write this poem in December of 1815, on seeing a lone duck flying against the evening sky, the poem was not published until 1818, when it appeared in The North American Review. Bryant was 24.

Michael Schmidt relates that when Charles Dickens arrived from England on his visit to New York, he is reputed to have asked, when coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?” That is because, as mentioned in my earlier discussion of Thanatopsis, Bryant was, again as Schmidt says, “the first American-born poet to be accorded relatively uncondescending recognition” by the British.

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

 

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF HERON LEGS: GRASPING THE ESSENCE OF AN EVENT

Buson wrote a pleasant summer hokku:

An evening breeze;
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

R. H. Blyth made a very pertinent comment on this verse, a remark precisely in keeping the principles of modern hokku:

English: Adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia...

Buson’s intuitions are strong and clear and quick enough to avoid the colouring of his mind by emotion, or its distortion by intellection.”

Blyth is, of course, talking about just what we practice in modern hokku. We write our verses without any “coloring of the mind” — without using them as symbols or metaphors or allegories — presenting them in all their simplicity and purity. And we present them without “thinking” added, which Blyth here terms intellection. That means we do not use hokku to preach, or to advocate political or social change, nor do we use them to make some abstract point.

Of course there will be people who will say, “This is not poetry! It is just an event with nothing added!”

Precisely. That event with nothing added is the point. If you take pleasure in it without all the obvious frills of poetry, without the clever additions of a “poet,” then it is likely you have the kind of mind that appreciates hokku for what it is.

I always say we should not think of hokku as poetry, because if we do, we automatically haul in all the baggage one has grown up associating with poetry in the West. But hokku is nothing like the bulk of Western poetry. In hokku the poetry lies in the event itself, not in anything a poet may say about it.  That is why the writer of hokku must be quick in grasping only that essential event, before the mind begins to add all kinds of thoughts about it, before it begins to decorate it with mental ornaments.

It is always helpful to ask why a particular hokku is effective.  In this one, not only do we have the absence of the coloring of the imagination and the absence of “thinking,” we also have a very straightforward harmony of similarity.  It lies in the movement of the evening breeze combined with the movement of the water lapping against the heron’s legs.  That is all we need when these two elements are united by the heron, who stands in them both.

David

BOBBITY, BOBBITY, BLYTH

R. H. Blyth once translated a verse by Meisetsu, a late writer (1847-1926) influenced by Shiki, (the fellow who began calling verses that were generally really hokku in form “haiku”):

Ryūboku ya  taburi-taburi to   haru no kawa

Translating it is a bit tricky, partly because the first word, ryūboku, means here “a piece of drifting wood”; then comes a description of the manner of its floating, and finally we have the wider setting, haru no kawa, “spring’s river” — the spring river.  Given all that we need to include, one can hardly do better than Blyth’s rendering:

A piece of wood,
Bobbity, bobbity, floating down
The spring river.

I would alter it slightly, keeping the slight intuitive leap required by the original, and more of its brevity:

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

I have kept Blyth’s very fitting “bobbity, bobbity.”

What is striking about Blyth and this verse is that he intuitively understood the principle of Yang and Yin in hokku, though he never mentions it.  He says merely that what Meisetsu saw “is the piece of wood in its relation to spring, its restless tranquillity.”  Blyth adds that “In any other season it would have no meaning.”

That is precisely in keeping with hokku as I teach it.  The strength of this verse lies in the bobbing, active motion of the piece of wood on the ripples and dips of the spring river, a motion expressing Yang energy as it manifests in the liveliness of spring, which is the season of growing Yang.  That is precisely why the “restless tranquility” of the bobbing piece of wood would, as Blyth correctly stated, have no meaning in any other season.

By “no meaning” in any other season, Blyth meant that the bobbing energy of the floating peace of wood on the river is in harmony with the active energy of spring.  In summer, when the Yang energy is much steadier and stronger, it would not have the same meaning, in fact it would lose its harmony with the setting, and the same could be said for the declining Yang of autumn and the strong Yin of winter.

This is a very subtle point, and that Blyth grasped it without ever openly discussing the principle behind it shows his remarkably intuitive understanding of the aesthetics of hokku.

Those who are regular readers here will recall past discussions of the principle of harmony in hokku, as well as of the principle of Yin and Yang.  You may also have noted that this verse is a “standard,” hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

A piece of wood
Floating bobbity, bobbity;
The spring river.

The setting is the wider environment in which something takes place.  Here it is “the spring river.”

The subject within that setting is what the poem is “about.”  Here it is
“a piece of wood.”

The action is movement or change.  Here it is “floating bobbity, bobbity.”

 

David

THE LONG DAYS OF SPRING: BUSON AND SHIKI

 There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.

There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:

Osoki hi no   tsumorite tōki   mukashi kana
Long day ‘s accumulating far   past         kana

The long days
Accumulate;
The distant past.

The point of the verse is this:

In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past.  As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time.  It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.

The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future.  Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line?  Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.

Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:

Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!

His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper.  He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.”  That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.

This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”

Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:

Flagler Beach
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunahama ni   ashiato nagaki   haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on  footsteps long   spring-day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footsteps;
The spring day.

The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight.  I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.

Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:

On the sandy beach,
Footprints:
Long is the spring day.

In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.

If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.

Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them.   That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world.  That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.

 

David

ISLANDS IN THE SEA: TRANSLATING SHIKI

R. H. Blyth, to whom I often refer, called the following verse by Shiki “Shiki at his best” (Shiki would have called it a “haiku,” in keeping with his odd ideas of reform, even though it is a hokku in form and substance).

It is, of course, a spring verse.  In the original (romanized) it is:

Shimajima ni   hi wo tomoshi-keri   haru no umi
Island-island on / lights wo lit have-been / spring ‘s sea

Translated very literally, it would be:

On every island,
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

Blyth, in his translation, actually improved the verse by changing “every island” to “islands far and near,” thereby adding visual depth, even though Shiki says nothing about “far and near.”  Blyth’s version:

The lights are lit
On the islands far and near:
The spring sea.

Blyth also permits a bit of ambiguity between completed action and progressive action.  Does Blyth’s The lights are lit mean “The lights have been lit and are burning?”  Or does it mean “The lights are being lit”?

I suspect Blyth’s answer would have been “Yes.”  He would include both meanings, leaving it to the reader to choose.

The original, however, indicates a completed action, so without taking liberties, I would probably translate it as

On every island
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

I would not say the effect, even though closer to the original, is better than Blyth’s rendering, however.  If I wanted to put it into English with Blyth’s improvement, I would make it

Lights being lit
On islands far and near;
The spring sea.

That gives us a progression similar to what we experience in Blyth’s version, letting us see all the scattered islands, and tiny lights appearing and multiplying in the dusk throughout the whole vista.

I often say that Shiki really did little to hokku except to forbid it being used as the beginning of a linked sequence, and to advocate a more superficial style; yet even in his aesthetics in practice, one can find traces of what preceded his “reforms.”  In this verse we can see that the action does fit spring, even though Shiki may not himself have consciously realized the implications of what he was writing, as he tried so publicly to leave old traditions behind.

In any case, seen as hokku, the verse would indicate the growing Yang energies of spring, because even though the verse takes place at dusk, which is a Yin time of day, we see the appearance and gradual spread and multiplication of dots of light (increasing Yang) on each island in the growing darkness.  So the appearing and spreading points of light are in harmony with the gradual increase of Yang energies in spring.

The  setting of the verse also shows us the importance of season on the effect of a hokku.  Shiki made it:

Haru no umi — The spring sea.

The verse would have quite a different effect if set in other seasons.

David

 

RAIN BEATS ON RAIN

Gyōdai wrote one of the simplest and best hokku, which in my region would be an autumn verse:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

In such a verse there is no writer apparent to obstruct the reader’s experience of the falling leaves and the cold beating of the rain.  It really gives us a clear feeling of the season, a strong visual and auditory sensation, and that is characteristic of good hokku.

It reminds one a bit of the lines from A. E. Housman:

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.

There is, in both, a sense of ending and finality — in one the autumn ending, in the other a life ended.

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

AUTUMN BEGINS: INCLINING TOWARD THE TRANQUILITY OF HOKKU

In previous postings I have discussed the relationship between Zen and hokku (yes, there is one).  Today I would like to talk briefly about where Zen and hokku differ.

Kodaiji Teahouse Dimage 0159

First, Zen is more inclusive than hokku.  Hokku deliberately restricts its subject matter, avoiding topics that trouble or obsess the mind.  That is why hokku generally avoids (R. H. Blyth says “abhors”) “the sentimentality and romance and vulgarity which Zen will view with equanimity

Zen views such things with equanimity, but ordinary people who have not reached that high level — meaning the people who write hokku — do not, are not yet able.   That is why hokku avoids wars and pestilence and plagues and riots and disasters.  It is done, again as Blyth says, because “we wish to forget them, and must do so if we are to live our short life in any sort of mental ease.”  That is even more true of our modern and very stressful society.  Hokku is a quiet refuge in the midst of the turmoils of life, and all the more valuable for being such.

