AUTUMN ENDS

Autumn ends;
Again the cries of wild geese
Passing overhead.

Yes, autumn is ending, according to the old calendar.  And it ends with Halloween, the night before the old Celtic holiday of Samhain — (pronounced Sah-win) –which is only a few days away.  Then comes the beginning of winter — the time of turning inward.

 

David

 

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EXPRESSING AUTUMN: TWO HOKKU BY CHARLES TUSKEY

Today I would like to share two verses by the long-time writer of hokku, Charles Tuskey.  They are very expressive of autumn:

All day,
It is twilight;
Autumn rain.

  

The wild geese;
Sounding far off, they come —
Sounding far off, they go.

wildgeeseflying_1

These two very effective examples remind us clearly of the fundamental definition of the aesthetics of the hokku — that it is a verse form expressing Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  And they remind us that hokku at its best is a sensory experience.

I am very pleased that Chuck permitted me to post these verses.  They show that hokku can be written today that are as good as those written in the distant past.   They also show that though the hokku aesthetic tradition is centuries old, it enables one to produce verses that are fresh and timeless.

David

CRIES OF WILD GEESE: A HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF WINTER

A foggy morning;
From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

This is the time of year when I am often pleasantly surprised, when out walking in the morning, by the cries of migrating flocks of geese and ducks passing high overhead. It is also a time of frequent fog.

I often wonder how many out there are learning or practicing hokku. I know that still, comparatively speaking, few people even know what it is.

As I often repeat, hokku are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Unlike modern haiku, the hokku accepts certain boundaries. It does not include violence or sex or romance or other such things that disturb the mind, because hokku is a “contemplative” kind of verse. It also avoids emphasis on the writer, and tends to use the words “I” “me” and “my” seldom. When talking about one’s self, it is treated in the same objective way one would talk about a tree, a stone, or a fox.

Hokku at times has a subtle humor, but never the “milk spurting out the nose” kind of intentionally funny poetry such as limericks.

Underlying all of the practice of hokku, all its verses, is a sense of transience, of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. Impermanence is the character of everything in the universe, from the life of a mayfly to that of stars. Being set in the seasons, hokku has an inherent sense of time and its movements, and that is why we pay attention to the Hokku Calendar, which approximates very closely the old agricultural calendar of the British Isles and elsewhere.

Hokku also keeps us aware, in this impermanence, of the interplay of the two cosmic forces, Yin and Yang, and how they manifest in the changing seasons.

Now we have entered the last phase in the declining of Yang energies from their height in summer. We are moving into the increasing Yin of winter.

All hokku have a longer part and a shorter part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. The longer part may come first or second, whatever works best.

A hokku in English begins each line with a capital letter, and ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

In today’s hokku the short part comes at the beginning:

A foggy morning;

Then follows the longer part:

From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

Notice that even though the two parts of the hokku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, there may be more than one punctuation mark in the body of the verse. Only one of them, however, functions as the separating mark or “cut” between the longer and shorter parts of the verse.

Hokku is not difficult to write. It does, however, require one to follow certain aesthetic guidelines, such as those already mentioned. Once one gets the spirit of these, then hokku becomes quite easy.

It is a very important verse form for these times in which there are so many threats to Nature and to world climate, and in which people are increasingly alienated from Nature and from the cycle of the seasons. It takes us away from materialism and back to the basic and important things in life.

David

FALLING LEAVES AND WILD GEESE

Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.

David

LIKE CLOUDS — OR IS IT GEESE, OR MAYBE….

Someone recently kindly asked me to participate in an online group project to translate — or at least present Englished versions of — all the hokku of Bashō.  I declined for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it is stretching it a bit to say that even 20% of the approximately 1,000 verses attributed to Bashō are either worthwhile or transfer well from culture to culture.

But another reason I could have given is that some of Bashō’s hokku are so obscure in the originals that they defy definite translation, like this autumn verse:

Kumo to hedatsu   tomo ka ya kari no  ikiwakare
Cloud as separate  friend ka ya wild-geese  ‘s live-parting

It is devilishly difficult to understand precisely how Bashō intended this to be read.   Does it mean, as David Landis Barnhill has it (I have changed his format, not his words),

Like clouds drifting apart,
A wild goose separates, for now,
From his friend.

Or does it mean, as Oseko presents it,

Friend beyond the clouds!
Just as wild geese
Part company.

Might it mean

Clouds will separate
The two friends, after migrating
Wild goose’s departure.

