DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

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

HOKKU IS NOT THE SAME AS “HAIKU”

New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) 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.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):

(Winter)

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

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.

David

WHAT IS A FROG DOING IN AUTUMN?

As long-time readers here know, hokku is seasonal verse.  Every verse is an event set in the context of a particular season.

Photograph of a Green Frog en ( Rana clamitans...

In old hokku (which was Japanese), this became too systematized, so that if one wrote about frogs, it was automatically assumed that such a verse was a “spring” verse.  But in modern hokku, a frog verse can be for any season in which a frog appears.  For us in the temperate zone, that would be in spring, summer, or early autumn.

Ordinarily we do not write or read hokku that are out of season, but an exception is made for general instruction, and that is why today, on a very chilly and wet day in autumn, I am going to briefly discuss a couple of “frog” hokku.

The kind of language used in writing Japanese hokku was telegraphic, which means a translation of such a verse is often likely to come out longer in English.  Here is an example by Wakyu:

Hitotsu tobu   oto ni mina tobu   kawazu kana

That literally reads, “One jumps sound at, all jump; frogs….

Put into ordinary English, we would say,

At the sound of one jumping, they all jump; frogs.

But of course in English that is not as clear as we would like it, because English tends to be more definite than Japanese.  We would want it to say,

At the sound of one frog jumping in, they all jump in; frogs.” That way it is clear that they are not jumping on land, but jumping into water.

R. H. Blyth translated the verse very much like that, only he took the very last word — “frogs” — and moved it into the main body of the verse, like this:

At the sound of one jumping in,
All the frogs
Jumped in.

That comes out top-heavy and a bit awkward visually, though it makes sense and is clear. That kind of out-of balance verse often results from trying to translate everything in an original into English.  But we could achieve essentially the same thing and gain the brevity so helpful in hokku by leaving out the word oto — “sound,” like this:

The frogs;
When one jumps in,
They all jump. 

That is better balanced, and it is very close to the sense of the original without being overly long.

We could do the same for another “frog” hokku (by Ryōto) that Blyth places right after that one in his anthology.  In the original, it is:

Hashi wateru hito ni shizumaru kawazu kana

Bridge cross person at quieten frogs kana

Blyth again makes it too top-heavy in his translation.  That is acceptable when one is trying to  convey the meaning of the original, which was what Blyth was doing and doing well, but it is not good in writing hokku in Engish.  Blyth has:

Someone passed over the bridge,
And all the frogs
Were quiet.

An additional problem is that the translation reads a little to much like a single run-on sentence. We could achieve the same effect by putting it into better form:

Crossing the bridge;
All the frogs
Go silent.

There are multiple ways of translating the same verse, and multiple ways of writing such hokku in English.  The trick is not to go too far, not to try to put too much into a verse.  Keep it simple and direct.  Did you notice in that last verse that even though the first line looks considerably longer than the other two, it is still only three words, just like the second line?

Just an additional remark, and that will be it for now.  You probably saw the untranslated word kana at the end of each Japanese hokku.  The Japanese used it as a kind of meditative pause at the end, but they also, quite honestly, often used it just to pad out the required seventeen phonetic units standard in Japanese hokku.  In English, punctuation does the trick when a sense of pause is needed, but actually in many cases it does not need to be reflected in the translation at all, given that in so many cases it is just “filler.”

David

THROUGH THE BARLEY

Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.

David

THE LAST OF HOKKU HERE?

I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.

David

EPIGRAMS AND SENRYU

It is typical of the misunderstanding that has dogged the steps of hokku in the West that when it first began to appear there, it was sometimes referred to as “epigrams,” when it is not epigrammatical at all.

What is an epigram?  Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us in rhyme:

What is an epigram?  A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

In the West there are comical as well as serious epigrams, and they go back to ancient times.  One finds them in the Greek Anthology, that venerable collection of classical verse.  Here are some renditions:

First, the satirical:

The sculptor carved Menodotis with love.
It is — how very odd it is —
A noble, speaking likeness.  But not of
Menodotis.

And Matthew Prior had a much later one:

Sir, I admit your general rule
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

And then, leaving satire aside, there is the stunningly noble ancient Greek epigram written on the tomb of the hero Leonidas, over whose remains a carved stone lion was placed:

I am a lion.  Stranger pause
As you pass lightly by;
I guard the tomb of one who was
More lion-like than I.

But today I want to talk about the satirical, because when it comes to the definition of an epigram, paradoxically, the “evil twin” of hokku — senryu — fits the description precisely; it is very small and brief, “its body brevity, and wit its soul.”

The man
Afraid of his wife
Makes money.

The husband is afraid not to make money, because his wife will nag him mercilessly.

In spite of its superficial resemblance to hokku, that is obviously a senryu, not a hokku.  It has no relation to Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and it has no season.  Instead, its whole focus is on revealing the quirks of human nature.  And that is what senryu are about.

Turning
To the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.

The teacher does not want the students to see that he too finds the lesson boring.

Senryu shows us what people don’t want us to know, showing what humans are really like behind the “image.”

Here is a modified and  “updated” rendering of an old one that seems at first more hokku-like:

The plastic flowers
On the table are dusty;
An out-of-the-way motel.

The isolated motel gets few guests, so the “management” does not pay much attention to appearances.

What makes this senryū rather than hokku?  It is the look into human nature that it gives us.   And of course we would not be using plastic flowers in hokku.

Older than he,
The wife applies her face cream
Desperately.

She is worried that her husband will lose interest and perhaps look elsewhere for romance.

 

And having raised, with that last verse, the issue of the ravages of time, I shall complete the circle by returning again to an ancient Greek epigram, of which the first three lines are sufficient:

Now that I grow old, alas,
And the light of youth must pass,
Venus, take my looking glass.

Now that she is losing her looks, she no longer wants to look in a mirror.

 

David