One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial. Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses. You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.
Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.
Shigururu ya nezumi no wataru koto no ue
Cold-rain ya mouse ‘s crossing koto ‘s on
Cold rain; A mouse walks across The koto.
Shigeruru is winter rain falling, thus cold rain. Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate. A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.
This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside. We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.
We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;
Winter rain; A mouse creeps across The koto.
That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k” sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto. That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.
Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin. He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?” But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question. Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.
Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.
Ordinarily, I do not dwell much on specifically Japanese cultural aspects of the hokku, because my primary purpose in talking about hokku here is to teach how to write good new hokku in English, and in a non-Japanese environment. But it might be interesting for readers to see some of the problems inherent in translating old Japanese hokku, particular those with cultural elements that may be unfamiliar to people in other countries.
Buson, in addition to a few good hokku and a number of mediocre hokku, also wrote some rather peculiar fanciful hokku based on Japanese folklore. If one does not know anything about that subject, it is very easy to misunderstand or misinterpret these verses.
There is, for example, this one:
Aki no kure hotoke ni bakeru tanuki kana Autumn ‘s nightfall Buddha into changed tanuki kana
We could translate it as:
The autumn evening; It has turned into a Buddha — The tanuki.
Most translators usually render tanuki as “badger,” but the tanuki is not really a badger. It is actually an odd member of the dog family (Canidae). An English term sometimes used for it is “raccoon dog,” but that is a bit long, though the tanuki really does look somewhat like a cross between a raccoon and a dog. My personal opinion is that when one is translating hokku about tanuki, it is likely best to just use the Japanese term, because chances are one is going to have to explain the hokku anyway, as I am about to do here.
Now if you looked at the translation I gave above, you are likely still wondering what the hokku means. Is Buson saying the tanuki has become a Buddha, like in some old Zen story? Or does it mean something else?
It might help a bit to tell you that in Japanese folklore, there are two animals noted for being able to change their form, to “shapeshift,” to take on the appearance of something completely different. The first shapeshifting animal is the fox, but even better at shapeshifting than the fox is the tanuki. So when Buson says the tanuki has “turned into a Buddha,” does he really mean that it has transformed itself — shapeshifted — into the appearance of an image of the Buddha? Hotoke in Japanese means “Buddha,” but its secondary meaning is “Buddha image.”
Before we decide, I would like to give a slightly different translation, now that you know what a tanuki is and does in folklore:
The autumn evening; It has transformed into a Buddha! — The tanuki.
By “Buddha,” in this case, Buson would have meant a Buddha image.
In the Japanese version given at the beginning of this posting, I loosely translated bakeru as “changed,” but it really means to transform one’s appearance, to change one’s form, even to disguise one’s self.
Knowing that, we could try a third translation:
The autumn evening; Disguised as a Buddha — A tanuki!
I think I like that one best of all, so far.
Now what inspired this odd hokku? We might keep in mind that stone or pottery images of tanuki standing on their hind legs, from about one to three feet in height, were (and are) quite popular in Japan, and were often to be found outdoors, including in gardens and near temple sites.
We might then think that Buson was in such a place as the evening darkness was coming on, and that as he walked in the growing shadows, he saw a dark image that he thought at first to be an image of a Buddha, but on getting closer, he was amused to see that it was actually just a tanuki image.
Conversely, we could suppose that Buson perhaps saw the dark shape of a standing Buddha image outdoors near dusk, and fancifully imagined that a tanuki was trying to fool him by taking on that form.
Either interpretation is possible. Of course it is also very possible that Buson just created the whole scene in his mind for the fun of it, for the effect. He rather liked to create what he thought were “artistic” verses out of his imagination.
Fact is, however, that Buson left a story connected with this particular hokku. He tells how he was spending a night on his own at a large, shrub-surrounded house in town, and had just pulled the quilt over himself and gone to sleep when there was a frightful banging and pounding that went on repeatedly. Buson got up and toddled to the door, but no one and nothing was there.
He had barely gotten back to his bed when the pounding began again. So once more he got up and checked the door, and once more no one was there.