…as Makoto Ueda has it,

Or perhaps does it mean, as Russian translator  Dmitri Smirnov gives it,

Облака разделят  нас друг с другом навсегда,  словно двух гусей.

Which I would translate as:

Clouds separate us,
Friend from friend forever,
Like two wild geese.

Should it begin,

Like clouds…

or perhaps

Just as clouds…

Making a simile (which most hokku do not use, as I have pointed out previously), or does the apparent simile apply not to the clouds, but rather to the wild geese, as others would have it?

This is the kind of stew into which one jumps when one takes on translating the entire body of Bashō’s verse.  Really, life is too short to spend it on this kind of thing, particularly when the result will inevitably be inconclusive and colored by the personal aesthetics of the translator.

Of course such problems have not deterred others from giving it a try, yet even David Landis Barnhill stops at translating about 725 of the near 1,000 extant hokku.  Toshiharu Oseko earlier went farther, coming out with two large hardcover volumes of Bashō translations, with extensive notes.  And they are not the only ones to take on the task — just the most useful authors so far, in my view.

So how would I translate the verse in question?  First, I would just openly admit its obscurity. and then I would probably come up with some “amended” version like this:

Friends separate
Like passing clouds;
Wild geese leaving.

Quite honestly, it makes a terrible hokku, because it does not do what a hokku should do, which is to avoid simile and too much comparison.  I do not think any translation I have seen of this verse of Bashō makes a good hokku.  And of course what Bashō really intended remains unclear even to native Japanese readers, so what you just read in my “translation” is a mixture of Bashō and Coomler.

The reason for difficulty in this verse, no doubt, is that Bashō was mixing images from old Chinese poetry  — parting friends, clouds, and wild geese — and he poured the result into the very tiny mold of hokku, and in this case it just did not work.  Instead he should have written it in another and more expansive verse form, leaving hokku for what works well in hokku.

Blyth once said with affectionate hyperbole that a bad verse of Bashō is better than the best of lesser writers of hokku, but I do not find that to be literally the case.  Many of Bashō’s verses make poor models for modern hokku, but we need not dwell on those when we have the best of his hokku given us in the translations of Blyth.  As students of hokku it is best to concentrate on those that are good, using the mediocre and the bad only as examples of what to avoid.

And for those who do want to dwell on those numerous, lesser attempts of Bashō, there is always the large selection offered in paperback by David Landis Barnhill and the two very useful volumes (outrageously expensive now that they are out of print) of Toshiharu Oseko.  If you are budget-minded, go with David Landis Barnhill.  If you are interested in “popular” personal interpretations by someone who is a lover of poetry though not a real translator, you might like to peruse Jane Reichhold’s “complete” versions of Bashō’s verses, but keep in mind that it will be hard to distinguish what is Reichhold with her “modern haiku” aesthetics from what is legitimately Bashō.  Those looking for deeper insight and accuracy will prefer Barnhill and Oseko.

As for me, I will leave the translating of the complete works of Bashō to others.  My view is that modern hokku is legitimately based on the best of all writers of hokku prior to the beginning of the 20th century, and there is no need to spend much time on inferior or confusing old examples that contribute little or nothing to the building of modern hokku in English and other languages.

As for which of the many translations of the verse given above is really the best, one can only say that the best verse as a poem is that of  Dmitri Smirnov, followed by that of Barnhill.  But in doing so, one must separate what is good as a poem from what is good as a hokku.  Something may be good as poetry yet bad as hokku.

David

FOG AND THINKING

Perhaps you remember my “Fall” hokku:

The river —
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Fog is very important to autumn hokku, and important to ink painting — one of the other contemplative arts — as well.  Fog both hides and reveals as it moves and changes.  I have always been fond of those wonderful old Chinese paintings of mountains emerging from fog.  Just as in hokku, what is seen — or mentioned — is made even more significant by what is not seen or mentioned.

Keep in mind that when three people read the same hokku, they will have three different experiences.  Yes, each will be focused on a river and the fog, but each will be different.  That is because on reading a hokku, each person draws from his or her own memory and experience to create the new experience.  So a thousand people reading the same hokku will have a thousand different experiences.

One must be careful not to make hokku too “poetic.”  Look at these two verses, the first exactly what a hokku should be, the second in hokku form but really too poetic for hokku:

Dense fog;
What is being shouted
From hill and boat?

