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Sunday, August 12, 2007

As readers have noticed, I like to teach using old hokku as examples -- good old hokku for the most part, unless I am pointing out how not to write.

It is fortunate that hokku translate well; so well, in fact, that often the English translations are better as verses than the originals in the original language.  There are commonly poems in various languages that are so wedded to the original language that when translated they lose all energy and go flat.  Hokku are not like that.  The reason, no doubt, is that the effect of hokku is in the presentation of a strong sensory experience.  The emphasis is on substance over form, and hokku do not rely on such things as rhyme or even a stable rhythm, though of course in the original language of old hokku there tends to be a standard pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units.

This ease with which hokku move from one language to another has, however, a drawback.  It is the same problem found in unstructured poetry in general, no matter how many lines may comprise it.  While the experience of reading a particular hokku may be memorable, the actual words are not.  It is in fact such "superfluities" of poetry as rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration and assonance that make a poem easy to remember.  This one drawback of hokku, if we may call it a drawback, may in fact be a major reason why hokku have so far not been taken very seriously in the English language, aside from their brevity and the unfortunate mediocrity that forms the bulk of what has come to be known as "haiku" in the English-speaking world.

Harold Henderson, in his An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday & Company, 1958), actually translated old hokku as rhymed verse.  We can see in his translations the benefits and hazards of trying to do so:

How cool the breeze:
The sky is filled with voices --
Pine and cedar trees.

That is easy to remember because of the rhyme -- much easier in fact than a more literal rendering:

A cool breeze;
The sky is filled with
The sound of pines.*

As Henderson's translations show, rhyming hokku generally requires a certain distortion of the original.  Commonly words must be added that go beyond the original meaning.  And Henderson found he could not translate all hokku -- even his favorites -- into rhyme, as is evidenced by the numerous examples of unrhymed hokku in his book for which no suitable rhyme was found.  That is no doubt one reason why, in later writing on the subject, Henderson abandoned rhyme, which was, after all, originally merely an attempt to make hokku look more like traditional English-language poetry.

But hokku, as I have often said, is not really poetry as we commonly think of it.  And specifically, it is not a poetry of the mouth or the ear.  It is, rather, a verse of the eye.  Hokku are best read silently, whereas poetry may be with benefit read aloud.  Poetry is the verse of the tongue and the ear, Cerdd Davod  as it is called in that most mouth-and-ear-oriented language of poetry, Welsh -- the art of the tongue, or as Twm Morys so well puts it, "tongue-craft."

Strange to say, verse of the mouth and ear can have an effect that transcends its content, and ease of remembrance is just one aspect of that effect in which even the mediocre is remembered, and perhaps even transfigured.

That was the experience of the Welsh-language poet Twm Morys when he deliberately set out to write an example poem in English of the Welsh cywydd form.  The result was My First Love was a Plover, which Morys readily admits was simply "nonsense" written to exemplify the outer requirements of the Welsh verse form.  The form was his goal, not substance. 

The result, however, was quite unanticipated.  Morys writes of it,

"Now as I was the author of it, I happened to know at the time that this cywydd, though absolutely correct according to the rules of strict meter, was also a load of nonsense.  But it had an immediate, sometimes very emotional, effect on audiences.  I now realize that it is the most profound poem I have ever written."

See for yourself.  you may read My First Love was a Plover at:

http://www.brunel.ac.uk/4042/entertext2.2/morys.pdf     Go to page 4.

After reading this verse we can easily see why the power of sound is linked with magic in old stories.  We feel the effect of spoken words transcending their literal meanings. 

Where does all this leave us with hokku?  Right back with the statement that hokku is not poetry as we conventionally understand it.  Hokku is not tongue-craft but rather the recording and transmission of a sensory experience.  Is it any wonder that English-language poets have paid hokku little attention,  and that what attention it did receive  was as the mutated haiku -- a Western hybrid mixed with Western notions of poetry?  In hokku the substance is more important than the form, and that is why the form itself -- that is the words -- are so quickly forgotten.  In poetry the form -- the words -- may rise higher than the substance and the sounds of the words have an effect transcending what may be the utter simplicity of their meaning.

I know who owns these woods, but his house is in the village.  He won't see me stopping here to watch snow fill his woods.

That is substance over form.  It may be "poetic" in a sense, but more often it is not, and that is one reason why there are so many very mediocre "haiku" and mediocre attempts at hokku.

