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What Is and Isn't: A Butterfly Wearing Tennis Shoes PDF Print E-mail

By Robert D. Wilson

 

This paper is the summation and postscript of a six-essay series on Japanese haiku aesthetics featured in successive issues of Simply Haiku. As a summation, there will be some repetition, which is necessary, in order to bring to nest, full circle, the points made. I recommend reading the previous six essays in order to get the gist of what has been said. This is a pivotal series of essays that challenge haiku thought and perception in the literary world, both in and outside of Japan. It is this author's contention that a reformation of the genre is needed in order to save it from extinction. Standing like a shadow behind me as I penned these essays are Buson's words, as relevant today as they were when he wrote them:

"Leaders of the haikai [hokku] circles today each advocate their own poetic styles and speak ill of all the other styles. Extending their elbows and puffing up their cheeks, they declare themselves to be master poets. Some try to appeal to the wealthy, others to the eccentrics,but most of the verses selected in their anthologies are unrefined works, the kind of verses that would make knowledgeable experts cover their eyes at first glance and throw them away."

Yosa Buson
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
The Path of the Flowering Thorn

 

In the twilight of dawn
A whitefish, with an inch
Of whiteness

Matsuo Basho
Tr.by Makoto Ueda

The hokku Matsuo Basho conceptualized and pioneered during his lifetime is almost non-existent in present day Japan. It is also non-existent in the English-language haiku literary world. In its place is a bastardized haiku-like versification that degenerated from the hokku Masaoka Shiki temporarily reformed and renamed haiku.

During the Meiji Era in Japan, Masaoka Shiki, disgusted with the denigration of hokku by State-sanctioned hokku schools and the veneration of Basho as a Shinto god, sought to reform the genre, believing it would become extinct if its denigration continued. Basho was worshipped, his persona more important than the poetry he had popularized and helped to shape as a literary genre. Once taken seriously as a discipline and art form, the hokku composed during Shiki's day had become a joke, reduced to doggerel not much different than the short poems attached to today's greeting cards.

 

I will shut my ears
And, thinking only of blossoms,
Enjoy my nap

Torigoe Tosai (1803-1890)
Tr. by Donald Keene

 

The nightingales ---
When I was young it was love
That kept me awake

Hozumi Eiki
Tr. by Donald Keene

What disgusted Buson during his lifetime, likewise disgusted Shiki during his lifetime.

The hokku written during Shiki's lifetime time was superficial and hollow. Hokku was no longer thought of as a literary art form. Instead, the composition of hokku had become  a popular form of social interaction and amusement. So-called hokku masters sold the use of their names and assessed others' hokku for a fee; and all hokku schools claimed to be aligned with Basho, who'd been officially canonized as a Shinto god by the Imperial Court. Enmeshed into the Confucian-infused government's political need for control of the populace, hokku became a tool to educate and facilitate what the populace believed and didn't believe; a benevolent, covert brainwashing. The influence of the West, after Admiral Byrd, who forced Japan to open its doors to the outside world, having been, beforehand, a closed-off society, was growing, in the Imperial Court's eyes like a malignant tumor.

Wrote Donald Keene in his book, Dawn to the West:

"The haiku poets of the day . . . were not aware that their art had become stagnant and even meaningless. They rejoiced in the undiminished number of pupils and in the respect that they still commanded . . . "

"Their good opinion of themselves was confirmed in 1873 when the Ministry of Religious Instruction appointed four haiku masters as special instructors, charged with identifying haiku poetry with the policies of the Meiji government."

 

Wrote Shiki:

"Basho's haiku have acquired a power virtually identical to that of a religion. His many believers do not necessarily follow him because of his character or conduct, nor do they respond to him because they have read his poems; it is his name alone that rouses in them awe and yearning."

Basho Zodan
Tr. by Janine Beichman
Masaoka Shiki: His Life and Works

Shiki's words parallel in many way the passage I quoted earlier by Buson.

Wrote Janine Beichman in her book, Masaoka Shiki:

"Shiki's attacks on the old-style haiku masters and on some of Basho's poems . . . derived from the same effort to force people to see and judge the haiku in purely literary terms. The idea that haiku must be viewed as part of literature was not only one of the central ideas of Shiki's haiku reform, but was its necessary and basic premise."

Shiki rightfully believed that hokku, to be effective and considered as a legitimate literary art form, must succumb to academic scrutiny, be thought of seriously, and removed from the hands of a manipulative government. Shiki wisely accessed also the need to un-deify Basho as a Shinto god, since hokku, deemed the handiwork of god, could not be fairly assessed; to denigrate or parse them, would be equivalent to sacrilege. Basho's hokku was considered to be an oracle of god, void of error, and hokku written by the so-called hokku masters during the Meiji Era who claimed to be spiritual descendents of Basho, was thought of in a similar light, especially in view of the high positions in the Imperial Court held by four of the Era's most well-known hokku masters.

About Basho, Shiki wrote in The Haiku Poet Buson, a book he wrote extolling the poetry of Yosa Buson:

"He simply took himself as his basic poetic material and went no further than expressing the truth of objects related to him. In modern terms, such poverty of observation is really laughable."

Tr. by Janine Beichman

Shiki had little time to waste in this world, the victim of acute tuberculosis. To get his point across, and to effect the change he wanted to make in the hokku world, necessitated drastic measures and an influential audience. He accomplished this via a column he wrote for a newspaper with his attacks on Basho and the hokku status quo.

He was successful in generating an audience and in igniting a fire that soon swept through the halls of academia and into the pens of many influential hokku poets, some of whom became his disciples.

