AT YEAR’S END

Now that we are about to enter the year 2020 (yikes! — is it that late?), it is probably a good time to talk about why the peculiar fellow who runs this blog site keeps talking about “hokku,” when most people are talking about something called “haiku” (if they are talking about either at all).

Well, as those of you who have been readers here a long time know, in my mind hokku (the name of the verse form for centuries) and “haiku” (the name some Japanese people began giving to hokku around the turn of the 20th century) –have developed over time into two very different things.

We can clearly see the difference if we look at some very blunt statements made in a little essay by Haruo Shirane, a scholar and an advocate of modern haiku.  You will find the whole text here, if you wish to read it:

http://www.haikupoet.com/definitions/beyond_the_haiku_moment.html

Shirane writes:

Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku, as much recent English-language haiku has revealed, and should be considered part of nature in the broadest sense.

From the hokku perspective, I find this appalling.  It expresses essentially the same controversial view that arose after the founding of the Haiku Society of America in the 1960s, and it caused a sharp controversy then between Harold Henderson — who wrote one of the first significant English-language books on what was then called “haiku” — and another member of the society.  Henderson held the traditional position that Nature is Nature, and the other person held that anything and everything is Nature — whether a stainless steel elevator or a fighter jet.  Henderson could not and did not agree.

In my view, that anyone could or would hold such a view of Nature as Henderson’s opponent is just a symptom of how alienated the contemporary world has become from Nature.  We live in the era of creeping concrete, when shopping malls and vast housing developments are flooding over what once were meadows, fields, and forests.  We also live in a time when a great extinction of natural life — birds, beasts, insects, and creatures of all kinds — is well under way — all due to the human devaluation of Nature — or perhaps I should say, the valuation of Nature only in terms of corporate dollars.  If matters do not change, then even the extinction of human life on this planet is a possibility, given how disrupted the world climate has become — and it is only getting worse in the absence of serious efforts to slow and reverse it.

Shirane goes on to say:

However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics. For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.”

Well, that is modern haiku for you. This is what it has become.  By contrast, writers of hokku would not worry at all about whether it is “serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have an impact on other non-haiku poets….”  To me that seems a very academic and if I may use the term, “unspiritual” view, and not at all in the natural spirit of hokku.  A writer of hokku would not be bothered with all that, but instead would be concerned only with writing verses that are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of a particular season, and expressed simply and directly so that the reader might share the sensory, non-intellectual experience of the writer, to the greatest extent that is possible through the medium of ordinary words.

As I have written in the past, to me the fundamental essence of old Japanese hokku was revealed in the writings of R. H. Blyth, though he too used the then-current Japanese term “haiku” in writing of it.  But “haiku” today is not even what it was in Blyth’s day (the mid-1900s), and so to call the verse form “haiku” now is simply to confuse and mislead readers.  That is why I long ago returned to using the original name for the verse form — hokku — to distinguish it from the modern haiku that was developed out of it.  “Haiku,” by contrast with hokku — as we see in Shirane’s description — has departed from Nature, and has set its sights instead on being “literature,” and “with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, [etc.]….”

In short, modern haiku seeks to become poetry like any other modern poetry, only with a bit more brevity.  That means for those who practice it as such — as I foresaw long ago — the death of the important aesthetics of the old hokku at its best.

Now by writing this, I am not saying that one should not write verses about the urban world, about subways and airports and computers and modern technology.  People are free to write about what they will.  All I ask is that these verses not be confused with the old pre-20th century hokku or with hokku as it is written today.

Now admittedly, it is more difficult to write Nature-based hokku in an urban environment.  But that should only be an encouragement for urbanites to seek a closer relationship with Nature, to search it out, whether in parks or gardens or visits to the countryside or seashore or mountains, or even in closely observing such things as a seedling sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk.  We are all creatures of Nature, and the more divorced we are from it, the more unnatural we become.

When Shirane says, “Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan” — he is giving a very accurate picture of modern Western haiku as opposed to hokku.  But in hokku, the “ground rules” are not completely different from what they were in Japan. Instead, hokku keeps the spirit rather than only the letter of old hokku.

