THE POETRY OF AVOIDING POETRY
For a long time it was thought that a great and impressive subject was necessary for poetry -- "sad stories of the death of kings" and such. There were of course exceptions, a major one being William Wordsworth, who, as Blyth writes in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, "...chooses the aged, the poor, the idiot, the vagrant...."
Having broken out of the notion that a great subject was necessary, there was still the notion that to be properly poetic, a subject had to be "worked up," that is, one had to, as Wordsworth wrote, "...throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination...to make these incidents and situations interesting...."
Fortunately Wordsworth ignored his own advice, but unfortunately there were and are a great many who did not and do not. They think that one has to "oomph" up an ordinary subject to make it suitably poetic.
There are many ways of doing this. One is to dramatize it, to try to make it more exciting. Another is to use conventionally poetic language, so that it is obvious to the reader that what he or she is perusing is POETRY, not prose. One may use exotic or unusual words like Poe's "tintinnabulation." Then too, one may use rhyme, which is not of itself objectionable, but which provides the one thing, in the minds of many, that can transform words into poetry, thus the endless stock of abysmally bad verses that counterbalance such excellent use of rhyme as found in Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. We learn from this that the presence or absence of rhyme is no genuine indicator of poetic content, just an indicator of the desire of the writer to create "poetry."
In hokku we drop all of these methods. We use ordinary subjects. We throw over them no "colouring of the imagination." We might arrange our simple words carefully for smooth flow, but we do not deliberately manipulate them "to make these incidents and situations interesting." In hokku they are either interesting or they are not, and if they are not, we should not use them.
Nor do we do anything unusual in form. Hokku consist of three lines, with the first word of each capitalized, and all having appropriate punctuation. We make no effort to be avant-garde by eliminating capitalization or punctuation or by using it haphazardly or oddly. Instead we take full advantage of the capacity of punctuation to give fine shades of pause and emphasis. This is not simply a bow to tradition, but a recognition that punctuated verse is far more expressive of the intent of the writer than unpunctuated verse, and it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without obstacle or puzzlement.
In fact the elimination of haphazard use of punctuation and capitalization has not been avant-garde in English-language verse for well over half a century, and now it is seen largely for what it was -- an experimental phase that served only to confirm why English adopted punctuation in the first place. There are many writers today who labor under the misapprehension that by not properly punctuating or capitalizing a verse that they are being somehow mysteriously poetic or are somehow cleverly imitating old Japanese verse (if that is the intent, why not go the whole way and write in Japanese?), but that is just a misguided affectation.
So hokku is not anything out of the ordinary. Written in English, it has no flavor of Asia or alien or exotic cultures, it is no more exotic than a "violet by a mossy stone" or a mouse in a barn. When we write it, we forget all about poetry as it is conventionally understood, because the poetry of hokku does not lie in a "colouring of the imagination," does not lie in unusual or conventionally poetic words, does not lie in oddities or absence of punctuation or capitalization. The poetry of hokku lies simply in the fact that it conveys an experience of the senses in a seasonal context, without either "poetry" or the writer getting in the way of that experience. The reader thus becomes the poet, allowing the experience to happen in his or her mind when the verse is read, and manifesting it inwardly through the reader's own past sensory experiences and memories.
Each person will thus experience the same hokku differently. A pond in hokku will be different for each person, depending on that individual's past experience of a pond or ponds. Mention the moon above trees in hokku, and one may see it above dark firs, another above tall maples, another over sycamores or elms or other kinds of trees. That is how the reader participates in the experience of hokku, and that is one reason why the poetry of hokku is not on the page, but rather in the mind of the reader.
Posted at 10:16 am by hokku
Many poems begin in the mind -- in the imagination and emotions of the "poet." But hokku is not like that. Hokku begins in physical sensation.
You are in the garden early in the morning. You reach to examine a blooming flower, and in doing so, your hand shakes cool dew from the flower onto your wrist.
This initial sensation, perceived by the experiencer, is the first stage.
If you then begin to think about the experience, to add thought and emotion, this is the second stage.
Hokku remains in the first stage. It does not go on to thoughts and commentary and building of emotions. That is too much for the poverty of hokku.
In the continual rain,
He gives us the experience only. He does not tell us what he thinks about it, or what we should think about it. He does not use it as a symbol of something else, or a metaphor for something else. He allows it to be what it is, and thus he lets Nature speak through him.
