THE ABANDONED BOAT

R. H. Blyth translated a winter verse by Shiki this way:

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

Only eight words.  There is almost not enough for a hokku here — but just enough, because of the feeling of loneliness created by the sharp sound and sight of the hail bouncing in many angles and directions off the sloping sides of the derelict boat.  It is one of Shiki’s better verses.

It reminds me of a handwritten verse I once saw many years ago — so long that I only remember the concept, which I would put into hokku like this, as an autumn verse:

In the abandoned boat,
A single red leaf
Is floating.

But that, of course that has a different feeling, and is for another season.

 

David

LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

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

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

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

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

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

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

So when we read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

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

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

 

David

 

 

GOING TEN STEPS

Shiki wrote a very simple but effective autumn verse, though it does not look like much literally translated:

Mon wo dete  juppo ni  aki no umi hiroshi
Gate wo going-out  ten-steps at autumn sea wide

We have to put it in English and loosen it up a bit to see its significance:

Going ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

We could phrase it like this:

Going ten steps
Out the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

Or we could write it like this:

Just ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea

We could also translate it as:

Just ten steps
Beyond the door —
The vast autumn sea.

“Vast” — which is also the word Blyth chose in his version — is preferable in English to the less effective “wide.”

The point of the verse lies in the sudden expansion of the visual horizon:  as one goes out the gate/door, there before us lies the vast sea of autumn.  It is a very strong use of the “small to large” technique in writing, in which one first sees the small element (the gate/door), and then the large element (the sea).

We saw a similar expansion from small to large in Issa’s autumn hokku:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

First we experience the (small) hole in the paper door, then through it we move to the (large) vastness of the Milky Way — the “River of Heaven.”

It is noteworthy that one could set Shiki’s verse in any season, but each would have its own feeling:

The spring sea;
The summer sea;
The autumn sea;
The winter sea;

That is because we experience things as a whole.  Much of modern life tries to abstract things from their environment, but that is wrong.  We do not just see the moon.  We see the spring moon, or the summer moon, or the autumn moon, or the winter moon, each with its own feeling and significance.  In hokku we return to this connection between humans, Nature, and the seasons — seeing things in a more “wholistic” and connected way — which is really the way they are.  Things do not exist as abstractions, but only in relation to other things such as season, weather, etc.  In Shiki’s verse, we are not separate from the autumn, and the autumn is not separate from the sea.

Learning — or rather re-learning this relationship of all things — is fundamental to the successful writing of hokku.

 

David

 

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOKKU MISCONCEPTIONS, HOKKU FACTS

 

Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.

 

David

ARRANGING A HOKKU: SHIKI’S GATE

I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:

(Winter)

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

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

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

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

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

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

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

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

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

(Spring)

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

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

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

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

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

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

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

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

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

cropped-trout.jpg

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

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

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

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

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

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

 

 

THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE: A VERSE BY SHIKI

Masaoka Shiki wrote a summer verse that, like many hokku, creates both an image and a mood in the mind of the reader:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;emptyhouse
The evening sun.

The point of this verse lies in the combination of the monotonous, ongoing drone of the unseen cicada with the feeling of emptiness and absence and the passage of time given by the vacant residence.  Even though it is a summer verse, it gives us a feeling akin to that of autumn.

I have mentioned before that the absence of things can be just as significant, or even more significant in some cases, than their presence.  Hokku often make use of this.

David

The original transliterated:

Aki-ie no    mon ni semi naku    yū-bi kana

Vacant-house ‘s    gate at cicada cries    evening sun kana

ANCIENT LAKE? OLD POND? AND HOW MANY DUCKS?

I often mention how the verses of Masaoka Shiki, paradoxically considered the “founder” of modern haiku, were actually for the most part just the old hokku under a different name. They certainly bear little resemblance to much that is written as “modern haiku” today in English and European languages.

Modern haiku (except for some conservative writers) has largely abandoned the connection to Nature and the seasons so essential to hokku. But Shiki not only kept the old traditional “season words,” but also, for the most part (though he stretched the envelope now and then) kept the link with Nature. Modern haiku is definitely not Shiki’s notion of haiku.

Shiki’s “Nature” verses tend to be pleasant, though they also tend to be “illustrations,” not surprising, given that he was strongly influenced by the open-air sketches and paintings popular in European art of his day. One could say that in essence Shiki’s approach to hokku was to regard it as “sketches from Nature.” That is why I always say that his better verses remind us of the woodblock illustrations of such Japanese artists as Hasui and Yoshida.

Today’s verse demonstrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in translating Japanese verses into acceptable English. Here is Shiki’s verse literally translated:

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

Old-pond ‘s mandarin-ducks on snow falls evening kana

As you can see, the meaning is quite simple and straightforward. It is:

On the mandarin ducks on the old pond, snow falls; evening.

It is easy to see why I say that many of Shiki’s verses are largely illustrations, if pleasant illustrations. One can easily imagine a woodblock print of mandarin ducks on a lake in falling snow.

Kana is just the “filler” word that Shiki used (one might say over-used) repeatedly in his verses.

The difficulty, of course, is that English, in this case, requires more space than the form of the hokku ordinarily permits. So if we want to say what Shiki is saying, but in English hokku, we end up either with something with an overlong line, like this:

Snow falling
On the old pond’s mandarin ducks;
Evening.

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;
Evening.

Of course we have left out that they are specifically “mandarin” ducks, and we have left out that the pond is “old,” so much has been lost, and it is hardly a satisfactory rendering.

R. H. Blyth (that clever fellow) used the content of Shiki’s verse, but presented it quite differently, thus managing to come up with a very acceptable alternative (I have changed his internal punctuation mark), but it still feels a bit overlong:

Evening snow falling;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On an ancient lake.

He does not say, as Shiki does, that the snow is falling on the ducks. He simply tells us that evening snow is falling, and then presents us with the scene of mandarin ducks on an ancient lake. The mind of the reader automatically connects this with the falling snow, so the reader sees the snow falling on the mandarin ducks on the ancient lake, as Shiki intended.

Blyth thought it better in this case to use “ancient lake” instead of “old pond,” even though Shiki employs the same furu-ike term used in Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku). He also specifies the number of mandarin ducks (a pair), which Shiki did not. However in Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to mate for life, and are naturally thought of in male-female pairs.

I would simplify Blyth’s rendering slightly, like this:

Evening snow;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On the old pond.

That leaves it up to the reader to see the snow falling, and it eliminates some of the awkwardness of length.

I discuss this today not so much to present the difficulties encountered at times in translating old verses as to demonstrate the usefulness of moving the elements of a hokku around, of re-arranging their order and of trying different possibilities, so that one might get the best “fit” when writing original hokku in English.

David

INCREASING YIN: THE LIGHT GOES OUT

lightdark

I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.

David

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT ‘TIL ITS GONE: SHIKI’S FIREWORKS

I have talked previously about how conservative in many ways the supposed “revolutionary” Masaoka Shiki really was. He was not a particularly happy or even likable person, and his “reform” of hokku consisted largely of divorcing it from any possibility of being used in linked verse, in giving his reformed version a new name (“haiku”) and in largely divorcing the hokku from its spiritual roots, at least in theory, as well as contributing toward the forgetting of its underlying principles.

In practice, however, Shiki continued to write hokku while just calling them “haiku.” He kept the traditional brevity and the traditional connection with the seasons. He even often kept — perhaps unconsciously — some of the same principles of construction used by earlier writers of hokku.

In the past couple of postings I have talked about the principle of contrast in hokku. Shiki obviously picked this up and used it occasionally in his own verses, though again, perhaps not consciously.

A very good example is the following verse, which in Japan would be an autumn hokku; fireworks are a subject for autumn there. In the United States, however, fireworks are largely a midsummer topic because of the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and its traditional celebration with parades and evening fireworks. That does not mean one cannot write hokku with fireworks about other seasons, but they are particularly appropriate to “The Glorious Fourth.”

Here is the verse:

Everyone has gone;
The darkness
After the fireworks.

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

It is not difficult to see that this uses the same principle of contrast discussed earlier. It shows us the nature of a thing by contrasting it with another. In this poem we have two things absent: 1. The people, who have all gone home from the fireworks display; 2. The fireworks, which have have ended.

In the first we have the contrast between the crowds of people who came to watch and the absence of those crowds. That gives us a very solitary and lonely feeling.

In the second we have the contrast between the bright, colorful explosions and bangs of the fireworks and the complete darkness and utter silence after. That only makes the darkness seem all the deeper.

This is a very old principle. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-zi (pronounced LA-o dzuh) wrote:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Therefore:
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

(Tao Teh Ching; Lin Yutang translation)

In other words, contrasts give significance. We know what cold is after we have become accustomed to warmth; we know what kindness really is only because we have experienced cruelty; the same could be said of countless other contrasting things in the universe.

So in hokku, something that is NOT there can be just as significant, perhaps even more at times, than something that IS there. That is why in Shiki’s verse, we feel the aloneness very deeply after all the people have gone, and we feel the darkness and silence all the more because of the contrast with the previous colorful explosions of “flower-fire.” as the Japanese call fireworks.

This is something everyone knows, but people tend to forget the most obvious things. Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the words

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone…

It reminds me of the great American trilogy novel The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter. In the beginning, the female main character feels the deep forests and ancient trees of early frontier Ohio to be threatening and gloomy. But later on, when the forests are cleared and towns of streets and houses and shops are built, and she is far along in years, she begins to sense what had been lost with the cutting of the trees.

David

LEARNING FROM PEAR JUICE

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

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

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

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

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

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

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

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

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

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

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

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

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

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

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

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

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

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

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

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

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

(Autumn)

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

David

 

 

 

TWO SHOOTING SCARECROWS; AVOIDING FANTASY IN HOKKU

Shiki, who set the “haiku” off on its increasingly erratic course near the beginning of the 20th century, wrote a great many verses  that are actually just hokku under a different name.  They still have a focus on Nature and are set within a particular season.  Some are good, some mediocre.  But Shiki also wrote verses that can show us what to avoid in hokku.

The one I discuss today is actually rather atypical of Shiki’s style, which on the whole favored realism, even if at times unattractive and boring realism.  But it is useful for showing the distinction between what hokku should not be and what hokku should be.

To make it brief, hokku should not be about fantasy or imagination.  Even when verses are not based on a single actual experience, they should be based on past actual experiences of Nature and the place of humans within Nature.

This autumn verse by Shiki, however, is bare fantasy:

Rice sparrows;
Shot by the scarecrow,
They fall into the sea.

To understand it, you must know that rice sparrows flock to the rice fields at harvest time to eat.  Old Japanese scarecrows were often given fake bows and arrows in an attempt to frighten the birds away from the grain.  But Shiki imagines that sparrows flying past the scarecrow and down over a bluff toward the sea have been shot by the scarecrow and are falling into the sea.

Well yes — you are right.  It is a rather ridiculous verse, but again, it shows us what not to do in hokku.

Blyth gives a good example by Shôha of the hokku approach to a similar subject.  Instead of indulging in flights of fantasy, the writer of hokku becomes like a reflecting mirror.  Here is the verse in my translation:

In the morning wind,
Its bow has turned the other way;
The scarecrow.

The wind has shifted the position of the scarecrow on his support, so now he is aiming his bow in a different direction.

It is easy to see that the unrealistic imagination of the writer has not intruded in that hokku, and that is the approach we want in hokku, which should not be “fantasy” verse.  It should take us into Nature, rather than into the mind and imagination of the writer.

David

DON’T LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE: LEARNING HOKKU BY PLAYING WITH MODELS

Many people think of Masaoka Shiki as a writer of haiku, but much of what Shiki wrote was simply hokku under a different and now very misleading name.

Because they were generally still hokku in form and content, Shiki’s verses were not at all like much of the modern haiku one finds on the Internet.  They even retained the season words that were essential to traditional Japanese hokku.

Shiki, however, was very influenced by the concept of Western “open air” painting — making a quick sketch out in the fields or forests  — that had become so popular in the Europe and America in the 19th century.  That accounts for why Shiki’s verses often are like illustrations, like woodcut scenes from Nature and life in general.

Shiki was very good at writing such “block print” verses, which are pleasant in their own way, even though they may lack the depth of earlier hokku.