It is true that writers of hokku no longer use specific “season words,” but those are replaced quite well by seasonal categorization in hokku.  Every verse falls under the heading of either Spring, Summer, Fall/Autumn, or Winter.  And it is true that hokku in English does not limit itself to 17 phonetic units as was the standard (not always followed) in old Japan, but that is because grammatically the languages are quite different, and just keeping to brevity serves the purpose well while maintaining the spirit of the old verse.  It is also true that unlike some old hokku, hokku today does not use one thing to mean another, nor does it favor historical or literary allusions, but that is quite in keeping with the essence of the best old hokku.  A Japanese today would not find the aesthetics of contemporary hokku out of keeping with the best of what was written two or more centuries ago in Japan.

I have been advocating the revival of the old hokku aesthetics for well over two decades now, but it takes a particular kind of person to appreciate and to write hokku.  In contrast to Shirane, I do not even like to use the term “poetry” in describing hokku, because at its best, it is so completely unlike what most people consider to be poetry in the West.  In fact it was the confusion of the aesthetics of the hokku with those of Western poetry (particularly English-language poetry) that led to the misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku that gave rise to the modern English-language “haiku” movement in the 1960s — and as we see from Shirane, the situation has only worsened since then.  From the point of view of hokku and its aesthetics, modern haiku is a degeneration of that which originally inspired it.

Now I know I have a number of regular readers here who nonetheless write modern haiku, and that is fine, as long as they do not confuse what they write with hokku.  All I ask of them is that if they are writing haiku, using the loose standards of haiku, then call it haiku — and if writing hokku, using the definite aesthetics of hokku, then call it hokku (but be sure that is what you are writing!).  Writing hokku is, in my view, much more challenging than writing haiku, and requires quite a different spirit and attitude toward life and Nature.  Please do not mix the two terms, because  — I repeat — they now generally refer to two very different things.

If anyone has any questions about all this, I would be happy to answer them.

 

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

AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

COMPOSING HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF AUTUMN

Now that we have entered the season of autumn — which by the old calendar extends from Lammas to Halloween — we will look at how the old writers expressed the season.

Not all old hokku were equally effective, and many do not make good models.  We will look at those that do, and perhaps also at some that do not, because it is helpful to see why some succeed while others are weak.

Here is a hokku by Issa:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale blue sky —
Autumn mountains.

That is a very simple hokku — in fact rather reminiscent of the later Shiki, in that the sensory impression is primarily visual.  But of course we are to feel autumn in the air, and the waning of the Yang energies.  There is harmony between the autumn season and the evening.

In the original, Issa does not say “pale blue sky,” he just says asagi — which in earlier Japanese literature meant a kind of pale yellow color, but later came to be considered primarily a pale to turquoise blue.  Notice how the hokku changes if we were to use the more literary meaning of the word:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow —
Autumn mountains.

In English we would want to make it more clear to avoid confusion:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow sky —
Autumn mountains.

Blyth treats “clear” as a verb in his rendering:

Clearing up in the evening;
In the pale blue sky.
Row upon row of autumn mountains.

That makes for a rather overly-long verse (in keeping with Blyth’s tendency toward explanatory translations).

We could simplify it to:

A clear evening;
Rows of mountains
Against the pale blue sky.

Again, it is primarily a visual hokku, but it gives a pleasant picture of evening mountains seen against the sky.

We can see in these various renderings the same principles we apply when writing new hokku — look for the essentials of an experience, and simplify, cutting out words not necessary for meaning.  But we do not cut so much that the verse becomes unclear.  That is why “sky” is added above, even though it is not in the original — for clarity.  We do not want to leave a reader wondering what is meant, because that obstructs the immediate experiencing of the verse.

Here is another primarily visual autumn hokku by Ryōta:

August;
At every house,
The  morning glory blooms.

The blooming of morning glories is a sign of the beginning of autumn, so in this verse, we see autumn in the flowers that twine and bloom at every house — autumn’s beginning is seen everywhere.

The original actually uses a rather poetic term for August — hazuki (ha-tsuki) “leaf-moon/leaf-month,” but of course that does not work in English.

We could also write a verse like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We could have phrased it like this —

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

That changes how we experience the verse.  If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house
The morning glory blooms.

— we see the houses first, then the morning glories blooming at them.

If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

— then we see first the blooming morning glories, then all the houses at which they bloom.

We could also write it like this;

At every house
The morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

We could also put it like this:

August begins;
At every house,
Blooming morning glories.