Shiki, during his reformation of hokku, renamed the genre, haiku, and, as previously mentioned, downplayed Basho, criticizing his poetry, in order to get the Japanese people, especially the literary elite, to see past their idolatrous worship of Basho, and examine the genre scholastically; to define, refine, parse, and dissect it as the mainstream academic world did with any legitimate literary poetic genre. By doing so, he hoped to rescue hokku, to continue what Buson, Basho, and Issa had pioneered, to cast a lifeline into a muddy, stagnant pond, and to re-breathe life into the all but dead genre.

Wrote my close friend, Sanford Goldstein, and Seishi Shinoda in their book, Songs from a Bamboo Village:

“Shiki attacked professional haiku teachers who wanted to commercialize their idolatrous veneration of Basho and how this crass commercialism produced plagiarism and second rate poetry that was destroying the credibility of haiku. Doing so got him an instant audience, as it was illegal to say anything bad about Basho, which was what Shiki wanted. One must remember that his days were numbered, and he had no time to waste."

Continues Goldstein and Shinoda,

“… Shiki’s primary aim was to show where Basho’s real genius lay. Shiki used the tactic of shocking his readers by pointing out Basho’s bad poems. Most of the master’s haiku, wrote Shiki, were worthless, the good haiku, only a small percentage of the total number.”

About Basho, Shiki wrote in The Haiku Poet Buson:

"Matsuo Basho alone possessed a sense of grandeur; wielding a sublime brush, he expressed a majestic vision of heaven and earth, and depicted the beauties of nature, to astound an age."

Basho, however, was a human being, not a god. His poetry weren't godly oracles. Not every hokku he composed was flawless. Basho's poetry too, had to be held up to academic scrutiny. To bring this point home, Shiki boldly critiqued Basho's work, calling much of it average. He also exposed people to Yosa Buson, a relatively unknown hokku poet who'd openly acknowledged his debt to Basho, but forged his own unique style of hokku. Shiki, in un-deifying Basho, wisely ascertained the need to get poets and scholars to see beyond the insular world of Basho, to de-clone, so-to-speak, hokku as a Basho-only centric medium. Buson's hokku was an effective tool.

 

coolness --- suzushisa ya
parting from the temple bell kane wo hanaruru
the sound of the bell kane no koe

 

so far from the moon --- tsuki ni toku
the color and fragrance oboyuru fuji no
of wisteria iroka kana

 

winter trees --- fuyukodachi
the moonbeams tonight tsuki kotsuzui ni
penetrate the bones iru yo kana

 

spring night --- haru no yo ya
a young lady-in-waiting kitsune no sasou
courted by a fox uewarawa

 

Tr. by Makoto Ueda
The Path of the Flowering Thorn

 

Read: Re-inventing the Wheel

http://haikureality.webs.com/esejeng89.htm

Thanks to Shiki, hokku, now called haiku, in a short time, was once again taken seriously in Japan. His reformation was a monumental work, to which a great debt is owed. He'd single-handedly taken on Japan's literary establishment, the State-run Shinto Sect, and the Imperial Court, dethroned Basho as a god, and did so while dying from tuberculosis. It was his hope thereafter for the poetic genre he'd renamed haiku to be taken seriously by the international mainstream literary world.

Shiki's conceptualization of haiku, unfortunately, was flawed. A student of the German-based university mindset that eventually superceded Japanese thought in Japan's university system, Shiki's haiku was conceived with Western values, definitions, mimetic and non-mimetic, an educational arena Matsuo Basho, were he alive, would not have understood or been able to influence. Haiku, in essence, depreciated into a self-colonized Western genre. Without the mindset indigenous to hokku's origination, haiku soon slipped into the same morass as its predecessor, the newly reformatted genre not equipped to accommodate a poetic voice dependent upon an economy of words that included the seen and unseen, the heard and the unheard, utilizing styles (aesthetic tools) hitherto unused in Western literature.

Refer to The Colonization of Japan Haiku

http://simplyhaiku.theartofhaiku.com/summer-2012/features/japanese-haiku-aesthetics-v.html

The fire Shiki lit, in time, spread throughout the Western hemisphere, setting into motion what is currently referred to as the Modern Haiku Movement; a tidal flow of thought shared by Japan and other countries via the German-based university system, most of the world has adopted.

They didn't hire him
so he ate his lunch alone:
the noon whistle

Gary Snyder
"Hitch Haiku" in The Back Country (1967)

 

with a long nose
a painting of Jesus ---
the cold wall

Akito Arima
Tr. by Emiko Miyashita
(Simply Haiku, March-April, 2004, Vol. 2, No. 2)

 

Much of what is passed off today as haiku is doggerel, what Kai Hasakawa, a noted Japanese scholar and critic, calls "junk haiku", lacking depth, memorability, and the connection with zoka, nature's creative force that Basho deemed essential to the composition of hokku. In essence, haiku has sunk to the same low level of literary competence popular during the Meiji Era.

". . . because of the extremes of modern realism, kokoro is neglected, and only 'things' have come to be written about in haiku. These are what I referred to as 'junk' (garakuta) haiku. Sooner or later, this tendency will have to be corrected. For one thing, it is a serious departure from the main principle of Japanese literary art. And more to the point, 'junk haiku' just aren't interesting."

An Interview with Hasegawa Kai
Robert D. Wilson, Interviewer
Tanaka Kimiyo and Patricia Lyons, Translators
Simply Haiku, Autumn 2008, vol 6, no 3

What is missing from today's haiku? Was Basho off-base and overly biased by Daoist thought when he wrote:

"Those who pursue art follow zoka and have the four seasons as their companions. Nothing they see is not a flower and nothing they imagine is not the moon. If one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different from the birds and beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from animals; follow zoka and return to zoka."

