WHAT ZEN IN HOKKU REALLY MEANS

I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.

 

David

SUBTLE STATES OF MIND: THE REASON FOR HOKKU

English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:

(Autumn)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves

(Winter)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.

David

“GETTING” R. H. BLYTH

If you want to understand what R. H. Blyth meant by connecting Zen and hokku, it can be stated very simply.

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. Thorea...

To Blyth, Zen was the elimination of the boundary between self and other, between subject and object.  I have said before that a human is the universe “humaning,” and a stone is the universe “stoning.”  When we eliminate the distinction between subject and object — which exists because of the notion of a self — then all that exists is a unity.

That is why Blyth makes statements that seem initially to make no sense at all.  But if you keep what I just said in mind, then you can understand (at least intellectually) what he is talking about.

For example, He mentions these lines of Keats:

I who still saw the universal sun
Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world.    

Blyth goes on to say of them, “If I lift my shoulder the sun rises; if I lower it, it sinks.”

“If you only think about this kind of statement, it seems crazy beyond all endurance…” he remarks.  And indeed it does, because thinking involves the separation of subject and object.  But if we abandon thinking for a moment, then there is no self and no other — there is no subject-object distinction.  That is why when you raise your shoulder, the “sun” — the universe which manifests as both you and sun — rises, because your shoulder is the sun’s, as is mine, as is that of everyone else in the world.

Of course that is a kind of play on words, because we are using “sun” here as a name for the universe.  When you raise your shoulder, the universe raises its shoulder, which is not separate from “your” shoulder, but one and the same.  The universe as “man” raises its shoulder.

That is why we can say that one thing manifests the whole universe; nothing is separate from the universe.  So when you open your eye, a star opens its eye, because there is no separation between you and the star.

That may sound odd at first, but if you just think of the universe as all of the same substance, the action of one thing is the action of all the rest of the universe manifested in that one thing.  That is why in hokku we can say that a single cherry blossom is all of spring.

The other thing to keep in mind about Blyth’s notion of Zen is that it is the complete union of mind and action.  He tells us that “A thief running away like mad from a ferocious watch-dog may be a splendid example of Zen.”  Why?  Because in the thief’s mad running away, there is no separation of thought and action.  The thief is the running away.

We all know people who cannot seem to unify mind and action.  They are filled with hesitation and uncertainty and equivocating and second thoughts.  But in Zen, mind and action just plunge ahead as one.  That is why when Blyth talks of Zen action, it is not a matter of morals or ethics.  It is just the lack of separation of mind and action.

Don’t take that crudely and unwisely, please, as the “Beats” did, to mean that you may do anything you wish, and that whatever you feel like doing is perfectly fine, no matter how immoral it may seem to others.  That is not the way the world works.  It is just a description of what Blyth meant by Zen, and I hope it will give you a key to understanding some of his more “difficult” statements in his various works.

If we reduce what I have said here to its minimum and apply it to hokku, then we have — as writers of hokku — to keep in mind that hokku generally eliminates the separation of subject (the writer) and object (what is written about).  That is why, for example, in the old hokku

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

…there is no “poet” visible.  He has become one with the pond, the frog, the sound of water, and all of those are also just one.  Nor is there any separation of “thing” and “action.”  We could describe the “Old Pond” hokku as one long extended verb.   That is the unity of hokku.

If you find that what I have written here makes no sense to you the first time you read it through, it would be helpful to read it again and to ponder it.  Once you get it, you will understand a lot of Blyth’s writing that previously may have seemed impenetrable.

David

THE LAST OF HOKKU HERE?

I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.

David

COLD MIDNIGHT RAIN

R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.

David

MORE ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.

David

HOKKU IS NOT “WRITING POETRY”

I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.

David