SOLITUDE

Here is a waka by Jakuren (died 1202).  It is out of season, but it tells us something significant:

Sabishisa wa
Sono iro to shi mo
Nakarikeri

Maki tatsu yama no
Aki no yūgure
.

Solitude;
The color of it
Has no name.

Pines rise on the mountain
In the autumn dusk.

Some translate sabishisa as “loneliness,” but it is not quite that.  It is more the feeling of solitude amid a world of transience.  This transience — this impermanence of all things — ourselves included — is particularly felt in autumn, and we feel it most when alone.  So if you see sabishisa in that context, you will better understand it.

 

David

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WINTER SOLITUDE

A loose translation of yet another old Japanese winter waka:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

The first part of the waka is:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone.

The “turning point” that joins the first and second parts is “The path is gone”; so the second segment is:

The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

 

 

David

 

SO COLD THE WINTER….

Here is a loose translation of another old Japanese waka for the season of winter:

So cold the winter!
The wind never ceases
In the mountain village.
Still the sleet is falling
Ever more heavily.

As previously mentioned, a waka in form is like a hokku with two extra lines.  It has a “turning point” in the middle that acts both as the last line of the hokku portion and as the first line of the second (originally 5/7/7/ phonetic units) part.  In this verse it is “In the mountain village.”

We can separate them like this:

So cold the winter!
The Wind never ceases
In the mountain village.

In the mountain village,
Still the sleet is falling
Every more heavily.

 

REFLECTION

The old year has departed.  Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c.  872-945).  You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added.  In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:
5/7/5/7/7.

Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance.  It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.

Regrets
At the ending year —
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:

1.
Regrets
At year’s end;
A mirror.

2.
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there.  It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was.  That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.

As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!

How beautiful is youth,
Which nonetheless is fleeting!

We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku:  the passing of the year  is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.

 

HOKKU: CREATE THE RIGHT CONDITIONS

In the previous posting, I wrote that the poetic-aesthetic experience created in the mind on reading a hokku is involuntary; it just happens, because the hokku has created the right conditions for it to happen.

To better understand this, let’s look at a famous old waka by Saigyō:

Even in the mind of a mindless one
Sadness arises,
When the snipe flies up from the marsh
In the autumn dusk.

By “mindless one,” Saigyō means a spiritual person who has calmed the mind through meditation.  He thinks that even in such a person, given the experience of the autumn marsh, sadness must arise on seeing the bird rise up and fly away as day darkens.  Such an experience is involuntary.

It is the combination of the season, the time of day, and the rising and flying off of the bird that creates this particular aesthetic sensation in the mind.  Saigyō is saying that when the conditions are right, the experience will happen of itself in the mind — involuntarily.  That is the principle of hokku.

Writing a good hokku means creating the right conditions for that experience to sprout in the mind.

Incidentally, I mentioned some time ago that hokku has an “evil twin” called senryu.  While hokku is the verse of Nature and sensory experience, senryu, by contrast, is the verse of the quirks of human psychology and behavior.  Where hokku creates a poetic experience in the mind, senryu creates a bitingly humorous glimpse into the worldly human mind, something quite different.  We have already seen how Saigyō explained the rise of a poetic-aesthetic experience in his verse about the snipe.  Now here is how senryu explains Saigyō:

Saigyō sneezed,
And a verse about a snipe
Came out.

It means that Saigyō, sitting in the marsh at evening, suddenly sneezed, which frightened a snipe, causing it to fly up and away, inspiring Saigyō to write his waka.

As  you can see, unlike hokku, senryu tended to be witty and “low-class,” quite a different kind of verse.  Even though the outward form is the same, senryu is about human psychology, not Nature, and unlike hokku, it does not have a required seasonal context.

 

David

 

 

RAIN DRIPPING INTO A BASIN

I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.

David

A WILLOWY WALDEN

Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.

David