THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE

Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.

David

MUCH IN LITTLE

Etsujin wrote:

How serenely they fall
When the time comes —
Poppy flowers.

That is a “statement” hokku.  A “statement” hokku makes a simple, true observation about something; it tells us something we already know but did not know we knew until we read the verse.  We must be careful to distinguish such a remark from just commentary or elaboration, in which personal views may enter into the matter.  The remark in a statement hokku should be something obviously true, about which there can be no controversy.

In technique, note how this verse in English uses the “double subject.”  By “double subject,” we mean that the hokku first introduces the subject one way — with either a pronoun or a noun — and then goes on to finish by repeating the subject using the other term.  If it begins with a pronoun, it continues with a noun; if it begins with a noun, it continues with a pronoun.  Look again:

How serenely THEY fall
When the time comes —
POPPY FLOWERS.

“They” (pronoun) and “poppy flowers” (noun) both refer to the same subject, thus the name “repeated subject.”  This is very handy when writing hokku in English.

We should also note that this verse could easily be used as an “occasion” hokku.  An “occasion” hokku is a verse written for a specific occasion — as a greeting, as a parting, on a birth, or on a death, etc.

The characteristic of an “occasion” hokku is that it must be equally meaningful when NOT applied to an occasion as when applied.  For example, we see that this makes a quite good hokku without application to any occasion.  But it would also make a very appropriate and meaningful hokku on the calm passing of a loved one.  So an “occasion” hokku must work well when applied to the specific occasion and when applied to no occasion.  By “occasion” we mean an event in human life.

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

THE LENGTHENING OF DAYS

One of the most obvious characteristics of the coming and advance of spring is the lengthening of the days.  The sun rises earlier and lingers later.  To those who live close to Nature this is a matter of great significance.  That is why in old hokku, “the long day” — the lengthening of the day in spring — was a fixed topic, what was called a “season word.”  Today we no longer use season words because the system became too complex and unwieldy, but we do still keep the importance of seasonal classification of hokku in our writing, and with it also the old topic — “the long day.”

How one approaches it depends on how one approaches hokku in general.  One can usually count on Issa to have a very “personal” approach, somewhat dangerous for Westerners, who are so attuned to “I,” “me,” and “my” that they tend to overpersonalize.  Nonetheless, Issa sometimes presents us with something interesting, as here:

Oinureba   hi no nagai ni mo   namida kana
Age-if          day’s length at too   tears     kana

Growing old,
Tears come also at
The length of days ….

We can improve that by smoothing it out a bit;

Growing old;
Even the lengthening day
Brings tears.

Old hokku tended to assume that the reader had a poetic nature and would intuit the point of the verse, which in modern times is not always the case — for many moderns, a poetic nature must be taught and acquired, or at least “educated.”

So what is Issa saying?  Well, as usual he stretches the bounds of hokku, which usually just presents us with an experience of Nature and lets us feel its significance for ourselves.

Here he is saying that he is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”  He suffered in life, and understood, as Buddhism teaches, that underlying all human existence is a deep dissatisfaction, because ultimately no “thing” can satisfy us more than temporarily.  Issa had a very difficult childhood, and it left emotional scars which are readily visible in his verses.  On reading them, one often thinks of the “male” version of the old folk song that begins, “I am a man of constant sorrow; I’ve seen trouble all my days.”

Knowing that, we are ready to look again at Issa’s verse.  Whereas for many of us the lengthening of the days in spring is a cause for rejoicing, Issa knows that more daylight hours just bring more troubles.  We may find that hard to understand, because many of us have grown up in protected pockets of the world.  But in many places and in many times, life has been very difficult — and still is.  Our ancestors, who generally had to work remarkably hard for a living, knew this well.  They saw the harsh realities from which we have often been shielded.

Issa, then, is combining two things here.  First is the process of growing old, which brings its aches and pains and ailments along with the weakening of the senses.  We feel time in that.  And with that Issa gives us the lengthening of the day in spring, so we see that he is actually using an old hokku technique that we learned some time ago — the combining of things that are similar in feeling.  Here we have the “length” of life in old age and the length of the day.

And then Issa makes a comment on the two combined, which is that as one grows older, the lengthening of the day also may seem just one more cause for sorrow.  Not only does it bring the problems inherent in more daylight hours, but it also gives us a feeling of time stretched out to the point of pain, so that one begins to feel, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread .” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)

Technically, then, this is a “statement” hokku made by combining two similar things and making an objective statement about the result.  Now one may question how objective Issa’s comment is here, but for him it was objective; it was simply the way he perceived things, and about that there is no quibbling.

Of course there is the more usual and more obviously objective approach to the subject of the lengthening of days, but I will save that for another little talk.

David