If he had added his own thoughts and commentary, that would have been Gy˘dai speaking, not Nature.
A good part of English-language poetry goes on to the second stage, and much of it begins with the second stage. But that is not the way of hokku. Hokku is not about impressing the reader with the writer's thoughts or cleverness, nor about trying to convince the reader of anything moral or political or religious. Hokku is just the writer getting out of the way so that Nature may speak.
Posted at 11:05 am by hokku
The old waka -- "five-line" verse in English, as opposed to "three-line verse" -- was much more formal than hokku -- formal in language and subject matter.
In fact, hokku developed as a kind of reaction to the formality and elegance of waka, by mixing in the commonplace and earthy. That was what gave hokku its "playful" nature, which was essentially the old meaning of haikai, the formal name for the linked verse practice in which the hokku was the opening verse.
All of that would mean little to us today, were it not for the fact that numbers of old hokku show that deliberate mixing of formal and playful elements, a mixing that still affects how we write.
Waka inherited certain seasonal phrases and concepts from old Chinese verse. It used such phrases again and again to set the proper tone for a verse.
But hokku took those elegant, meaning-packed phrases, and added something unexpected and on a much more ordinary level, and it was the surprise of this mixture of "high and low" which was part of the appeal of hokku in contrast to the formality of waka.
Issa, for example, begins with one of those aesthetic, waka-appropriate seasonal settings -- "In the spring rain..." Yet here is what he does with it:
In the spring rain,
The beautiful maiden gives
A huge yawn.
Readers in those days were familiar with the association of "spring rain," and of course beautiful, elegant women had been an acceptable verse topic in the old Chinese verse that so influenced waka -- but giving the girl a "huge yawn" -- well, that is entirely the playfulness of hokku.
There are quite a few of these seasonal topics, which had their own associations in the "high verse" of waka. One of the most common is "the autumn wind."
The autumn wind is associated with loneliness and desolation and the ending of things, and was certainly appropriate for the formality of waka, which often emphasized transience and a kind of wistful sadness, but hokku brings it right down to earth:
I met the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.
That is Blyth's translation and there is not much better that could be done with it. But the significant thing is the jolt between the old associations of the autumn wind and the very commonplace event of meeting -- not a lover, not a beautiful woman -- but a cow! And yet this verse, by Hyakuchi, manages to show us something deep and profound in this event, the kind of event that would not have been mentioned in waka.
This mixing of the season-associated phrases standard in waka with the ordinary, day-to-day things and events of life -- this was the genius of hokku. Suddenly the meeting of a cow became as significant -- or even more significant -- than a courtier longing for a departed love as the autumn wind was blowing. People could finally see the depth and profundity that was all around them, but had not previously been noticed.
If the contrast of elegant and ordinary had been all there was to hokku, it would have soon lost its interest once the "shock of the new" became old news. But it was the new perception of depth and profundity in ordinary events and things that gave hokku its staying power. And that is what keeps it alive even today.
Posted at 08:34 am by hokku
Adding to the variety of hokku types, there is one we might call "Also / Even." Such verses rely on the use of the words "also" "too," or "even" to achieve a certain effect. We see this in Buson's verse:
Tilling the field,
My house too is seen
As darkness falls.
And in this verse by Issa:
Evening cherry blossoms;
Today also is now part
Of the past.
It was even used by Shiki, who began the changes that nearly destroyed hokku:
Even the paths
Are deep in grass;
A stone Jiz˘.
(Jiz˘ is that smooth-headed bodhisattva with a staff, very popular as one who protects deceased children and saves from suffering.)
This use of "even," "also," or "too" gives a feeling of things being connected, of something being part of a greater whole, not excepted. It was used long before Shiki in the waka of Saigyo:
Even in the mind
Of the mindless one,
When a snipe rises in the marsh
On an autumn evening.
Posted at 08:33 am by hokku
I wrote this hokku a few days ago, when It was raining lightly in the early evening, and everything was fresh and cool and the garden lush with new growth:
"Green" we say,
And yet so many different greens...
The spring garden.
Posted at 01:19 pm by hokku
Some time ago I wrote this summer hokku:
The call of the dove --
Even as it is phrased, you may see that there is a kind of equivalency expressed here, and that is often found in hokku. I could have made it more obvious by phrasing it thus:
The call of the dove
In midsummer rain.