Hokku, being a contemplative verse form (particularly as I teach it), consequently follows the old tradition of  avoiding violence and sex and romance and all things that unduly disturb the mind.  Instead, it turns our attention to the changing seasons and to Nature, treating humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the subject matter of hokku.

That is in great contrast to modern haiku, which generally has virtually unrestricted subject matter.  In haiku one may write about iphones and digital TVs, about wars and rumors of wars, about social injustice issues and one’s new girlfriend or boyfriend and all the intimate details.  Not so hokku.

That means there is a refreshing peace and purity to hokku.

Bashō expressed this peace and purity somewhat indirectly in an autumn hokku that is very culturally Japanese, but the principle behind it is universal:

Autumn nears;
The mind inclines toward
The four-and-a-half mat room.

That makes a rather awkward and obscure hokku in English until it is explained; what Bashō was saying is that as one feels autumn beginning, the mind feels the need for a withdrawal from “the world” into the peace of the small, spare, aesthetically tranquil little room of the hut in which the tea ceremony is performed, that peaceful, quiet, studied practice that was so important in traditional Japanese culture.

We could translate it in English as

Autumn nears;
The mind is drawn
To the teahouse.

That, however, does not achieve the feeling of the original, because a tea house in English does not convey the earthy, simple aesthetics of the small, grass-matted room in which the Japanese tea ceremony was performed.

So though we cannot use this hokku as a good model for writing in English because of its cultural difference and the need to explain it, we can nonetheless appreciate the desire expressed in it to be in keeping with the nature of autumn, which is a retiring from the busy world into silence and simplicity and a kind of inward contemplation.

That tells us a lot about hokku as compared to haiku.  Modern haiku, in general, has lost this intimate connection with Nature, this simplicity and tendency toward contemplative spirituality, as it has evolved to encompass all kinds of subjects and emotions.  But hokku still is what it was — a peaceful refuge in a troubled and stressful world.

That is why we all may feel, as autumn now begins, that our minds — our hearts (the word is the same for both in Japanese) — incline toward this peaceful refuge of hokku, while around us, all of Nature begins to fade and wither and decline and return to the root.

David

BIG ANT, BIG HEAT: INTERNAL REFLECTION IN HOKKU

IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.

David

A LEAKY ROOF

A pleasant spring hokku by Bashō:

Spring rain;
A roof leak trickles
Down the wasps’ nest. 

This reminds me of Blyth’s remark that to write hokku one should live in a house which either has a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.

David

“GETTING” R. H. BLYTH

If you want to understand what R. H. Blyth meant by connecting Zen and hokku, it can be stated very simply.

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. Thorea...

To Blyth, Zen was the elimination of the boundary between self and other, between subject and object.  I have said before that a human is the universe “humaning,” and a stone is the universe “stoning.”  When we eliminate the distinction between subject and object — which exists because of the notion of a self — then all that exists is a unity.

That is why Blyth makes statements that seem initially to make no sense at all.  But if you keep what I just said in mind, then you can understand (at least intellectually) what he is talking about.

For example, He mentions these lines of Keats:

I who still saw the universal sun
Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world.    

Blyth goes on to say of them, “If I lift my shoulder the sun rises; if I lower it, it sinks.”

“If you only think about this kind of statement, it seems crazy beyond all endurance…” he remarks.  And indeed it does, because thinking involves the separation of subject and object.  But if we abandon thinking for a moment, then there is no self and no other — there is no subject-object distinction.  That is why when you raise your shoulder, the “sun” — the universe which manifests as both you and sun — rises, because your shoulder is the sun’s, as is mine, as is that of everyone else in the world.

Of course that is a kind of play on words, because we are using “sun” here as a name for the universe.  When you raise your shoulder, the universe raises its shoulder, which is not separate from “your” shoulder, but one and the same.  The universe as “man” raises its shoulder.

That is why we can say that one thing manifests the whole universe; nothing is separate from the universe.  So when you open your eye, a star opens its eye, because there is no separation between you and the star.

That may sound odd at first, but if you just think of the universe as all of the same substance, the action of one thing is the action of all the rest of the universe manifested in that one thing.  That is why in hokku we can say that a single cherry blossom is all of spring.

The other thing to keep in mind about Blyth’s notion of Zen is that it is the complete union of mind and action.  He tells us that “A thief running away like mad from a ferocious watch-dog may be a splendid example of Zen.”  Why?  Because in the thief’s mad running away, there is no separation of thought and action.  The thief is the running away.

We all know people who cannot seem to unify mind and action.  They are filled with hesitation and uncertainty and equivocating and second thoughts.  But in Zen, mind and action just plunge ahead as one.  That is why when Blyth talks of Zen action, it is not a matter of morals or ethics.  It is just the lack of separation of mind and action.

Don’t take that crudely and unwisely, please, as the “Beats” did, to mean that you may do anything you wish, and that whatever you feel like doing is perfectly fine, no matter how immoral it may seem to others.  That is not the way the world works.  It is just a description of what Blyth meant by Zen, and I hope it will give you a key to understanding some of his more “difficult” statements in his various works.

If we reduce what I have said here to its minimum and apply it to hokku, then we have — as writers of hokku — to keep in mind that hokku generally eliminates the separation of subject (the writer) and object (what is written about).  That is why, for example, in the old hokku

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

…there is no “poet” visible.  He has become one with the pond, the frog, the sound of water, and all of those are also just one.  Nor is there any separation of “thing” and “action.”  We could describe the “Old Pond” hokku as one long extended verb.   That is the unity of hokku.

If you find that what I have written here makes no sense to you the first time you read it through, it would be helpful to read it again and to ponder it.  Once you get it, you will understand a lot of Blyth’s writing that previously may have seemed impenetrable.

David

TAO YUAN-MING’S SPRING

R. H. Blyth called this work by Tao Qian (Tao Yuan-ming, c. 365-427) and translated by Arthur Waley “the best translation… of the best poem in the world.”

WangXimengThousandLiofRiver

Swiftly the years, beyond recall,
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning.
I will clothe myself in spring-clothing
And visit the slopes of the Eastern Hill.
By the mountain-stream a mist hovers,
Hovers a moment, then scatters.
There comes a wind blowing from the south
That brushes the fields of new corn .

Waley’s version — good as it is — is not a precise translation of the original. Nonetheless, his version is effective, which is why Blyth was so fond of it. Some day when I have time I may give a closer translation.

I should add that Americans should read the word “corn” in the last line as meaning “grain.” The fields are not of corn (maize) in the American sense, but of corn (grain) in the British sense. Picture a field of green, grassy blades like Whitman’s “leaves of grass,” with the wind gently sweeping over them.

Also, the “Qian” in Tao Qian is pronounced like “Chen,” but in the front rather than the middle of the mouth. Just say the “ch” close to the front teeth.

David

DROPPING CAMELLIAS AND “EXPLANDED” TRANSLATIONS

183_1822  fallen Camellia
Fallen Camellia (Kate's Photo Diary)

I wrote yesterday of R. H. Blyth and his method of translating hokku.  He wrote six volumes of such translations, nearly all of which had to do with hokku, though he used the terminology of the Japan of his day (mid-1900s) and anachronistically and confusingly called them “haiku.”

Blyth’s purpose in translating was to explain a quite different kind of poetry to the West, a verse form with aesthetics and a philosophical basis quite unlike that of conventional Western poetry.  He was not presenting a guide to writing new hokku in the English language, because he had no idea, in the beginning, that Westerners would be interested in such a thing. Those interested in learning how to write hokku today — in English and other languages — will find what Blyth omitted described in postings on this site.

Blyth explained the hokku gradually through his commentaries on each verse, but these were largely overlooked as readers concentrated on the verses themselves.  Without the commentarial background, and without a thorough study of what Blyth offered, rather unsystematically, as the aesthetics of the verse form, readers simply saw the hokku he presented through the dark glass of their own preconceptions — derived from a background in Western ideas about poetry.  They did not comprehend, for the most part, how very different the hokku was from the kind of poetry to which they were accustomed.

What Blyth attempted to transmit to the West then, was for the most part (in spite of his terminology) an overall understanding of the hokku — not an explanation of how to write it.  History has shown us that he was, unfortunately, writing far over the heads of his readers, who apparently failed en masse to grasp the point of his unsystematic presentations.

Further, Western readers did not realize that in his translations of hokku, Blyth was often not at all literal.  His intent was to give the “meaning” of a verse, filling out his translations with what would have been added to a spare original by the mind of a Japanese reader experienced in the reading of hokku.  That means he added elements that are not actually written on the page in the original — elements that must be supplied by the intuitive mind of the (Japanese) reader.