It is a scene where on a clear day, one would easily see a river passing at the base of a steep hill.  But now there is a thick fog, and in it someone in the river boat and someone on the hill are trying to communicate by shouting through the fog that muffles all sounds.  The writer hears the shouting, but cannot clearly see either person, nor can he distinguish what it is that is being shouted.

In forming the hokku thus, Kitō conveys to us the “hiding and revealing” power of the fog.  We hear shouting, but do not understand the words in an autumn world where much is hidden by the fog.

Obviously this is a “question” hokku.  A question hokku derives its power from an asked, but always unanswered question.  What is being shouted in the dense fog?  It is that questioning feeling — that “not knowing” that is the whole point of a question hokku.  To answer it — even by saying we do not know what is being shouted — spoils the effect.

Perhaps you are familiar with the American composer Charles Ives.  One of his best-known works is titled The Unanswered Question.  It is an instrumental way of presenting the question of existence — and in Ives’ work, that question — as in hokku — is never answered.

Kitō’s hokku, then, does what hokku should do, but does not go beyond it.  By contrast, here is a verse by Buson.  You will recall that Buson was a painter, and he often strives for painterly effects in his hokku, which makes them a bit artificial.  It is worth remembering that Buson — not Bashō — was the favorite of Masaoka Shiki.   It was the “painter” aspect of Buson that Shiki liked, which contributed to Shiki’s notion that his new “haiku” should be a kind of illustration or sketch from life.  But let’s look now at Buson’s verse:

Morning fog–
A painting of people passing
In a dream.

It is really too intentionally beautiful for hokku, and is somewhat like an impressionist painting.

Literally, what Buson wrote was:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku  yume no hito dōri
Morning-fog ya   picture in painted dream ‘s people pass

So if we moved things around a bit, we could translate it more literally as

Morning fog:
Painted in a picture —
Dream people passing.

Either way, however, it does what hokku should not do — it pulls our attention in two different directions by comparing one thing with another.  Instead of just telling us that people are passing in the morning fog, he goes beyond and tells us that it is like a picture of people passing in a dream — of dream-people passing.  Any time we have to use the word “like” to explain something in hokku, it is a warning sign.  Hokku should let things just be themselves, not be “like” this or “like” that.

To explain this further, let’s look at another Buson hokku in which he took things to a similar but even greater extreme:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

It may not be readily obvious to someone not familiar with Chinese and Japanese painting, but what Basho is doing here is comparing — LIKE-ening–a line of wild geese flying in the night sky of autumn to a line of calligraphy — of writing — on a scroll.  And carrying the simile further, he then says that above the foothills, the moon is pressed as the seal.  In such a painting, there is generally a reddish-orange seal that is either the mark of the painter or the mark of an owner.  Such seals were often round (though sometimes square or rectangular or oval), and contained stylized Chinese characters.

So Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter.  He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions — one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter.  Hokku, in my view, should not do this.  It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power.

Of course Westerners will often like such verses very much, because Western poetry is filled with simile (one thing likened to another) and metaphor (saying one thing is another).  We are accustomed to it, we recognize it, and we might mistakenly think it is just fine because to us it is common in poetry.  But hokku is not poetry as we understand it.  Instead, hokku should be a direct sensory experience — seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and hearing.  Hokku should not be an intellectual experience, and when we use simile or metaphor, we take hokku away from the concrete and into the realm of the abstract — the world of the mind and intellection, what we call “thinking” in hokku.  But hokku are experiencing, not thinking.

That does not mean Buson’s two verses are bad.  In their own way they are interesting for what they are.  It is just that what they are is not really what hokku should be or what hokku should do.  Fortunately, not all of Buson’s verses are like this, but when reading him, we somehow feel we can never really trust him to tell us the truth; he too often strives for an effect, and so Buson’s verses give us the same uncertain, untrustworthy feeling we get when looking at an exhibition of photos in which some have been altered by computer to enhance their effect.

David

DESCENDING GEESE, FALLING LEAVES

Some Japanese hokku seem to defy translation into English, even though their meaning is not difficult.  An example is Kyoroku’s:

Descending geese —
Their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night.

As one group of geese comes down from the sky, followed by yet another, their cries seem to layer one upon the other.  This piling of cry on cry only intensifies the cold of the night.

Does this verse seem a little familiar?  It should, because it is similar to Gyōdai’s

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

In Japanese, forms of the word meaning “to pile up, to collect on one another” are operative in both, which I translate here as “pile on one another” in the first case and “lie on one another” in the second.