This is a type of hokku that we may call "equivalent" hokku, where we see a quality expressed in one part of the verse in the other part of the verse -- "coolness" equals "midsummer rain." It is as though we were to say, "THIS is coolness -- the call of the dove in midsummer rain."
We see the same thing in this verse of Shiki, which tells us that Shiki had not altered hokku to the point of being irredeemable, had that been possible:
The sea through the hole
In the stone lantern.
Equivalency is a very useful technique in hokku, and applicable to many situations. It is one more tool that you may use in letting Nature speak through you.
Posted at 01:02 pm by hokku
THREE MORE TYPES OF HOKKU
There are three additional types of hokku that I have not yet discussed in any detail. They are:
1. "Intent" hokku, verses that show the firm intention of the writer to do something.
2. "Volition" hokku, verses that show the desire or impulse of the writer to do something, though he may not really intend to do it.
3. "Exhortation" hokku, verses in which the writer urges or tells other humans (or even non-humans) to do or be something.
We are already familiar with the this kind of thing from Western verse. It is found, for example, in the the poem by William Butler Yeats:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
We see the writer's intent to get up and go to Innisfree, and to live there. The writer may express such firm intent for "poetic" reasons, not really intending to do it, but as expressed in the verse, we see the intent as fact and firm.
We find such strong intent in this verse by Bash˘:
Shall be my name;
The first rain of winter.
We are familiar with this concept as well. We see it in a verse by Gerard Manley Hopkins, though because the speaker is a nun, we feel that the volition, expressed in the past, has been carried out:
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
We find it expressed in this verse by Shiki:
I would like a butterfly
On the journey.
This "urging" of others is also common in Western verse, as in this from Walt Whitman:
Allons! whoever you are! come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
We find it also in the verse of T. S. Eliot:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Exhortation (usually of non-humans) is so common in the verse of Issa as to be almost characteristic of him, and it is unfortunately heavily imitated by novice writers of hokku, who do not realize that because they do not have the spirit of Issa, it comes off as an affectation rather than genuine:
If someone comes,
Turn into frogs,
You cooling melons!
The playfulness of that verse is obvious. But again, this sort of thing should be done seldom if at all. Otherwise it leads to the "talk to the animals" syndrome so prevalent among those just learning hokku, who are invariably drawn to Issa because they do not yet understand the deeper aspects of hokku, and think him "cute."
All three of these categories have their pitfalls, which is why they are infrequently used. And all three served generally to express the "poet" urges of the writer as somewhat different from those of others, as more in the tradition of the "poet's life" which is why it is all too easy, in using them, to draw too much attention to the "self," and why they should be used little and with care. Otherwise they come off as much like the posing so often found among would-be poets in Western culture.
Posted at 11:52 am by hokku
On the picture books outside the shop;
The spring wind.
This hokku -- by Kit˘ -- is one of those verses in which each part is reflected in the other. We see the paperweights on the books, and then we feel the spring wind, and realize -- actually feel -- that the books are weighted to keep the pages from fluttering in the gusting, unpredictable wind of spring. We feel the wind in the paperweights, and we feel the resistant weight of the paperweights in the spring wind. Both give us a harmony, a unity, a springtime oneness.
The second line is a bit long. I could have translated it -- slightly losing accuracy -- as just "books," but knowing that these are picture books gives us a pleasant feeling of seeing much in little as the spring wind blows.
Posted at 08:24 am by hokku
Seen between the trees --
A path to the sea.
This is a light, gentle verse. It has a feeling of coolness, but with less emphasis than we feel in this summer verse by Shiki, strongly contrasting the coolness with the heat of the season:
Through the hole of the stone lantern,
Season is very important in how we perceive a verse, so it is crucial to know the season in which a verse was written. That is why writers should mark each hokku with its appropriate season.
Posted at 04:01 pm by hokku
The waters of spring --
They are seen here,
Spring rains, snows melting, streamlets and trickles seen here, seen there. That is all Onitsura needed to say.
Blyth says "Very few English poets have attained to the simplicity of Onitsura in this verse."
In my translation I have used the "repeated subject" form, which is often very good for very simple things in English. First the subject -- the waters of spring -- is presented, and then we repeat it by means of "they" in the second line.
The original is even more simple, and literally reads like
Spring's water here-there at seen....
But of course that would not work in English, and when we write, we should use effective and good but simple English for hokku.
Posted at 08:19 am by hokku