At this point Buson was so unnerved that he found the caretaker of the place, who told him it was a tanuki, and that if the noise began again, Buson should quickly open the door and chase the tanuki, while the caretaker would be waiting in the shrubs. But when the noise began again and Buson hurriedly opened the door and the caretaker ran out from the shrubs, not even a shadow was to be seen.
Now the bothersome thing is that this pounding went on for five nights. Buson, with bloodshot and bleary-eyes from lack of sleep, had just decided that enough was enough and he and was going to leave the place when a servant of the owner of the house appeared and reported that an old tanuki had been killed in Yabushita village — and that it was probably the one who had been making all the night noise.
And indeed there was no more pounding and banging that night. But Buson began to think of the unfortunate tanuki that had come to him for five nights, and began to feel compassion for him. So he called a priest named Zenkubo and paid him to perform a ritual so that the spirit of the tanuki might have peace.
Then, after giving this little story of his experience, Buson presents the hokku we have been discussing.
Knowing this additional information, should we decide that our very first thought that the tanuki might have become a Buddha in some religious or Zen sense was correct? In that case, we could just translate it as:
The autumn evening; It has become a Buddha — The tanuki.
Of course the notion that just a ritual could make a tanuki into a Buddha is unrealistic, so perhaps what Buson really intended was a kind of hyperbolic euphemism in which “become a Buddha” really meant “has died.”
Now do you see how tricky translating unclear hokku can be? A hokku should never require a “backstory” to be understood. And we should never have to sit and ponder to figure out the meaning of a hokku. We should be able to grasp it immediately. That is why, as hokku, Buson’s verse is lacking. Even knowing all that we know at this point about the tanuki in folklore and about Buson’s experience of pounding in the night, we still are not quite certain what he intended with this verse.
In any case, now you know several possibilities for what the hokku means, and also what a tanuki is. But the most important things you should take away from this discussion are:
1. Never write a hokku that requires additional information to be understood.
2. Never write a hokku that cannot be quickly grasped by the reader.
Given that we cannot determine for certain what Buson meant by this verse, we can safely move on to a more important question: Which of the possible translations we have seen makes the best hokku?
That is easy. It would be one based on the notion that Buson either saw a tanuki statue and mistook it for a Buddha image in the twilight, or he saw a Buddha image and imagined that a shapeshifting tanuki had taken on that form to trick him.
So my favorite, with one small change, is still:
The autumn evening; Disguised as a Buddha image — A tanuki!
It is a playful verse, nothing serious, but to understand it, a reader would still have to know that in Japanese folklore a tanuki is a notorious shapeshifter.
If for some reason you have been intrigued by the tanuki and want to know more, here is a link to a very useful page explaining the evolution of its folklore and representation in Japan over time:
As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:
The old pond; A frog jumps in, — The sound of the water.
Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:
In the old well, A fish leaps up at a gnat: The sound of the water is dark.
What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:
Furu ike ya = The old pond;
Furu ido ya = The old well;
Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.
In addition, both used the sound of something:
Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”) Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)
We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth. Here is Bashō:
The old pond; A frog jumps in — The sound of water.
And here is Buson:
The old well; The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat Is dark.
It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English. But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid syntactical problems in English:
The old well; The sound of a fish Leaping at a gnat.
That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku. And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.
Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:
Furu ido ya ka ni tobu uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ; gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark
Bashō’s hokku was:
Furu ike ya kawazu tobi-komu mizu no oto
Old pond ; frog jump-in water ‘s sound
If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:
Furu ido ya ka ni tobu uo no oto
Old well ; gnat at leap fish’s sound
That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous. A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.
What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse. We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.
If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.
If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:
An old well; The dark sound of a fish Leaping at a gnat.
The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.” But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms. That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.
Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English. One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku. I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.
I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku. Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well. That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.
There are some hokku that do not seem quite right but nonetheless have value for what they are.
There is, for example, this spring verse by Buson:
Osoki hi no tsumorite tōki mukashi kana Long day ‘s accumulating far past kana
The long days Accumulate; The distant past.
The point of the verse is this:
In spring one notices the lengthening of days, which seem all the longer now that the short days of winter are past. As these spring days follow one another, each longer than the preceding, one begins to feel the length of the passing of time. It makes the past, the “old days,” seem ever more distant.
