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

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


THE HOKKU, THE WALDEN, AND NOW THE LOREN

Kyorai, one of Bashō’s students, wrote:

Hito aze wa    shibashi naki yamu    kawazu kana
One path wa for-a-while  cries silent   frogs kana

An aze is specifically a path through rice paddies.

When Blyth translated this, he changed the verse, and also — in my view — its meaning:

One field of frogs
Croaks for a time,
And then is silent.

There is nothing wrong with that except that one loses the intrinsic meaning, and without the explanation one wonders why a field is full of frogs.  Blyth tells the reader in an added comment that “actually it is ‘one footpath between the fields'” of frogs.  But of course one cannot have

One footpath between the fields;

as a first line of a hokku.  It is just too long.

Moreover, we cannot possibly get everything in the Japanese version into the space of a hokku in English.   That means we need a verse form slightly longer than the hokku:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

Two days ago I introduced an English variant on the old Japanese waka that I call the “walden,” which has essentially the form of the old waka but the aesthetic content of the hokku.  The walden form is:

short
long
short
long
long.

Today I introduce a second variant, a third writing option, for those times when the space of a hokku (as in this case) is too short, but a walden is too long.  I’m going to call it a “loren” after one of my favorite writers, Loren Eiseley.  As you can see from the example, the structure of a loren is:

short
long
short
long
short

If we were to put the three verse types in old “Japanese” measure, they would look like this:

Hokku:  5-7-5
Loren:    5-7-5-7-5
Walden  5-7-5-7-7

NOW we have the full tools for dealing with virtually any case that may arise, using a short verse form.  We have the hokku for the shortest, the loren when a hokku is just a bit too short, and the walden when the loren is not quite long enough.  And of course all three follow the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.

But back to Kyorai’s verse, which we have expressed in a loren because the hokku is too short in English:

A footpath
Through the rice paddies;
For a while
Their croaks are silenced —
The frogs.

The rice paddies are filled with the croaking of frogs.  But as Kyorai proceeds down a footpath between the paddies, his presence is sensed and suddenly the frogs all go silent.

Having said all that, there is a way to translate Kyorai’s verse in hokku form:

A paddy path;
Suddenly the frogs
Go silent.

But of course the real point of this posting is to introduce another option for those cases that are virtually impossible to condense into the short hokku.

David

YOURS TRULY INTRODUCES THE WALDEN

Buson wrote a spring verse that is very tricky to put into English:

Hana ni kurete   waga ie tōki   no-michi kana
Blossoms at darkened   my home far   field-road kana

Blyth, who often preferred to convey the overall meaning of a verse rather than its absolutely literal meaning, gave this as:

Among the blossoms, it grows late,
And I am far from home —
This path over the moor.

That does well what Blyth wanted it to do, but it is not at all what we would do when composing a hokku in English.  It is too unbalanced, too long.  The problem is that literally, what Buson is saying is something like

It grows dark on the blossoms;
My home is far;
The field road.

But that too is unusably awkward in English.

We could try

The blossoms dim,
My home is far;
The road through the fields.

But essentially, Buson has presented us with two parallel lines and a third, and that makes translation into English hokku form problematic.  We need not feel troubled by it, however, because Buson has really packed too much into the small space for a hokku.  The information contained in the verse requires a wider format, either the waka or four lines of “Chinese” verse.

I would translate it into my own version of the waka.  But first I must explain a bit:

A waka (literally “Japanese song” or “Japanese verse”)  put into English form comes out as three lines of the same length as a hokku.  But it ends with two additional lines that are the length of the longest (the middle) line of the “hokku-like” part.  Where hokku avoids overt “poetry,” the waka does not.  And the waka, which does not shy away from romance, tears, longing for the loved one, etc. etc. etc., also tends to use a very elevated and elegant language, using only what we might call “high” subjects though presented in the context of Nature.  It is all moonlight and singing birds and cherry blossoms.  No toads, no pumpkins.

We may say that while our tradition of hokku took a middle path in old Japan, neither falling into mere puns and wordplay and witticism nor using only elevated subjects, the waka always remained on a very elevated level.  Subjects often found in hokku would be considered too “common” or “low” for it.

Quite honestly, that has always been why I have never had much interest in writing the waka.  I have no interest in its deliberate romanticism and its “ivory tower” attitude toward the ordinary things of life.  In waka everything must be conventionally beautiful and elegant and aristocratic.  Waka fails to see that there is also beauty in the ordinary and plain, and for me that is a fatal flaw.

What I have always wanted to do, then, is to make up for the flaw by writing a kind of “hokku-fied” waka, verse combining the high and low, which of course I could not continue to call waka because its aesthetics would be different — like those of the hokku.  My kind of waka, then, would be the waka form minus its complexities, and having the “contemplative” aesthetics of the hokku.

So here I give Buson’s overly-packed (for a hokku) verse rewritten in my longer, hokku-fied waka form, which I hereby name the “walden” in honor of Henry David Thoreau:

With evening,
The cherry blossoms
Grow dark;
Through empty fields,
The long road home.

Buson has lingered too long admiring the blossoms, and as they darken, he turns his eyes to the long road through the fields and begins his homeward journey.

If any of you would like to try the “walden” as well, just keep in mind that it has the same aesthetics as the hokku, and the same avoidances.  Its subject matter is Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and it omits romance, sex, violence — things that disturb the mind in general, as well as “technology.”

It is simply an extended hokku in its aesthetics.  And every now and then, one may need an extended hokku.  Outwardly it looks like a waka but it is not a waka; nor is it what is today called a tanka.  It is a walden.

Enjoy.

David


THE RIGHT TOOL

Cooks and craftsmen know that it is important to choose the right tool for the right job.  The same applies to verse.