Blyth often changed the arrangement of elements in a hokku as he translated, and the form — the inherent structure of the hokku — sometimes got lost as  a consequence.  So again, what readers found in Blyth’s translations were not by any means clear examples of how to write the hokku form in English.  They were, instead, often glosses, expanded versions of the originals, that made them accessible to the Western-educated mind and cultural background.  In fact I was tempted to write “explanded” versions, meaning translations that were simultaneously explanations and expansions.

As such, Blyth’s translations are excellent, because they do convey the real sense of the originals, though often they do not faithfully reflect the “bare-bones” nature of Japanese hokku.  But as I have said, they do not provide the Western reader with a clear and obvious explanation of how hokku should be written in English; that was not Blyth’s original intent.

I gave one example of Blyth’s method yesterday, along with the Japanese original for comparison.  here is another, a spring verse by Dansui (died 1711):

Camellias fall
One after another, plop, plop,
Under the hazy moon.

But here is a literal translation of the original:

Plop Plop camellias drop; hazy moon. 

As you see, there is no “one after another,” there is no “under the.”

Further, Blyth has given no clear idea of the structure of the original, which has, as hokku do, two parts, one longer and one shorter, separated by a cutting word.  Knowing of that original form is really essential if one wishes to write hokku in English.

In English, one possibility for translating the hokku with correct form would be:

Plop!  Plop! 
Camellias dropping;
The hazy moon.

That is much more faithful to the original in both form and content, and it is how we would write a hokku in English.  Even though there are exclamation points in the first line, the cut actually comes with the semicolon after “Camellias dropping”.  It separates the longer first part of this hokku from the shorter second part.

An added advantage of this translation is that one gets the imitative alliteration so common in Japanese hokku in the repetition of  the “p” sounds in “PloP! PloP!” and “droPPing.”  In that repetition we actually hear the sound of the camellias dropping from the bush.  The technical term for the connection between the original sound and the word we use to imitate that sound is onomatopoeia.

If only Blyth had made all of this clear and obvious in his writings, which otherwise are so full of valuable insights into the aesthetics and principles of the hokku!

In the original of the verse discussed here, the term “hazy moon” tells us it is a spring hokku.  That is because of the old Japanese system of “season words” used to automatically identify the season in which a verse was written and in which it should be read.

In English we indicate season merely with classification of each verse by its season — we write it on the slip of paper on which we compose the hokku, and pass it along when the hokku is read or published.  But of course in Dansui’s verse, along with the season indicator “hazy moon,” the mere presence of the falling camellia tells us that it is a spring hokku, because that is the season for the blooming and falling of camellias, one of the first spring blossoms.

Note how very sense-based this hokku is.  We have only the heavy sound of the dropping camellias and the sight of the hazy moon.  There is no interpretation, no explanation, no commentary, no symbolism, no metaphor, no simile, not even any sign of a poet present.

Hokku is, in essence, a sensory experience — an experience of one or more of the five senses — sight, hearing, sound, taste, touch — transmitted from writer to reader, with nothing intervening.  That is very unlike most Western poetry, which almost always feels it has to add some sort of commentary or elaboration to the original sensory experience.

But in hokku, by contrast, particularly in the kind of hokku I teach, the writer is just a clear mirror reflecting what is happening — Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

David

HYAKUCHI: VANISHING COWS AND A SNEEZE

I have written before about the telegraphic brevity of old hokku, which often comes as a surprise to those who are accustomed to seeing it in English translations or to seeing modern English-language hokku.

Here, for example, is R. H. Blyth’s excellent rendition of a spring hokku by Hyakuchi, (1748-1836), whose name always amuses me; it always makes me hear someone sneezing.  But the Chinese characters composing it mean literally “Hundred Ponds”:

The cow I sold,
Leaving the village
Through the haze. 

If we look at the original, however, it is literally:

Sold cow’s village leaving; haze —

As you see, there is no “I” who sold the cow, there is no “through” the haze.  But Blyth, in his usual superb manner, has supplied what the Japanese reader would have intuitively added to that scanty framework.

Of course that did not always work.  Some old hokku are so vague that people still argue over what a writer may have intended.  To me those are simply bad hokku, and we need not bother with them.

In English we have no such problems of interpretation, because the English-language hokku — like the English language itself — is more precise than “hokku” Japanese, and the telegraphic method of old hokku is simply not adequate either for our language or our culture.  So Blyth did precisely the right thing in expanding the verse to clarify it for Western readers.  If there is arguing over what an English-language hokku signifies, then it means the hokku is poorly written.

If I were to translate the same verse, I would be slightly more literal than Blyth, with only one clarifying expansion:

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
Spring haze.

That is a bit more like the Japanese — more faithful to the original — and also it reflects a common characteristic of hokku writing — that we often are not told whether it is the writer himself who is involved in what is happening, or whether he is observing someone else.  So in this verse the cow might be one another person has sold, or it might be one the writer has sold.  It is up to the reader to supply which understanding gives the right effect for that particular person.

Nonetheless, Blyth’s reading of it is quite effective, because when the seller is made explicit — “The cow I sold” — one identifies and feels the sad sense of having lost something, a sense that is only magnified as the cow slowly vanishes into the spring haze.

In my translation, the one expansion I made is the addition of the word “spring.”  To a Japanese reader, the presence of the word “haze” automatically means a hokku is a spring hokku.  Of course in modern English-language hokku, every verse is marked by the writer with the season in which it is written.  But actually putting the word “spring” — missing in the Japanese original — into the verse is effective in this particular case.

Who knew that the after-effect of selling a cow could be so poetic?  Obviously, Hyakuchi — Gesundheit!

David

WRIGHT OR WRONG?

The automatic statistics of this site tell me that frequently people come here hoping to see something illuminating about the “haiku” of Richard Wright — just why, I am not certain, given that this site favors hokku and generally considers “haiku” only a mutant degeneration of it.

Nonetheless, I suppose those visitors, given their frequency, should go away with something, so here are a few words about Richard Wright and his “haiku.”

The primary book for Wright’s verses is Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998).  It oddly combines an anthology of his “haiku” with a considerable amount of historical information about what is really Japanese hokku, much of which does almost nothing to illuminate Wright’s verses.

The reason is, of course, that anyone reading the book from an historical perspective discovers very quickly that Wright had the same difficulties, and followed essentially the same course, as almost all those whose verses were written under the influence of R. H. Blyth’s works titled Haiku — works which were really largely about hokku.

In short, Wright followed the standard mid-20th century pattern of reading Blyth and then writing his own verses based upon a distorted Western view of Blyth’s translations — the result of unconsciously mixing one’s own Western preconceptions about poetry with the brevity of the hokku.

Wright’s “haiku” can largely be divided into these categories:

1.  Verses that are essentially brief “Western” poems;
2.  Poems written as variations or studies on Japanese hokku translated by Blyth;
3.  Poems written in a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, which Wright somehow concluded was “standard” for his haiku in English;
4.  Verses written in a 5-5-5 syllabic pattern; and
5.  Verses written in an uneven syllabic pattern.

By examining a few of them, we get a very good picture of the whole of his work:

There are verses that are simply images:

Heaps of black cherries
Glittering with drops of rain
In the evening sun.

(One wonders if that was influenced by William Carlos Williams’ “red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens”).

The very first verse in the book is this:

I am nobody.
A red sinking sun
Took my name away.

It is not a hokku, so we shall have to put it in that vast and vague category of poems that look superficially like hokku but are not — ‘haiku.’  It is too personal, too “me” oriented for hokku.  Essentially it is a brief modern Western poem that would not even qualify as a “Shiki” haiku.  Structurally it consists of three lines, each of which has precisely five syllables.

We will find a great many of Wright’s verses are like this.  And that tells us a great deal about Wright’s approach to verse.  First and foremost, to repeat, it was the result of the unconscious mixture of Western notions of poetry with the brevity of the hokku, a problem endemic in the “haiku movement” of the second half of the 20th century.

As with most beginners in hokku, we find among Wright’s verses the usual, obviously Issa-inspired examples using the technique I call “talk to the animals”:

Make up your mind, snail!
You are half inside your house
And halfway out!

There is no real value in such verses, but one may suppose that through them Wright was experimenting, trying to find his way.  He obviously read a lot of Blyth, but of course as I often lament, Blyth left no clear and specific instructions for writing the hokku in English.  So all too often, his readers were unable to extract the principles of writing hokku in English from the matrix in which Blyth left them embedded in his writings, valuable as those writings are.  So it is no surprise that Wright was left looking about for a path.

Sometimes he detours into what looks like Issa-flavored senryu rather than hokku:

“Shut up you crickets!
How can I hear what my wife
Is saying to me?”

None of the verses given up to this point are hokku, nor are they worthwhile as “Western” verses in general.  But that does not mean Wright’s attempts at haiku are without value.  It just means that we have to sift the better examples out of all the inferior verses.

We find, for example, this:

A summer barnyard;
Swishing tails of twenty cows
Twitching at the flies.

