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|Japanese Haiku Aesthetics Pt. V|
The Colonization of Japanese Haiku
After weeks of watching the roof leak
For a while
Haiku as practiced by and introduced to the world by Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Chiyo-ni, and their contemporaries prior to Masaoka Shiki, with few exceptions, has disappeared from our planet. What is currently called haiku is a product of the German-based university system, and thus, an Anglo-Western poetic genre. It is also a cicada shell of its former incarnation, verging on extinction in the area of world credibility as a serious literary genre.
This is the final paper of a total of five on haiku aesthetics that have appeared in Simply Haiku. I wrote this series, having a tremendous love for hokku and haiku poetry. Most publications and poets I've come into contact with are confused as to what is and isn't a haiku. Most adhere to a line of thinking popularized by the inadequate research and bias of three writers: R.H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, and Harold Henderson. They believed that haiku was a Zen Buddhist genre, and defined Japanese aesthetic tools and genre specific rules with a language not suited for an exegetical analysis of Japanese poetry. These teachings were, in turn, influenced by Masaoka Shiki, the Anglo-Western Imagist poets, and the homogenization of Western and Japanese linguistic perceptions.
NOTE: In citing poems by living poets, no malice is intended. It is necessary, however, to cite examples of poetry in this paper to make a valid academic point regarding the authenticity and non-authenticity of what is and isn't haiku, and the homogenization of haiku in and outside of Japan.
Wrote my friend and mentor, the late UCLA Professor of Japanese literature, aesthetics, and hermeneutics, Michael F. Marra, in his book, Japan's Frames of Meaning, published in 2011 by the University of Hawaii Press:
”So much of modern Japan - including the university system and modern organizations of knowledge - was built on German models. Western hermeneutics had a profound impact on how philology, history, and the humanities came to be articulated in Japan. In other words, whatever goes under the umbrella of Japanese literature, art, religion, history, philosophy and so on would not exist in its modern form without the paradigms that hermeneutics provided in forcing Japanese authors to talk about Japan with a language that was originally devised for interpreting the Bible.”
Are Japanese aesthetics an Anglo-Western invent? If so, is much of the haiku composed today in Japan the product of Anglo-Western thought as perceived by the German-based university system? Is there a disparity between the hokku composed prior to Masaoka Shiki's renaming and restructuring the genre, and the haiku composed in Japan since Shiki? These are questions that merit answers and the implications of said answers can affect the future of haiku throughout the world.
Wrote Professor Haruo Shirane of Columbia University in his paper “Constructing 'Japanese Literature' Global and Ethnic Nationalism” in 1998:
"Japanese literature, especially classical Japanese literature, is thought by those both in and outside Japan to be the unique product of a nation called Japan, while the texts of Japanese literature are thought to embody the cultural characteristics of the 'people' of Japan. Japanese literature as we know it today, however, has been deeply influenced by non-Japanese cultures, particularly that of China up until the late nineteenth century, and by Europe from the late nineteenth onward. Furthermore, the two key notions of 'nation' (kokka) and ' literature' (bungaku) that lie behind today's notion of kokubungaku, or what is now more frequently referred to as 'Japanese literature' (Nibon bungaku), are in significant part a product of modern, nineteenth century European notions of literature and nationhood."
Is haiku as we know it today, composed in and outside of Japan, a Japanese literary genre free from Western influence? Was haiku unaffected by the societal revolution brought about after Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its borders to the West?
How important is language in the defining of a culture? Is the English language capable of defining and dissecting the Japanese mindset from the Meiji Construction Era to the present? Why did the Japanese adopt the German-based university system and feel a need to adapt its language to accommodate the Anglo-West in its understanding of Japan?
"Our language is the reflection of ourselves."
Wrote Sasaki Ken'ichi, professor of aesthetics at the University of Tokyo, in a paper presented during an international conference held from December 13-15, 1998 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA): “Japanese Hermeneutics: Current Debates on Aesthetics and Interpretation”:
"The structural features in various phases of a language determine the ways of thinking and the world vision of the users of that language, and, conversely, the world vision of a people dominates the structures of their language."
The language most dominant in the world controls how its inhabitants perceive the world.
Wrote Benjamin Lee Whorf:
"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language."
At the same conference, Ōhashi Ryōsuke, professor of philosophy at the Institute of Technology in Kyoto, stated:
"Europeanness and Japaneseness no longer stand in dichotomous contrast. A hermeneutics of Japaneseness requires first the perception of Europeanness as the other in itself' for the Japanese self."