But here is substance transfigured by form, though the form is simple:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

That is, of course, Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

All of this simply shows us once more that hokku are not poetry as we usually think of it.  The poetry is not in the words but in the sensory experience conveyed by the words.  And like the raft abandoned when the other shore is reached, we quickly forget the words of a hokku, though not the experience.  Poetry allows us to retain the words, which may even transcend and transfigure the experience, if experience there was in fact to begin with.  Is one "better" than the other?  Better for what?

Hokku does what it is intended to do, and it does it well.  It is our problem if we persist in confusing it with poetry.  And poetry does what it is intended to do.  Poetic methods can make the mediocre memorable even when its techniques are flawed:

Wash it once,
It lasts for months,
With Duro plastic starch.

Or it can work its sound magic on the depths of human existence:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

To like hokku does not mean that we must not like poetry.  But we must be able to recognize and understand the differences between hokku and poetry or else we shall be in the same position as those multitudes in the English-language haiku establishment who long ago misinterpreted hokku as being like conventional poetry, and who then, through combining the outer form of hokku with the substance of Western poetry, erroneously created what generally passes for the English-language "haiku."


* The word koe, approximating "voice" in English, is often used in hokku where English would use "sound" or even another word such as "cry" or "chirp," as in the koe of a cricket" or the koe of pines in the wind.


David Coomler
Copyright 2007 



Posted at 09:03 am by hokku

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Another autumn "fog" verse, this time by Taigi, one of the best of the old hokku writers:

River fog;
Urging the horse in --
The sound of water.

If one looks at how R. H. Blyth translated this verse, one can see both his intent and his brilliance:

The river mist;
Urging the horse into the water,
The sound of it.

Blyth's translations, while sometimes not what one might call literal, are nonetheless generally right on the mark in conveying the genuine "overall" meaning and spirit of a verse.

When Blyth began writing his series of books on hokku (which were unfortunately anachronistically labelled "haiku" -- the popular if inaccurate term in Japan in the 1930s-1960s), he did not intend to teach anyone how to write it.  His purpose was rather to look back into the old hokku of the past, and to convey to modern speakers of English the essence and significance of these verses through translations that would express their meaning directly, if not always literally.

Reading hokku had given Blyth great personal pleasure, and he wanted to convey something of that pleasure, and something of what had been lost over time, by presenting the old hokku to a "Western" audience.  Eventually, he also traced the history of hokku from its origins through its high points to its numerical burgeoning, but spiritual decline, after the revisions of Shiki largely replaced it with "haiku."  He considered it something wonderful from the past that had become, by his time,

"...an unweeded garden, that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." (Shakespeare).

At the end he recognized that his earlier works had helped to kindle an interest in the verse form in English.  Unfortunately he did not live long enough to give proper guidance to those English speakers who were moved to try the verse in their own language.  That is why in his own works one finds only hints (but good ones!) and gentle criticism such as his remarks on the verses written by J. W. Hackett that were included near the end of Blyth's second volume of the History of Haiku:

"in these excellent verses, occasionally there is sensation only; more often there is too much ostensive, that is, overt thought." (bold type mine)

If only the readers of Blyth's works had paid attention to what he said and had not just flipped through the pages reading the verses!  Then the history of the verse form from his time onward might have been different.

I want to take a moment at the end of this posting to thank those who leave comments on this site.  It is always interesting to see remarks from others interested or involved in hokku.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 11:41 am by hokku

Saturday, June 30, 2007

An autumn verse by Buson:

Morning fog:
The sound of pounding a stake --
Pum! Pum!

Use of words that sound like a sound itself -- technically called onomatopoeia -- is often found in old hokku.  Though put into English, if you read this verse you will hear the striking of the stake in lines two and three -- sound! pounding! stake! Pum! Pum!

It is if anything even more effective in English than in the original language.

We are not told who is pounding the stake or why.  We know it is not the writer, because the morning fog is included to hide the person pounding.  All we have is the cool, dense fog of morning, and from somewhere in the fog we hear the Pum! Pum! of a mallet against a stake.

That is the whole point of the verse -- the sudden sound emerging out of the fog that hides the action -- the hardness of the sound against the softness of the fog.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 06:58 pm by hokku

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A summer hokku by Sh˘haku:

The silence;
A chestnut leaf sinks
In the clear water.

We have already discussed how one part of a hokku is often reflected in the other part. Here the purity and clarity of the silence is reflected in the purity and clarity of the water through which a single chestnut leaf sinks. This is the purity and clarity of the silent mind as well.

It is this stillness, this clarity, that makes the sinking of the leaf significant in a way that transcends our usual notions of significance and worth.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 12:13 pm by hokku

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shiki, who brought into popular use the term "haiku" for his revision of the older hokku near the beginning of the 20th century, did not really understand hokku, which is why he thought it should be a kind of sketch from Nature -- at least, unlike many modern writers of haiku, he retained the connection to Nature!