Here is one of my favorite autumn verses by Shiki:

Aki ie no              to ni neru inu ga              yanagi chiru
Empty house ‘s   door at sleeping dog ga   willows fall/scatter

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

Autumn is the time when the active energy — Yang — of life diminishes.  It is the time when the great dying in Nature begins, when the energy of life begins returning to the root in preparation for winter.

If we look at Shiki’s verse, that decline of active energy is present in its three elements:

1.  In the sleeping (inactive) dog;
2.  In the emptiness of the house;
3.  In the falling of the willow leaves.

So we can see that this verse is very much in keeping with the character of autumn.  But keep in mind that none of these things are symbols or metaphors.  We just feel these connections because of the layers of associations such things have for us.

There is a kind of overall loneliness in the verse, which again is in harmony with autumn.  Where have the people gone who once lived in the house?  Was the sleeping dog abandoned when they left, or is he a wandering stray who has found a place to sleep where no one will chase him away?  We are not told what the past was, which makes us just focus on what is before us, yet leaving us with the underlying feeling of something left unspoken.

In Nature, autumn is the waning of the year;
In human life, autumn is our years of growing old after middle age.
In the daily cycle, autumn is the late afternoon and early evening.

I always see this verse of Shiki as happening n the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, with everything quiet and drowsy, and the yellow willow leaves slowly scattering through the air.  This is the peaceful pause before the cold and hardness of winter.

But in learning hokku we do not let sleeping dogs lie.  Instead we take an old hokku and we play with it, trying different options and possibilities and substitutions.  That is a very good way to learn how to write new hokku.

For example, we could make this change:

A cat asleep
On the porch of the empty house;
Autumn rain.

Or

A broken doll
In the window of the empty house;
The autumn evening.

There are many, many possibilities, and of course much of what we come up with in this practice exercise may not be as good as the original model, but that does not matter.  The point is that we are learning how to form hokku, and also learning to see what is effective and what is not.  Now and then we may hit upon something that works very well.  And of course, very importantly, we are seeing how changing the elements in a hokku also changes the relationship among them, and how by doing so we alter the whole effect of the verse.

Shiki wrote another autumn “empty house” verse that is not nearly as good:

Asagao no chi wo haiwataru   aki ya kana
Morning-glory ‘s earth wo rambling  empty house kana

A morning glory
Rambling over the ground;
The empty house.

One reason this verse is less interesting is that it tells us everything.  What you see is what you get.  There is no sense of anything deeper, of anything left unspoken.

In the “sleeping dog” verse, by contrast, we feel that there is much we are not told.  Where did the dog come from?  What will become of him?  And because of the dog, we wonder what happened to the people who lived there that caused them to abandon the house.  Not knowing all of that gives the verse a kind of latent energy.  But we do not feel nearly so invested in the “morning glory” verse.  It is just an untended garden plant wandering across the unkempt ground around a vacant house in autumn.  In that sense, it is far more “just a picture” than the “sleeping dog” verse.  There is no significant latent energy in it.

That missing sense of unspoken depth makes all the difference between a hokku that is just “flat” and a hokku that holds our interest.  Shiki often fell into the kind of verse that is just a lifeless photograph, but in the “sleeping dog” verse, he succeeded in writing something that affects us more deeply.  That underlying feeling of something left unsaid, combined with the overall harmony and unity of the verse, helps to express quite well the character of autumn.

 

David

THE HOT AFTERNOON: IMPROVING HOKKU FOR UNITY AND HARMONY

We are moving (depending on where you are), from spring to summer.  In my region we have already had some very warm days, and so it is a good idea, in my postings about hokku, to now use the “summer” setting.

As readers know, the kind of hokku I teach is based on the best of old Japanese hokku, but for practical teaching purposes I sometimes modify them to fit an American environment (and you can do the same for your environment, wherever that may be, whether Australia or Austria or Finland or India or some other locale).

Shiki once wrote a spring verse:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

I would like to change it, however, to make it a more effective hokku by setting it in the season of summer, rewriting it like this:

(Summer)

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

I hope you feel the improvement made by that change.  But do you know why it is better?

Let’s look again at Shiki’s “spring” version:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that a hokku should manifest the character of a particular season through something happening in it.  The problem with Shiki’s verse is that it is inharmonious.  It first presents us with spring — the time of growing Yang — that is, of freshness, of increasing energy and growth.  But then Shiki tells us that not a person is stirring in the village.  That is contrary to the character of spring, which is increasing activity after the quiet of winter.  That is why Shiki’s verse does not feel right, even though he may actually have seen such a scene.

But remember, a hokku does not show us just any event, but rather an event that manifests the character of the season, and thereby makes us feel its significance.

That is why the change of season is a big improvement.  Let’s look again at the revised version:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

First it presents us with the heat of the afternoon — a strong physical sensation.  Then it gives us that heat (Yang) reflected in its opposite — inactivity (Yin).

Summer hokku are generally of two main kinds — harmony of similarity and harmony of opposites.  Harmony of similarity is the putting of two similar things together, like heat (Yang) and movement (Yang).  Harmony of opposites is putting together two things which, though opposite, are nonetheless perceived to be harmonious together.  Think of a warm fire (Yang) in winter (Yin), or dipping your hand into a cool stream (Yin) in the heat of summer (Yang).  Even though they manifest opposites, we naturally feel they go together.

So the revised verse uses harmony of opposites:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul is stirring
In the neighborhood.

The inactivity of the neighborhood residents is very much in keeping with the heat of the afternoon.  We can say it “negatively reflects” the heat of the afternoon by showing us its opposite, just as drinking a hot cup of herbal tea when it is snowing outside also shows us a harmony of opposites, with one “negatively reflecting” the other (cold outside, heat in the cup of tea).

If you are familiar with R. H. Blyth’s work, you will note that I have borrowed his alliterative combination “soul stirring,” instead of Shiki’s less effective “person.”

Once you begin to understand how and why harmony and unity in hokku are important and why they work, you can easily put them to use in improving your own practice of hokku.

David

KEEPING THE BEST, DISCARDING THE REST: GOOD TASTE IN HOKKU

Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.  That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.

To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.

What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.

First there is Bashō.  He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective.  Let’s look at some examples.

If held in my hand,
My hot tears would melt it;
Autumn frost.

To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair.  That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.

Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse.  Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination.  We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry.  We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.

The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively.  Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not.  And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood.  In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about.  In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.

Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku.  For example:

One thing —
My life is light.
A gourd.

Again, this requires some explanation.  It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:

Owning one thing,
My life is light —
A hollow gourd.

This too is a poetic exaggeration.  Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc.  But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things.  The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.

By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō.  I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō.  A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.

We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:

The sea darkens;
The wild duck’s cry
Is a faint white.

That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work.  Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it.  We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.

Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:

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

Note the objectivity.  Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring.  Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination.  Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku.  So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.

If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:

Getting a shave —
On a day when Ueno’s
Bell is misty.

It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist.  We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring.  Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse.  That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.

A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:Hasuiml.

The old garden;
Emptying the hot water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon.  It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:

The old garden;
Emptying a water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.

Shiki also wrote:

Spring rain;
Umbrellas all uneven
In the ferry boat.

We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights.  We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas.  So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.

Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good.  Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.

That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.

When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.

David

MELTING SNOW

As regular readers here know, I treat many of the verses of Shiki as hokku because they are hokku in form and content, in spite of his use of the revisionist term “haiku” for what he wrote.

Melting Snow On the flank of Catstye Cam

Knowing that, we are in a position to examine one of his verses of early spring:

With snow melting,
The village  releases
The horses.

If you have been a diligent reader of hokku postings here, you will recognize right away that this verse exhibits two techniques found in hokku:

1.  Expression of season through the interplay of Yin and Yang;

2.  Internal reflection.

We find Yin and Yang in the melting of the snow, which shows us that the Yang energies (light, warmth, activity) are in the ascendant and the Yin energies (darkness, cold, inactivity) are diminishing.  That is obvious in the melting of the snow.

We see internal reflection in the harmony between the melting of the snow (increasing Yang, water freed from its ice state) and the freeing of the horses (from an inactive to an active state) — in fact they are the same thing, expressed on the one hand in snow melting to running water, on the other in horses, kept largely inactive in winter, freed to run and leap about in the fields and newly appearing grass.  The verse shows us the growing Yang of spring.

Onitsura’s hokku is more simple and subtle, particularly in a literal translation of the original:

Spring’s water — here and there is seen….

What Onitsura really means to convey would, in English, be more like this:

The waters of spring,
Seen here, there,
And everywhere. 

Early spring is a very wet time, with the snow melting and running all over in little rivulets, and spring showers just increasing the flow.  But the water is not the same, psychologically, as that of autumn or winter — it is the water of spring, and in it we feel growing Yang and increasing activity.

David

“PARTING” HOKKU AND THE LONG POETIC TRADITION

A Chinese landscape painting by Wang Shen

It used to be common — and still is, to some extent — for people in the modern haiku movement to see Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) as a “rebel” of the end of the 19th century.  But actually, Shiki was in general far more conservative than one might think.

A good part of his “haiku,” for example, are really hokku in form and content.  And he retained not only the hokku form, but also the customary link with the seasons that characterizes the hokku.

We may consider Shiki then, in either of two roles:  on the one hand as the last major “hokku” writer,  and on the other as the man who set the “haiku” off on its erratic course.

Today I want to discuss a verse — still essentially a hokku — by Shiki, one that shows just how very conservative he often was.  It is a “parting” or “farewell” hokku, which is a poetic genre that one can trace all the way back to the Tang Dynasty of China and beyond — a thousand years and more.  It is a verse written to commemorate saying farewell to a dear friend who is leaving and will be gone for a very long time, perhaps forever.

The hokku poets — Shiki included — were heavily influenced by the poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, in this particular genre by such poets as Li Bai (Li Po, 701-762), who is the author of this example:

Seeing  Meng Hao-ran off from Yellow Crane Tower

My friend is leaving the West from Yellow Crane tower,
Through the haze and blossoms of March down to Yangchou; 
A distant, single sail –the endless blue hills —
Then only the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. 

Li Bai watches as his friend goes downriver in a boat with a sail.  He watches it drift off though spring blossoms and haze into the distance of limitless blue hills, then it disappears, and he sees only the long river flowing to meet the sky.

Here is Shiki’s verse in this same genre but in hokku form, rather literally translated:

Boat and shore willow separates  parting kana

Kana is an ending word with no definite meaning.  It was often used simply to fill out the required number of phonetic units in a Japanese hokku.  We may think of it as a kind of pause or ellipsis here, indicating continuation, ongoing movement and the passage of time.

In ELH (English-language Hokku) form, we can present it as:

Boat and shore
Are separated by a willow;
Parting ….

You may recall that many hokku — particularly Japanese hokku — often require the participation of the reader’s poetic mind to fill in what is not said in words.  This one requires a bit of that, but it is rather easy.

By boat and shore, the writer means both the shore and the person on it, and the boat and the person in it.  As the boat is oared out into the river and begins to move downstream,  it rounds a headland on which a willow tree grows, which blocks the view of the departing boat from the shore.  That separation of boat and shore, friend from friend, is an internal reflection of the third line of the verse, which of course is the key to understanding the verse as a whole — “parting.”

Two verses in different forms, yet in the same genre and poetic tradition, though separated in time by more than a thousand years.  And that from a supposed “rebel.”  We see through such examples that in general, Shiki was often simply a hokku writer who used a revisionist name for his verse.

We can also see, from comparison of these two examples, how very long the poetic tradition that nourished and gave rise to the hokku was — a thousand years and more.

David

THE VALIDITY OF HOKKU

Yesterday I discussed a kind of “fundamentalism” one finds among those who talk about hokku and haiku, and I wrote, essentially, that it does not matter to me (except historically) what any of the old hokku writers had to say about the hokku and its nature; what matters is the validity of the verse itself, on its own merits.

English: Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), &q...

Now that can easily be misunderstood. Some people may think it means, “I don’t care what the original writers considered to be hokku, I am going to write it however I please.”

That, in fact, is the attitude and practice of a great many people in the modern haiku community, but it is not mine.

On the other hand, there are those who examine every detail of old hokku and say that the way we write it today cannot vary in any particular from how the hokku writers of the 17th or 18th century — or a certain one among them — wrote it. Some even say it is impossible to write “genuine” hokku in English — that it can be written only in Japanese. That, again, is not my position either.