I was taught all my life that the West and Japan were polar opposites, philosophically. If there is no dichotomous contrast, as Professor Ryōsuke asserted, between European and Japanese thought, why would educational institutions in the United States from elementary schools to universities, public and private, teach otherwise? Have educators, authors, and students been fed homogenous half-truths due to insufficient research and linguistic confusion?
Stated University of Tokyo aesthetics Professor, Hiroshi Yoshioka, in his lecture “Samurai and Self-colonization in Japan” included in the book De-colonization of Imagination: Culture, Knowledge and Power, edited by Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh, Zed Publishers, 1995:
"The phenomenon of colonization on this level involves our ways of seeing, thinking and talking about other people and cultures. In other words, this issue of colonization can be discussed in the realm of cultural representation and discourse. This doesn't mean we are always forced by some noticeable power to represent or talk of others in a certain way. On the contrary, forces to distort our images of others function most effectively when we are not aware of them, that is, when we feel ourselves free to see or think about the world. The domain of those forces is in the unconscious, and they reach very deep into our everyday life through the process of communication in families, school and social education as well as daily exposure to every field of mass media."
Yoshioka went on to posit: "Japan has colonized itself. And in the course of modernization, the drastic transformation of culture, Japanese have played the role of the colonist and of the colonized at the same time."
In 1853, American Commodore Perry entered Japanese waters leading an armada of heavily armed motorized ships. The Japanese Emperor and his political handlers, the Tokugawa Shogunate, were opposed to Western influence and refused to meet with Perry to entertain his request for an open border and a treaty of mutual cooperation.
Edward Robie, the Admiral's Chief Engineer, in 1910, recounted:
"At Shui we found a walled city and Commodore Perry signified to the Japanese officials, through interpreters, that he wished to visit it. They were appalled and told him that under no circumstances would that be permitted. The Commodore, however, whom we affectionately dubbed the ‘Ursa Major’, in his quiet, forceful way, informed them that on the following day he would land and visit the city and would expect its gates to be opened to him. The Japanese were courteous and polite, but we were evidently not to their liking. They would, I think, have crushed us had they dared, but were wise enough to recognize our superior strength, and so, when, on the morrow, the Commodore, accompanied by about 300 sailors and marines, to whom fifty rounds of ammunition had been furnished for guns and our dozen howitzers, appeared at the gates of the walled city, he found them open and we entered and marched all around the city, in which no white man had ever set foot before."
"The Japanese came down to meet us in force, in hundreds of boats laden with men armed with swords and spears, bows and arrows, escorted by their best battleship, an old one sail junk. Just think of it, and this only 55 years ago. Well, as our cutters moved ahead in their work of sounding and charting the waters, the Japanese would steer their boats in front of ours and endeavor to obstruct our way. A show of muskets by our men and a determined attitude, however, soon induced them to get out of our way, and in this way the Bay of Yeddo was sounded and charted by us."
The Japanese called Commodore Perry's armada the "black ships of evil mien [appearance]."The Tokugawa Shogunate, who ruled Japan, and its puppet emperor, vehemently opposed the American presence, seeing them as a threat to their mode of governance. They also knew what cooperation with the West had cost China. They did not want to follow in China's footsteps and become a subjugated country.
An excerpt from the letter addressed to the Japanese Emperor penned by Commodore Perry:
The undersigned holds out all these arguments in the hope that the Japanese government will see the necessity of averting unfriendly collision between the two nations, by responding favorably to thepropositions of amity, which are now made in all sincerity.
Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force.
But it is expected that the government of your imperial majesty will render such return unnecessary, by acceding at once to the very reasonable and pacific overtures contained in the President's letter, and which will be further explained by the undersigned on the first fitting occasion.
With the most profound respect for your imperial majesty, and entertaining a sincere hope that you may long live to enjoy health and happiness, the undersigned subscribes himself,
M. C. Perry,
Although the Tokugawa Shogunate wanted the foreigners expelled, they were powerless against the military might of the United States, and thus, had no other choice but to cede to America's demands for a treaty of cooperation, effected in 1854, facilitating trade at two ports. In 1858, a second treaty was signed opening up additional ports and cities to the West.
NOTE: Although Commodore Perry forced the Tokugawa Shogunate and Japan's puppet emperor to open up its borders to Western commerce and travel, he did not force Japan to adopt American thinking, educational models, or its aesthetic models. Perry's checkmate with the Shogunate set into motion a chain of events that would topple the Tokugawa regime, set up a new regime, reformat the Japanese language, their educational system, and transform every aspect of art via mimeses, new words, philosophical adaptation, linguistic metamorphosis, and the ramifications that accompany radical change. A fire was lit in Japan. It is still burning today.