However, the repetition of the -ing sound in blooming morning glories is not quite smooth, so instead we could say —

August begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We know that Lammas — August 1st — is the beginning of autumn, so even though the month is mentioned rather than the season, we know it is the beginning of autumn.  Still, it is not quite as effective as

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

As you see, there are lots of options — even more than given here.  It all depends on what we wish to emphasize, and how we want the reader to experience the verse.

For practice, think of indicators you see or have seen that signify the beginning of autumn — and remember that in the hokku calendar, autumn does not just begin with falling leaves, but with any sign of the seasonal change — including even the sensing of the change “in the air,” as in this verse by Kyoroku:

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

There is also the similar verse of Chora, which again has morning glories as a signifier of summer’s end — the beginning of autumn:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

Try to use one or more indicators you notice in your area (in separate hokku if more than one) to express the beginning of autumn.

 

David

HARVEST HOME: SUMMER’S END

When my morning glory begins to bloom and blossoms appear on the Japanese Anemone, I know summer is ending by the old calendar, and it is time for autumn to begin.

The calendar marker for this change is the old festival of Lammas — “Harvest Home,”  — the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  That happens on August 1st.   It was at this time  — or a few days later, depending on location — that the harvesting of the grain began, and its storage in barns.

That does not mean the hot weather is over; it just means the Wheel of the Year has turned, and now the Yang energy will increasingly wane as Yin energy grows, though the effects will likely not be really noticeable for about a month.

To us it signifies that we are now moving from summer hokku to autumn hokku.  Here is a repeat of something I have posted before:

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.”

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma MèreMy Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

 

David

DEFINING HOKKU

Many people first discover hokku after having been involved with other forms of short verse — even short verse that was inspired by and in an historical sense “developed out of” hokku and may even superficially look like hokku — but has taken a different path and a different name — the modern “haiku.”

If you look for a clear definition of the verse form that was inspired by the hokku and that gained popularity in the West from about the middle of the 20th century onward — the “haiku” — you will find that people generally say it can be “described but not defined,” meaning there is no clear definition for it.  It is whatever a writer says it is.

From that alone, we can see that modern short verses that may look like hokku and were originally inspired by hokku are nonetheless not hokku, because hokku can be clearly defined.

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse expressing an experience of Nature and/or humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.  It consists of two parts, a longer of two lines and a shorter of one line, with either beginning the verse.  The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation, and the first letter of each line is capitalized, and the whole ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.  It is characterized by brevity, simplicity, concreteness (dealing with things rather than our ideas about things) and objectivity.  It focuses on sensory experience (seeing, hearing touching, tasting, smelling) rather than abstract thought, and when dealing with states of mind such as sadness or joy, it presents them objectively.  It avoids violent topics as well as other topics that disturb the mind, such as sex and romance.  It deliberately de-emphasizes the ego, and when mentioning the writer, it does so objectively, as one would deal with a bird or a stone.

So that is hokku.  We could go deeper into the mental attitude behind hokku, but that is enough of a definition for now.

The aesthetics of hokku are so very different from those of Western poetry that it is misleading to even think of hokku as poetry, because that only causes confusion.  That is why the best way to regard hokku is to see it like this:

A hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.

If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the undulating waves of the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event.  An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens.  So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event.  The sun rising is a thing-event.  An old man sneezing is a thing-event.  A child burping is a thing-event.  Similarly, a hokku is not a poem; it is a thing-event put into simple words.

Buson wrote:

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

Where is the poetry in that?  It is just a statement of what is happening, set in the context of a season.

Nonetheless, when we look at the sea there is poetry in the experience, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:

There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever.  It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry.  It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)

If we do not consider a hokku poetry, what then is it?  It is simply a thing-event — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.

Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”

In hokku that means the poetry is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup.  It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration.  Instead,  with hokku poetry is something awakened in the reader by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it.  That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku.  Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.  So the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.

That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us.  Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize and experience the poetry in it, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.

We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader.  Without the reader the verse is just words on page.  But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event is experienced by the reader — and that experience “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”  So again, the poetry is not the hokku, but it is rather the experience the hokku evokes in the mind of the reader.

If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:

Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.  That is why, when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only

The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.

That is why Blyth tells us that we must not obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words and thoughts — with attempts to make them into poetry.  “Things must speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear what the poets have said about them.”