Matsuo Basho
Tr. by Peipei Qui
From Kohan Basho zenshu

The great bulk of haiku composed today is quasi-observational and illustrative-centric, lacking integral connectivity with Basho's zoka, nature's creative force, a doctrinal tenet of Daosim; the four seasons treated as passersby instead of companions. Many well-known haiku poets and teachers negate the need in international circles for kigo altogether, such as Japanese poet/professor, Ban'ya Natsuishi, who favors fanciful imagery, surrealism, and cartoonish wit as evidenced in his Flying Pope haiku-like poems:

His underwear
made with withered leaves
Flying Pope

 

While flying
the Pope read aloud
haiku without season words

Ban'ya Natsuishi
Tr. by Jim Kacian
The Flying Pope
2008

 

Most haiku journals and publications today feature haiku intermixing them with senryu, a major flaw, without differentiation or academic basis. With the downplay and omission of kigo, the difference between the two distinct genres move into a gray area that no one has been able to accurately define in any detail with the exception of  Makoto Ueda, who authored  Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Postmodern Japanese Senryu.

What is haiku? What is hokku? Are they one and the same? There is much confusion as to what is and isn't a haiku in the world today. Dictionaries and the Western school system's conception of the genre differ markedly from the various Heinz variety definitions espoused by haiku associations, publications, online journals, and blogs.

Writes Natsuishi:

"There are muki haiku, non-seasonal poem, whose keywords are not connected to seasonal aspects. It is a new style of expression in contemporary haiku. Freed from seasonal limitations, contemporary muki haiku, have been enriched and expanded with keywords that indicate all living things (animals, plants, and any natural phenomenon), human beings themselves and the culture created by human beings (the body, human relations, family culture)."

Ban'ya Natsuishi

Technique used in Modern Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure

http://worldhaiku.net/archive/natsuishi1.html

 

Haiku defined by the Haiku Society of America:

"A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

Hokku:  A hokku is the first stanza of a linked-verse poem.

http://www.hsa-haiku.org/archives/HSA_Definitions_2004.html

Haiku defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary:

An unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively; also: a poem in this form usually having a seasonal reference.

Writes Ray Rasmussen:

“Haiku is a minimalist form of poetry. The writer has 17 or fewer syllables through which to convey an experience.”

http://raysweb.net/haiku/pages/haiku-definition.html

Posits Jim Kacian:

"A brief poem in 1 to 4 lines, often concerned with nature or the human experience, and usually juxtaposing a pair of images; at its best, it fosters a resonance which deepens over time."

A Haiku Primer

http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq/first-thoughts-a-haiku-primer-by-jim-kacian/

Writes Susumu Takiguchi in the World Haiku Review:

"Defining haiku has become misleading. It has ceased to serve the very purpose it is supposed to attain. Any attempt to define haiku is limiting and excluding. What is needed is “inclusion” as haiku is ever expanding and is transcending borders – be it language, traditions, mythology, climates/seasons, culture, ethos, symbols, and poetic sensibilities."

https://sites.google.com/site/worldhaikureview2/reportbymodrators

Pontificates Susan Shand in the Gean Tree Press Blog, on January 8, 2013:

"So what is haiku anyway? I imagine that you will get as many varied responses to that question as people you ask. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is in their own place of relationship to this small poetry form and their understanding of it. I'm not sure if I have a clear answer to that question, mostly because I approach haiku on an instinctive level rather than a rule level, I am content-biased rather than form-biased."

In referring to the aforementioned Haiku Society of America's definition of haiku and hokku, this same person wrote caustically: "Anyone who has a problem with those definitions needs to address the defining authority or come up with a better definition which can be supported by consensus."

There is no commonly agreed upon definition of haiku propagated on-or-offline by the world's haiku organizations. Either said definitions are generalized to facilitate almost anything contained within a short poem, or they contain a series of sub-genres such as neo-classical, gendai, shintai, vanguard, free form, etc.; a growing list accommodating the blender mentality that has befallen haiku, a genre seemingly without boundaries. Chaos-ku?

Wrote Michael Marra in his book, Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

"If one composes songs and poems without following rules at all, merely expressing whatever comes to mind, surely what results is not a form of poetry. If a road is very dangerous, winding to the right, turning to the left, climbing a precipice, then it must not be called a road. This shows the necessity of sameness in difference: proportion and balance cannot be lacking."

Perhaps the solution regarding what a haiku is and isn't can be explained more clearly apart from the Western German-based university mindset.

Wrote Yosa Buson in the preface to The Collected Haiku of Shundei (1777):

"There are no gateways to haikai. There is only the haikai gateway itself. . . Call on Kikatu, visit Ransetsu, recite with Sodo, accompany Onitsura [Basho's associates, all dead at this time]. Day after day you should meet these four old poets and get away from the distracting atmosphere of the cities. Wander around the forests and drink and talk in the mountains. It is best if you acquire haiku naturally, thus should you spend every day and some day you will meet the four poets again. Your appreciation of nature will be unchanged. Then you will close your eyes. Suddenly the four poets will have disappeared. No way of knowing where they became supernatural. You stand there alone in ecstasy. At that time, flower fragrance comes with the wind and moon-light hovers over the water. This is the world of haikai."

Tr. by Yuki Sawa and Edith M Shiffert
Haiku Master Buson

Note: The translators substituted haiku for haikai in Buson's preface for the benefit of English-language readers. The word ”haiku“ did not exist during Buson's lifetime as a designation for haikai [hokku].

There is a danger today when trying to define haiku and hokku via the German-based university mindset that dominates international thought.