My position is simply this. In my teaching of hokku, I have taken its essence — what I consider to be the best and most practical aspects of both form and content — and I have adapted those to the English language. The English-language hokku form reflects the essence of the old Japanese form, though of course it is now “reborn” in an English-language format. And the aesthetics I teach are very much the aesthetics of the old hokku.

Because of that, I continue to call what I teach hokku. And I can look at what is written by other people, and I can tell them whether it is hokku, or close to hokku, or only superficially hokku, or not hokku at all in anything but brevity.

So what I teach is hokku, a continuation of the old tradition, but in the English language.
However, as I have said, the kind of hokku I teach stands on its own merits now. Consequently there is no need to refer to Japan at all. If hokku is “good” verse — if it does what it is supposed to do as hokku according to the principles and aesthetics I teach, then if for some reason we had to call it something else and never mention Japan again, it would still be a verse practice with its own value and virtue. It does not have to rely on any 17th or 18th or 19th century historical validation of it merits.

That too, is why I like my students to think of hokku as I teach it as something without a history, so that they may see it as something new, and may learn it on its own terms. Of course it does have a history, and we can trace it back centuries — but for writing it today, all of that is really unimportant except for academic reasons. In the actual practice of writing hokku, it does not matter at all.

The result is that I do not encourage students to take up the study of old literary Japanese, or the sociology of Japan in the Edô period, or any of those things. None are necessary for learning and writing hokku. One may study them if one likes, but to do so is not in the least necessary for the successful learning and writing of hokku. In fact for many people, such things simply become just another distraction and obsession.

Those who learn hokku from me are learning modern English-language hokku. They are not learning Japanese hokku, they are not learning a hokku that requires validation by  Bashô or Buson or Shiki.  They are just learning hokku as I teach it. That is the best way to approach it.

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

TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON

Unlike most other kinds of verse, the hokku is linked with the season in which it is written.  In fact one can say truthfully that whatever the obvious subject of a hokku, the real subject is the season in which it is written, and the “obvious” subject is just a manifestation of that season.

This reflects the spiritual roots of hokku and the view that things are not isolated phenomena, but are interconnected in  innumerable ways.  So interconnected, in fact, that an object or an event cannot exist in isolation, but only as a part of the Whole.  So when Bashō writes of a frog jumping into an old pond, this is as a manifestation of and expression of the season of spring.  If one does not know that, one does not know the entire verse.  And most Westerners do not know that, because the seasonal connection is lost in transmission.

In old hokku, however, there was really only one way to know definitely the season of a given verse, and that was to have memorized a long and detailed glossary of recognized “season words,” called kigo 季語 (ki = season, go = ) in Japanese.  If a given topic was not to be found in such accepted lists, it was simply not a subject for a verse.  And to recognize the season of any verse and to write within the system required minimally six years or more of diligent study and familiarity before one could begin to use the “season word” technique with any facility.

Further, if one had not memorized the long list of acceptable words and their appropriate seasons, one had to refer to a glossary of season words in order to identify the season of any given hokku.  Such a lengthy glossary was called a saijiki 歳時記 (sai = year, ji = time, ki =  record), which we can simply call a “season book.”  The season book listed the accepted kidai 季題 (ki = season, dai = subject) and as a subcategory for each season subject, the kigo, the season words, rather like a theme and variations.

All of this, of course, meant that the writing of old hokku was no simple matter.  In fact passing time only brought increasing complexity to this system, and in addition, for all practical purposes, it limited the range of one’s subject matter to the accepted themes and season words.  If one read a verse without recognizing the season inherent in it, one was obviously neither ready to read hokku nor to write it.

To those of us writing hokku today this seems like an unreasonable and intolerable burden, and though it had its advantages, they were far outweighed by its complexities.  It is perhaps somewhat surprising, then, that Masaoka Shiki continued this season word system after his much-publicized re-packaging of the hokku as his “haiku.”

In modern haiku, which as readers here know I consider largely a degeneration and distortion of the hokku, there are two approaches to season.  The great majority of writers simply ignore it, having divorced the modern haiku from season entirely.  A lesser number attempt to re-create the bulky season word system in a Western context, and there are actually those who are busy compiling new “season books” in English, which given the geographical, climatic, and biological complexity of the United States alone, is a somewhat eccentric undertaking.  And of course attempting to establish such a complex season word system in the West merely revives all of its associated problems, one of the most obvious of which is that no one outside the little group of writers using one of these new “season books” will have the slightest idea what the season of many of the poems written under it represent, because the general public  will not be part of the tiny “in group” using a given “season word” book.

Modern hokku, by great contrast, solves the matter of seasonal association of a verse in a remarkably simple, practical, and straightforward manner.  By doing so it maintains the virtues of the traditional seasonal connection of old hokku without the needless and rather pointless complexities and eccentricities of creating new “Western” season words and season books.

The modern hokku system is simply to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.  A writer will categorize all of his or her hokku by these seasonal markings into the categories of “Spring,” “Summer,”  “Autumn” (or “Fall”), and “Winter.”  When a verse is shared or published, the seasonal categorization goes with it.  It is such an eminently useful and practical and productive system that writers should immediately see its superiority to the old “season words” system.

As we have seen, the real subject of every hokku is its season.  The four-word seasonal categorization system simply utilizes this fact.  So if one were to use Bashō’s hokku as an example, it would appear like this when written:

SPRING

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

And of course if it were to appear in an anthology, all “Spring” verses would appear under that initial heading, and the same procedure would follow with Summer, Autumn, and Winter categories.

Somewhat astonishingly, this reduces the thousands of season words necessary to reading and writing hokku with any comprehension under the old system to simply four — Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter — and these function simply as headings for a single verse or for an anthology of verses.

Thus in one fell swoop modern hokku demolishes and improves upon the season word system that caused so much needless complexity in old hokku and that continues to be pointlessly revived with its needless complexities in some segments of modern haiku.  Yet in doing so it does not abandon the essence of the matter — it retains firmly and with great practicality the indissoluble link between hokku and the seasons.  That has always been the practice in modern hokku in English:  To preserve the essence of old hokku at its best, without being slavishly literal in its transmission.  That is why modern hokku in English can be thoroughly American or British or Australian or Indian, etc., without abandoning the genuine essentials of hokku, and without any need for maintaining any of the culturally-limited baggage that potentially so hinders the verse form in its transmission from one culture to another and very different culture.

David

SPRING BEGINS

It may seem odd to some readers that I have begun to write of Spring, but where I live that is what is happening.

Spring begins with the very weakest of Yang energies that melt snow and ice and sprout forth from the ground and from the enclosed buds of bare trees.  It is the change from the still and silent to the fluid and audible, as we can sense in this spring verse by Onitsura:

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

Everything seems suddenly to be thawing, melting, and in motion trickles run out of the forest, across paths and into streams, little rivulets pool up an hollows and flow onward.

It may also seem odd to some readers that I include examples of verses by Shiki — the originator of the “haiku,” but as I have said many times before, much of what Shiki wrote was still hokku in all but the name he chose to give it.  He kept the connection with Nature and with the seasons.  I sometimes say that his verses tend to be “illustrations,” but that is very much in keeping with his theory of verse, which resulted in two-dimensional “paper” hokku at its worst, and pleasant if not deep verses at its best.  So we need not disdain what is good in Shiki simply because of what the world and his successors did to his “haiku,” which were generally just hokku.

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

The little ripples of water created by wind and current lap against the constantly thinning edges of the remaining ice on the lake.  This is a verse of very early spring, and do not forget that both in Japan and in the ancient Western calendar of the British Isles, spring begins in early February.  So here we are seeing the gradual effect of the “yang” motion of the warming, moving water against the “yin” solidity and cold of the ice.

The snow —
Melted on one shoulder
Of the Great Buddha.

This is often the effect of sun and shadow.  Where the light strikes, the statue will warm and the snow will melt.  But it will linger on the shadow side — the Yin side, just as snow lingers in the Yin shadows of the forest floor, beneath trees with branches free of snow.

I hope it will be obvious to readers how very important the two elements of the universe — Yin and Yang — are in hokku.  Through hokku we see these two contrary forces in all stages of interaction.  But now, being at the very beginning of spring, Yin still predominates, though it must give way gradually to growing Yang.

Keep in mind all the internal harmonies of hokku involving Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is Yang first manifesting, such as we see in the gestation to birth of a child.  In the day it is the time between midnight and the first paling of the horizon sky before sunrise.  In plants it is the first sign of the swelling and opening of buds, the very first shoots that appear above ground.  One could go on an on, but we have already seen in the verses used as examples here that it is also seen in the melting of the ice at the spring thaw, and the beginning of the “Yang” flow of the waters.

Of course ordinarily we think of water as a Yin element, and it generally is; but remember that Yang and Yin are always relative, always changing in reaction to one another, so even cold as it is, the flowing water of spring is more Yang than the very Yin state and solidity of ice and snow.

Spring begins.

CONTEMPLATIVE HOKKU IN WINTER

Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

David

WORKING WITH PATTERNS

In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Or

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.

David

FALLING WILLOW LEAVES

People seem to prefer reading this site, so I am shelving the alternate Hokku Inn site for now, and will move the postings from that site here, so they will still be accessible.  Here is the first of those:

In spite of his unfortunate change of terminology, Shiki often wrote very passable hokku.  Here is one of his best:

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

This verse is interesting because it uses two settings and two actions, like two different focuses of a lens.  We see what is happening in the overall “far” environment.  We begin at a distance with

Falling willow leaves.

Then we move in closer and see

At the door of the empty house,

And what we see there is in the closest focus:

A dog asleep.

We could even reverse the English translation to fit that “big to small” format:

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

The Japanese original actually begins with line two (of the last example), then moves to line three, and ends with line one.  So we can see there are different ways of presenting the elements of a verse.

Those different ways are:

1.  Big to small — moving from the wider to the narrower view.

2.  Small to big — moving from the narrower to the wider view.

3.  Mixed, such as is used by Shiki in the Japanese original, when he begins with the second-closest view (at the door of the empty house), moves to the closest (the dog asleep) then moves out for the widest view (falling willow leaves).

Each of these gives us a different effect.

This hokku is an expanded form of the “standard” setting-subject-action hokku:

The setting is:  Falling willow leaves
The subject is:  A dog
The action is:  Asleep at the door of the empty house

“At the door of the empty house” functions essentially as a second setting, an expansion of the standard form.

Moving on to why this hokku “works,” we can say that it reflects the poverty and the growing Yin of autumn.  We see the poverty not only in the empty, abandoned house but also in the dog sleeping at its door, where there is no one to care for him.  The sleep of the dog is in keeping with the weakening of the vital energies in autumn, and this feeling is only made stronger by the falling leaves of the willow, which show us the same weakening of energy.

Though Shiki does not say so, one feels that the time is afternoon, when the declining sun gives a warm, drowsy color to the atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the sleeping dog and the languid falling of the yellow leaves of the willow.

Those of you who have been with me for some time will quickly recognize the principle of internal reflection in all of this.  Internal reflection is the putting together of elements in a hokku that are similar in nature or feeling, so that they subtly “reflect” one another within the poem.  The weak falling of the willow leaves, the sleep of the dog, the emptiness and silence of the abandoned house — all are in keeping with the increasing Yin and decreasing Yang of autumn.

David

HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU, AND VICE-VERSA

From time to time I like to remind people why I use historically-accurate terminology here, instead of the inaccurate, anachronistic, and very misleading and confusing term “haiku.”  Bashō called what he wrote hokku, as a part of his practice of haikai; that was true whether the verses appeared independently or in linked verse or in travel journals.  The same is true of all writers of the verse form in the centuries prior to the 20th.  And of course those who write hokku rather than modern haiku today continue to use the same term  — hokku — as was used in past centuries.

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify, yet the modern haiku establishment persists in trying to obscure it.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that among scholars is well known to be a mistake .  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from its spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the  hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

THE HEAT!

R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”

David

A COOL WIND: OBJECTIVITY IN HOKKU

In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku.  We can think of it this way:

An objective hokku is a thing-event.

A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.

Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
Through the window of the stone lantern —
The sea.

There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.

However at another time Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.

The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle.  So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves.  But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination.  What he really hears is just the sound of waves.  But he did not let that be enough.  He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.

Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku?  It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.

Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.”  When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.

Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective.  In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.

We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent.  He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be.  He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation.  Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:

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

In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer.  There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.

Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku.  In the Bahiya Sutta we read,

“In the seen, there should be only the seen.  In the heard, there should be only the heard.”