Compared with America and its European allies, the effectiveness and alleged superiority of the Shogunate came into question. The failure of the Shogunate in the xenophobic eyes of key samurai leaders to control and repel the American invaders and the changes their treaty-brokered presence brought about, was a sign of weakness, and would, in time, lead to the downfall of the Shogunate and the Tokugawa regime, and the sculpting of a new, modern centralized government with the emperor as its symbolic head.
In 1868, the repressive Tokugawa Shogunate was toppled and replaced by a regime theoretically led by Japan's newly empowered Emperor Meiji. In reality, the real decision makers were a small group of nobles and former samurai. The Emperor was sixteen years old when he ascended the throne, and as such, unsuited to lead Japan into the metamorphosis it had been thrust into.
The regime change did not solve the predicament Japan found itself in. Japan was forced to sign unequal treaties benefiting the United States. In order to compete equally with the Anglo-West, and to eventually rise above the West's hegemony, the nation would have to, to put it crudely, eat dirt, until it could catch up economically, militarily, and technologically.
The Japanese colonized themselves, wanting to become a major player in the world of technology and trade. They assumed an ambiguous presence, absorbing everything they could to catch up. The country's intellectual elite and politicians didn't know how this temporary self-colonization would affect their language, religious outlook, and cultural integrity.
For the next twenty years, in the 1870s and 1880s, the top priority remained domestic reform aimed at changing Japan's social and economic institutions along the lines of the model provided by the powerful Western nations. Essential to these changes was the transformation of its educational system from a feudal citadel to one reflecting the hegemony of Anglo-Western models.
Japan's educational system was reformed after the French and, later, after the German-based university system. Among those reforms was the introduction of compulsory education. Education, to be competitive with Europe and America and the hegemony the Anglo-West exerted internationally, had to find a common ground in which to communicate, that being an educational system foreign to the Japanese, but deemed superior when viewing the progress the Anglo-West had made technologically compared to Japan, whose isolationism kept them from progressing beyond the cultural landscape of their geographical locale, and their mimesis of Chinese religion, laws, language, government, literature, etc.
Education became the cornerstone of Japan's quest for modernization.
This adoption of the German-based university system drastically affected the Japanese mindset, its language, and its perception of philosophy, social science, political science, art, and religion. Many of the texts previously deemed integral to the aforementioned disciplines were jettisoned to accommodate Japan's self-colonization and desire to be "Westernized" and considered an equal partner in the rapidly changing technological arena the industrialized world had become. The Japanese found it expedient to table their xenophobia towards the West, knowing that samurai swords were no match for Anglo-Western canons. A proud people, in their mind, payback would come later, after Japan had caught up with Western hegemony, but on terms that were far from subjugating.
Many Japanese scholars were sent abroad to study Western science and languages, and, likewise, foreign experts were recruited to teach and lecture in Japan including Ernest F. Fenollosa (1853-1908), at the invitation of the Japanese government. His lectures covered Anglo-Western theories on aesthetics, philosophy, literature, and art. Since his theories covered territory previously uncharted in the Japanese mindset, translators had to find words that correlated with the terms, concepts, and words he used in his lectures at the Tokyo Imperial University, then called the Higher Normal School in Tokyo. New words were added to the Japanese vocabulary indigenous to the German-based university system, as well as the application of new meanings to many old ones.
The Japanese word, geijutsuka, originally referred to scientists and mathematicians. The same word today, less the "ka", means artist.
By 1889, Japanese schools had assimilated the Western meaning of terms such as aesthetics, a word hitherto unknown in Japan, who saw yugen, ma, makoto, and other terms as styles, not as an integrated system of beauty, another term Japan found hard to define.
Wrote Grazia Marchiano in his essay, “What to Learn from Western Aesthetics”?
"Martin Heidegger's view that philosophy was the invention of the Greek mind has deep roots in European consciousness, and has, to all effects, been universally endorsed. When Japan, at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868), took the historic decision to set under way the process of modernization after 150 years of proud isolation, expanding its horizons to embrace the 'newness' of the West and its cultural models, it was obliged to adapt its traditional lexis to Western concepts or even to coin new words."
Hokku, the poetic genre made famous by Matsuo Basho, like all forms of literary expression in Japan during the Meiji Era, was affected by Western influence and the cultural colonization of the Japanese language.