Writes Michael Marra in his book, Modern Japanese Aesthetics:

"When we consider the impact that Western philosophy has had on Japanese scholars since the late nineteenth century --- and the impact that Japanese scholarship still has to this day [also influenced by the German based university system] on the ways in which Westerners represent Japan to themselves --- attention  to the work of Japanese aestheticians clarifies the complex web of paradoxes in which all scholars of Japan, East and West, are inevitably trapped when talking about their subject matter. The realization that moments of cultural specificities are often couched in the language of Western realities is one of the major concerns of present-day aestheticians. Such a realization, however, cannot be achieved unless we analyze the hermeneutics of major Japan aestheticians of the past (and a few of the modern responses to them)."

Here are some examples of current-day haiku, each one followed by a hokku composed by Matsuo Basho, to provide a comparison between Basho's hokku and what's currently heralded as quality haiku.

Note: Doing a comparative analysis of today's popular haiku and Basho's hokku necessitates my giving examples. By doing so, it is not my desire to embarrass or hurt those poets quoted.  A poet posting his or her work online or via a contest should, however, expect public scrutiny, negative and positive, as that is the nature of the beast.

 

2012 Tokutomi Memorial Haiku Contest
First Prize Winner

frost-covered window
I add a rubber ducky
to the bubble bath

Roberta Beary

Beary's poem is anything but a memorable poem. It's a word painting. It is winter. The poet is taking a bubble bath with her rubber ducky. Literature to be taken seriously by the mainstream literary world? Hardly. Beary's poem lacks imagination, tells all, and utilizes no aesthetic styles to introduce readers to a surplus of meaning. The frost on the window is used as a contrast with the comfort of a warm bubble bath, the bather oblivious to the harsh weather outdoors, her attention on a rubber ducky.  Hokku, as it was conceptualized by Matsuo Basho, is zoka-centric. Zoka is the creative force of nature. In Basho's worldview, life is a continuum, always changing, impermanent, in a constant state of becomingness (koto). These attributes of zoka are referred to by my friend and fellow author, Don Baird, as its DNA. If they are not present in a hokku, according to Basho, one's poem is not a hokku. Taught Basho: "Follow zoka and return to zoka." How is the handiwork of zoka interacting with the poet's last two lines, and what does the poem, as a whole, tell us beyond the obvious?

I add a rubber ducky
to the bubble bath

Let's examine a hokku by Basho. Yes, he wrote poetry hundreds of years ago. He was not privy to the resources of learning available to us today. I present his poetry in this essay, sandwiched between award winning haiku penned today, to illustrate a point:  Ancient or modern, a haiku to be remembered, must be well crafted, allow room for interpretation, and have the ability to lodge itself into a reader's consciousness. Matsuo Basho utilized styles (tools) in his compositions, learned from decades of study, practice, and experience. The majority of his poems weren't written overnight, and he had no tolerance for mediocrity. He often reworked his poems and only allowed a thousand of them to be published. Basho dedicated his life to crafting poetry, and had paid his dues. The path to greatness is a long, arduous, winding trail with bumps, roadblocks, and obstacles to overcome and understand. We can learn from Basho's hokku as Shiki did, who considered Basho and Buson to be the planet's two finest hokku poets.

Study and pick apart Basho's hokku academically. What do they say to you? What aesthetic styles did he use to write each poem? Why are they memorable in the 21st century? View them as literature. Judge them as literature.

 

departing spring ---
birds weep, and fishes' eyes
are tearful

Tr. by Makoto Ueda

It is the end of spring. Do birds cry? Do fish cry? It's a sight not uncommon in Chinese poetry. For example:

"Resentful of parting, I brood over the cries of birds."

Tu Fu, Tang Dynasty poetry, Spring View

Did Basho lament the end of spring? Does he identify with the birds readying themselves for migration? Are the fish representative of those he is about to say farewell too? Is this hokku, therefore, a farewell poem to his disciples?

None of Basho's hokku were frivolous. He carefully, intuitively utilized aesthetic styles in his compositions, using the said and unsaid as allies, the genius of the genre being its ability to say much with little via an economy of words. Anyone can write a short one- to three-lined haiku-like poem. A poet can dazzle his or her readers with cuteness, innovative word placement, touch their heart with common experience, and make them laugh or cry. It takes work, skill, and forethought, however, to craft a hokku that elicits a surplus of meaning that's activity- (koto/objective) biased and zoka-centric.

 

2012 Basho Festival Haiku Competition
First Place Winner

Former fisherman
sweating to clean the beach
still debris-piled

元漁師汗して浜の瓦礫掻く

Kyoko Shimizu  
Aichi, Japan

A man who used to fish is sweating as he removes debris from the beach he used to fish from. There is no yugen (depth and mystery). The poem "tells all" and is a shasei (life sketch) haiku.

Fisherman: object
Beach:        object
Debris:       objects

In essence, it is an incomplete sentence that forms a word painting. Memorable? No. Great literature? No. Is there room for interpretation beyond the obvious without stretching the imagination to make it seem so? No.

What relationship does this poem have with nature's creative force? Does it follow and return to zoka? What makes this assemblage of words (objects) a poem?

 

ice is bitter
in the mouth of the rat
quenching its thirst

Tr. by David Barnhill

Basho is traveling by foot on an arduous journey, without creature comforts. He is dirty, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and lonely. He stops at a hut in Japan's Fukagawa region to drink some water. The water there is not potable, and is disease ridden. Residents purchase imported drinking water from vendors. Basho may have been without the funds to purchase a container of drinking water and is forced to sip the bitter, dirty water no one in the region, except for the very poor, drink. Does the wandering poet feel like an animal, drinking out of desperation? This poem is filled with sabi (lonely beauty), sensitivity, and poignant sadness.