So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.

David

A SUDDEN SHOWER

Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.

David

THE UNANSWERED QUESTION

In hokku aesthetics, we find that it often favors that which is undecided, undetermined, incomplete.  We see that in two verses which superficially appear very different.  The first is by Chora:

The summer moon;
On the other side of the river —
Who is it?

Old readers here will immediately recognize this as a “question” hokku, a verse in which the whole point is that the question remains unanswered, leaving us with that “not-knowing” feeling.

Taigi wrote a verse that is not a question hokku:

The bridge fallen,
People stand on the bank;
The summer moon.

Blyth — because the people are standing on a bank — assumes that the bridge has washed away, and in fact he so translates it.  But the point I want to make here is that we see the bridge has collapsed; we see the people on the bank staring at where it had been.  What will they do? How will they cross?  How will it affect their lives?  None of this is told us.  We are left with that uncertainty, that sense of “not-knowing,” and here you see precisely what this verse has in common with a “question” hokku, even though it is not a question hokku.  Both have that sense of something unanswered, unfinished, incomplete.  And it is that particular feeling that such hokku wish to evoke.

It is worth mentioning in passing that hokku avoids violence and disasters.  Occasionally we will find something rather borderline, like Chora’s verse about the fallen bridge, but it is not really over the boundary, and its point, as already mentioned, is in what the verse evokes.

We can see, however, that when people began to change the hokku into something else near the beginning of the 20th century, an un-hokku-like harshness was introduced, as in this verse by Shiki, who in this case crosses the line into a kind of verse alien to the spirit of the hokku:

Without a home —
Twenty thousand people;
The summer moon.

Shiki wrote this about the great fire of Takaoka, apparently that in 1900.  This is more journalism than verse.  The catastrophe and its scope are not right for the aesthetics of hokku, and this, along with the gradual and increasing introduction of technology, led to new kinds of verse that diverged ever more sharply from the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But of course these later kinds of verse increasingly and rapidly lost also the influence of Buddhist spirituality.  That is why we make a clear distinction between the aesthetics of hokku and those of other kinds of verse that may have been loosely inspired by or descended from the hokku.

Incidentally, all three of these verses may be found on two facing pages in Blyth.  All but the first are my translations.  The first — by Chora — is in Blyth’s translation, which one can hardly better.

David

HOKKU AND THE “TEN THOUSAND THINGS”

In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
or
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Coolness;
Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.

David

NO MODERN HAIKU, THANK YOU!

R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.

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

WHY “HOKKU”?

Newcomers here often wonder why I use the word “hokku” for the small “Nature” verses I often discuss.  I use that word because it is the very word that has been used to describe them for over 300 years.  It is the word used by Bashō and Gyōdai, Taigi, and Buson, and all the other writers up to the time near the end of the 19th century when a journalist named Shiki began calling what he wrote “haiku” instead, though many of his verses were still essentially hokku in all but name.

As a result, over time a lot of people began speaking of those earlier, preceding centuries of old hokku as “haiku” too.  But I do not do that, and there are very good reasons.  First, as I have already said, it is not the “real” name of the verse, not what the writers of these verses themselves called them.  But even more important, after Shiki the “haiku” began to be written in so many different ways that it grew more and more unlike the hokku.  Today the word “haiku” is just a foggy and fuzzy umbrella term used to describe a great number of kinds of brief verse.  It has become so vague as to be nearly meaningless, and it certainly does not clearly or accurately describe the kind of verses written in the centuries before Shiki, nor does it describe the hokku we write in that old tradition today.

I believe that in order to teach something, one must know precisely what one is teaching.  One must be able to describe and explain it so the student will understand.  That is why I use the historically correct term hokku to apply to the kind of verse I teach and discuss.  It is the same word that was used by all who wrote it, and I can think of no good reason to change that.  I have seen what happens when people do try to change it, and the result is just hopeless confusion.

Nonetheless, everyone knows that there is a lot of new brief verse out there that is called “haiku.”  I always tell people that hokku is NOT haiku, and historically that is quite accurate.  But more important, hokku has its own standards and principles and aesthetics.  These have been largely forgotten or abandoned by most people who write haiku.  For many of these people, haiku is just a modern brief poem about the length of a hokku, but without most or all the characteristics of a hokku.  Often a modern haiku cannot be distinguished in any way from other short poems of roughly the same length that people do not call or consider to be haiku.

To avoid all that confusion, I just keep to the original, correct term.  That saves a lot of bother for everyone.  Fortunately, hokku is also the term still used by scholars when they want to be technically correct.  So even they know that using “haiku” when what is really meant is “hokku” can be confusing.

My attitude toward modern haiku is that it began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku by Western writers who mistakenly thought the hokku was like Western poetry, just shorter.  That is why a lot of modern haiku can hardly be distinguished from other short poems that are not haiku.  Some people actually prefer this “hybrid” kind of verse, and if they do that is fine.  But I do object when they try to convince people that what they write is in the same tradition as the old hokku writers, or when they try to convince people to call hokku “haiku.”  That is simply adopting confusion instead of clarity.  Here I only teach hokku.

Of course many people who write experimental kinds of modern haiku consider the hokku, without any good reason, outdated. They think that verse forms must always be changed and transformed and turned into something else to be any good.  But I think that is a foolish notion.  If something works well at what it is supposed to do, there is no reason to change it.  And change just for the sake of change is pointless.

Of course the way we write hokku today is not exactly how the old writers did it, because they wrote in Japanese and we write in English.  But we still follow their old techniques, their old aesthetics, and we still look to Nature and the changing seasons as the focus of our verse, just as they did.  That is why we can speak of a continuity between the old hokku and new hokku.

Learning hokku is more difficult than learning haiku because one cannot just make up one’s own rules.  There are certain guidelines we should follow, or else a verse will not be a real hokku.  But once we learn the guidelines and techniques and principles, then we can begin to write with real freedom, because we will have absorbed the spirit behind all the guidelines that is the real essence of the hokku.

David

THE PILGRIM’S CHILD

Shiki (the “founder” of haiku as different from hokku) wrote a verse that is really a hokku in structure and effect:

A butterfly;
The pilgrim’s child
Lags behind.

Like old hokku, this demands an intuitive leap by the reader.  One must instantly recognize why these particular elements have been combined.

The parent is one of those pious Buddhist ladies who is off on a walking pilgrimage with others from shrine to shrine, and she has brought her child on her journey.  But along the path there is a butterfly, and the child lags behind, absorbed in its appearance and its fluttering.

Given the flexibility of the Japanese language,  we can make the butterflies many, and we can even multiply the number of children.  Number is not specified in the original.  But in English we have to choose, because English is a more precise language.

It is pleasant to think of the child among a group of spring butterflies, but it is also pleasant to think of it being held by the presence of only one.

If all writers of modern haiku had followed the example of such a verse, modern haiku would not be in its present chaotic state.  But of course then they would really be writing hokku.

David

WAGONS, NO JETS

One of the great differences between hokku and modern haiku is found in subject matter.  In modern haiku one finds verses about all the things that hokku, for one reason or another, rejected.  I say “for one reason or another,” but actually there are two principal reasons.

First, hokku avoids topics that tend to disturb or obsess the mind.  That of course means romance and sex and violence.  The omission of such things comes from the spiritual origins of hokku in Mahayana Buddhism.   If we think of hokku as one of the contemplative arts — which it is — then it becomes readily obvious why these things are not used.

Second, hokku avoids modern technology.  It is very common for those in the modern haiku community to think that this is because such technology did not exist for the greater part of the history of hokku, but that is incorrect.  Hokku avoids technology because the real subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  Technology tends to take us away from Nature, and the farther we go in that direction, the farther from hokku we are.

That is why those in modern haiku who say “If Bashō were alive today he would write verses about texting and iPods and jets and freeways” (I cannot tell you how often I have heard that in one form or another) are simply exhibiting their ignorance of the fundamental aesthetics of the hokku.

It is not hard to see when and why technology began to be admitted to Japanese verse.  It happened near the end of the 19th century.  We can blame it on Shiki, who nonetheless did hold to the traditional standards in theory — that a verse should not be just about technology.  Nonetheless some of Shiki’s verses go a bit too far in admitting technology, and haiku (not hokku) writers who came after him saw that as license to go all the way.  That is why in modern haiku one may find a verse about nothing more than an elevator opening and closing.  That is very far from hokku, but often characteristic of modern haiku.

A few days ago we looked at the last stanza of a poem by Edward Shanks (one of the “Georgian” poets of England) called “A Night-Piece.”  An earlier stanza in that verse exhibits the kind of transition in English verse that we find also when Shiki began writing borderline verses:

All’s quiet in the wood, but, far away,
Down the hillside and out across the plain,
Moves, with long trail of white that marks its way,
——The softly panting train.

We see the gently puffing steam engine moving across the valley far away, though we are standing surrounded by Nature.  Its puffing is only gentle because it is distant.  Shiki, however, brought it much too close when he wrote a verse about smoke from a passing train and then draws our attention to “the young leaves.”  This is really too much for hokku.  Technology is beginning to overwhelm Nature.

The general rule of thumb in hokku is that Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature must always be the chief focus of a verse.  We of course often find the presence of human artifacts in hokku, but they are generally “pre-Industrial Revolution” kinds of things, like pots and and kites and wagons, things that do not interfere with our perception of Nature.  To use anything else in hokku requires both skill and a thorough understanding of its aesthetics, and is generally best avoided by both beginning and advanced students.

We must not make the childish mistake of thinking in “either-or” terms.  “Either I must write about modern technology in hokku or I cannot write about it at all.”  Again we must keep in mind the adage, “the right tool for the right job.”  There are many kinds of verse in which one may freely write about modern technology.  Hokku just does not happen to be one of them, because it has, and has always had, an entirely different purpose.

David

MASAOKA SHIKI: THE GOOD AND THE BAD

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki (1869-1902):

Viewed historically, Shiki was the first “haiku” writer.  So “haiku” really began only with Shiki, near the end of the 19th century.  Everything before him was hokku, in the wider context of haikai.

Viewed technically, however,  Shiki was the last of the prominent writers of hokku; Shiki’s verse still followed the old hokku requirements of season and of length of phonetic units, and in fact most of them are indistinguishable in form and content from hokku.  Their peculiarities are due to Shiki’s own view of what verse should be, but that view in practice was still so conservative that if Shiki had been both the first and the last “haiku” writer, his verses would still be considered hokku, if sometimes a bit odd or flat.

Numbers of Shiki’s verses were negatively influenced by his chronic illness.  One feels on reading them that not only was the man sick, but those particular verses are sick as well.  Nonetheless, R. H. Blyth was able to say that even though Shiki’s personality is unattractive, “we are struck with the large number of excellent, perfect verses which he wrote.”  When he was good he was pleasantly good, and when he was bad, his verses seem ill or flat and two-dimensional.

From Shiki onward, the “haiku” he began went downhill.  So we can regard Shiki as either the last major writer of the hokku, or as the first writer of the haiku.  If seen as the latter, we must recognize that Shiki has little or nothing in common with what is called modern haiku in the West today.  Conservative modern Japanese haiku (which is still, for the time being, the preferred kind in Japan), is more closely related to Shiki through his student Kyōshi, whose verses were not as good on the whole as those of his teacher.

Blyth attributes Shiki’s failures and weaknesses to the fact that Shiki had no religion, that consequently we feel in him “some want of depth; the baby has been thrown out with the bath-water.”  There is indeed something very superficial in Shiki, and Blyth said correctly that “we feel something a little hard, superficial, unloving in him.”

As unattractive a personality as he may have been, quite a few of his hokku are tranquil and pleasant, and as readers here know, I often compare his better verses to the pleasant block prints of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950).  If you are not familiar with their work, find some examples on the internet, and you will easily see the parallels with the verses of Shiki.

As an example of Shiki at his best, Blyth gives this verse (my translation here), which differs not one whit from earlier hokku:

Shima-jima ni   hi wo tomoshikeri    haru no umi
Island-island at  light wo have-been-lit   spring ‘s sea

On all the islands,
Lamps have been lit;
The spring sea.

This is an interesting mixture of elements, all having to do with spring and the increasing Yang energy that grows out of Yin.  We see that in the overall subject of the verse (spring) and in the lighting of the lamps in the mild darkness.  We see the shadowy islands in the evening sea, and the lights twinkling here and there upon them, near and far.