His lack of understanding led to many verses which, while not displeasing, lack depth.  Shiki's "haiku" was essentially a little picture in words, and we see that here:

A horse
Tied to a low tree;
The summer fields.

Contrast that with a verse of Buson, not at all a sketch or illustration, but rather a sensory experience:

Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

The coolness of the water in the warm air, the smoothness of pebbles and stones and sand underfoot, the contrast of warmth and cool wetness, all this -- and happiness!  That is Buson's sensory experience, and how much more strongly it affects us than Shiki's little picture drawn in words of a horse, a tree, a field.

It is unfortunate that so many emulated Shiki and carried his revisionism even farther, so that hokku nearly disappeared in the enthusiasm for change and the urge to write "haiku" without understanding what was being lost in discarding the hokku. 

Those of us who prefer the hokku are today in the minority, and that is just a part of the nearly universal tendency to abandon anything that takes time and effort to learn.  But just as Buson's verse is deeper than that of Shiki, hokku is generally deeper than the modern haiku.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 03:02 pm by hokku

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I often talk about the poverty of hokku because poverty  of spirit is essential to it.  Thoreau understood the importance of poverty.  In Walden he writes:

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage.  Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.  Turn the old; return to them.  Things do not change; we change.  Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts....

We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same.  Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch.  It is life near the bone where it is the sweetest.  You are defended from being a trifler.  No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher.  Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.



Posted at 01:57 pm by hokku

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Regular readers will have noticed that there is much more to learning hokku than to learning modern haiku. And much of what is learned in the study of hokku, unlike the vagaries of modern haiku instruction, is very practical and straightforward and can readily be put to good use.

For example, a few postings ago I presented more of the forms common and helpful in writing hokku.

Among those forms was one summarized thus:

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.

How does one put such information into practice?  It is very simple.  Just learn the basic forms, and when the occasion arises, it will pop into your head.

Yesterday was one of those sunny, warm, pleasant days of the beginning of summer.  The heat brought out the seed fluff in the cottonwood trees along the stream, and soon it was carried everywhere by the wind currents, filling the sky.  In my garden, I watched dragonflies darting to and fro through the fluff drifting on the air.  One could see and feel summer beginning in the experience.  So deep was the effect that I was able to write this hokku the next morning:

Cottonwood down;
It even blows into
My dreams.

If you have never seen cottonwood down filling the air on a warm day at the beginning of summer, you might not "get" this verse.  But anyone who has will get it immediately.

But note the form of the verse.  It is exactly the form I described in the previously-posted lesson.  These forms are not just for beginners in hokku.  They are tools that remain useful all through your maturing practice.  If you learn them thoroughly, they will be at hand when you need them.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler



Posted at 06:37 am by hokku

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

There is a verse by Issa:

Having nothing at all;
This peace of mind,
This coolness!

Blyth translated it as

I have nothing at all, --
But this tranquility!
This coolness!

We should pay attention to the severing comma here, and not understand this verse to mean, as modern haiku might inadequately present it,

I have nothing at all
but this tranquility
this coolness

It is not that Issa has nothing at all except the peace and coolness, but rather that on having nothing at all there is for Issa this peace, this coolness, that no one owns -- it just is.  The having nothing and the peace of mind and the coolness are one and the same.  The peace of mind and the coolness are the nothing.

Note how confusing this verse would be if presented as modern haiku are generally written.  It should not be read as

I have nothing at all but this tranquility

but rather as

I have nothing at all.  But this tranquility!

Through such examples one begins to see how completely incorrect or inadequate punctuation may change the understanding of a verse.

Copyright 2006
David Coomler

Posted at 07:31 am by hokku

Monday, June 04, 2007

Edward Fitzgerald composed a verse -- a quatrain -- based on one by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!

That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!

The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,

Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

That is Persian poetry -- all roses and nightingales, cypresses and the moon. This verse has more the atmosphere of waka than hokku, but it expresses well the passing of youth and time through the ending of spring.

Shiki has a similar verse, but not at all fragrant -- just matter-of fact, and without the metaphors of Fitzgerald:

The canary escaped;

This day of spring

Has ended.

But Issa's verse has more of the simple sensation of hokku:

Rustling, rustling,

Spring is leaving;

The grasses in the field.

Spring is leaving. The roses are dropping their petals, and the first canterbury bells are withering on the stalk. The heat of summer is beginning. One more spring has passed in our lives.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 04:02 pm by hokku

Sunday, June 03, 2007

 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.

Copyright 2007
David Coomler

Posted at 10:16 am by hokku

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