The verse form Matsuo Basho is credited with establishing as a serious literary genre and making it accessible outside the Japanese Imperial Court during the Tokugawa Era was part of renga, a social multiple-participant verse form whose content, subject to rules and codification, was, more often than not, fictional and entertaining in a politically expedient manner. Its primary purpose was for the entertainment of the elite.
A few examples:
Hawks take flight,
Green, so green ---
Curse the luck!
Most, with few exceptions, worked as part of a renga but were not substantial enough to stand on their own as a serious poem, nor were they written to. It was Basho, a renga practitioner, who saw in the hokku something more. Basho spent his life refining and exploring hokku, the opening three lines of a renga. He saw a connection with zoka (nature's creative force) and made this connection the cornerstone for stand-alone hokku. This cornerstone, the essence of hokku, is overlooked today, accounting for the similarity between haiku written in and outside Japan and that composed during renga tournaments during Basho's time.
Most contemporary haiku lack an understanding of and connection with zoka.
An e-mail from a well-known international haiku poet, upon her poetry's rejection by one of Simply Haiku'seditors due to the poet's lack of a kigo connection, said contemporary Western haiku no longer sees the need for such inclusion. Complaints like these have no scholarly basis or academic reference. I remember my father's admonishment to me as a child when I challenged his authority and griped, "But dad, everyone is doing it!" His reply was terse and simple, "If everyone jumps off a cliff, would you follow?"
The use of kigo is being challenged today in Japan by gendai and modernist poets who advocate key words in its stead. They call their haiku, muki (seasonless) haiku. The reasoning for the substitution of key words for the traditional kigo at first seems sound. Kigo words as dictated by the Japanese saijiki (approved season word list) are not relevant to those outside Japan experiencing different seasons such as the Philippines, whose climate is a tropical rainforest climate. Some of the terms in the Japanese saijiki are geographical centric like holidays (tanabata, etc.), food dishes, and religious references like kami. Advocates of muki haiku see everything as belonging to nature, thus reasoning that to encapsulate nature into what they call the limitations of seasonal words stifles creativity and the spirit that nature is supposed to infuse into a haiku.
States Kaneko Tohta in his speech before the Gendaihaiku kyoki (The Modern Haiku Association) audience attending the 46th Annual Conference in October 2000:
"This living being (ikimono) --- in seeing this, it is absurd to draw distinctions between human beings and nature. A human being is the same as a cockroach, or a weasel. Those animals don't live out life in human society, but some animals, those more closely resembling human beings, are said to have something in common with human societies. Yet, their sensitivities are in no way corrupted; the raw perception of living beings (ikimono kankaku) is itself alive. There are many such worlds. We should not hold these worlds dear, even if we as humans are the most twisted of living beings [dokusareru]."
In a statement made on September 12, 1999, called the Matsuyama Declaration, the following was posited regarding the use of kigo in modern day haiku:
"The fact that haiku is, in essence, symbolic poetry that has stopped being long-winded and talkative is recognized worldwide. Kigo is an accumulation of a long tradition of poetic sensibility that has continued to grow since the birth of waka. Globally speaking, it is a'keyword that possesses a symbolic meaning unique to that particular culture.'Surely all cultures are certain to possess symbolic keywords that are unique to them, and which have been nurtured throughout their history. In this context, haiku can be described as being a universal poem whose essential part is expressed by 'symbolism.'We can also point out that the recent trend of modern Japanese haiku that attempts to refine itself as a symbolic poem, are in line with this global direction."
Signed by: Arima Akito, Minister of Education of Japan Haga Toru, President of Kyoto University of Art and Design, Ueda Makato, Professor Emeritus of Stanford University, Soh Sakon, Poet Kaneko Tohta, President of the Modern Haiku Society, Jean Jacques Origas, French Oriental Language Research Institute.
Bruce Ross in his essay, “Haiku Mainstream, in the current issue of Modern Haiku”, says the opposite in reference to symbolist haiku:
"The essence of a haiku is in its natural imagery, not in a metaphoric presentation of symbolic poetic language."
Are modern day haiku symbolist expressions lacking a vital connection to zoka?
Posits Ban’ya Natsuichi in his online essay, “Technique Used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure”:
". . . 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)."
With the concept of keywords in lieu of kigo in mind, consider the words of Torataro Shimomura in the discussion of “The Conquest of Modernity" as recorded by Hisao Furikawa in “Japan's Encounter with Modernization, Southeast Asian Studies”, Vol.33, no. 3, December 1995, stated:
"The epistemology of modern science is not the intuitive perception of the essence or form of things as in ancient times . . . it is a technical, formative epistemology . . . that views things and that tortures so-called nature to force nature itself to answer . . . To be connected with the spirit of experimental methodology is not to simply observe nature as it is in a purely objective manner; it is to make things that do not exist in nature real through human intervention."