If all Shiki’s verses had been like this, we would perhaps see him differently.

David

EVEN SHIKI WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE IT

Modern haiku is not hokku.   It is generally not even haiku.

We have seen that a hokku is a written thing-event in which an unspoken significance is perceived.  It involves Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and it is set in the context of a season.

Raizan wrote:

Shirouo ya    sanagara ugoku     mizu no iro
Whitebait ya just-like  moves    water  ‘s color

The whitebait —
Just as though the color of water
Were moving.

Raizan got it exactly right; the translucent whitebait fish does look like the water itself has taken on a definite form and is swimming about.

If we compare that hokku with a “haiku” by Shiki, we see something interesting:

Nure-ashi de   suzume no ariku   rōka kana
Wet-feet with  sparrow ‘s  hopping verandah kana

With wet feet,
The sparrow hops
Along the porch.

What distinguishes the two verses?  Both are set in the spring.  Both involve a thing-event.  Yet one is a hokku, the other is called a “haiku.”

Both are really hokku in their aesthetics, but by Shiki calling his verse a “haiku” he automatically excluded it from the possibility of its being used –ever — as the first verse in a series of linked verses.  In this case, that is really the only difference.

We can see from this that for the most part, Shiki just continued to write hokku, but insisted on calling his hokku “haiku” because he did not care for the practice of linking verses and wanted to discourage that practice.

One can deduce correctly from this that in general, the “haiku” of Shiki were really just hokku under a different name.  Some are better, some worse, and there is a tendency in many to shallowness and mere illustration.  Nonetheless, if Shiki had not insisted on calling his verses “haiku,” generally no one would bat an eye if they were included in hokku anthologies.

One may also conclude from this that “haiku” has changed drastically from what it was in the work of Shiki.  Modern haiku often bears not the slightest resemblance to either hokku or to what Shiki practiced as haiku.  Instead, as I often repeat, it is a new verse form created in the West, primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, from misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku combined with Western notions of poetry and the whims of “recent” Western writers.

David


WHY HOKKU AVOIDS TECHNOLOGY

Hokku has deliberate limits on its subject matter, and one of those boundaries excludes what we loosely call “technology.”

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent great expansion in use of technology and consumption of fossil fuels, humans entered an Age of Illusion in which the misperception became common that Nature was little more than a vast repository of resources to be gathered and used however humans saw fit.  Humans saw themselves more and more as separate from — and in general superior to — Nature.

Hokku — and a life in keeping with hokku — reverses this trend.  One cannot write hokku without the realization that Nature gave birth to humans, and thus humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the only realistic and healthy attitude.

It is also an antidote to the wrong thinking so prevalent in the world today — that the world was made for humans, that all of Nature “belongs” to humans to do with as they will.  And it is only by realizing how intimately connected with Nature we are that just possibly, humans might yet have a slim chance of averting a final environmental catastrophe brought on by decades of ignorance, arrogance, selfishness and greed.

So it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that hokku avoids technology and never abandons Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature as its inherent subject matter.  It is also a tiny counterbalance to the immensity of wrong thinking and wrong action in the world today.  By avoiding putting “technology” in our verse, we have to pay greater attention to Nature and how we relate to it, and if anything might save humans from destroying themselves, it would be that realization of our inseparability from the same Nature that humans have so raped, battered and abused.  In harming Nature we harm ourselves.

It is worth mentioning that even Shiki, who ultimately caused much trouble by his somewhat short-sighted, revisionist creation of the new “haiku” as an offshoot of hokku near the end of the 19th century, did not go as far in abandoning Nature as many in the modern haiku community have done.

What we call “technology” in hokku, Shiki called “artifacts of civilization,” and he wrote that most of them are “unpoetic” and thus difficult to use in poetry.  He said that those who supposed that his admonition to “write about new things” meant to write verse on such things as “trains and railways” were mistaken, but that if one does write about them, “one has no choice but to mention something poetic as well.”  If a verse contains an element of technology, Shiki felt, one had to counterbalance it — “make it more attractive” as he put it, by including such other elements as violets blooming by the railroad tracks or poppies dropping their petals after a train had passed (see Dawn to the West, Donald Keene, 1984, pg. 51).

Shiki’s admonition, though it seems overtly based more on his ideas of what was “beautiful” in verse than on anything more profound, nonetheless resembles somewhat the principle in hokku that even though technology is generally avoided, if rarely some aspect of it not too inharmonious with hokku is included, the “technological” element should not predominate, but should always be secondary to Nature.

Hokku may be the ONLY verse form in existence today that strictly limits its subject matter to the intimate connecction between Nature and humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  For that alone it should be valued and protected, and it should never be diluted by confusion with or admixture into the chaos of modern haiku, which in its fragmentation and endless bickering reflects the confused and blunderingly rootless state of modern society in general.

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

 

 

EYES GROW WEARY

In the last posting, we looked at a verse by Issa, who tends to bring emotion into his hokku.

Today we will look at something more objective on the same “spring” topic, “the long day.”  As we saw in Issa’s example, he composed the verse by combining two “long” things — age and the lengthening of the day — then making a statement on them:  that even the lengthening of days as one grows old “brings tears.’

By contrast, here is a hokku by Taigi on the same topic:

Nagaki hi ya   me no tsukaretaru   umi no ue
Long  day ya eyes  ‘s  grow-weary  sea ‘s on

The long day;
Eyes grow weary
On the sea.

Remember that in old hokku, the reader was expected to know enough about the principles of hokku to “get” what the writer was saying.  That is not, however, often the case for modern readers on their first reading of a rather literalistic translation of some old hokku.  Modern readers need a verse to be a bit more explicit, which is also a difference in general between the Japanese language, which tends to vagueness, and the English language, which tends to be more direct and clear.

What Taigi is saying then, is this:

The long day;
My eyes grow weary
Looking at the sea.

We can see that this is very much like the verse by Issa in structure, but without Issa’s emotion.  It even uses the same method of combining two similar things. In Issa it was age and the lengthening day; in Taigi it is the long day and the sea.

Now one may ask how the long day and the sea are the same, and though an adult may not understand, any child can tell you that they are both “long.”  Look out at the sea and it goes on and on to the horizon; that vast stretch is in keeping in feeling with the perceived length of the day in spring, so much longer than the short days of winter, and growing ever longer.

So this verse simply combines two similar things, as did Issa, and makes a statement about them.  Taigi’s statement is “My eyes grow weary.”  Of course we could take out “my” and make the verse a more literal translation, but in English it is really necessary for completeness, and we want to make not only our translations of old hokku but also the new hokku we compose in English thoroughly English, not just reflections of Japanese language practice.

If we look at other hokku on the same topic, we find similar methodology in many verses, and Shiki, who began confusingly calling his verses “haiku” even while he was still writing hokku, used it constantly:

Sunahama ni   ashiatao nagaki   haru-hi kana
Sandy-beach on  footprings long   spring day kana

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

By now you should be practiced enough in this method to see what Shiki is doing.  He is just doing the same as Issa, the same as Taigi, in combining two things.  But unlike the two previous verses, he adds no statement, so this is not a “statement” hokku.  Instead it is just a standard hokku (in spite of Shiki’s terminology), which means setting, subject, and action:

On the sandy beach,  Subject

A long line of footprints;  Action (the writer sees the long line stretching into the distance)

The spring day.   Setting

We should note that usually in hokku, the “action” is something moving or changing; here it is simply the perceived change from the ordinarily blank sand to the presence of the footprints, which from our perspective is hardly “action” at all.  It is a kind of “passive” action, but one must really be careful with this kind of thing, because all to easily it can make a verse into simply a photograph.  And all too often a hokku as photograph is too static to be interesting.

For Shiki, however, it was a part of his personal approach to many hokku, which was to make them small sketches of Nature.  That is why so many of his verses — like this one — could be easily converted into Japanese block prints requiring no real movement.  In that lay the character of much of Shiki’s verse, but also often its shallowness, which we do not feel in this example in spite of the technique.

The “combination of similar things” technique can be applied to many things, and Shiki did so.  Keep in mind that even though Shiki is known as the “creator” of haiku, he has almost nothing in common with most modern haiku.  Actually he is just the petulant point at which hokku splits into modern haiku and modern hokku.  Shiki himself still wrote verses that generally qualify as hokku, and most modern haiku people are as much at a loss to understand the methodology Shiki inherited from hokku as they are to understand the greater body of old hokku verse.  Modern haiku is simply a verse form that in English, for all practical purposes, was created in the middle of the 20th century out of misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku combined with Western notions of poetry.

But back to Shiki’s use of hokku technique.  We see the “combining similar things” method also in this verse by him:

Hyakunin no      nimpu tsuchi horu   hi-naga kana
Hundred-men ‘s   laborers earth dig   day-long kana

A hundred workers
Digging the earth;
The long day.

To understand such a verse, we must think not as modern haiku thinks (when it does at all), but rather we must see it from the hokku perspective, which is precisely the “combine similar things” method.  Here Shiki’s two things are the “hundred workers” and “the long day.”

We must not be too literalistic about this or we will fail to understand the method.  It is not that a hundred workers are long in the same way that the day is long; instead, it is a perception of volume/extent.  To put it in the terms of a child, which is generally the best way to understand and approach hokku, “a hundred workers” is a “long” number of workers, just as “the spring day” is long.  The big, slow job at hand takes a lot of laborers, and the passage of the long spring day takes a lot of time.  And that is how one varies the method.

Shiki also gives us another verse in which the combination of similar things is more obvious:

Kawa ni sōte   yukedo hashi nashi   hi no nagaki
River at  along walking bridge is-not  day ‘s long

Following the river,
Still there is no bridge;
The long day.

The two combined similar things here are of course “the river” and “the long day.”  Shiki unites them by adding the effect of walking on and on but finding no bridge to cross.  That adds to the effect of the length of the river and the length of the day.

The knowledge of such techniques faded out in modern haiku, which claims descent from Shiki, but it is still very much alive in the practice of modern hokku, which gets it — just as Shiki did — from the long tradition of old hokku.  R. H. Blyth, of course, explained the latter verse in his four-volume series (though he did not name or clarify the general method as clearly as I have done here), but the pundits of modern haiku paid little or no attention to him in the mid-20th century, preferring instead to remake “haiku” in their own image, which was really all they could do, given that they understood so little of the aesthetics and methodology of the old hokku, which even Shiki used in his very conservative “haiku.”

David

ENDING THE CONFUSION ABOUT HOKKU, HAIKU, AND ZEN

Here  — for convenience — I have combined several earlier articles explaining how Western haiku enthusiasts thoroughly confused hokku and haiku in the 20th century, completely misunderstanding not only hokku but its connection to “Zen,” and thoroughly misleading the public in the process by inaccurate and anachronistic use of terminology.  Unfortunately many in the modern haiku community continue to promote these fictions and misrepresentations even in the 21st century, and one must repeatedly correct their errors so that an unsuspecting public will not be taken in by them.  The originals of these articles will be found separately in the archives.

———————————————

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines. In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse divided into three lines.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde,revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread and far more recent haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use. Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

Yesterday I discussed the well-intentioned but rather futile effort of James W. Hackett to halt and reverse the “aesthetic devolution” of the modern haiku.  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, within the wider context of haikai, just as we do today.  That is an easily verifiable, historical fact.  And when hokku was 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 to ignore the 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, followed Blyth’s lead.

This unfortunate choice has been 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 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, Blyth saw faint hints of a revival in, of all places, the English-speaking West, and it was his own writings 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.

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, not on those of the hokku.

It seems odd now that neither Blyth nor Henderson recognized sufficiently that those 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 “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.  And those setting the course of the Western haiku movement generally chose 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.

All of this is merely a lead-in to some further words on James W. Hackett. Yesterday I wrote that Hackett’s efforts to turn back time to a fictional “golden age” of Western haiku are likely to have no impact at all on the modern haiku community because that community will, as a whole, consider Hackett merely antiquated in his views, a human telegraph lingering on in the cell phone age, bypassed by time and events.    I pointed out that haiku in the West never had a golden age, because it was distorted from its very beginnings. That needs a further bit of explanation.

If the West had paid close and studious attention to the works of R. H. Blyth, it would have been possible for a Western hokku to quickly arise, even if mislabeled “haiku.”  But as we have seen, those who set the course of the Western haiku movement by writing books and journals and founding societies paid virtually no attention to Blyth’s aesthetic commentaries on hokku; instead they created a new Western verse form under the name “haiku.”