That is hokku.  It is set in a season.  It has Nature as its focus.  And it is in two parts, a longer and a shorter.  Wright seems to have fixated on the predilection of that time for sequences of 5-7-5 syllables as the “right” standard for his verses, which led to a bit of padding, but nonetheless this verse qualifies as a real hokku, and even more importantly, it works as a hokku.   We could improve its form a bit, like this:

A summer barnyard;
The tails of twenty cows
Swishing flies.

But even left as it is, this verse by Wright qualifies as hokku.

One frequently wants to re-write his verses, to free them from the cage of 5-7-5, as in this example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials, which we might do thus:

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

Here and there we find verses that essentially repeat an old Japanese hokku, for example Wright’s

The webs of spiders
Sticking to my face
In the dusty woods.

That is just a run-on rephrasing of Buson’s

Spider webs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

And we note of course that Wright has returned here to his 5-5-5 syllable phrasing.

We find other Wright verses all too obviously based upon old hokku, but in doing so we may recall that such variations on old verses are a good way for beginners to learn.  Wright wrote:

Just enough of light
In this lofty autumn sky
To turn the lake black.

That is a variation upon Bashō’s

Cold rain –
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Another Wright verse is obviously influenced by Shiki:

That abandoned house,
With its yard of fallen leaves
In the setting sun.

A Shiki predecessor was:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

So we can see that Wright was heavily influenced by the material Blyth provided, even at times too obviously influenced by it.

One sees this influence repeatedly, sometimes for the worse, sometimes — as in this example, for the better:

Wright’s verse:

Burning autumn leaves,
I yearn to make the bonfire
Bigger and bigger.

One cannot but think that was inspired by Seibi’s  Japanese original:

Swatting flies,
I begin to think
Of Killing them all.

In Blyth’s version it is:

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.

Exactly the same feeling of starting small and feeling the urge to carry a matter to extremes.

The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics.  So we can repeat a quick analysis:  Some of his verses are mere images; some are variations on old Japanese verses translated by Blyth; some are “modern” free verse poems with the brevity but not the substance of hokku or of Shiki’s “haiku.”

Sometimes Wright tries to be too “clever,” which is a failing of modern haiku in general, with its heavy emphasis on Western poetic notions:

In an old woodshed
The long points of icicles
Are sharpening the wind.

At times he strives too obviously and artificially for effect:

To see the spring sky,
A doll in a store window
Leans far to one side.

One could spend a great deal of time commenting on each verse in the book, looking for obvious antecedents in Blyth, noting where Wright, like almost the entire Western “haiku” movement, went wrong in unconsciously substituting his own preconceptions for the inherent aesthetics and techniques of the hokku and of the Shiki “haiku.”  Such an effort would be very enlightening in showing just how and how thoroughly Western haiku went astray in the middle of the 20th century, but it would also be rather disappointing and futile in that it is too late to correct Wright’s misperceptions and missteps, too late to give him the guidance he needed to rise to the level of old Japanese hokku instead of falling into common misunderstandings.

That is, fortunately, not the case with those still writing today.  But the problem in this case is finding those with the potential poetic intuition of a Richard Wright who are also humble enough to be willing to start over and do hokku the right way.

A great deal more could be said about the “haiku” of Richard Wright, and perhaps I shall have more to say when time permits.  But for now I shall only repeat that reading Wright’s “haiku” leaves one with the disappointing feeling of a potential unfulfilled due to lack of informed guidance, the same feeling one gets on reading the better examples of present day writers of “haiku,” who never quite understand what they are doing or why, and who consequently are always walking but never getting anywhere.

David

COLD MIDNIGHT RAIN

R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.

David

HOKKU IS NOT “WRITING POETRY”

I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.

David

WHITE RAIN

Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.

David

A BARREL OF INDIGO

Shiki, the “founder” of haiku as separate from hokku, wrote a verse that has (at least) two possible interpretations:

The first is as a hokku would be written:

A tub of indigo
Poured out;
The waters of spring.

Seen this way, someone involved in dyeing cloth has dumped out a tubful of indigo dye.  The dark, greenish liquid runs into and tinges the little rivulets and pools of flowing, springtime water a deeper hue, now that the frozen winter has passed (objects dyed in indigo, by the way, do not turn the deep “indigo” blue until some time after they are removed from the dye liquid).

The second way of understanding this verse is not at all hokku-like, because it makes it a metaphor.  Blyth has altered the verse slightly in his translation, making the “tub” a barrel and the “waters of spring” a river:

A barrel of indigo,
Poured out and flowing:
The spring river.

Seen thus, Shiki’s verse is no longer hokku.  Instead it is a metaphor used more as simile.  The river of spring looks like a barrel of dark, greenish indigo poured out and flowing.  This is the same technique used in the popular old poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor….

Both ways of reading Shiki’s verse are poetry in some sense, but only the first is the poetry of hokku.

In the first, we deal with the real world, with a poured-out tub of indigo running into and tinting the waters of spring.  In the second we are in the world of fantasy, where a river is no longer a river but a giant barrel of indigo poured out and flowing.  Those who do not know how indigo dye functions are even likely to visualize the liquid flowing from the barrel as deep blue, when actually it is greenish and only turns blue in items dyed with it that are exposed to air for some time — a chemical process.

Hokku does not use the second method because it takes us away from reality and into fantasy.  It mixes two images in our minds, and the mind must jump back and forth between them.  Usually the “fantasy” image wins our attention.

That does not mean the second does not create a vivid image and is not poetry in a conventional sense.  But it does mean that the “poetry” of the second verse is not the poetry of the first, which deals with the “real world” and does not mix the real world with poetic fantasy.

That is one of the distinctions between hokku and other kinds of verse.  Hokku prefers the “thing itself” to metaphor or simile that alters and ultimately detracts from the thing, no matter how conventionally poetic the result in the latter case.

David

Grown Old

The woman Seifu wrote:

Doll faces;
Unavoidably,
I have grown old.

The interest here is in harmony of opposites.  The faces of the dolls look still the same age, but the writer, by contrast, finds herself inevitably grown old — a matter beyond her control.

Blyth has translated the last two lines a bit more personally as

Though I never intended to,
I have grown old.

It is true.  One does not intend it, but it happens.  That demonstrates, as Carl Jung said, that we are not the master in our own house.  These humans who think they are Lords of the Earth are the servants of Time.

David

UNHURRIED BUTTERFLIES

Wafū wrote:

Chō kiete    tamashii ware ni    kaeri keri
Butterfly having-gone    spirit me to  returned

The butterfly gone,
My spirit
Came back to me.

What does he mean?  He means that he was so absorbed in watching the butterfly that he and the butterfly became one, and Wafū lost consciousness of himself and was only — for a short while — the flitting, fluttering butterfly.  Then the butterfly was gone, and Wafū suddenly “came to himself” as we say in English.

This happens all the time.  Watch a child reading a good book.  The child forgets himself or herself, becoming the action in the book.  Then a shout from the mother brings the child back “to the body,” back to our customary separation of subject and object.

This subject-object unity is the very essence of hokku.  In hokku the writer — we do not even want to be so grand as to say “poet” — disappears in the presence of what is happening in Nature.  When he looks at a tree, he becomes a tree; when he looks at a rock in the stream, he becomes the rock and the water swirling about it.  He forgets himself for the moment, and that is not only how hokku takes place, but it is also one of the most important ways in which hokku differs from conventional Western poetry, particularly modern English-language poetry, in which writers seem so desperately self-obsessed.

Wafū’s verse, then, has something important to teach us about hokku.  Technically, however, it is just a simple “standard” hokku in form, consisting of a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting: The butterfly gone,
Subject:  My spirit
Action:  Came back to me

Remember that a setting is the wider atmosphere, environment, or circumstance in which something takes place.  The subject is what we “focus” on in that atmosphere, environment, or circumstance, and the action is something moving or changing, however quickly or slowly.  One can write countless hokku using this “pattern” and the old hokku writers did.  Remember that setting, subject, and action need not be in that order.

One has to be really careful in writing hokku about a “delicate” subject such as a butterfly.  It is easy to fall into sentimentality or “prettiness,” both of which are death to hokku.

Shiki, for example, wrote a really awful “haiku” on the butterfly:

Butterfly sleeping on a stone,
You will dream
Of my unhappy life.

Well, no it won’t.  The butterfly could not possibly be less concerned with Shiki, and Shiki should have concerned himself more with the butterfly.

There are unfortunately more bad verses written by old Japanese authors on the dreams of butterflies, but we have no reason to add to the smelly pile.  Instead, we should write more objectively, as did Buson:

Tsurigane ni   tomarite nemuru   kochō kana
Temple-bell on  having-perched sleeping  butterfly kana

On the temple bell,
A butterfly has settled,
Sleeping.

Now on the surface there is not much to this.  But the whole point of the verse is in knowing that the temple bell is a very heavy, cast metal object that is struck at certain hours of the day by a long, horizontal swinging pole; when struck, it emits a great, deep BBbbboooooooooooooonnnnnngngngngngng that vibrates not only the whole bell but all the air around it, sending out a sound that can be heard for a great distance.  From that the perceptive reader will gather, correctly, that this is a hokku of “harmony of contrast.”