Kigo usage in Japan was a given before Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, which affected the delineation of the seasons and the kigo words used to represent the four seasons. Again, a restructuring of the Japanese vocabulary and its poetic perception/interpretation of nature; a side effect of the self-imposed colonization of cultural memory.
The scholar, Masako Hiraga, in her paper, “”Eternal Stillness: A Linguistic Journey to Basho's Haiku about the Cicada”, unwillingly to jettison the importance and vitality of zoka in haiku, wrote:
"By saying, 'Learn about pines from pines and about bamboos from bamboos" (Hattori: 547), Basho meant that if a haiku does not arise naturally from the object, the object and its observer will become two and the observer wil not be able to realize the feeling of the object, since the self will intervene. This teaches that what a poet must be is one with nature, or 'zôka.' "
Konishi Jin'ichi in 1960 brought to light the fact that the conceptualization of nature in the meaning of the external world did not exist in Japan until the Meiji period. Again, the interpretation many in Japan and in the Anglo-West have of nature today is a post Fenollosa-ian invent created to accommodate the Anglo-West in their assimilation and understanding of Japanese thought.
Said Kai Hasegawa to me in an interview for Simply Haiku:
" Kigo (words that express the seasons), which carry out important functions in haiku, were born from the soil of the idea that humans are a part of nature. The seasons are born from the revolution of the earth around the sun, and the first function of kigo is related to this. By including kigo in haiku, the rhythm of the earth's revolution is incorporated within the haiku."
To understand haiku, one needs to understand its heartbeat. The heartbeat of haiku, as conceptualized by Matsuo Basho, is nature as it was understood before the colonization of the Japanese language. Without zoka, haiku is not haiku. It becomes instead, an Imagist burp; a short poem saying whatever it wants to say, the antithesis of Basho's and Buson's teachings.
Points out Vassar College Professor Peipei Qui in her book, Bashō and the Daō:
"The word used to mean 'nature,' shizen, in modern Japanese alsoappears in Bashō's writings, but it means 'natural' and 'spontaneous' rather than 'nature' as the external world. Bashō's use of this word relates in many important ways to his concept of zōka, and both 'shizen' and 'zoka' in his writings show deep relations with the terms in Daoist texts."
Hokku, due to its economy of words, is a difficult medium to write, let alone understand. To paraphrase liberally a statement by Andre Segovia, the late great classical guitarist, who was referring to the guitar in his comment, haiku is the easiest poem to compose and the hardest to write well.
After Issa's death, and spurred by the deification of Basho as a Shinto god, hokku slipped back into irrelevancy under the guidance of competing schools of poetry, each claiming to be descendants of Basho. Scores of monuments memorialized him. No one, it seemed, wanted to study his work in depth, nor were they willing to practice and subject themselves to the discipline needed to write with the evocative power and potential hokku offered to those who understood its partnership with zoka, nature's unpredictable, never static creative power.
Wrote Professor Donald Keene in his book, Dawn to the West, regarding the quality of haiku during the Meiji Restoration:
“Not a single poet of distinction was writing; indeed, it had been almost one hundred years since anyone had composed haiku of unmistakable literary worth.”
The following was composed, during the revolt that toppled the Tokugawa Shogunate, by a poet seemingly unconcerned with the realities indigenous to the political fire Japan had been cast into:
I will shut my ears
Torigoe Tosai (1803-1890)
“The haiku poets of the day, occupied with petty matters, were not aware that their art had become stagnant and even meaningless . . . their good opinion of themselves was confirmed in 1873 when the Minister of Religious Instruction appointed four haiku masters as special instructors, charged with identifying haiku poetry with the policies of the Meiji government. Basho was established as a legitimate object of divine worship in 1879, and elaborate. Commentaries on his haiku demonstrated that he preached filial piety and the other Confucian virtues. The government obviously wished to assert traditional Japanese values at a time when a flood of Western ideas had swept the country, threatening the old morality."
Writes Peter Flueckiger, Associate Professor of Japanese at Pomona Colle, California (USA), in his new book, Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism, published by the University of Stanford Press, about the role of Confucian thought as perceived by the Confucian scholar Sorai Ogyu (1666-1728):
"Sorai . . . Argued that Confucianism should be understood as a philosophy of rulership rather than a means for personal moral cultivation."