In my years of teaching hokku, I commonly and often heard the complaint from haiku enthusiasts that hokku did not permit them to write about such things as their romantic relationships, or their attitude to a current war, or their cars or cell phones.  One phrase I heard so often that it seemed a mantra among them was, “If Bashō were alive today, he would write about these things.”

No, he would not.  How can I know that?  Because hokku is specifically about Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and to make it other than that would be to turn it into a quite different category of verse (i.e. “haiku”).  The root of the problem is that the would-be writers — the haiku enthusiasts — did not grasp or share the hokku aesthetic, and that is the reason for their dissatisfaction.

But the principle of using the right tool extends more widely than simply the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Donald Keene gives an excellent example in his book World Within Walls: Japanese LIterature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867.  Kamo no Mabuchi, a waka writer of the 18th century, made a verse on the death of his mother, prefacing it with this:

When I was told that my mother had died I could hardly believe it was true; I had spent seven years away from her, able to see her ony in dreams.  But the person who informed me was in tears.  I had supposed our separation would last only a little while longer, and had long looked forward to spending her old age with her, going together to different places, living in one house.  But what a vain and sad world it proved to be.  What am I to do now?

His waka (my translation) is:

I hoped
That like wild geese
We’d gather —
But all in vain;
The great village of Yoshino.

As Keene points out, without the preface one would not be able to make head nor tail of the waka; but even more significant, there is more poetry in the prose preface than in the verse itself when divorced from the preface.

Mabuchi would have been wiser to have written in the wider format of Chinese verse (which Japanese sometimes did), giving the scope necessary to convey in verse what he tells us in his preface.

Bashō made a similar error, as R. H. Blyth points out, by trying to write as hokku what minimally required the somewhat wider format of waka:

The autumn wind;
Brush and fields —
Fuha Barrier.

How flat and spiritless it is, compared to the waka on which it was based:

No one dwells
At the Fuha Barrier;
Its wooden gables
Have fallen to ruin.
Only the autumn wind.

That is far superior to the weak soup of Bashō’s attempted hokku, and again, the reason is that Bashō chose the wrong tool for the job.

Hokku, as I often say, was never meant to be all things to all men.  It has its tasks and it performs them well.  But when one chooses a subject requiring more scope, one should write it in a more expansive form, whether that of waka or “Chinese” verse (but in English, of course), or in whatever format fits one’s needs.

Can you imagine Walt Whitman trying to put this into hokku form?

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d — and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

It would have been an exercise in futility.  And similarly, writing hokku does not mean one must write ONLY hokku.  Some subjects require more space, and for them one must select a format that is most appropriate to the task.

In doing so, one must not try to make hokku stretch and distort to fit whatever one wants to force into it.  Instead, use it for its proper purpose, and for other purposes do what a good cook or craftsman does — use other and more appropriate tools.

David

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF HOKKU

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

 

David

A LOOK BACKWARD: THE HOKKU OF SŌGI

Bashō — the best-known writer of hokku — tried to follow the overall aesthetic in his verse that he found in the other contemplative arts of tea, of ink painting, of waka, and of renga.  He mentioned a representative master of each, and that for renga — the linked verse that preceded the kind of hokku Bashō wrote — was Sōgi.

Sōgi (1421-1502) is worth remembering not just because Bashō found his work admirable.  He is also the person who formalized the connection between the hokku and the seasons.

We must remember that Bashō did not invent the hokku.  Instead he developed it in a different direction by mixing the traditionally “high” subjects of the slightly longer Japanese waka — such as the cries of wild geese — with “low” subjects such as a frog jumping into the water, where formerly in waka it was customary to have the crying of frogs.  In doing so, he expanded the range of hokku while keeping its overall aesthetic.

Knowing then, that Bashō did not create the hokku, let’s take a look at some of the older hokku of Sōgi, which in their subject matter are very akin to the more elegant and deliberately poetic waka.

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

Wild geese in the clouds,
Ducks crying in the gorge;
The mountain path.

This morning they cover
The rains that fell in the night —
Falling leaves.

It is not hard to discern a general pattern in many of Sōgi’s earlier kind of hokku.  He likes to  present two things or events, and then to unify them by a third, for example the setting moon and the swift tide both joined by the summer sea; then the wild geese in the clouds, and the crying ducks in the gorge, both united by Sōgi’s perspective of witnessing them from a path in the mountains — geese above him, ducks below.  And finally, what falls in the morning (leaves) covering what fell in the night (rain) — the falling leaves covering the puddles and traces of rain.

It is a rather elegant and simple way to write, and again, with its choice of subjects it is closer to waka.  What Bashō did was to lessen the elegance and to increase the commonness, to lessen the obvious poetry, and to make the poetry more in the experience of everyday things seen in a new way — telling us things we already knew, but did not know that we knew until we read the hokku:

In the morning dew,
Muddy and fresh —
The melon.

After the elegant hokku of Sōgi, written as part of renga (linked verse), came the development of a new kind of renga that mixed in wit and humor, and was thus called “haikai no renga” — “playful” linked verse.  But this approach gradually degenerated into clever attempts at word-play.  It was this kind of low-class hokku that Bashō first learned.  But as his sensibilities developed, Bashō realized that the hokku could take on depth and profundity if it took a middle way — not quite the elegance of Sōgi’s hokku, and no longer the cheap wit and low humor of writers such as Teitoku — but a mixture of the high subjects of Sōgi’s “waka-like” hokku with the ordinary subjects of haikai;  and that is how the hokku we practice today, which mixes the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, came to be.  Of course Bashō was not the only one to see the advantages of such a middle way — there was for example Onitsura as well — but Bashō, probably because he had students to carry on his name, is the best known today.

David