Remember that there are hokku made by combining similar harmonious elements, but there are also hokku made by combining contrasting elements that when put together still make a kind of overall harmony.  That is the case in this verse.  The contrasting elements are the great, dark, heavy bell and the very small, very fragile, butterfly.  The butterfly is always silent; the bell is silent only for the present.  When struck, it will vibrate with great energy, and the butterfly will flutter away.  We are to sense all of this when we read the verse, but to say it really spoils it.  Nonetheless in teaching hokku, one has to explain such things until a student develops a “hokku” spirit and begins to understand them for himself or herself.

Garaku composed a hokku that shows us the nature of the butterfly:

Even chased,
The butterfly is not
In a hurry.

Try to catch a butterfly, and it will just casually, apparently thoughtlessly, slowly flutter away, pause, and flutter off again at its usual, leisurely speed.

Sora too wrote a “butterfly” verse:

Back and forth,
Stitching the rows of barley —
A butterfly.

R. H. Blyth, however, improves on it by removing the “stitching” simile, which I shall also do here:

Back and forth
Between the rows of barley —
A butterfly.

Why does that improve it?  Because the butterfly is not really “stitching,” just making a back and forth, to and fro repetitive motion.  Butterflies do not “stitch,” and when we use such a word, it takes us just that much farther away from reality.

David

 

 

FAILURE OF TRANSMISSION

It is interesting to note that the term haiku did not begin to catch on in the West until the middle of the 1900s.  Prior to that time, when Americans or Europeans spoke of the brief Japanese verse form, they correctly called it either hokku — the specific term for an individual verse — or haikai — the collective term for the wider practice of which the hokku was the most important part.

In 1905 the Frenchman Paul Louis Couchod, writing some verses in imitation of the Japanese, published a book titled Au Fil de l’eau, filled with verses he called haikaï.

Another Frenchman, Fernand Gregh, came up with more imitative verses titled Quatrains in the Form of the Japanese Haikaï. And yet another, Albert de Neville, wrote a collection of verses titled 163 Haikaï and Tanka, Epigrams in the Japanese Manner (I have translated these last two titles).

It is not difficult to see that the term favored in France for the Japanese hokku was the term describing the wider practice, haikai, which was also the term favored by Bashō and the other writers up to the time of Shiki, though of course the opening verse, whether it appeared alone or as the beginning of a verse sequence, was the hokku.  So really either is correct.  That is why today we write hokku, but it still falls within what Bashō termed haikai.  Because we tend to concentrate on the individual verses, we more frequently say hokku than haikai.

These early writers and others in France give us not only what is apparently the first attempt to write the verse form in the West, but also the first examples of how Westerners completely misunderstood the hokku, interpreting it not as itself but as what they thought it was.  That resulted in such peculiar French pseudo-“haikai” as this 1920 attempt by Gilbert de Voisins:

Trois vers et très peu de mots
Pour vous décrire cent choses…
La Nature en bibelots.

Three verses and very few words
To describe to you one hundred things …
Nature in trinkets.

That is as miserable an excuse for hokku as anything one finds in Western “haiku” publications and anthologies of the 1960s.

And Paul Eluard, writing in 1920, presents us with another abomination as “clever” and unlike hokku as anything one is likely to find on today’s avant-garde haiku blogs:

Le vent
Hésitant
Roule une cigarette d’air.

The wind
Hesitating
Rolls a cigarette of air.

When we come to writers in English, we find that in spite of Basil Hall Chamberlain’s title Basho and the Japanese Poetical Epigram (1902), the favored English term for the verse form was hokku, which was precisely the correct term for such an individual verse of Bashō in Japan.

Ezra Pound, for example, called a hokku a hokku:

“The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

‘The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.’

This is the substance of a very well-known hokku.” (from Vorticism, 1914)

Pound obviously could not tell good from bad hokku, nor did he really grasp what a hokku was as distinct from Western notions about it.

Amy Lowell wrote Twenty-four Hokku on a Modern Theme (1921).  She did not understand the true nature of the hokku any better than the French or Ezra Pound, as one can see from such mutations as:

Night lies beside me
Chaste and cold as a sharp sword.
It and I alone.

Even Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), though calling what he wrote in English hokku, came up with verses as romanticized and unlike the genuine hokku as anything miscontrived by Americans or Europeans in the early 1900s, such as this 1920 example:

Suppose the stars
Fall and break?—Do they ever sound
Like my own love song?

Noguchi was born in Japan but spent considerable time living in the West and absorbing the “Western” concept of poetry, which was also influencing Japan at that time, and the result, as one sees from his verse, was like trying to genetically cross a dog and a cow.  Noguchi evinces as little understanding of the hokku as any confused Westerner.

It is unfortunate but obvious, then, that though the writers of Europe and America were using the correct terminology for a hokku, they had no genuine understanding of what it was, as their attempts at writing show.  We learn from this that simply calling a verse hokku does not make it hokku. None of these early enthusiasts writing in Western languages really had the foggiest idea how to write a genuine hokku in the tradition of Onitsura and Bashō and the other great writers of Japan prior to Shiki.  But at least they got the terminology right.

So in the first part of the 1900s, Westerners knew the Japanese verse form was hokku as part of haikai, but they failed to understand what a hokku really was.

Imagine, then, how confusing it became when in the mid 1900s the terminology suddenly changed, when what had previously been called the hokku, though greatly misinterpreted, suddenly began being called the “haiku” in the English language.  All the confusions and misperceptions and misunderstandings that had been foisted on the hokku by American and European writers were simply transferred to a “new” anachronistic and historically incorrect term.

But how did the change in terminology come about?

Well, one can blame it partly on the Japanese themselves, who in the first half of the 19th century, being overwhelmed by Western culture and technology, gradually displaced the old term “hokku” with the term introduced by Masaoka Shiki to describe his revised re-interpretation of the hokku form — “haiku.”

As we have seen, early writers in the West used the original and genuine term, hokku, though they had no idea what they were writing about.  The public at large scarcely took notice in any case.  Then in 1932 a Japanese named Asataro Miyamori came out with a large volume in English titled An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (1932).  Few in the West read it, but those who did were incorrectly introduced to hokku under Shiki’s revisionist term haiku, which had by then become popularized in Japan.

Then the trouble really began in the West.  Harold Henderson came out with his little volume of translated hokku The Bamboo Broom (1934), but also following popular Japanese usage of the time, he too incorrectly called the verses “haiku,” not, as they should have been correctly termed, “hokku.”  And make no mistake.  Almost all the verses Henderson included were really hokku, not haiku.

But what really changed the scene was the work of Reginald Horace (“R. H.”) Blyth, who in works published between 1942 and 1963 consistently used the then-popular term in Japan — “haiku” — to describe what was really hokku.  That is not surprising, because Blyth took up residence in Japan and used the terminology popular in the Japan of his day, but it is nonetheless very unfortunate that he unwittingly contributed to misunderstanding when he worked so diligently to explain what was really “hokku” to the West.

Because Blyth was the most prolific writer on the subject, and also by far the most widely-read and the best, the older and historically-correct term “hokku” was largely displaced in American and British understanding by the newer, inaccurate, anachronistic and revisionist term “haiku.”  This very confusing change of terminology in describing what was already a thoroughly misunderstood verse form in the West only created virtual chaos in the public mind.

The use of “haiku” instead of hokku was enthusiastically supported by such budding groups of Western writers as the Haiku Society of America, who seemed to think that wrongly calling the verses of all pre-Shiki writers “haiku” would somehow make their own peculiar efforts appear to be in the old tradition of Bashō, when in reality they were often simply furthering the misperception of the verse form that had been common in the West since the days of Couchod, of Pound, and of Lowell.  The teaching of “haiku” in the 20th century became the blind leading the blind, and this has continued even into the 21st century, which has only exacerbated the misunderstanding and confusion regarding hokku and haiku.

Now what does all this chaotic history mean for us today?  It means simply that hokku as the verse form written from Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century up to the end of the 19th century was never really transmitted to the West.  The “starter,” to use a baking term used in making sourdough bread, never “took.”  Instead, hokku was hijacked and distorted and misrepresented by the Western modern haiku groups that began appearing in the middle of the 20th century, and it is still, for the most part, in that lamentable situation today.  The number of persons who understand and practice the old, genuine hokku in English is today very small in comparison to the huge numbers of writers of the haiku in its multitude of variations.  The average writer of haiku has never learned the nature and characteristics and aesthetics of the old hokku, and simply cannot recognize one as distinct from haiku.  That is how thoroughly the public has been misled by the self-made haiku pundits and the haiku societies of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

It is true that genuine hokku may be found in the works of Miyamori, of Henderson, and of Blyth, but even these potential models — in spite of Blyth’s superb commentaries — were re-formed in the Euro-American mind to fit inaccurate Western preconceptions and personal whims.