The Neo-Confucian mindset of the Tokugawa Shogunate was also the mindset used by the Meiji Era Imperial Court to water down haiku and use it as a tool of subjugation.
Haiku was used by the Imperial Court as a means of strengthening their power base during a tumultuous time not far removed from the Meiji overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Continues Keene: "The haiku [hokku] by this time had become a kind of national pastime, and even persons devoid of poetic talent felt little hesitation about dashing off seventeen syllables as a greeting or as a momentous of a pleasant gathering."
Added Keene: "Superficial wit was the hallmark of men like Hozumi Eiko (1823-1904) who was admired for such verses as:
The nightingales ---
Compare these examples of Meiji Era hokku with the following contemporary haiku poems. Are they relevant, memorable, deserving to be considered as serious literature, and if so, why?
A sampling of award winning Anglo-Western English-language haiku:
2011 Harold G. Henderson Haiku Contest
The winner of a Touchstone Award from The Haiku Foundation (US) for one of the best haiku published in English in 2011: Ernest J. Berry:
The following haiku-like poem by Cor van den Heuvel, reminds me of Gary Snyder's haiku-esque poem cited at the beginning of this paper. It says the obvious, leaves little room for interpretation, and is far from memorable.
by the lawn’s edge,
Frogpond 14:1(spring 1991)
Writes Bruce Ross in the current issue of Modern Haiku, referring to current state of Anglo-Western haiku poets:
[They ]" have yet to relieve themselves of treating an object as only a mental image and to master ‘transpersonal’ phenomenologies of subjectivity and objectivity to subvert the tendency in their haiku toward consciously ‘poetic’ exercises in the Western figurative tradition of poetry, dramatically ironic moments, bald nature portraits, or experiments with surrealism, concrete poetry techniques, and stylistically self-conscious underscoring of Zen-like experiences."
"This generation has downplayed the form and substance of traditional Japanese haiku: a consistent lack of seasonal references, surrealist techniques and figurative expression are introduced, regular prosody is eliminated, human, rather than nature, subjects, and the erotic are more increasingly emphasized, and psychological and political and social commentary are introduced. One sees a continuous grading of haiku into senryu, a Japanese poetic form identical in structure to haiku but emphasizing, usually in a humorous manner, human nature rather than nature itself. It thus moves away from what Anita Virgil notes as ‘moments of special awareness that give one pause in the everyday world, make one feel the wonder of the ordinary seen anew’.”
A sampling of heralded Contemporary Japanese-language haiku:
After a heated argument
hana nagaku iesu egakare samui kabe
with a long nose
For a while
The irony of Ban'ya Natsuishi's pontification:
"Today's contemporary Japanese haiku unfurls into boundless and deep development. Development that neither Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who advocated free spirit for haiku during the late 17th century, nor Masaoka Shiki (1862-1902), who tried to modernize haiku during the late 19th century, would have ever imagined."
A recent posting by Natsuishi on Facebook:
"One of my haiku will appear in 2 textbooks published by Sanseido (三省堂) for high school students. These textbooks will be used for education, next year. The haiku in Japanese: 未来より滝を吹き割る風来たる. The haiku in English: From the future / a wind arrives / that blows the waterfall apart".
Natsuishi's haiku-like poems are anything but boundless and deep development. His Flying Pope haiku-esque versification are poems a six-grade student could write at any given moment if given the pattern.
As I stated earlier in this paper, much of the haiku penned today in the Anglo-West and in Japan have more similarities than differences, as they are both products of German-based university system. How, for instance, is Natsuishi's haiku excerpted from his book, The Flying Pope, different in scope, breath, and quality from the pattern poem penned by Michael Dylan Welch as part of his Neon Buddha series below?
Michael Dylan Welch.
The poet credited with saving hokku from oblivion 200 years after Basho's death is Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), a poet and painter from a samurai background, with a gifted intellect and the skills of a great promoter, who was an avid student of Western art. Shiki didn't have a university degree, choosing instead to be a full-time poet and critic. He suffered from acute tuberculosis, whose pain he managed daily by taking excessive doses of morphine.
Shiki's short life centered around his love for Japanese waka and hokku. He wrote a haiku column for the newspaper, Nippon, and later became the newspaper's haiku editor. This gave Shiki a vast audience. His articles, essays, and poetry were widely read. Via the media, he became one of the Japanese literary world's most influential leaders.