The primary feeling of this hokku is a recognition of the relentless passage of time, which continually carries us away from the past and onward into the unknown future. Did you notice that the second line — just one word in English — is visually shorter than the three words of the first line? Yet if we say it in our minds it sounds very long, and adds to the sense of time passing slowly.
Blyth, rightly, I think, thought the poem in its literal form a bit too much for Westerners unfamiliar with hokku to grasp, so he elaborated it in his version, to bring out the sense of time slowly passing, yet the past constantly receding from us:
Slow days passing, accumulating, —
How distant they are,
The things of the past!
His use of “passing, accumulating” emphasizes the feeling of the slowness of the day that one gets with the lengthening of days in spring, and it increases the sense of time accumulating like dust in an attic, burying the past ever deeper. He also lengthens in words the mention of the past (“How distant they are, / The things of the past!), where Buson has merely “The distant past.” That lengthening also gives us the feeling inherent in the verse that the past — even the recent past — is gradually moving farther and farther away.
This is not hokku at its best, and if it were not for the sense of the length of the spring days, this hokku would be too “thoughty” for a verse form that excels in sensation and tends to avoid too much “thinking.”
Shiki, paradoxically, has a more concrete, if obvious, verse:
Sunahama ni ashiato nagaki haruhi kana
Sandy-beach on footsteps long spring-day kana
On the sandy beach, A long line of footsteps; The spring day.
The length of the spring day is reflected in the length of the line of footsteps that parallel the surf and extend beyond the range of sight. I have chosen to use “long” to modify the footsteps, which is a more subtle way of expressing the length of the spring day for those familiar with hokku.
Blyth, however, chose to use “long” to modify the spring day in his version, making the point of the verse more obvious to Westerners, but less subtle:
On the sandy beach,
Long is the spring day.
In both, however, the emphasis is on the feeling of the feeling of the slowness of time one gets as the days of spring lengthen.
If you wonder why Blyth sometimes tends to make his hokku translations more detailed than they are in the originals, it is because his purpose in writing was to introduce Westerners not only to hokku (which, unfortunately, he called “haiku” in his day), but also to the very different (from Western verse) aesthetic sense behind hokku.
Sadly, Westerners usually just read the verses in Blyth’s books and seem to have ignored or glossed over his important explanations of the aesthetics behind them. That failure contributed to the confusion that arose in the so-called “haiku movement,” which began in the West in the 1960s — a confusion and disarray that continues to this day, because the Western haiku movement never learned the aesthetic principles necessary for continuing the practice of hokku in the modern world. That is why “haiku” today is generally something quite unlike hokku, even though often superficially similar in outward appearance.
As a writer of hokku, Buson had his flaws. He was sometimes too consciously literary, at others too obviously painterly (he was, after all, an artist). That is why numbers of his verses fail to quite make it as good hokku. Nonetheless, there are some that are very good and in keeping with the poverty and selflessness and simplicity and impermanence characteristic of hokku at its best. Here is one:
The narrow path Not quite buried; Fallen leaves.
Where I am it would be very much up to date, because the leaves are falling heavily now in the cooling air. In old Japan it would have been a winter verse, but according to the hokku calendar it is the beginning of winter now. Autumn ended with Halloween.
Old hokku had a sometimes not very accurate distinction between verses about colored leaves, which were autumn verses, and those about fallen leaves, which were winter verses. Here in the West we go by what is happening where we are. So for us, both verses about colored leaves and fallen leaves may come under the autumn heading or the winter heading. We are not so rigid as old hokku sometimes tended to become, and we pay close attention to what is actually happening in Nature in a given season. That helps to keep us from falling into the artificiality that began to afflict old hokku over time. It helps to keep our verse fresh and new.
This hokku, like many, requires a leap of intuition from the reader. In good hokku such leaps are easy if one keeps in mind that there is always some relationship between the shorter and longer parts of a hokku (short and long are separated by the “cutting” punctuation). In this verse we know that what is meant by the first part is that the narrow path is nearly but not yet entirely buried in fallen leaves; that is clear from the second part. Some hokku require greater leaps of intuition, but if that leap becomes too great, a hokku fails. Hokku should always be clear and quickly intuited. For one schooled in the principles of hokku aesthetics, that is one mark distinguishing good hokku from bad.