That is why in hokku there are no poets. The writer is simply the mirror that reflects Nature. It is the job of the writer to keep the mirror wiped clean of the dust of thought and self-will. The writer of hokku does not block the speaking of Nature with his or her own voice. Instead, one simply lets Nature speak through the writer.  When we write a clear, objective hokku about the ripples in a stream, the universe as ripples in a stream is able to speak through the universe as writer.  The writer disappears, and only the ripples are heard.

This is not some kind of verbal hocus-pocus or spacey, New-Age nonsense. It is exactly how hokku works.

When we read the words of Mokudō,

The spring wind;
A sound of water running
Through the barley.

– where is the writer? Where is the reader? Both have disappeared. There is only the spring wind, only the sound of water running through the barley field. The truth is revealed for all to see.  Hokku simply presents us with the thing-event “devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional coloration…”

Because in hokku the writer gets out of the way to let Nature speak, we can say clearly and plainly, as did R. H. Blyth, what hokku is.  It is not a poem, it is not literature. Instead, “it is a way of returning to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature….”  It restores our sense that humans are not apart from, but are just a part of Nature — something that is needed now more than ever, with the world teetering on the edge of a serious climatic and environmental crisis.

Those of you who may wish to learn to write hokku, rather than just read about it, will find practical lessons and methods for doing so on my Hokku Inn site:
https://hokkuinn.wordpress.com/

David

THE YELLOW WATERS OF SPRING OR THE SPRING’S YELLOW WATERS?

Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:

(Spring)

The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:

kerriasingle_1

Here is a closer view:

David

 

 

 

 

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE DOG SLEEPING?

I have mentioned before that in old Japanese hokku there is a term for staying shut up indoors during cold winter days.  It is fuyugomori, which R. H. Blyth translates as “winter seclusion.”  Yet Westerners may fail to grasp what is meant by that translation unless already familiar with hokku.  So it is rather an “in” term.

snowyboughs

Some hokku that are interesting in Japanese are a challenge to try to fit into the English language.  There is, for example, this verse about winter seclusion by Buson.  Here is the original transliterated, and with a rather literal translation:

To ni inu no negaeru oto ya fuyugomori

Door at dog ‘s turning-over sound; winter-seclusion

The tricky thing is that the Japanese verb implies the dog is turning over while sleeping.  So if we just say what is happening in this hokku, we get something rather awkward:

At the door,
The sound of the sleeping dog turning over;
Winter seclusion.

Now obviously the second line is excessively long for hokku in English.  What can be done?  Well, we have to take the hokku completely out of the Japanese form and make it thoroughly English, and we could even using a rather informal expression for “seclusion,” like this:

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Holed up in winter.

That way we give the sound instead of actually using the word “sound.”

Or if we prefer the traditional translation of fuyugomori — which one familiar with hokku understands, we can just present the verse as

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Winter seclusion.

That actually has a bit better rhythm.

The verse — whether in Japanese or English — is effective in giving us the sense of the boring, drowsy, long passage of time indoors in the cold of winter (minus the noise of television, of course).  The monotonous silence is suddenly broken by the banging of the sleeping dog against the door as he rolls over.

It is little moments like this — little events that express the nature of the season — that hokku delights in.  And this emphasis on such little but expressive things is what makes hokku so very different from other verse forms, as does its focus on Nature and the seasons.

 

David

 

HOKKU MADE SIMPLE: SEEDS OF POETRY

The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated.  It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku.  All of that can be a bit confusing at first.

The difference, essentially, is this:  modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less.  If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku.  It may be about any subject.

That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards.  It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.

Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations.  First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku:  Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer).  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared.  Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season.  In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.

So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.  R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows.  The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku.  The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.

 

David

 

For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:

Yūdachi ni  hitori soto miru  onna kana

Shower at alone outside looking woman kana 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: THE FORM

There are two aspects to hokku:

1. The form
2. The content

Of these two aspects, the content takes some time to absorb, particularly the aesthetic spirit characterizing hokku. The form, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes.

It can easily be described and learned.

An English language hokku is:

1. Written in three lines.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

2. Fully punctuated.

A hokku has one or more internal punctuation marks, and an ending punctuation mark.

3. Divided into two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The long part consists of two lines, the short part of only one line.
The short part may begin or end the verse.
An appropriate punctuation mark separates the two parts of a hokku.

Punctuation in hokku is simple.