Is this hokku a reference to the following verse in the Daoist Zhuangzi that admonishes one to live within their own means and to find happiness within that experiential sphere?

"A sewer rat drinks from a large river, yet the amount of water he takes is just enough to quench his thirst."

Tr. by Makoto Ueda

Is Basho, by writing this hokku, ruminating on his current situation in life, reminding himself to be thankful for the breath he breathes, knowing that life can take a downward spiral, emotionally and physically, if he harbors and dwells on dissatisfaction? What was he thinking when he composed this poem?

 

14th HIA Haiku Contest
First Place Winner

Two blackbirds
fighting for a breadcrumb ---
sparrow is faster

Tugomir Orak (Croatia)

In this haiku-like poem, two blackbirds are competing for a breadcrumb. The faster bird gets the breadcrumb, personifying Charles Darwin theory regarding the survival of the fittest. The poem's focus is the breadcrumb (object). There is no mystery; all is said, leaving no need for a reader’s participation as an interpreter. Birds fighting over a breadcrumb are an everyday occurrence. We learn nothing in this poem about the artistic handiwork of zoka, nor does it help us to ascertain the continuum, the ever-changing tidal flow of nature and time, ever impermanent, that affects our beings. The poet has made a simple shasei observation, sharing something seen. It is a word painting, and not a good one at that.

Too many poems winning haiku competitions today and being heralded in journals as exemplary are anything but. They are blasé, forgettable, and not taken seriously as world-class literature by the mainstream literary world.

There is much we can learn from Basho, warts and all, if we subscribe to his belief that the infusion of zoka in hokku is indeed essential. Shiki longed to see hokku become a respected literary genre. He dedicated a large percentage of his short life to that quest. The literary academic establishment does not respect what is called haiku today, save for a few. The Western colonization of haiku, which Shiki was a part of, temporarily succeeded in rescuing hokku from oblivion, but due to the flaws in its re-conceptualization via the German-based university mindset, and the flawed teaching of writers like Blyth, Yasuda, and Henderson, the genre once again faces oblivion.

Change was needed during Buson's time; change was needed during Shiki's time; and it is needed today.

This time around, Basho worship isn't the problem. The problem lies in the path hokku's reformation took. The cure is a re-examination of the genre as it was originally conceptualized and finding ways to make its expression relevant in the modern world. Let us once again turn to Basho, not to emulate him as clones, but to study the form, aesthetic styles, and methodology he used to compose world-class literature.

 

summer grass ---
all that remains
of warriors’ dreams

Tr. by David Barnhill

Basho is looking out at a field of dry summer grass, a lifeless field that's brown, desolate, the remains of something that was once beautiful, alive, and breathing as only life can during the spring months. This same field is an ancient battlefield where Japanese warriors once fought. The young warriors who died on this battlefield were once vibrant living human beings, much like the field's grass when it was green before summer's advent. Spring, like youth, is a time for hope, beauty, and dreams. Seeing the dry, scorched grass, Basho was reminded of its counterpart, the ashes and bones of dead soldiers, buried beneath the dry grass. Impermanence is a reoccurring theme in Basho's hokku. In Basho's Daoist-inspired worldview, nothing in life is permanent; all is transient, changing, like an oil painting that doesn't dry. We die. Other life forms in nature die. It's not because we and other life forms in nature seize to exist . . . we/they change shape, form, visible and invisible, everything a part of a continuum wielded by zoka's brush.

Irregardless of whether or not you subscribe to Daoist thought as conceptualized by Basho, his poem is a powerful, poignant hokku with room for multiple meanings . . . one laden with sabi, kokoro, yugen, makoto, ma, etc. It can even be interpreted as a statement regarding the futility of war.

Writes Haruo Shirane about this hokku in an interview with him by Udo Wenzel:

" . . . It represents two landscapes at the same time: the present landscape, of the summer grasses before the eyes of the traveler, and the past landscape, of the battlefield where many warriors lost their lives in a futile struggle."

Note: Read the reprint of this interview in this issue.

Basho's poetry had something to say that oftentimes lingers in a reader's mind after reading them. This is the mark of great literature and why Matsuo Basho's poetry is remembered and studied hundreds of years after his death. Can this be said about our own haiku? Is there a surplus of meaning in our short poems? Do our poems develop a life of their own in the minds of our readers?

Blogging Along Tobacco Road
Featuring Poet: Colin Stewart Jones

crescent moon –
tonight the man
is beheaded

This short poem is a senryu masquerading as a haiku; what some might label, Holloween-ku. Jones’s poem is excerpted from a haibun that was published in Haibun Today on January 7, 2009. A haiku in a haibun must be able to stand alone for it to be labeled a haiku. This poem cannot stand alone. Alone, it is a macabre word painting. What does the "crescent moon" have to do with a man being "beheaded"? How does this poem join in a symbiotic waltz with zoka, nature's creative force? What is there to be interpreted by the reader beyond the obvious? If haiku is to be taken seriously by the mainstream academic literary world, the haiku world must find better examples of the genre to extol to the circle they influence. Jones's poem is not memorable, isn't activity- (koto/objective) biased, utilizes a meter not indigenous to haiku (short/long/long versus short/long/short), nor does it reflect effective use of haiku aesthetic styles (tools).

Studying a poet's body of work is an excellent way to learn about his poetry, styles, and techniques. Let's examine another hokku composed by Matsuo Basho:

 

dozing on my horse,
with dream lingering and moon distant:
smoke from a tea fire

Tr. by David Landis Barnhill

Basho was on horseback, having traveled for what seemed like forever. He'd fallen in and out of a semi-sleep on his horse more than once. Exhaustion had overcome him. The sun hadn't risen yet, the moon, waning like a slowly fading lantern.