He firmly believed the hokku taught and penned by the four major schools of haiku during the Meiji Era were substandard, and as such, hokku as a literary genre was in its death throes if nothing was done to revitalize it, and return to it the depth it entertained during Basho's lifetime. He blamed the substandard haiku on a mindset encouraged by the Meiji leadership, one that venerated Matsuo Basho as a Shinto god, and by doing so, kept the influence of haiku under their thumb. Creativity waned. Study and haiku theory were pre-determined, Basho's deification turning Japan's haiku world into a bastion for the mush-melon mentality he taught his disciples to avoid. Masaoka Shiki knew that changing haiku for the good would necessitate a wake-up call of major proportions. What greater way to command the haiku world's attention and that of the Imperial Court and the four schools it sanctioned, then to denigrate their poetic base, the Shinto cult of Basho.
The samurai warrior in his bloodline rose up from his weakly body and battled the Shinto religious establishment, the leadership of Japan's sanctioned haiku schools, and the Neo-Confucian Imperial Court leaders. Shiki's attacks on the haiku status quo were devastating, causing poets to rethink their outlooks towards haiku. It took a brave man to do this as to denigrate Basho (as a Shinto god) was a capital offense.
In essence, a non-degreed, sickly poet, schooled in Anglo-Western thought, took on his nation's poetry establishment and the Shinto religion, saying Basho wrote a lot of poor hokku. He was brash, quick-witted, arrogant, and impatient. He was also a brilliant strategist. His criticism got him the forum he desired. He sent his country's literary world into an uproar. Shiki's criticism of Basho was shallow, and his intent misinterpreted. It was not a lack of respect on Shiki's part, per se. He covertly admired Basho and saw Basho's sound of water haiku as the finest haiku ever written. Knowing his life was limited, Shiki had to act fast and wax effective in an expeditious manner, thus his attack on the status quo: Basho battering.
Writes Carmen Sterba in her essay, “Masaoka Shiki: the Misunderstood Reformer, Critic and Poet” (2010):
"The crux of the reason why Shiki was critical towards the idealism towards Basho was simply because after his death, master Basho had been literally worshiped by his fans for two hundred years, whereas other masters like Buson, in particular, had been ignored. By the end of the Tokugawa Era, haiku had become more of an amusement instead of a serious genre, so Shiki wanted to elevate haiku."
Stated Eiko Yachimoto in Sketchbook (February 2009):
“What annoyed him a great deal and made him furious at the end was the attitude of quite a few tsukinami renku masters who were busy securing their businesses and social positions by building a Basho’s pavilion, a Basho’s haiku stone or the likes for his 200th death anniversary. Shiki deplored to see Basho turned into a religion that defied any criticism. He had to fight. His method was so practical that he dared to say: Basho wrote so many bad haiku, so few great haiku. He wanted to shock those who blindly followed the religion of Basho.”
Shiki claimed that hokku was all but dead, and that 90% of Basho's hokku were substandard. To denigrate Basho's poetry and teachings necessitated Shiki's formation of a better way, and by inference, covertly establishing his mindset as superior to Basho's. Only a strong personality and a brilliant strategist could pull such a thing off. His words, showmanship, and quick mind joined together to become a powerful samurai sword that would, in a short time, topple his enemies, by renaming hokku, haiku, and giving the genre back the depth it once entertained.
We owe a debt to Masaoka Shiki for saving haiku from the literary obscurity and death it was fated to become. His cries and denunciations were a wake-up call and a revival. Few people during any age are willing to become Don Quixotes and fight the windmills and mirrors the "Stepford" knights of norm cast before those rare individuals willing to dream and achieve the impossible. For someone fatally ill to take upon himself this role and to do it not for political expediency, wealth, or a socially popular cause, but to elevate and rescue a genre of poetry not fully appreciated, was an exemplary act as a human being and as an artist.
This being so, doesn't exempt Masaoka Shiki from criticism or, for that matter, the degree of criticism he cast upon Matsuo Basho.
Shiki was not a better poet than Basho. Compare the haiku by Basho below with a similarly styled haiku by Shiki.
Basho's hokku was in tune with zoka, nature's unpredictable creative force. Basho lived most of his adult life in nature's bosom. Depth, playfulness, and cultural texture were incorporated in Basho's famous poem. The poem is activity-biased, as is the whole of nature, which is ever changing.