What did appear in the West as hokku in the early 1900s and as haiku from the 1960s onward was simply a new Western verse form that embodied the Western misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku.  Like Chinoiserie and Japanoiserie in art, it was a romanticized and completely inaccurate Western misperception of an Asian aesthetic matter.

That means, essentially, that all those haiku groups and literary publications that began appearing in America and Britain in the 1960s generally had virtually nothing to do with what was written by Basho and Onitsura and other Japanese writers in the two centuries prior to the revisionism of Shiki.  With very few exceptions, none of the vast number of “haiku” writers from the mid-20th century up to the present have any relation to genuine pre-Shiki hokku.

What has happened, however, is that people have simply misinterpreted the fact that modern haiku was inspired by the old hokku as evidence that modern haiku is a continuation of the old hokku.  That is like imagining that humans and chimpanzees are today essentially the same simply because they had a common evolutionary ancestor.  Nonetheless, this gross misperception has been actively and enthusiastically promoted by modern haiku groups.

The haiku is not at all the same as the hokku.  Instead, it developed out of the old hokku through the revisionism of Masaoka Shiki in Japan, near the end of the 19th century.  And it is bizarre, to say the least, that in any modern “history of haiku,” the greater part of text is taken up in describing what is really, historically, hokku — which bears no relationship to modern haiku other than that already described — that the haiku was “loosely inspired,” as one might say, by the outward form of the old hokku.  And that is really the only connection.  Aside from that tenuous link, modern haiku in English and other European languages is actually a new, Western verse form created from misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku.

Those who wish to write hokku, then, will not learn how to do so from reading books put out by those in the modern haiku community, or by reading the endless misinterpretations on modern haiku web sites.  Instead, one must learn hokku quite separate from all that is modern haiku, if one wishes to learn it correctly.  Hokku is not, and never was, haiku, and until one understands that basic fact, one will not be able to understand it or to learn how to practice it.

David

SPRING AND NEW BEGINNINGS

In old hokku, spring began with the Lunar New Year, which came on varying dates between the end of January and the middle of February.  This year, for example, the Lunar New Year will happen on February 14th.

In modern hokku, however, we orient ourselves neither to the Western calendar nor to the Lunar calendar.  Instead, we either follow the old traditional European calendar, in which Spring begins on Candlemas at the start of February, or we see what is happening in Nature.  When we see the first early signs of spring, that is when spring begins for us.

Yesterday I took a long walk up a nearby hill, and on the way I saw pussy willow catkins already appearing, and that means early as it is, spring is beginning.

In hokku we always orient ourselves as well to the universal elements of Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is the most yin time of the season, but already yang is visible within it.  Yang will increase until it reaches its spring high at the end of the season.  Then it will continue to increase into summer, when yang reaches its peak, and then it will begin its decline again as yin increases through autumn and finally reaches its peak in winter.  So all of Nature — all of the seasons — are the interplay between Yin and Yang, and that is important to know in hokku.

The beginning of spring, then, means the first obvious signs of growing yang appearing in Nature — the appearance of green shoots out of the earth, of catkins and buds on trees.  In human life this corresponds to infancy and early childhood.  In the day it corresponds to the first signs of dawn and the early hours of and after sunrise.

It should be obvious, then, that hokku expressing spring deal with freshness and beginnings, of signs of activity appearing out of the inactivity of yin.

Every writer of hokku must keep in mind two things:  Nature and season.  Without Nature there is no hokku.  Without season there is no hokku.  Hokku is the verse of Nature and the seasons.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set within the ever changing context of the season.  That is why anthologies such as that of R. H. Blyth (though he mislabels hokku as haiku) present hokku divided into four seasons — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.  And within each season, the hokku are further divided according to traditional Japanese categories.

Those categories for spring are:

The New Year (traditionally a category of its own);
The Season;
Sky and Elements;
Fields and Mountains;
Gods and Buddhas;
Human Affairs;
Birds and Beasts;
Trees and Flowers;

These remain useful categories for our hokku today.  When further subdivided, they reveal the characteristics of spring in a given location — local climates and plants and creatures, which vary from region to region.  Spring in the Pacific Northwest, for example, manifests itself differently than spring in the Appalachians.  One will find different trees, different plants and flowers, different creatures, and so on.

The most important thing, however, is never to forget that a hokku should manifest the nature of the season through what is included in it.  A spring hokku about pumpkins would be incongruous and inappropriate.  A spring hokku about violets is in harmony with Nature and the season.

I have always taught hokku primarily from the best examples of the old Japanese writers translated into appropriate English-language hokku form.  By studying these, by using them as models, one may quickly learn the structure and nature of hokku.  They show us what to do and sometimes what not to do in composing.  Teaching from old models further ensures that what the student is learning is real hokku, not some form of modern haiku or make-it-up-as-you-go brief free verse.

Spring is the time of beginnings, and it is a very good time to begin learning real hokku, seeing how the season was expressed by those who founded our practice of hokku so long ago.

Whenever discussing hokku, it is always a good idea to say something about R. H. Blyth.  Unfortunately his books are all out of print at present.  The modern world has such different goals that Blyth has been, if not forgotten, put aside for the present.  That is a very sad symptom of what our society has become.

The most important things to know about Blyth are these:

1.  He unfortunately generally referred anachronistically to hokku as “haiku,” using the term popularized by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  One must forgive Blyth, because he simply used the term popular in the Japan of his day.  It can be very confusing to readers, however, who must know that in reading him, the bulk of what he talks about is hokku, not haiku, even when he uses the latter term.  Today we correct that by simply recognizing that haiku did not begin until the revisions of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, and that what came before is correctly termed hokku.  Bashō, Onitsura, Buson, Issa, and all the rest who came before Shiki were writers of hokku within the wider context of haikai.  So hokku is much older than haiku, and it is very important today to make the distinction.

2.  Having said that, one must recognize R. H. Blyth as still the foremost authority on the aesthetics of hokku.  If one wants to understand what is behind hokku, one should read all of Blyth’s commentaries very carefully, comparing them to the verses on which he is commenting.  This provides the reader a “master class” in the aesthetics of hokku, and learning from Blyth in this manner is invaluable.

3.  One must realize that Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku.  When he began, he was explaining an old tradition that by his time, after the revisions of Shiki, was in a profound state of decline aesthetically.  He thought that hokku was virtually dead, and though he bemoaned the fact as evidence of the stupidity of man, he did not anticipate an interest in its revival until near the end of his writing of works on hokku.  Even then, he made only a few perfunctory suggestions as to how what he called “haiku” (but meant “hokku”) might be written in English.

What this means is that though Blyth was an excellent teacher of the aesthetics of hokku, he was primarily a commentator and a translator.  One might expect that one could learn to write hokku in English simply from copying the patterns of his translations, but that is only partially true.  His main purpose was in conveying the meaning of Japanese hokku in English, and to do that he sometimes took liberties, translating what the writer “meant” and not what he actually wrote.  Blyth was superb at this because he really understood the spirit of Japanese hokku, but it can sometimes be confusing for the learner, because in translating Blyth could be much more loose in the use of structure and form than the originals he was translating.  Again, that is because his purpose was to explain hokku to Westerners, not to teach them how to write it.

Of course those of you who have been long-time readers here will know how to write it in matters of form and structure, because I have explained all of that, based directly on the structure of Japanese hokku and of how they are best adapted to the nature and structure of the English language.  It is really quite simple, and once one knows that, one knows how to adapt Blyth’s explanations so they are both meaningful and helpful rather than misleading.

Having said all of that, reading Blyth, though immensely helpful, is not necessary to learning hokku.  Over the years I have taught students what they need to know for an excellent foundation in hokku, and the rest is up to the student.

One need only keep in mind that hokku and modern haiku are two very different things.  In fact one could say that hokku is one thing, and modern haiku is a multitude of often contradictory things, because while hokku has very definite standards and aesthetic principles, modern haiku varies to fit the whims of individual writers, who feel quite free to make up their own versions of haiku.  For all general purposes therefore, hokku is not haiku, and the two should never be confused.  One should never refer to pre-Shiki hokku as “haiku,” because it is both anachronistic and historically incorrect.  Further, it only causes endless and needless confusion.

This rather rambling posting is my way of saying that spring is at the doorstep, and it is time for many of us in temperate regions to begin thinking of spring hokku instead of winter hokku.  And thinking of spring hokku, it is also a good time to refresh and review our practice and understanding of hokku — or for those who know little or nothing about it, a good time to begin learning hokku.

Though I may sometimes mention haiku here for historical and other reasons, I do not teach haiku, and have little interest in it.  I teach hokku, a continuation in English of the same kind of verse that was practiced in Japan for several centuries prior to the popularization of the haiku by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  There are multitudes of haiku sites and teachers.  But to my knowledge, this is the only site that teaches all aspects of the practice of hokku as a modern form of verse making.

I wish there were other legitimate teachers of hokku out there, but they simply do not exist at present, sad though the fact may be.  I hope some day that will change.