A period (.) or other appropriate punctuation ends a hokku.
A semicolon (;) is used for a meditative pause.
A dash (–), typed as two hyphens, indicates a longer meditative pause. Ellipses (…) may serve a similar function.
A comma (,) indicates a short, connective pause.
An exclamation point (!) indicates something unusual, unexpected, surprising, or strongly emphasized. It is used rarely.
A question mark (?) indicates an asked but unanswered question.

The simplicity and practicality of the hokku form in English enables the writer to concentrate on form.

Let’s take a look at a verse — in this case a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

Autumn

Evening clearing;
Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

At the top of the verse comes its overall seasonal setting, in this case autumn.

The first line gives us the particular setting — “Evening clearing” — the clearing of the sky at evening. The sky having cleared, we see the subject of the verse in the second and third lines:

Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

The primary punctuation mark that separates the two parts of the verse is the semicolon at the end of the first line:

Evening clearing;

There is a secondary punctuation mark at the end of the second line, which in this case not only connects the second and third lines but also gives us a rather long meditative pause:

Against the pale-blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

We could also use a comma if a shorter pause is desired:

Against the pale-blue sky,
Rows of autumn hills.

Many verses have no secondary punctuation before the ending mark, but they always have the primary punctuation mark separating the long and short parts of the hokku.

Just which punctuation mark to use in a given case depends upon how the writer wishes the verse to be read. Punctuation is used to guide the reader through the verse easily and without confusion, but it also provides fine shades of pause and emphasis that vary depending on which mark is employed.

Now you know the outer form of hokku, and you should be able to easily use it. The trick, however, is to learn how to put good and effective content into that form, and learning that comprises all the rest of hokku.

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: INTERNAL REFLECTION AND HARMONY OF SIMILARITY

In the previous posting I discussed the Hokku Wheel of the Year, the hokku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every hokku is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a hokku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of hokku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that by accepted convention indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with the natural simplicity of hokku.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language hokku, we take away the complexity and return to the simplicity favored in hokku, by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every hokku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the hokku. And if a group of such hokku are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning hokku today while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth;
In the day: dawn and morning;
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming.

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age;
In the day: mid-day, noon;
In plant life: maturing, fruiting.

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward;
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling.

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in hokku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this hokku by Bashō, which I give here in English-language hokku form:

Autumn

On the withered branch
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:

Autumn

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling, and that feeling is not quite right. It lacks the harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in hokku as well as harmony of similarity. In the next posting I will discuss a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

By the way, if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characterics of Yin and Yang.

David

LEARNING FROM PEAR JUICE

It may seem odd that we can use some verses of Masaoka Shiki to demonstrate how to write hokku, given that Shiki provided the impetus for what became the erratic “haiku” movement, but as I have said many times, much of what Shiki wrote was just hokku under a different name.  Shiki’s verses were in general quite different from all that people now know as modern haiku in English.

Here is one such verse, which is an autumn hokku.  Usually I use my own translations, but in this case one can hardly better the translation by R. H. Blyth:

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

Shiki was likely seeing an Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), one of those yellowish round ones that have both a shape similar to an apple and something of its crispness.  But the verse is even better in English, because we picture one of the more soft and juicy Western pears (Pyrus communis), which are what we traditionally think of as “pear-shaped.”

But the point I want to make today is what students of hokku can learn from this verse, which is in every respect not only a hokku but also quite a good one.

First, we can see that it has the necessary two parts of a hokku, one long, one short, separated in Japanese by a cutting word and in English by its functional equivalent, a punctuation mark.

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

Of course these are fitted into the standard English-language three-line hokku form.

The first part of the hokku functions as the setting.  What is a setting in hokku?  It is the overall environment or circumstance or context in which something takes place.  In this verse that context — that situation — is “Peeling a pear.”

Next, this verse is quite typical of the most common hokku structure in that it has both a subject and an action, placed within the context of the setting.

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

The action (something moving or changing) is “…trickle down the knife.”

So that is it.  An absolutely normal but quite good hokku written by the fellow people think of (somewhat confusedly) as the founder of the modern haiku movement, in spite of the fact that most of Shiki’s verses have little or nothing in common with much that is written as “modern haiku” in English and other European languages today.