Suddenly he was jolted awake . . . the smell of a tea fire. His journey was over. Food and sleep awaited him like old friends.

Basho encapsulated in a seventeen-syllable poem, a moment, a transition, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, a mood, and deep longing . . . making ultimate use of a poetic form dependent upon an economy of words. He didn't dwell on the hardships of travel. The poet pressed on. He contrasted the high in his hokku (waning moon, lingering dreams) with the low (tea fire smoke) to portray the fine line of what is and isn't, when we see with more than our eyes.

 

Red Dragonfly
February 27, 2011

still winter
a heavy book about
nutritional supplements

Johannes S.H. Bjerg

What does "a heavy book about nutritional supplements" have to do with winter? This is a surreal haiku-like poem that's obtuse and beyond the cognitive reach of readers. Basho and those he influenced made hokku accessible to the masses via the usage of common language and terms people were familiar with. The use of obscure language and word pictures was disdained. Bjerg is an innovative contemporary graphic artist/painter. He stretches boundaries, forges new ground, as is to be expected in the art field he excels in. He treats haiku like he does his art, viewing it as a canvas without rules. An artist, however, studies the works of great artists in order to better understand the medium and to acquire and fine tune skills. Picasso did, Dali did, Matisse did, and Warhol did. One must learn and master the rudiments, the fundamentals of a genre before pioneering new ground. The haiku world needs to slow down, take a long breath, swallow its pride, and imbibe the rudiments and fundamentals of the hokku Matsuo Basho and other early hokku masters gave the world. Only then will it be able to credibly compose quality haiku that can be considered valid literature. Innovation is fine. Basho encouraged innovation and individuality; but innovation and individuality without solid learning and properly honed skills, is non-productive, and poisonous to the genre . . . a genre awash today in a sea of confusion and lack of identity.

 

ready to become
a skeleton in the fields ---
the winds piercing my heart

Tr. by Peipei Qui

Basho composed this hokku, influenced by a chapter in the Zhuangzi, The Perfect Happiness, that extols the Daoist belief that complete happiness is not limited by barriers of the flesh, circumstance, or station in life.  Happiness comes from within. It records a conversation between Zhuangzi and a skeleton.

In the conversation,"The skull said, 'Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons with nothing to do, our springs and mountains are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throe could have no more happiness than this.'"

Basho was ready to face death when he set out on the journey of which he writes about in this hokku. He knew his journey would be arduous. He knew he was getting older, his health ebbing. Life to Basho was transitional. It was not finite. When his body seized to function and shut down, his spirit would move on.

Basho recorded more than an observation of what he'd seen. He wasn't a painter of physical landscapes. He painted psychological landscapes, sharing with readers his life, his innermost feelings, in a way that hinted, suggested, without being subjective, without a fixation on objects. His poetry is layered. We can benefit as poets by layering our poetry with more than the visible.

 

Neanderthal man
bombing Afghanistan back
to the Stone Age

Dimitar Anakiev
WAVING THE RED FLAG, haiku from the left front
dedicated to Joseph Joe Mussomeli

Balkan poet, Dimitar Anakiev, calls the above poem a haiku. It is an incomplete sentence, an anti-war diatribe utilizing a three-line format that resembles a haiku visually. Apart from its visual similarity, Anakiev's poem is the antithesis of hokku composed by Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, and Issa Kobayashi. It is subjective, leaves little to interpret, makes no reference of nature, and has no connection with zoka, which Basho called essential to the genre. Instead of utilizing aesthetic styles (tools) to invoke a surplus of meaning that every reader can interpret differently, Anakiev makes a blunt, biased political statement, ranting: A "Neanderthal man bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age." The poem is a senryu, not a haiku, a distinction few in international haiku circles understand.

 

Still alive,
They are frozen in one lump:
Sea slugs

Matsuo Basho
Tr. by Makoto Ueda

Basho's hokku above is in symbiotic sync with the tidal flow of nature. It is a poem that can be read multiple times, eliciting multiple interpretations. It is not a nature poem, describing something observed in nature, and nothing more. If the slugs are frozen, how does Basho know they are still alive, in a cryogenic limbo? Did he identify with the sea slugs, he too exposed to the harsh elements of winter without suitable shelter? There is pathos in this short poem, beckoning, through the power of words, a poetic transference between Basho and his subject. What appears to be dead and unmoving is an illusion. The slugs are in a cryogenic state of suspended animation. What is death? What is the cessation of movement and change? What is impermanence? There is much to be grasped and interpreted in this hokku. Basho's poetry withstands the test of time, his hokku venerated and studied worldwide.

Why is this?

 

one who loves someone                       koi seshi hito
with the one who doesn't                     koi naki hito to
drinks beer                                          biiru kumu

Tsuji Momoko
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
Far Beyond the Field

An early example of poetry masquerading as haiku, this incomplete sentence is a senryu void of any connection with zoka, unless, of course, as some modern haiku poets are doing today, the poet considers "beer" to be an expression of nature and the four seasons. To call this a haiku is a misnomer. It is a saying, nothing more. My father had a saying: "Put your all into all you do and if you fail, you are still a success."

Using Momoko's poem as a model, have I composed a valid haiku by putting this saying by my father into a three-line schemata?

put your all into
all you do and if you fail
you are still a success

What was Basho's conceptualization of hokku? How does it differ from modern haiku? Are hokku and haiku two different literary genres? Can lessons be learned from the old master's hokku and hokku conceptualization that can save haiku, giving back to it what Shiki during his short lifetime had attempted to do? OR, has modern haiku reached a point of no return, an unruly virus that defies definition and direction; an anything goes short form poetic free agent rising into the Wild West of the night?