TWO ROADS DIVERGED….

As readers here know, I do not teach or advocate haiku, so some explanation is necessary for even discussing it on a site devoted to the hokku.

The modern haiku community has from its inception confused the hokku with Shiki’s revisionist term “haiku.”  But Bashō and Gyōdai, Buson and Issa did not write “haiku.”  They called what they wrote hokku, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was first tentatively introduced to the West, it was known here as hokku too, though it was misunderstood in Europe and America from its first appearance, and was mistakenly viewed in terms of Western notions of poets and poetry, quite contrary to its essential nature.

To confuse matters even more, hokku (as Japanese hokku in translation) was not really popularized in the West until the middle of the 20th century, at which time it became widely known through the works of Reginald Horace Blyth, and to a lesser extent those of Harold G. Henderson.

Unfortunately, Blyth chose not to emphasize the historically correct term for the subject — hokku — and used instead the revisionist term then current in the Japan of the mid 1900s — “haiku.”  Henderson, a lesser light, did the same in his earliest book on the subject — The Bamboo Broom: an Introduction to Japanese Haiku (1934).

This unfortunate choice has come to be the source of endless confusion and misunderstanding, because almost all of what Blyth wrote about in his monumental “Haiku” volumes (all six of them) was really hokku, not haiku.  But when Blyth first began writing, he assumed that the hokku (as he appreciated it) was dead, that he was penning a kind of loving post-mortem.

But by the time he was finishing the last of these works years later (History of Haiku, Vol. 2, 1964), Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own earlier writings (Haiku, 4 vols., 1949-1952)  that were largely responsible for this new interest, which he hastened to encourage.  But again Blyth made a serious mistake in not providing simple, straightforward, clear, detailed, and systematic guidance on how a hokku was to be written, practically and aesthetically.  Instead, though he provided a treasure in his commentaries, he left far to much up to a reading public too impatient and unprepared to take advantage of Blyth’s unsystematic if penetrating presentation of the matter.

Harold Henderson made the same disastrous mistake, suggesting that it would be the “poets” themselves who would decide how the “haiku” (by which Henderson, like Blyth, really meant the hokku) would be written in English.  Both Blyth and Henderson failed to realize that Westerners were totally unprepared for the task, having virtually no understanding of hokku aesthetics and how they were to be applied in verse.  To his credit, Henderson did caution against the kind of extreme changes to the form and aesthetics that we find in much of what is called “modern haiku” today.  Already hearing the usual excuses of poetic freedom made for such distortions of the form, Henderson quoted G. K. Chesterton on freedom in the arts:

“...if you feel free to draw a camel without his hump, you may find that you are not free to draw a camel.

And that was what modern haiku largely became — people composing verses as the “camel without his hump” — hokku without its proper aesthetics — no longer a “camel,” and certainly no longer hokku.

Inevitably, Westerners projected their own misperceptions of the hokku onto the Western haiku, and thus mischief was immediately afoot and all the better efforts of Blyth and Henderson came to naught as Westerners promptly set themselves to remaking the hokku in their own images as the English-language “haiku.”

Thus, virtually at the beginning of the Western haiku movement, the damage of misuse of terminology had already been done, so the movement that began in the West in Blyth’s time was indeed a “haiku” movement, not a hokku movement.  And its aesthetics were Western self-made “haiku” aesthetics, based on Western poetic conventions and notions of poetry, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd in retrospect that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that the majority of Westerners who had become interested in writing “haiku” really had not the slightest idea how to go about it, and that letting such individuals set the future course of the verse form was just as illogical as making a child newly arrived on a ship its captain.

Western novices compounded the problem by virtually ignoring Blyth’s illuminating commentaries, and instead of remedying that deficiency by systematically studying old hokku to determine its form and aesthetics, they began plunging recklessly and headlong into writing a new kind of verse based not on hokku but on their personal misunderstandings and misperceptions of hokku, calling it — as Blyth and Henderson had done — “haiku.”  The results, generally, were astonishing in their mediocrity.  But really, what else could one expect?

That is the beginning of the Western haiku movement in a nutshell.  It is the result of those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally choosing to ignore Blyth and to ignore Henderson’s warnings and cautions, preferring to go their own various ways, remolding the hokku to fit what they thought their new “haiku” in English should be, and endlessly confusing the general public in the process by misapplication of terminology and misinterpretation of hokku aesthetics and form.

Haiku is not hokku.  Haiku never was hokku, except perhaps in its earliest days in Japan when Shiki wrote his own brand of hokku and simply re-labeled it “haiku.”

But in the West — in English and in other European languages — haiku has always been a confused mess because people simply did not pay attention to what Blyth told them over and over again.  Instead,  they preferred to remake it in their own image, following the popular Western notion of the poet as rebel and revolutionary.

Haiku as a whole follows in the same pattern today, and instead of attempting to change it back into something closer to the hokku, one must simply let it go on changing, though its historical tendency in the West seems to be for it to degenerate into sterility and near extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

If you have doubts about that, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years, 2016) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and has an appeal for many Westerners that hokku does not have.  That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, more spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, I see this as a serious flaw in modern society, something to be lamented instead of celebrated.  It is symptomatic of the serious sickness of spirit that plagues modern culture the world over.

While distinguishing it from hokku, one must let modern haiku follow its own course.  It is best just to live a life of hokku and to let others do what they wish, which they always have done in any case and will continue to do.  Ultimately, one changes the world only by changing one’s self.

David

HACKETT HEWS AT HAIKU

Someone kindly sent me the link to an article by James W. Hackett on the “aesthetic devolution” of modern haiku.  No doubt the person who shared the link felt that Hackett and I perceive similar problems, though I teach hokku and Hackett is a proponent of haiku.

(See http://www.hacketthaiku.com/TAThaikuPoem.html#Haiku/01)

Hackett begins by saying that after fifty years of living and writing haiku, he is sad to witness its “devolution into aesthetic anarchy” in some haiku journals.  My view on this is that haiku quickly began its devolution into aesthetic anarchy even while Shiki was still alive in Japan — in other words, only a few years after it was begun by Shiki near the end of the 19th century.  And in the West haiku has from its inception been both vaguely-defined and confused.  Western haiku began in virtual aesthetic anarchy.

That is the result of two major factors:  First, the unfortunate widespread, anachronistic, and historically inaccurate use of Shiki’s favored term “haiku”  in the modern haiku community to describe what was really hokku.

Second, the application of the same revisionist term to what was mistakenly promoted in the West as the continuation of the old hokku tradition — all the misperceptions and misunderstandings of old hokku that were publicized in the latter half of the 20th century as “haiku” in English and other Western languages.

Hackett suggests it is time for a re-thinking and re-application of the use of the terms “haiku” and “haiku poetry,” advocating that “haiku poetry” be used instead of “haiku” to describe “literate verses that manifest writing skill, and some emotive suggestion.”

Unfortunately, that is merely stirring the mud in the pond instead of clearing the water.  What is really needed is a complete separation — first of the term “haiku” from what is really and legitimately hokku — all those verses written from the 15th century through the end of the 19th century in Japan — and secondarily a separation of  modern haiku into appropriate classifications.  Haiku has become an umbrella term so vague and inclusive as to be virtually meaningless.  There is traditional haiku — the haiku taught and practiced by writers such as Shiki and Kyoshi, and there is non-traditional haiku — all the wide variety of things called haiku today no matter how greatly they may differ from one another.

But fundamental and first is the absolute necessity of distinguishing hokku from haiku, both historically and aesthetically.  Writers should be called to account when they messily, inaccurately and anachronistically use the term “haiku” when what they are really talking about is hokku — all that was written prior to the revisionism of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — in other words, the roughly three hundred years of hokku before Shiki began misapplying the term “haiku.”

Second, I think Hackett only adds to the confusion by his suggested distinction between “haiku” and “haiku poetry.”  What he is really talking about — though perhaps he is too polite to say it — is simply verbally marking the difference between bad haiku and good haiku.  But that, if one refuses to follow historical precedents of form and content, is so subjective as to only contribute to the present chaotic situation in the modern haiku community.  Again, one must first distinguish hokku from haiku.  Second, one must distinguish traditional haiku from other kinds of modern, non-traditional haiku.  Then and only then can one begin to speak of distinctions of quality, because it is only then that one will know which aesthetic standards to apply to a given verse.

I believe Hackett also goes astray when he he writes, “the sanctity of haiku’s intuitive, emotive experience should, I believe, take precedence over theoretical considerations of form, syntax, and style.”

Well, that is what already has happened in modern haiku, and it has proven itself to be part of the problem instead of the solution.  It is precisely because Western poets and do-it-yourself haiku pundits did not understand the theoretical considerations of form  in hokku, combined with their near complete misreading of its aesthetics, that  the mess that is modern haiku came to be.

Without dealing with each point he makes, it is worth saying that Hackett and I do share certain views, though he advocates haiku and I hokku.  We both, for example, recognize the value of punctuation and of normal English usage.

