BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

GIJŌEN’S CICADA

Well, by the Hokku Calendar we are in summer now. Coincidentally, someone just forwarded a question to me about a verse found in loose translation in the old Peter Pauper books that some may remember from the middle of the last century (if you were even alive in the last century). There it is mistakenly attributed to a “Gijoens.” But the name of the writer was actually Gijōen. And being a hokku about cicadas, it is of course a summer verse — though a bit farther into summer than we are now.

In the forwarded message, the person had asked for the original Japanese. Well, as you know, now I like to concentrate on hokku in English here most of the time, but given that the inquirer could not locate the original, perhaps others might be curious as well, so here it is:

Matsuyani wo hanare kanete ya semi no koe

Pine-pitch wo get-away-cannot ya cicada’s voice

松脂をはなれかねてや せみ の 聲

Here is my rendering:

Unable
To escape the pine pitch;
The cicada’s cry.

In the Japanese summer, the cries of cicadas can be very loud and noisy and persistent — a kind of constant background drone.

Not a very cheerful hokku — but there it is.

David

SWISHING

A hokku by Banko:

Suzushisa yo ushi no o wo furu kawa no naka
Cool          (!)  cow   ‘s  tail wo  wag river ‘s in

(Summer)

How cool!
The cows in the river
Swishing their tails.

It is unfortunate that in our modern and increasingly urbanized society, fewer and fewer will see such rural scenes.

 

David

 

COOL MOONLIGHT

Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer.  In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.

In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day.  But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:

Tsuki suzushi   uma arai iru  kawa no oto
moon cool        horse wash-is  river ‘s sound

We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:

(Summer)

Cool moonlight;
The sound of horses
Bathing in the river.

It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.

 

David

WIDENING CIRCLES

Many people overthink hokku.  Once one understands the aesthetics, it becomes quite simple.

Here is a summer hokku:

A summer shower;
All over the river —
Widening circles.

It has no hidden message.  It expresses the season in a natural event, without any commentary or interpretation, and without any “self” of a writer appearing.  A shower has begun, and everywhere on the surface of the water are the widening circles caused by each raindrop as it touches the surface.

It is a simple experience of the senses, not of the intellect.

If we use our old “setting/subject/action” pattern, we can look at it this way:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  Circles
Action: Widening all over the river

Now you can see that these elements are not arranged precisely in order in the hokku, but they are there nonetheless.   The setting/subject/action pattern is just a helpful tool in composing, not a rigid group of boxes into which each element must be forced in a strict order.

All one needs to write hokku is to realize that it is not a conventional “poem.”   It is an experience of the senses that is felt to be meaningful, involving Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, and devoid of ego and added commentary.  Hokku uses ordinary words and ordinary things, but in these we should feel a sense of significance that is beyond explanation.

Of course hokku has its own aesthetic of simplicity and selflessness, and always in the background we feel that universal characteristic of existence — impermanence, the transience of things.  In this hokku we see it in the circles that appear, widen, and vanish on the surface of the river.

 

David

 

BLACK MATES

(Summer)

Down the bright road,
A crow and his shadow
Flying together.

I saw that a couple of days ago.  A crow swooped down not far from me, and as it flew very low over the sunny road, I was struck by the black shadow just below the crow and the black crow just above the shadow, both flying close in unison.

This is, I think, a good example of what I always say hokku should be:  ordinary things, but seen in a new way or from a different perspective.

 

David

ALMOST NOTHING HERE

Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

COOL, CLEAR WATER

 

With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:

(Summer)

At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:

(Summer)

Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:

(Summer)

Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.

 

David

 

 

A LOAD OF WIND

Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana

David

THE EFFECT OF YIN AND YANG

Summer heat;
The drip — drip of water
In the shadows.

stonebasin

This verse illustrates a fundamental technique used in many hokku — harmony of contrast. It is simple. One just combines things that are opposite in nature — heat is yang, shadows and water are yin. Using it, one can effectively convey many experiences. The technique is a good way to bring out the character of the heat, and also that of shade and of water.

David

ABSENCE AND PRESENCE AND SUMMER HEAT

The windbell silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

This summer hokku by Yayū is somewhat unusual, first because it includes a clock.  We already know that “modern technology” is not a part of hokku, and if we allow ourselves to become very literalistic about that limitation, instead of understanding its spirit, we might think that Yayū made a mistake in including a clock.  But clocks are very old, and belong to a kind of simpler technology that preceded the Industrial Revolution and is still within the realm of things worked and molded and cast, like iron pots and door hinges, in spite of a clock being somewhat more complex.  So they are not entirely out of place in hokku, and as we shall see, Yayū included a clock for a specific reason.

Most hokku are about things that are present — rain, sunlight, a spider, the wind.  But it is an important characteristic of hokku that things NOT present are just as important.  Things not present are absent, so we may speak of two kinds of hokku:  hokku of presence and hokku of absence.

Yayū’s hokku is again unusual in that it is a hokku of both absence and presence.  When Yayū writes:

The windbell silent;

what he is really presenting to us is the absence of sound.  The windbell is not moving, not making its customary, pleasant sound.  That means there is no wind.  The absence of sound equals the absence of wind here.  So what this first line is actually telling us is that it is a hot, completely windless day in summer.  That is the “absence” part of the hokku.

wind bell
(Photo credit: koizumi)

Now for the presence:  In that absence of the sound of the windbell that would indicate a cooling breeze, there is instead another sound — the regular, dry, mechanical ticking of a clock.  But Yayū, just as he presented us with the absence of wind indirectly by making us notice the silence of the windbell, now presents us with something else through this ticking:

The heat
Of the clock.

Now of course rationally we may ask what is hot about a clock?  But then we should remember that in hokku, perception is what counts.  The world is not viewed as an accumulation of isolated objects and events.  Instead, everything relates to everything else.

We have already seen that demonstrated in the silence of the windbell, which means not simply silence but also the absence of wind.  Now we see another relationship in the ticking of the clock on a summer’s day.  That ticking — like the absence of wind — is not mentioned at all, yet just as we know the wind is absent because the windbell is silent, we also know the clock is ticking because of the heat.

When Yayu speaks of the heat of the clock, we hear the dry, mechanical, regular ticking, and in that metallic regularity, so unlike the randomness of a windbell moved by a breath of air, we feel the oppressive heat of the day, and we feel it magnified by the absent ringing of the windbell:

The heat
Of the clock.

It really is a remarkable hokku, and if one did not understand how hokku work (and most do not, until someone tells them), it would be very easy to overlook or dismiss such a verse.

When a hokku is read, it must be with the premise of the universe as many things all interrelated. So in this verse, the silence of the windbell and the absence of a breeze are one thing; the clock and that heat and the ticking are one thing; and when we have finished the verse, what is absent and what is present together become one experience, each element giving significance to the other.

David