Those reading editions of such influential works as The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel, which began appearing in the early 1970s, will see that this sleep of reason brought forth monsters.  Even in the beginning, Western haiku diverged not only from hokku but even from the very conservative “haiku” written and advocated in Japan by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  But then van den Heuvel was involved with the Haiku Society of America, which in my view bears heavy responsibility for leading haiku off on erratic and subjective paths that took it quickly away both from the hokku and from the “Shiki-style” haiku, furthering the “aesthetic devolution” lamented by Hackett.

But back to Hackett.  It should not be surprising that devotees of modern haiku view him as spider-webby, dusty, and outmoded.  He did, after all, correspond with R. H. Blyth, which means he got his start at the very beginning of the popularization of  haiku in the West in the middle of the 20th century.  And even though Blyth himself gave Hackett a rather double-edged compliment, calling his early verses “excellent” while simultaneously writing that “more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought” in them (History of Haiku, vol. 2, pg 362), nonetheless that mention of Hackett by Blyth himself (along with inclusion of a few of Hackett’s verses, which became separately available in print in the West) puts Hackett in the category of the three first founders of Western haiku.

Unfortunately it is not a happy society, because few have been so historically noted and so little heeded as the triumvirate of Blyth, Henderson, and on a secondary level, Hackett (a fourth contributor, Kenneth Yasuda, made little impression though his uninspired works still survive).

My own view of Hackett’s “haiku” is that (as Blyth himself admitted with his backhanded compliment), Hackett did not quite get the aesthetics of the hokku.  Hackett was impressed with the “Zen” aspect of the hokku, but unfortunately this sometimes resulted in verses tainted too heavily with mid-20th century Western romanticization of Zen — a little like biscuits with too much baking powder, in which the effect should be there, but not the obvious taste.  And, as Blyth wrote, Hackett’s verses all too often have too much subjective intellectualization, too much “thinking” in them.

But really, that is the worst one can legitimately say of Hackett.  When one reads his essay bemoaning what haiku has become, one sees that if readers in the modern haiku community were to follow the more sensible of his suggestions, haiku would be reformed for the better, at least as far as its relation to the hokku.

That is not, however, going to happen.  Haiku was created in the West as a self-evolving kind of verse dependent on the whim of the individual writer for its form and standards, and Western writers — heavily invested in the poet as public ego — are not about to give that up for a nostalgic view of a past that never was, simply because it is presented to them by someone who wrote letters to Blyth over half a century ago.

In fact the modern haiku community as a whole has so little respect for Blyth at present that even its leading pundits (or “misleading pundits” as they would better be called in my view) regularly enjoy stabbing a dagger into Blyth’s memory now and then, attempting to lift themselves by denigrating him.

It should be obvious, then, that I see Hackett’s attempt to reform haiku as futile, though not misguided.  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 mislabeled 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 and evolving, though the tendency at present seems to be for it to evolve itself into sterility and ultimate extinction as anything other than a simplistic form of satirical verse.

All of which, fortunately, has not the slightest effect on our practice of the hokku as a continuation in the modern world of the old hokku tradition of Japan.  Hokku never devolved precisely because it maintains the essentials of the aesthetics and principles and techniques of the old hokku, though presenting them in modern language to the modern world.

The student of hokku, happily, is not faced with the subjective chaos and fragmentation so obvious in modern haiku.  But then hokku and haiku have gone their separate ways, and have today quite different approaches both to aesthetics and to life.

One cannot, therefore, say that James Hackett is wrong in wanting to return haiku to an aesthetic closer to his own, but one can be reasonably certain it is never going to happen.  Fortunately, for those who do not want to be taken on the wild, ego-stimulating, argumentative ride of modern haiku societies and journals and Internet forums, there is still the peace, tranquility, and closeness to Nature of the hokku, ever old, ever new.

It will be obvious to the reader that I have a very low general opinion of modern haiku.  Nonetheless, I feel one should accept reality, realizing that it exists as a new category of Western verse created in the 20th century, and one should admit that it has an appeal for most Westerners that hokku simply does not have.

That is because the goals of modern Western society are in general so remote from the Nature-centered, spiritual goals of the hokku that most people have no attraction to the kind of verses written by Onitsura and Bashō.  Like Blyth, and no doubt like Hackett, 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.

That is why I hold with Blyth that in our present-day world, the Way of Hokku is a “hard way and a narrow way, and few there be that find it.”  But that is only because few there be that want to find it.

Let no one think I am criticizing James W. Hackett here.  I think the modern haiku community would vastly better itself by heeding his Jeremiad.  I may disagree with some details of his reform program for haiku, yet I applaud his overall intention.  But I also feel quite certain that nothing is going to happen as a result of his efforts — that he will be, like Blyth and Henderson, virtually ignored by the majority of the Western haiku community.  Hokku and haiku are likely to remain two quite different and separate and ever more widely diverging kinds of verse.

Rather than wasting time on trying to reverse history, it is better 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

Over the years I have written about how hokku was hijacked in the middle of the 20th century by the haiku movement in the West.  One could write a sizable volume on the history of how that took place and which prominent names in 20th century (and some 21st) haiku were involved.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong in the appearance of a new verse form.  But one can and should legitimately object when a new verse form is misrepresented to the public as a continuation of an old verse form, which is precisely what the self-made pundits of modern haiku undertook from the 1960s onward. It is only recently that the public has begun to catch on to the fact that they have been had, that they are the victims of revisionism — that modern haiku is not a continuation of the old hokku as written by Taigi and Bashō and Onitsura and all the rest; instead it is a new verse form created out of the misperceiving and misrepresentation of hokku by writers in the 20th century.

Admittedly the public at large could hardly care less about all this, because numerically few are interested in modern haiku and even fewer in genuine hokku.  But for those of us who do care, it is very important to call attention to those writers in the 21st century who persist, for whatever reason, in inaccurately labelling old hokku as “haiku” and who continue to promulgate the fiction that what they are teaching continues the tradition of the old writers of hokku.

If one wants to learn modern haiku, one is perfectly free to pick up hints and tips from any number of books and Internet fora and blogs.  The range is vast, and the standards so loose and flexible that one can write virtually anything one wishes and present it to the world as haiku as long as it is reasonably brief.

Hokku is quite a different matter.  Hokku has very definite principles and standards, and if one wishes to learn how to write it, one must thoroughly understand the aesthetics and construction of the old hokku written from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  It is not complicated, but it does involve a thorough re-thinking of one’s notions, a dropping of a great deal of inaccurate and unnecessary baggage picked up over the years from the misrepresentation of hokku as “haiku” by authors from the mid-20th century onward.

It requires  a re-orientation (no pun intended) of the writer toward a verse form that takes one away from the self and into Nature, a form that pays little heed to the ego of the writer or to what is commonly known as “self-expression.”  I sometimes begin introducing people to hokku by articles with titles such as “Hokku is Not What You Think it Is,” and that is quite true.  Most people really have no idea at all what hokku is, and that is not surprising after half a century of misperception and misrepresentation of it by propagandistic enthusiasts of modern haiku.

So what is hokku?  Read the articles in the archive on this site and you will begin to get a much clearer and more accurate picture than you have likely ever had from reading misinformation about it in books that incorrectly and anachronistically misrepresent it as “haiku.”

David

In previous postings I have written that the haiku did not exist until near the end of the 19th century, when it was “created” by a Japanese failed novelist, the journalist generally known today as Masaoka Shiki, or simply Shiki.  That is an historical fact, and easily verifiable by anyone willing to expend a minimum of effort in research.  Though the word “haiku” existed in Japanese long before Shiki, it had a different meaning than he attached to it.

What that means is that everyone — whether in books or magazines or on the Internet — who talks about the “haiku” of Bashō or the “haiku” of Buson or the “haiku” of Taigi is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically, spreading the misunderstanding and confusion that began in English and other European languages in the 20th century — particularly in the mid-20th century, when the foundational groups that gave rise to modern haiku were being formed.

As I have mentioned before, it is noteworthy that one such group — the Haiku Society of America — even put out a considerable propaganda effort to convince the editors of dictionaries and other reference works to declare the term hokku “obsolete,” as though a mere handful of people forming a little club could invalidate history, making Bashō somehow a writer of “haiku” when, by contrast, Bashō always referred to what he wrote as HOKKU, within the wider context of haikai.

But I have said all that before.  What the average person needs to know now is what that change in terminology — begun by the revisionism of Shiki in Japan — means about hokku today and its relationship — if any — to haiku.

To understand that, we have to go back to the time of Shiki to see just what he did, and what resulted from what he did.  In doing so we shall dispel a bit of myth and shall remain with the facts.

What did Shiki do to hokku?  Very little, actually, but that very little was to have immense consequences.  What he did was precisely this:

1.  Shiki removed hokku from its centuries-long position as the first and opening verse of a haikai verse sequence.  He did this because he did not personally consider such collaborative verses “literature.”

2.  Shiki decided to call this independent verse form “haiku,” not “hokku.”

That’s it.

Looked at objectively, Shiki really only made only one and one-half rather than two major changes, because hokku appearing independently were nothing remotely new, but really a very old practice.  In the old haikai, hokku could appear in at least three ways:  As part of a haikai sequence, independently, or embedded in other writings such as the travel journals of Bashō.  So to say that Shiki began the practice of presenting the hokku independently is simply an error.  What we can say is that Shiki began presenting the hokku independently under his new denomination “haiku.”

We are really left with only one major thing that Shiki did.  He made it impossible for the haiku to be written in the context of a linked verse (renga) sequence.

If we look at Shiki’s own “haiku,” we find that what he really did was just to take the hokku — which already could appear independently — and rename it “haiku” for his own purposes.  Shiki’s verses are generally acceptable as hokku, which shows how little he really did and how essentially conservative his verses were.

Shiki kept the connection with Nature — essential to hokku.  He also kept the connection with the seasons — also essential to hokku.

We can say, then, that what Shiki did was simply to initiate a trend of confusion that has continued up to the present.

It is true that when compared to older hokku, Shiki’s “haiku” are often shallow, and there is a particular reason for that, in fact two main reasons.  First, Shiki was an agnostic.  Old hokku was very influenced by the “philosophy” of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly that of the Zen sect.  That is not surprising.  Zen aesthetics are the basis of all the major traditional contemplative arts in Japan, whether hokku, the tea ceremony, gardening, flower arranging, calligraphy, even the Nō drama.  That is why if one understands the aesthetic principles behind just one of these arts, one understands them all.

In Shiki’s case, his agnosticism tended to manifest itself as a certain existential bleakness, which we find particularly in verses directly relating to his chronic illness.  Seen over the longer term, however, his agnosticism led eventually to a separation between “haiku” and spirituality, something we find emphasized in later 20th-century writers in English who declare either that there is no Zen-“haiku” connection or  that such a connection is overrated or overstated.  One often finds such writers quoting this or that modern Japanese, who when asked about the connection between “Zen” and haiku, simply look puzzled or say there is no connection.  What does one expect them to say?  Most modern Japanese know as little about the aesthetic foundations of the old hokku as modern Americans know about the influence of the Enlightenment on the founding documents of the United States.

But the fact is that it was modern haiku that decided to separate from “Zen,” for reasons best known to those who made that decision.  Of course by “Zen” here, I mean non-dogmatic, unitary spirituality in general, and particularly the aesthetic influence of that spirituality that manifested in hokku.

The result, then, is that there is a large segment of modern haiku that has separated and isolated itself from spirituality.  That is a notable difference from the old hokku, in which its aesthetics were a manifestation of the underlying foundation of Mayahana Buddhism, including as well Daoist, Confucianist, and even a bit of animism.

There is a second and not unrelated reason for the shallowness of many of Shiki’s hokku.  Shiki was strongly influenced by the Western literary and technological innovations that were flooding into Japan in his time.  One of these was the plein-air art of Europe, nature sketches “from life,” so to speak.  It made such a great impression on him that he took it as the guiding motif for the new “haiku,” and called it shasei, sketching from life.

The result was that many of Shiki’s “haiku” are essentially illustrations in words, brief word-sketches of this or that scene.  As such, they tend to be merely two-dimensional, and lack the depth and profundity of the old hokku, which had a wider aesthetic.  I often say that many of Shiki’s hokku are like the style of block prints made popular by such Japanese artists as Yoshida and Hasui — pleasant enough in their own way, but still illustrations.