As previously mentioned, Matsuo Basho wasn't perfect. He was a pioneer who helped to refine and popularize a poetic genre during his lifetime in Japan. As Shiki rightfully pointed out, not every hokku Basho composed was stellar. Some were so-so, a few were mediocre. The majority, however, of the one thousand published hokku he is credited with composing, are timeless, as relevant today as they were when they were written.

To emulate and copy Basho would be ludicrous, antithetical to what he strived for and taught. That kind of thinking brought about the near demise of hokku during the Meiji Era. Instead, I offer Basho's hokku as examples, as a standard of excellence we can strive for when composing hokku. I say hokku, because haiku as a genre has deviated from its ancestral roots to a point of no return. I think it's best to give hokku back its name, to explore how Basho's hokku were composed, including the styles used to write them. The time for a reformation is now, if hokku (haiku) is to survive and regain its rightful place as a poetic genre to be taken seriously by the international literary community; a full circle reformation. . . from hokku to haiku to hokku.

What can we learn today from Matsuo Basho, and how can this knowledge help us to compose world-class hokku?

don't resemble me ---
cut in half
a musk melon

Matsuo Basho
Tr. by Makoto Ueda

This is a much misunderstood hokku penned by Basho. Some quote it when justifying their departure from the characteristics that identify and define hokku poetics. Being a clone is one thing. A serious poet cannot look at him or herself in the mirror and think he or she is a poet if what is seen in the mirror is something other that himself or herself. Basho did not advocate jettisoning the rules and doing one's own thing. That's the antithesis of education. He became a successful poet through study, hard work, and experience. Jettisoning the rules after a year or two of composing haiku is the equivalent of telling an eight-year-old student to throw away his schoolbooks and define the world around him via his own sphere of ascertainment. One needs a foundation to build a house on. Likewise, a poet needs a foundation from which to craft a body of serious poetry. Once the foundation is built, the house is ready to be constructed creatively within an architecturally engineered sphere that assures the building will be safe and last. The instinct Susan Shand claims to be her guide is only as good as the knowledge and experience that shapes it.

Wrote Doho, Basho's devoted disciple:

"It is the sound made by a frog leaping into a pond from wild grasses that we hear the voice of haikai. Haikai exists in what one sees and what one hears. The sincerity of haikai is to put what a poet feels directly into verse."

Doho
Tr. by Peipei Qui
From Doho's book: Sanzoshi (The three notebooks, 1709)

 

The ancient pond
A frog leaps in
The sound of the water

Tr. by Donald Keene

Feeling versus non-feeling . . . Star Trek's Dr. Spock versus India's Mahatma Gandhi . . . a hokku without feeling is a poem that doesn't breathe. It is dead. It lacks the makoto (beauty) that is evident in all aspects of nature, including the finite, the dead, and the living. That is what Basho meant when he said:

". . . if one sees no flower, he is the same as a barbarian; if one has no moon in mind, he is no different from the birds and beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from animals; follow zoka and return to zoka."

Matsuo Basho
Tr. by Peipei Qui
from Kohan Basho zenshu

 

I'm reminded of two hokku penned by the late exiled Catalan poet, Agusti Bartra, from his deathbed:

The light is teaching
the air that travels
how roses are born.

 

As if distracted,
on my way, I touch the tree.
Now it answers me.

Agusti Bartra
Last Poems (1977-1982)
Tr. by D. Sam Abrams

 

Wrote Doho in Sanzoshi:

"Accomplished poets tend to have flaws. The Master [Basho] often said: 'Let an innocent child make haikai. The verse from a novice's mind is most promising.'

These words warn us of the habitual flaws of accomplished writers.  When getting into the substance of an object, one either cultivates the primal breath (ki) or suppresses it. If one suppresses the momentum of the primal breath, the whole poem will lose vitality.The late Master also said: 'Haikai must be composed on the momentum of the primal breath.'"

One can approach hokku intellectually, composing a poem that's technically well written. Everything that makes a hokku a hokku is there . . . almost: the said, the unsaid, contrast, ma, aesthetic styles, nature, impermanence, the proper metric schemata, BUT, if it lacks a soul, the primal breath, ki, it isn't in sync with zoka. Natsuishi's Flying Pope poems lack soul. Cor Van den Heuvel's one word "Tundra" haiku is soulless (a single word, an object). Obtuse poems posted by intellectuals using obscure terms and references also lack soul. Holloween-ku, Chaos-ku,  Instinct-ku: words, just words, assembled to form a poem.

Don't imitate Basho, follow his example. Let your hokku breathe, give life to the words you compose and share. Give readers a reason to remember and relate to your poetry. Wrote Hagiwara Sakutaro in his book, Principles of Poetry: "Poetry kindles the humanness of humanity, and is the burning of human desires." We should, as Sakutaro asserts, not pursue "the completion of beauty but the creation of beauty . . ." To accomplish this using an economy of words requires thought, practice, acquired skill, and much study; a study that necessitates approaching hokku with a Japanese, pre-Meiji Era mindset that is far removed from the German-based university model dominating current world thought.

A child is born into this world with a tabula rasa, a blank slate. His perception of the world has not been formed yet. It must be acquired. Basho advocated approaching the composition of hokku as a young child, free from subjectivity and conceptualization. Buson taught this as well.

"Haikai values a verse that detaches itself from the mundane while using a language that is mundane. Making use of the mundane while being detached from it --- such an art of detachment is very difficult to put into practice. 'Listen to the sound of one hand clapping,' said a certain Zen monk. In those words lies the Zen of haikai as well as the art of detachment from the mundane."

