ISLANDS IN THE SEA: TRANSLATING SHIKI

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

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

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

Translated very literally, it would be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haru no umi — The spring sea.

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

David

 

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

FREEDOM FROM POETRY

One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

This of course applies to hokku as I teach it.

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

Buson wrote:

Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea  all-day     undulating undulating kana

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening.

You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry.  And of course if we present it like this,

The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.

— nothing has really changed.  So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry.  That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.

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

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

To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  There we have it in a nutshell.

When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.

What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku?  We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

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

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

We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:

Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?

“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”

That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

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

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”

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

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.

It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”

David