In spite of that, if his changes had not been taken farther by those who came after him, we would still consider much of what Shiki wrote to be hokku — shallow and illustrative hokku on the whole perhaps, but still not radical enough to remove him entirely from the category.  We would see him as just another writer of hokku, but with a peculiar personal aesthetic.

That brings us to Shiki’s real significance in this matter.  Shiki questioned the old hokku tradition and its values, but aside from imposing his own title “haiku” on it, he remained, as we have seen, rather conservative.  But the mere fact that he felt enabled, as an individual, to take control of the hokku tradition and to bend it to his personal will, nonetheless implied the right of the individual to change hokku however one wished, and given that this occurred in a period of great cultural change in Japan, its effects were tremendous. Shiki was not even dead before one of his students — Hekigodō — asserted his own right to change the new haiku even more, and he continued until his verses were so radical and different that they had very little to do with the old hokku.  As haiku developed it became acceptable to drop the connection with the seasons, with Nature, and for all practical purposes, haiku became a new and different verse form, which is what it remains in most cases today.

Not surprisingly, what Westerners took from all this was that anyone could write “haiku” any way they wished.  That is still the creed of most modern haiku enthusiasts today.  And so haiku has become whatever anyone wants it to be.  As I have said before, something that becomes anything becomes in essence nothing at all.   That is why haiku today is impossible to clearly define.  It is simply too varied and fragmented, and it continues to vary and to fragment.  That also is one of the chief reasons why the modern haiku community is so filled with bickering and dissension.

It is not surprising that this is what has become of haiku, because in the modern West, “poetry” is seen as a form of self-expression — often of rebellion — which is why “haiku” was taken up by the “Beat Generation” in the 20th century.  Of course by then it was already confused with the old hokku, and people simply could not tell the difference because they had never properly learned or understood the aesthetics of the old hokku.  When someone told them that “haiku” was what Bashō and the other old masters of Japan wrote, they simply and naïvely accepted that.

It is very important to recognize that the hokku was fundamentally misunderstood and misperceived from its very first appearance in the West in the 19th century.  The early Western poets — the Imagists among them — simply saw in the hokku a reflection of their misperceptions both of Asian culture and of its literature.  Because hokku was an aesthetic blank for them, when they looked at it, it was like looking in a mirror; they saw their own faces — their own ideas about poets and poetry and the mysterious East — staring back at them.

That fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of hokku has been perpetuated in the modern haiku community right up to the present.  In fact as I have said before, so pervasive were the misconceptions about the history and nature of hokku that when I first began teaching that Bashō wrote hokku, not “haiku,” the reaction of the modern haiku community in general was first disbelief, then anger.  One would have thought the anger would have been directed at those who had so misled them.  But there are still no doubt those in modern haiku who cannot forgive me for pointing out that they are not successors of Bashō, and that what they had picked up from the writings of 20th-century haiku pundits had more to do with the personal preferences of those self-made “authorities” than with anything practiced prior to the 20th century.

Today — at least — people in modern haiku are at last beginning to get the message that Bashō did not write haiku, nor did all the others before Shiki.  And they are beginning to realize that what most of them are writing stems more from American and European experimentation and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century than it does with old hokku or even the haiku of Shiki.

Once people begin to realize that “haiku” is an inaccurate and anachronistic and mistaken term when applied to the hokku tradition, and once they begin to realize that what nearly all the haiku teachers and authorities of the 20th century were teaching had little to do with Bashō and the entire old hokku tradition, then they can begin to see things realistically.  They can begin to learn what hokku really is, as opposed to its ersatz form, modern haiku.

Seen realistically, the modern haiku tradition in general has virtually nothing to do with all that was written prior to Shiki, or even — as we have seen — with what was written as “haiku” by Shiki himself.  Any verse form that abandons Nature, that abandons the connection with the seasons, that abandons the essentials and aesthetics of the old hokku,  is neither hokku nor even is it what Shiki meant by “haiku” when he brought it into being near the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, modern haiku is for the most part a new Western brief verse form with remarkably fluid boundaries, and should be recognized as such.  The notion that it has anything to do do with Bashō or haikai or hokku  other than as an offshoot created through misunderstanding and misperception of the original will finally be recognized.

I must, however, add one disclaimer.  There are a few individuals in modern haiku today that do maintain some relation to the old hokku, if not in name.  Generally these are people who, though writing haiku, have been particularly influenced by pre-Shiki hokku.  Some, influenced by Japanese haiku of the 20th century, follow aesthetics not quite those of the old hokku — there may be too much intellection or striving for “poetic” effect — and their verses tend to be like the conservative haiku style of the 20th-century Japanese haiku writer Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959).  In many cases, these individuals are still worlds away from much that is written as modern haiku, and are sometimes more akin to the conservative haiku of Shiki — thus removed from, but not as isolated from the old hokku as, modern haiku in general.

As for the rest, it is as I have said.  Modern haiku has in general virtually nothing in common with the old hokku but brevity, and sometimes not even that.

Now what is the point in saying all this?  Is it perhaps just to irritate modern haiku enthusiasts?  Not at all.  The reason I take the time to write this — apart from historical accuracy — is simply that in order to learn hokku, one must distinguish it from haiku.  Hokku is something quite different, with its own aesthetics, techniques, and principles.  These are impossible to learn if one is constantly mistaking it for haiku.

Once it is understood and recognized that hokku and haiku are generally two different things, individuals may then choose to write either or neither.  But at least they will be making a more informed decision than those who have never learned to distinguish the two.

David

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…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].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

Haiku today — as distinct from hokku — is another matter.  There are some Zen-influenced writers of haiku, but in general modern haiku is completely removed from Zen, and in fact some writers and figures in the modern haiku community actually prefer that it be divorced completely from Zen and any kind of spirituality.  In this they differ radically from present day adherents of the hokku tradition, who regard non-dogmatic spirituality as inseparable from hokku.  Modern writers of hokku thus maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began — to Zen as meditative absorption.  That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself, he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called “haikai” renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of our hokku.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing our kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live by its standards, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence, and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet in about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had distorted and perverted its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and it is that which gives it its particular clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

David

STORK STEPS AND EMPTY HUTS

As I have pointed out in earlier postings, some old hokku do not travel well.  They are so oriented to a specific culture that when removed from that context, they lose their meaning.

A good example is Shōha’s

Haru tatsu ya   shizuka ni tsuru no    ippo yori
Spring begins ya    quiet with stork  ‘s  one-step from

Tatsu in Japanese means to stand or rise, but it also has the sense of “to begin, to start,” just as a person who is about to go on a journey begins by first standing.  Ni commonly means “at, on, in” but in this case it has more the sense of “with,” so shizuka ni is to be understood as meaning “with quietness” or “quietly.”  We can translate the verse as

Spring begins,
Quietly from the stork’s
First step.

The verse only loses its obscurity when one realizes that in Japan the stork is a traditional symbol of longevity — long life.  A first step is a beginning; spring is similarly a beginning (remember the principle of reflection in hokku?)  So when one sees the stork take a first step, that reflects spring beginning as the “first step” of the new year.  The stork’s first step is to put us in mind of the beginning of a long life, as spring is the beginning of the long year.  Thus spring begins as the stork takes his first step.  Those are the cultural connections and intuitive leaps required by this hokku, and of course they are too much baggage to allow it to be meaningful immediately in another culture.  But remember, we are not talking metaphor here; we are using the hokku principle of reflection, which Westerners sometimes confuse with metaphor, but they are not at all the same.

Another hokku, this time by Sodō, is a bit easier to transfer from culture to culture:

Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso  nani mo are
Hut   ‘s    spring something is not indeed everything is

This verse relies on the paradox of nani mo naki (there is not a thing) versus nani mo are (there is everything).  We can translate it as

The spring hut;
There is nothing,
Yet there is everything.

Or one could rephrase it as:

My spring hut;
It has nothing,
But it has everything!

This verse is the kind of spiritual paradox beloved by Zen.  We often divide the world into the “haves” and the “have nots,” but in the spiritual life there is no difference between having and not having.  One who has sees it as no different from not having, and one who has not sees it as no different from having.  This is the “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all these things shall be added unto you.”  You have without having, because neither having nor not having has any meaning any more.  The spiritual novice who gives up things and misses them still has them (mentally), because he has not really given them up but is still attached.  The spiritual novice who has possessions and is not attached to them has given them up already, and physically ridding himself of them is a mere outward formality.

Sodō’s verse has a contrast between “is” and “is not”; Shiki has a verse that contrasts big and small:

Kobune koide    ōbune meguru    haruhi kana
Small-boat floats big-boat around  spring-day kana

A small boat
Goes around a big boat;
The spring day.

If one reads Blyth’s translation of this verse, one will find it as a small boat going around a “great vessel.”  We must always remember than Blyth was not interested in being absolutely literal in his translations.  Instead, he wanted to convey the overall meaning of a hokku to those in the West who were not likely to get it without such an “expanded” translation.  And in this case he is again right.

It brings to mind a large, sea-going ship in a harbor, standing virtually still in the water as a comparatively tiny boat sails around it.  One thinks of a tug going around a large transport ship.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of verse that begins to take us away from Nature, and it was by this and even more borderline verses that Shiki began the movement away from Nature and into technological things that we so often find in modern haiku, but never in modern hokku.

Incidentally, readers will notice the frequency with which Shiki ends a verse in kana.  He does it so often that it is characteristic of him.  But he was really just using the word as a neutral filler to pad out the last number of phonetic units required for a hokku.  There are those who say it was used for emphasis, and in some cases it was, but with Shiki it is generally just a perfunctory space holder not to be translated.

As for the significance of the verse, whatever Shiki himself may have taken it to be (remember that often he was simply interested in making a sketch in words), to the student of hokku it reflects the slow passing of the long day of spring, which is felt in spite of the small activities that happen during it.  But keep in mind that one must not take this as a metaphor.  It is simply the nature of one thing reflected in the nature of others.

David

Shiki and Spring

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki, the fellow who nearly destroyed hokku through his revisionism.

Historically speaking, Shiki is the originator of the “haiku” as the term is understood today.  All modern writers of haiku, no matter how radical and strange, can be traced back to the revisionist changes begun by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  Modern hokku alone does not trace its lineage through Shiki.

Practically speaking, however — speaking about what Shiki actually wrote as opposed to his terminology and theory — Shiki can be considered the last major writer of old hokku.  Why?  Because in form and structure, Shiki’s verses often still qualify as hokku.  They are seasonal and they follow — broadly — the usual conventions of the hokku.  It is true that Shiki’s subject matter sometimes severely strained or tore the envelope (setting the stage for all the non-Nature related haiku to come), but many of his verses are quite acceptable as hokku, though they are sometimes merely illustrative, often shallow, and occasionally just odd reflections of a physically and spiritually ill individual.

It is important to note that Shiki, though radical in his time, was really surprisingly conservative in his verse.  He kept the seasonal connection and generally the connection with Nature.  He was not even remotely as different as modern writers of western haiku.  Shiki’s chief influence (and negative influence) was not so much in his verses as in the theory and terminology he attached to them.  He was a kind of propagandist of haiku, and as a propagandist he was quite successful, as the history of the haiku movement shows.  But this influence was not in getting others to follow his style, which remained in general that of the old hokku; it was, rather, in introducing the presumed right of the individual to change the hokku however one wished and to call it whatever one wished, and the baneful result of that is easily seen today in the fragmentation, confusion, chaos, and continual change and bickering that characterize the modern haiku movement.

Shiki wrote:

Daibutsu no    utsura-utsura to    haruhi kana
Great-Buddha  ‘s  dozing-dozing  with spring-day kana

The Great Buddha
Dozing and dozing;
The spring day.

R. H. Blyth actually improves the verse in his translation:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing, dozing,
All the spring day.

The improvement is in the addition of the word “all,” emphasizing the length of the day, the passage of uneventful time.

The Great Buddha is a very large outdoor image of the Buddha, actually not sleeping at all, but in meditation.  Shiki, however, being an agnostic, just sees a large figure with eyes closed and motionless, and he thinks of it as drowsily dozing away on a peaceful spring day.

We can analyze the structure like this:

Setting:  the spring day
Subject:  the Great Buddha
Action:  dozing, dozing.

Blyth’s punctuation is a bit unconventional.  In modern hokku we would likely present it like this:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing and dozing
All the spring day.