Yosa Buson
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
The Path of the Flowering Thorn

Buson was telling a disciple in this passage to step outside of himself when composing a hokku. How does one step outside of oneself while retaining a sense of humanness and empathy in order to compose an objective hokku?

View something in nature without preconception, with a blank slate, then close your eyes and see it without your eyes. Listen to the sound of one hand clapping, the stillness of an owl's flight.

Wrote Doho:

"The Master has said: 'Learn about pines from pines and learn about bamboo from bamboo.' By these words he is teaching us to eradicate subjectivity. One will end up learning nothing with one's subjective self even if one wants to learn. To learn means to enter the object, to find its subtle details and empathize with it, and let what is experienced become poetry. For instance, if one has portrayed the outer form of an object but failed to express the feelings that flow naturally out of it, the object and the author's self become two, so the poem cannot achieve sincerity. It is merely a product of subjectivity."

This advice alone, if infused into hokku, can make a huge difference in the quality of our poetic output. Subjectivity, in Basho's mind-view, had no place in hokku. This is a difficult concept for the Western mind to grasp. Westerners have a propensity for defining everything. It is hard for the Western-trained mind to grasp koans, metaphysics, and the aesthetic concepts of the unseen, yugen, and ma. Western conceptualization of such terms and the conceptualization of Japanese poets prior to the 19th century are vastly different. In order for a poet to grasp what Basho was talking about, one must empty his or her head of preconception when viewing something in nature in order to grasp its essence when composing a poem about it. How to do this? You are a human being, not a wizard or shaman. You cannot physically transform yourself into a tree or a bamboo stalk . . . Western versus Eastern thought . . . Close your eyes without thinking. Gaze at the pine tree. Feel the pine tree. Smell it, hear it, follow the path of the empty mind. It is there that you will find your haiku.

In his book, Sanzoshi, Doho again quotes from his master, Matsuo Basho:

"The Master's teaching is all about awakening to the lofty and returning to the common, that is, to constantly pursue the sincerity of poetry and return to the haikai we compose every day. Those who always adhere to [the sincerity of] poetry have the original color of their mind naturally manifest in the form of poetry. Therefore, their composition is natural and never constrained with artifice. When the original color of the mind is not beautiful, one tends to make artificial effort on superficial expressions. It is a reflection of the vulgarity of a mind that does not make constant effort to seek the sincerity of poetry."

Haiku cannot be forced, intellectualized, or pretended. A haiku is not a poetical assemblage of words that says whatever fits the fancy of its author. It is a vehicle, a bearer of something far removed from Western thought. What does a baby think when it sees a kitten for the first time, itsmind unconditioned by forethought, learning, and the experiential (negative and positive)?

A haiku is much more than the definition espoused by the Haiku Society of America and its defender, Susan Shand:

"A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

Haiku to Basho, Chiyo-ni, Doho, Buson, Issa, Kikatu, Ransetsu, Sodo, and Onitsura was a path: The Way of Poetry; a way that necessitates jumping with Alice into a wonderland without walls or definition, a world where intuition melts into a cup of tea the Mad Hatter is sharing with the Cheshire Cat on a tree limb made of dreams recorded in a caption that hasn't been filled yet. What is, isn't . . . it's time to re-examine the genre from a different perspective. Was Basho wrong? Were Buson, Issa, and Chiyo-ni products of a bi-gone era whose poetical views no longer equate with the now we've pioneered with Neon Buddhas, one word anomalies, Flying Popes, and a Blythian propensity to over-intellectualize a genre with recipes on the backs of boxes of Uncle Ben's Instant Rice?

Wrote Basho:

"Haikai has three elements. Sekibaku is its mood. While having fine dishes and beautiful women, one finds true joy in humble solitude. Furyu is its quality. While dressed in brocaded silks and satins, one does not forget those who are wrapped in woven straw. Fukyo it its language.  One's language should stem from emptiness and represent the substance of things. It is very difficult to stay with the substance of things while joining in emptiness. These three elements don't imply that a person who is 'low' aspires to be high, but rather that a person who has attained the high perceives through the low."

Wrote Haruo Shirane eloquently in his book, Traces of Dreams:

"The essential movement of haikai was the unceasing search for new poetic associations, new languages, new perspectives, and new styles, but it was a newness that existed in relationship to established associations and worlds, which were reconstructed and transmitted by Basho and other haikai masters and which were embodied most concretely in the landscape, the ultimate bearer of cultural memory and the primary ground for haikai re-visioning."

Without a roadmap, without established associations, aesthetic styles, and a worldview shaped historically by Daoist thought, animism, and Zen Buddhist exploration, hokku, currently called haiku, is nothing more than a hodge podge radical free agent poetic virus growing in a thousand directions at once, unable to be defined, defying rules, a "little dab a do ya" versification with a dash of this, a dash of that: Imagism, haiku, senryu, prose, incomplete sentences, political rants, whatever fits the fancy of the poet, almost all of it endorsed by the world's most vocal haiku organizations.

Without direction, without a birthright, without a solid academic, yet heartfelt, foundation, haiku will soon die. Perhaps it already has, its residuals, the doggerel passed off today as the descendents of Basho's hokku.

Let us return to the hokku Matsuo Basho and other visionary poet warriors envisioned; not to copy Basho and his predecessors, or to hold them up as impeccable gods, but to see hokku without Western eyes, to see it as it was made to be viewed, breathed, and spoken.

Be gone preconception, subjectivity, arrogance, and the fixation that progress entails recklessly diving into the darkness without regard to what was!