Yet aside from what we share, I do not think Hackett’s suggestions go to the root of the problem, and I feel quite sure that they will not make the slightest impact upon the confused and contradictory and endlessly ephemeral aesthetics of the modern haiku movement.

Hackett is, essentially, an advocate of a view of haiku that those in the modern haiku movement will immediately consider old-fashioned and outdated — a haiku that is closer in nature to the practice of hokku.  But  instead of taking the logical step and simply returning to the practice and aesthetics of hokku, Hackett instead seems bent on attempting the impossible — reversing the course of haiku today, of what it has become after over half a century of confused and contradictory standards imposed upon a naïve public by the American and British pundits of haiku in the 20th century — standards which reflected only their misunderstandings and misperceptions of the old hokku translated into an aesthetic framework borrowed largely from Western avant-garde poetry in the 20th century — a framework that is now itself viewed as dated and old-fashioned.

Hackett would seemingly like to turn back time to an illusory “golden age,” the days when haiku was first beginning in the West, but even in those first days the Western concept of haiku was so confused and subjective that one has to say there never has been a decline of haiku in the West because, aesthetically speaking, haiku never rose in the West.  It began and it is likely to end simply as a Western misunderstanding of the far superior (in my view) hokku form and aesthetic.

As I have pointed out many times, haiku began as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku, and it has continued as such, evolving and fragmenting continually.  There is no point in trying to put the pieces of Humpty-Dumpty together again.  Haiku has moved on.

I think Hackett has his heart in the right place, but he does not recognize the fact that the house has already burnt down.  It is too late to be installing fire alarms.  Western poets and haiku pundits created a Western haiku that was individual and subjective in standards and aesthetics, and what we are seeing — and what Hackett deplores — is simply the continuation and working out of that paradigm.  It is sad, because Hackett sees the negative results but fails to deal with the root of the problem.  And the root of the problem is simply that haiku in the West has always been a misperception and misunderstanding of the hokku.

The solution, then, is not to try to change modern haiku, which is what it is.  Instead one need only return to the genuine principles and aesthetics of the hokku.

It makes me very glad that I teach hokku, which though very old in form and aesthetics is nonetheless very contemporary because it is based on timeless standards and universal principles.  It is not blown about by every wind of trend and fashion, as is modern haiku.  Haiku changes its aesthetics to fit the individual; hokku changes the individual to fit its aesthetics.  When one understands the meaning of this, one understands the foundation of hokku, whether old or modern.

David

 

NO SKY, NO EARTH

Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:

Ten mo chi mo    nashi ni yuki no     furishikiri
Sky too  earth too    are-not at snow ‘s    falling-ceaselessly

No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.

Rather literally, the verse reads:

With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.

That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around.  Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow.  The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared.  This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.

Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet.  Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain.  It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain.  Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:

Sabishisa no  soko     nukete   furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s  bottom  fallen-out  falling sleet kana

Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out”  is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment.  Imagine a bucket filled with water.  Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out.  That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.

But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect.  This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.

Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite
Loneliness.

A very brave attempt!   But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku.  Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing.  Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another.  This too must not be misunderstood, however.

If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water.  This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter.  It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water.  No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other.  The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish.  The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water.  The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish.  The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water.  Each is reflected in the other.

Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation.  It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely.  Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet.  We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.

It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness.  Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer.  They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside.  All are one experience.

One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku.  Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite
Solitude.

One can be alone without being lonely.  And one can be lonely without being alone.  But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence.  Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest.  That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.

We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.

We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni.  The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away.  A full moon is in the sky.  The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.

You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind.  This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.”  The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all.  In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust.  That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.

But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng.  When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.

The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse.  In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?

That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.

David

SEASONAL HARMONY

In hokku the concept of harmony is very important.  If a verse is composed of elements that are inharmonious with one another, the hokku will fail.  But beyond that, the hokku should be in harmony with the season in which it is written.

It often seems initially odd to many Westerners that one should read a hokku in the season in which it is written, but it really is not an unfamiliar concept.  If we see a house with Christmas lights still up in August, we feel there is something out of place; and if we see a pottery Halloween pumpkin in May, we have the same feeling of disharmony.

It is the same with hokku, only we become even more aware of such discords of object and time, because hokku takes us away from our personal and social preoccupations and puts us in touch with the seasons that were for millennia the essential and unfailing context of our ancestors’ lives.

This is not something peculiar to hokku.  It is a commplace in the aesthetics of the culture out of which hokku grew.  And as R. H. Blyth reminds us, the contemplative arts of Japan share as their foundation virtually the same aesthetic principles, so that if you understand one, you understand them all.  That is why, on entering a traditional Japanese home, one will find a flower arrangement in harmony with the present season; and if there is a hanging scroll, it will depict a scene in harmony with the season.

To have an arrangement of lilies in midwinter, or of daffodils in autumn, is discordant — inharmonious.  And in hokku one is very sensitive to such things, because hokku is to put us in harmony with Nature, not to divide us from it.

That is why in hokku we both read and write verses in season.  It is true that we will sometimes use a verse from one season in discussion during a different season, but that is merely for purposes of learning and explanation, and it does not in any way negate the principle that the hokku and the season should be in harmony when written and when read.

David

UNKNOWING

There is something very mysterious and significant about a question.

In the Zen sect, one major practice is the continual asking of an internal question — “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” perhaps, or “What was my true face before I was born?”

These are questions that cannot be ended by an ordinary response.  In fact, one must go beyond all intellectual and logical and rational answers, beating one’s head against the wall of the question again and again, hour after hour, week after week, perhaps even year after year until finally — if all is favorable — all at once the wall falls of itself and the answer beyond words is revealed.

The spiritual practice advocated by Ramana Maharshi, the noted south Indian saint of the early 20th century, was asking one’s self continuously “Who am I?”  Again, all ordinary answers had to be put aside, because it is the ongoing state of questioning that will finally — again if one is fortunate — lead to realization.

In the Western tale of the Holy Grail, we find the naive young Parzival witnessing a strange ritual in the Grail Castle.  He sees the wounded Fisher King, and he sees the Grail brought in, glowing with its own light.  He is supposed to ask “Whom does the Grail serve?” but fails to do so.  In Jungian psychology this is very significant– it is the equivalent of failing to ask the meaning of life.  The question need not be answered to be effective — but like the questions of Zen and Ramana Maharshi, it must be posed and then the matter will develop.

We find parallels again and again between hokku and the higher levels of spiritual practice and realization, but though there are parallels, I caution again that no one ever became enlightened by reading or writing hokku.  Nonetheless, the questioning state is held so highly in hokku that there is a specific category devoted only to posing a question that remains unanswered, as in this Autumn verse of Kitō, which I give here in a translation very close to that of R. H. Blyth:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
Between hill and boat?

The whole effect of such a hokku lies in the state of unknowing generated by the question that is asked but not answered.  That is why in question hokku, an answer is neither given nor expected.  It is only that focused state brought about by the question — that heightened condition of not knowing — that we want.

It is written in the Cloud of Unknowing,

“That right as bi the defailing of oure bodely wittes, we
bigine redeliest to kom to knowing of goostli thinges…”

“That just as by the failure of our bodily wits, we begin most readily to come to knowing of spiritual things…”

In the same way the unanswered question of hokku opens us up to silence that is beyond the intellect, beyond questions.

David

HOKKU AS SPIRITUAL VERSE

Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.

That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense.  It is not about dogmas and beliefs.  It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.

We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events.  Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant.  But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return.  Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.

In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events.  Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience.  We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else.  It is not a metaphor.  It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret.  There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion.  We are simply to experience it.  And that experience is hokku.

Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.

Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false?   That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract?  There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying.  We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing.  A thing is an event, and without things there are no events.  So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.

Not everything is hokku, however.  Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.

On the withered bough
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

But why do we feel this unspoken significance?  We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony.  Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.

There is no writer present.  When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening.  If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is.  The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.

That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact.  If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.

We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched.  So there is nothing mysterious about this.  But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.

Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know.  They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”

Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku.  One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice.  Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development.  We must not repeat that mistake.

We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else.  It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season.  So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku.  Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season.  It might be stated directly:

The summer moon

Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.

The morning glory

A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.

Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject.  But over time this system became too  complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well.  The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.

Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen.  It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction.  That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter.  The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject.  This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.

When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context.  That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse.  Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain.  In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract.  There is only

Spring rain;

Summer rain;

Autumn rain;

Winter rain.

By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku.  How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!

If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections.  Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else.   Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.

This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement.  To have an arrangement of  Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season.  It would be like Halloween in May.  Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.

A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events.  Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.

Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same.  In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season.  That is a harmony of identity.  But there is also the harmony of contrast.  In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts.  That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s

A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast.  A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast.  Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.

Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season.  Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student.  It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season.  And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.

The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality.  Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion.  If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate.  And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.”  Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.

Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature.  It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.

That is hokku.

David