That is fully acceptable as a hokku.  The only difference is that understood as a haiku, one could not use it as the first of a series of linked verses; as a hokku, one can use it either alone or in a linked verse series.  Hokku, then, is still a part of haikai, the term used by Bashō and all the others for their wider practice in which hokku were written.  Haiku, in contrast,  has not been a part of haikai since Shiki.  Hokku is also haikai; haiku is not.

It is worth nothing that Blyth’s improvement of the verse makes it better when considered a hokku, because the uneventful length and peace of the spring day are reflected in the immobility and apparent ongoing drowsiness of the image.  Remember that hokku do not use metaphors — they instead use elements that reflect one another.

One of the best old hokku on the beginning of spring is this, by Issa:

kado-gado no   geta no doro yori  haru tachinu
gate-gate   ‘s     geta ‘s   mud  from  spring  rises

Geta are the traditional wooden clogs worn in old Japan, platforms for the feet, each set on two vertical wooden cleats that kept the foot well above the mud.

The verse makes more sense if we anglicize and westernize it, and take it as an American verse written in a place that gets cold winters:

At every door,
Spring begins with the mud
On the shoes.

This verse then becomes very meaningful.  It tells us the days of winter frost are over, that the surface of the ground has melted, and with it comes the mud that sticks to shoes.  Outside every door muddy shoes have been left as the wearers went inside.  The muddy shoes are spring; spring is the muddy shoes at each door.  That is the hokku way to understand the verse.

We see something similar in a verse by Rankō, which I will again westernize:

Chickens
Dusting themselves in the dirt;
The spring day.

This may not mean much to someone raised in a city, but every country person will know that chickens fluff themselves up and dig themselves into the ground, “dusting themselves” as farm people say.  It is just something chickens do.  One can often see birds doing the same thing.

But the point of the verse is that the dirt is dry enough for chickens to do this, meaning the rains have ended, the warmth of spring has come and has dried the soil, and the chickens hurry to dust themselves in the fine, dry powder.  That is a manifestation of spring as sure as Issa’s mud on the shoes, though of course considerably later in the season.

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

RED ON WHITE, CROW ON SNOW

We all know that Shiki was the individual who began the revisionism that has proved so disastrous for hokku — so damaging, in fact, that in the 20th century most people did not even realize that Bashō and all the others up to Shiki wrote hokku, not haiku, let alone having any inkling of the aesthetic principles necessary for the reading and writing of hokku.

And keep in mind, revisionist though he was, Shiki was still on the conservative end of things, if we look at the history of haiku overall.  Most haiku written today have as little in common with what Shiki called haiku as they do with hokku, and are in fact quite new kinds of verse.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the trouble.  Shiki had a predilection for art, which is no doubt what attracted him so to Buson; Buson was the most painterly of hokku writers, and his verses often show his “artistic” intent, usually not for the better.  Then too, Shiki was influenced by Western open-air painting, and he came up with the notion that a “haiku” — his revisionist version of hokku — should be a kind of nature sketch in words.

We can see that in one of his “winter” verses (remember that Shiki, unlike most Western haiku enthusiasts, still held season to be an essential element):

Akaki mi    hitotsu koborenu   shimo no niwa
Red   berry   single  fallen         frost    ‘s    garden

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

I often talk about how Shiki’s verse tends toward mere illustration, and this is an excellent example.  We could, in fact, turn it into a block print using only two kinds of ink — red and white.  A red berry seen against the white frost background.  One could make it of construction paper, a red dot on a white page.

It is, in a way, an experience abstracted from nature.  It reminds one inevitably of William Carlos Williams’

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Aside from the extraneous “so much depends upon,” that too is essentially just a color assemblage, though slightly more advanced than that of Shiki.

Shiki’s verse is a tiny, circular spot of bright red set on a field of white.  It could be simply an abstract painting  — “Red Dot on White Field.”  It has its virtues for what it is, but it is a step away from what hokku should be.

Shiki takes the first step toward abstraction by not telling us what kind of berry it was.  That leaves us with the spot of red.  Thoreau would not have done such a thing.  To Thoreau a berry was not a mere spot of red; it was a winterberry, or perhaps a tree cranberry, or some other specific thing.  To Thoreau, as for hokku in general, Nature was not in the abstraction but in the specific particular.  So in hokku, when we write about a red berry, we want to know specifically what kind of berry, because then it will immediately appear before our inner vision as itself, not as an abstraction.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki    karasu mo yuki no    ashita kana
Usually hateful  crow    too  snow ‘s    morning kana

Usually hateful,
The crow too
This snowy mornin
g.

That is a bit cryptic in English, because in Japanese one was expected to “intuit” what the writer meant, which was simply

The usually hateful crow is also something pleasant this snowy morning.

And of course one was to know automatically the reason for this, which is that the crow, being so black, looks quite pleasant when seen against the pure white background of snow.

Now we can see that Bashō’s hokku too would make an interesting block print — simply a black crow against a white background — but Bashō has not abstracted the crow into a generic black bird, as Shiki has done with the berry, and of course with the crow there is life; one sees it stalking about in the cold whiteness, turning its head.

Such differences seem small, but it is by failing to understand such things that one fails to grasp the essential nature of hokku as different from other kinds of verse, including much of haiku.

David




FOG AND THINKING

Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

The river —
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Fog is very important to autumn hokku, and important to ink painting — one of the other contemplative arts — as well.  Fog both hides and reveals as it moves and changes.  I have always been fond of those wonderful old Chinese paintings of mountains emerging from fog.  Just as in hokku, what is seen — or mentioned — is made even more significant by what is not seen or mentioned.

Keep in mind that when three people read the same hokku, they will have three different experiences.  Yes, each will be focused on a river and the fog, but each will be different.  That is because on reading a hokku, each person draws from his or her own memory and experience to create the new experience.  So a thousand people reading the same hokku will have a thousand different experiences.

One must be careful not to make hokku too “poetic.”  Look at these two verses, the first exactly what a hokku should be, the second in hokku form but really too poetic for hokku:

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

It is a scene where on a clear day, one would easily see a river passing at the base of a steep hill.  But now there is a thick fog, and in it someone in the river boat and someone on the hill are trying to communicate by shouting through the fog that muffles all sounds.  The writer hears the shouting, but cannot clearly see either person, nor can he distinguish what it is that is being shouted.

In forming the hokku thus, Kitō conveys to us the “hiding and revealing” power of the fog.  We hear shouting, but do not understand the words in an autumn world where much is hidden by the fog.

Obviously this is a “question” hokku.  A question hokku derives its power from an asked, but always unanswered question.  What is being shouted in the dense fog?  It is that questioning feeling — that “not knowing” that is the whole point of a question hokku.  To answer it — even by saying we do not know what is being shouted — spoils the effect.

Perhaps you are familiar with the American composer Charles Ives.  One of his best-known works is titled The Unanswered Question.  It is an instrumental way of presenting the question of existence — and in Ives’ work, that question — as in hokku — is never answered.

Kitō’s hokku, then, does what hokku should do, but does not go beyond it.  By contrast, here is a verse by Buson.  You will recall that Buson was a painter, and he often strives for painterly effects in his hokku, which makes them a bit artificial.  It is worth remembering that Buson — not Bashō — was the favorite of Masaoka Shiki.   It was the “painter” aspect of Buson that Shiki liked, which contributed to Shiki’s notion that his new “haiku” should be a kind of illustration or sketch from life.  But let’s look now at Buson’s verse:

Morning fog–
A painting of people passing
In a dream.

It is really too intentionally beautiful for hokku, and is somewhat like an impressionist painting.

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku  yume no hito dōri
Morning-fog ya   picture in painted dream ‘s people pass

So if we moved things around a bit, we could translate it more literally as

Morning fog:
Painted in a picture —
Dream people passing.

Either way, however, it does what hokku should not do — it pulls our attention in two different directions by comparing one thing with another.  Instead of just telling us that people are passing in the morning fog, he goes beyond and tells us that it is like a picture of people passing in a dream — of dream-people passing.  Any time we have to use the word “like” to explain something in hokku, it is a warning sign.  Hokku should let things just be themselves, not be “like” this or “like” that.

To explain this further, let’s look at another Buson hokku in which he took things to a similar but even greater extreme:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

It may not be readily obvious to someone not familiar with Chinese and Japanese painting, but what Basho is doing here is comparing — LIKE-ening–a line of wild geese flying in the night sky of autumn to a line of calligraphy — of writing — on a scroll.  And carrying the simile further, he then says that above the foothills, the moon is pressed as the seal.  In such a painting, there is generally a reddish-orange seal that is either the mark of the painter or the mark of an owner.  Such seals were often round (though sometimes square or rectangular or oval), and contained stylized Chinese characters.

So Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter.  He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions — one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter.  Hokku, in my view, should not do this.  It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power.

Since I first posted this, someone has used part of what I wrote above on another site (http://haigaonline.com/issue16-2/welcome.html), and has added this comment:

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don’t read the image as a “real scene” that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet’s eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

This is approaching hokku from the perspective of Western poetry, which in my view is an error.  It is not that “Coomler dislikes the poem,” but rather that Coomler dislikes it as hokku, for the reasons stated above.  However if one treats it as a Western poem (by approaching it from the perspective and conditioning of Western poetry), then it is perfectly fine.  Seen from that perspective, this verse by Buson is a literary conceit, meaning a literary comparison/likening of two quite different things.  But such cleverness — while perfectly acceptable as “poetry” — is not hokku at its best, which avoids cleverness.

Of course Westerners will often like such verses very much, because Western poetry is filled with simile (one thing likened to another) and metaphor (saying one thing is another).  A conceit is an extended metaphor.  We are accustomed to it this kind of thing, we recognize it, and we might mistakenly think it is just fine because to us it is common in poetry.  But hokku is not poetry as we understand it.  Instead, hokku should be a direct sensory experience — seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing.  Hokku should not be an intellectual experience, and when we use simile or metaphor, we take hokku away from the concrete and into the realm of the abstract — the world of the mind and intellection, what we call “thinking” in hokku.  But hokku are experiencing, not thinking.

That does not mean Buson’s two verses are bad.  In their own way they are interesting for what they are.  It is just that what they are is not really what hokku should be or what hokku should do.  Fortunately, not all of Buson’s verses are like this, but when reading him, we somehow feel we can never really trust him to tell us the truth; he too often strives for an effect, and so Buson’s verses give us the same uncertain, untrustworthy feeling we get when looking at an exhibition of photos in which some have been altered by computer to enhance their effect.

For those curious about Buson’s original, here it is in transliteration, with a very literal translation:

ichi gyō no     kari ya hayama ni     tsuki wo insu
one-line ‘s   wild-geese ya  foothills at moon wo seal

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 ) calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.

David

SPILLING THE MOON

In the previous posting I mentioned that many of Shiki’s “haiku” would still be classifiable as hokku, though they often tend to be illustrations.  But even among his illustrations some are better, some worse.

Here is one of his verses:

An isolated house;
The moon declining
Above the grasses.

Do you see why I say that such hokku are illustrations, like the block prints made by Hasui and Yoshida in the first half of the 20th century?

Now there is nothing wrong with illustration.  There is not even anything wrong with writing illustration-like hokku now and then.  But one should not make a principle of it.

A grade-school teacher could say, “Now for autumn, I want you to draw a house all by itself, with the moon declining over the grasses,” and it would make a good seasonal illustration.  Remember that Shiki did not abandon the connection of hokku with Nature and the seasons, though he did strain the connections occasionally.

People first learning hokku find it hard to make such distinctions between verses that are illustrations and verses with more depth.  But a good way to begin learning is by comparing the verse of Shiki with this hokku by Ryuho:

Scooping up
And spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

The writer stands before an old washbasin on an autumn night.  Lifting the water in both hands, he sees the moon in it — and then he spills the moon back into the basin.  Seen in comparison, Shiki’s verse is perceived to be rather flat and two-dimensional, and that was one of the flaws of his new aesthetic.  Remember that the best hokku show us ordinary things, but seen in a new way.

But of course even Shiki did not always follow his own ideals, and the old aesthetic was not completely lost in him, in spite of himself.  If haiku had stayed where Shiki placed it, it would have possibly remained just a variant of hokku.  However, it changed even more — so much that most haiku writers today have little in common with either hokku or with Shiki’s once-new “haiku.”

 

David