The other respect in which this verse is a good model for hokku is that it simply shows us an event related to Nature (the pear and the sweet drops) and humans as a part of Nature (the peeling action and the knife).  No commentary or explanation is added, and there is no symbolism or metaphor.  And it has very good sensation.  Remember that sensation in hokku is an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Think of it as seeing a closeup of the event in a clear mirror.  It reflects exactly what is happening:

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

Now imagine that the clear mirror is really the mind of the hokku writer.  Just like a real mirror reflecting what is there, the writer presents us with just what is happening, without adding frills or comments, and does so in very simple, easy-to-understand, everyday language.  That is what a writer of hokku does.  He or she is a mirror reflecting events happening in the context of the seasons.

Blyth tells us that this verse is also an example of what he feels to be the “real function of poetry, — to hold the mirror up to nature in such a way that we perceive its workings.

That is very different from what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, which often has quite a different purpose.  But this verse does in fact show us, as Blyth says, “the nature of a pear, the nature of a knife, the relation between the two….

All these are reasons why this verse makes a very good model for students of hokku — something that cannot be said of all of Shiki’s verses.

It is very important to keep in mind that hokku are written in one of the four seasons, and that the season is the underlying subject of the verse, which as a whole thereby expresses the character of that season.  So when you write hokku in English or other non-Japanese languages, you should always mark them with the season in which they are written, like this:

(Autumn)

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

David

 

 

 

AVOIDING HOKKU AND HAIKU AS “RELIGIOUS” FUNDAMENTALISM

Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.

English: Portrait drawing of Henry David Thoreau
HENRY DAVID THOREAU

As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.

Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.

Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.

Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.

There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions.  It all just leads to pointless bickering.  Such discussions  are merely of academic — not practical — interest.

Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples.  It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine.  It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.

I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.

I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.

So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.

That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”

Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.

Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.

And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.

So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.

Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.

You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.

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.

Since I first posted this, someone has used part of what I wrote above on another site (http://haigaonline.com/issue16-2/welcome.html), and has added this comment:

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don’t read the image as a “real scene” that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet’s eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

This is approaching hokku from the perspective of Western poetry, which in my view is an error.  It is not that “Coomler dislikes the poem,” but rather that Coomler dislikes it as hokku, for the reasons stated above.  However if one treats it as a Western poem (by approaching it from the perspective and conditioning of Western poetry), then it is perfectly fine.  Seen from that perspective, this verse by Buson is a literary conceit, meaning a literary comparison/likening of two quite different things.  But such cleverness — while perfectly acceptable as “poetry” — is not hokku at its best, which avoids cleverness.

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).  A conceit is an extended metaphor.  We are accustomed to it this kind of thing, 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.

For those curious about Buson’s original, here it is in transliteration, with a very literal translation:

ichi gyō no     kari ya hayama ni     tsuki wo insu
one-line ‘s   wild-geese ya  foothills at moon wo seal

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 ) calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.

David

SPILLING THE MOON

In the previous posting I mentioned that many of Shiki’s “haiku” would still be classifiable as hokku, though they often tend to be illustrations.  But even among his illustrations some are better, some worse.

Here is one of his verses:

An isolated house;
The moon declining
Above the grasses.

Do you see why I say that such hokku are illustrations, like the block prints made by Hasui and Yoshida in the first half of the 20th century?

Now there is nothing wrong with illustration.  There is not even anything wrong with writing illustration-like hokku now and then.  But one should not make a principle of it.

A grade-school teacher could say, “Now for autumn, I want you to draw a house all by itself, with the moon declining over the grasses,” and it would make a good seasonal illustration.  Remember that Shiki did not abandon the connection of hokku with Nature and the seasons, though he did strain the connections occasionally.

People first learning hokku find it hard to make such distinctions between verses that are illustrations and verses with more depth.  But a good way to begin learning is by comparing the verse of Shiki with this hokku by Ryuho:

Scooping up
And spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

The writer stands before an old washbasin on an autumn night.  Lifting the water in both hands, he sees the moon in it — and then he spills the moon back into the basin.  Seen in comparison, Shiki’s verse is perceived to be rather flat and two-dimensional, and that was one of the flaws of his new aesthetic.  Remember that the best hokku show us ordinary things, but seen in a new way.

But of course even Shiki did not always follow his own ideals, and the old aesthetic was not completely lost in him, in spite of himself.  If haiku had stayed where Shiki placed it, it would have possibly remained just a variant of hokku.  However, it changed even more — so much that most haiku writers today have little in common with either hokku or with Shiki’s once-new “haiku.”

 

David