Shiki's, on the other hand, is obscure, a far cry from the shasei style he promulgated to his beginning students and the general public of Japan. Perhaps the morphine dreams and altered reality the narcotic induces influenced this poem. Shiki during the later part of his life was confined to his bed and unable to step outside without aide. Nature for him was the world he saw outside his bedroom window and memories lassoed from a healthier youth.
old pond --- old garden
Matsuo Basho Masaoka Shiki
It was late at night, and very dark by inference. Basho describes an audio moment free of visual acuities. Its emphasis is a multi-faceted activity: the sound of a frog jumping into an old pond he knew was nearby. In the poet's mind, the mental picture combined with an intuitive relationship with nature honed by Daoist teachings, was far deeper. The sound was more than a mere sound, the concrete auditory image of a frog jumping in the water. Basho intuited the frog jumping into the metaphysical sound of water. Why the sound of water? Here, readers cannot just read and say, "aha" after reading Basho' haiku. They must think, dive into its essence, and seek answers from their own subjective minds. How many haiku composed in Japan or in the Anglo-West today have this kind of affect on its readers?
According to Fujita Masakatsu (b. 1947), writes Michael Marra in Japan's Frames of Meaning:
"The empty shell of the poem is made of a series of 'things' (mono): the old pond, the frog, the water, and the sound. However, the poem's meaning is elsewhere. Poetic language alerts us to the presence of a deep tranquility that is conveyed by the 'voice of the soundless' --- the silence broken by the splash of the frog jumping into the old pond. Moreover, aside from pointing at real things, language also has a body of its own, a sound that can be either pleasant or unpleasant to the reader's ear."
Wrote Basho's disciple Doho regarding his master's famous haiku:
"It is the sound made by the frog leaping into a pond from wild grasses that we hear the voice of haiku. Haikai exists in what one sees and what one hears. The sincerity of haiku is to put what a poet feels directly into the verse."Sanzōshi, in ibid., pp. 157-158.
Look at the haiku heralded as the best of the best in online Japanese and English-language journals and e-zines. Do they come close to the excellence of this poem or any poem penned by Matsuo Basho, Yosa Buson, Chiyo-ni, or Kobayashi Issa? Are they strong enough as poetry to merit serious consideration for haiku to be taken seriously by the mainstream literary world?
In Masaoka Shiki's haiku, the poet is looking out of his bedroom window at his small garden after darkness set in. He or someone else had just emptied a hot water bottle used to comfort Shiki who was in continual, deep seeded pain. He was obviously lying in bed, and subjectively, being the painter he was, painted with words what he saw, with a metaphorical tinge. It appeared to him as if the hot water bottle was being emptied into the moon. Shasei is a simple as-is sketch of life. It does not allow for subjective "as ifs." Deep? Yes! Objective? No. Simple? No. It's a poem accessible to those familiar with Shiki and his deathbed existence, whereas Basho's haiku has a universal quality to it, without subjective bias.
Masaoka Shiki developed shasei as an alternative to the Basho influenced hokku of the Meiji Era. Shasei (copying life) was adopted from a style of realistic painting popular in Europe. A fellow painter schooled in Anglo-Western painting styles, Nakamura Fusetsu (1866-1943), introduced him to the style. During a trip with Fusetsu and the haiku poet, Naito Meisetsu (1847-1926), Shiki wrote, as was his habit, several haiku. Upon reading some of Shiki's haiku, Fusetsu proffered that such poetry would be easy to convert into shasei style paintings.
One of Shiki's first attempts at shasei haiku:
The stone flight of steps
Wrote Donald Keene in Dawn in the West:
"Shiki believed that haiku poetry was closest of all literary forms to paintings. In other forms of poetry the emphasis is on time, rather than on space, but the haiku is too brief to go beyond the present moment, and must therefore evoke space instead."
A painter knows that a painting is an illusion painted on a flat surface. A realist painting is conveying an illusion, nothing else. The realist, in essence, is a craftsman, meticulously reproducing a selected scene in as exact detail as possible. It is the painter's choice of the time of day or night, the position of light and shadow, the subject itself, minute variations of color and non-color, and more, that allow for a connection between artist and art lover.
His conceptualization of shasei haiku changed with time, especially after a study of the pleine aire style of French painter, Raphael Collin (1850-1916), emphasizing a plainness and blandness closely related to the Chinese ideal of beauty called heitan. The plainness and blandness Shiki conceptualized and adapted to his haiku was surface-centric. The real meaning of such a poem would be found below the surface, via the unsaid, to be savored and tasted; a poetry with undertones that included emotions.
Makoto Ueda cites the following from Shiki in his book, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature, in the chapter: Three Ways of Sketching from Life (Stanford University Press):
"Too realistic a poem is prone to be commonplace and lacking in surprise . . . a poet too bent on realism tends to imprison his mind within the confines of the tiny world his eyes can see, forgetting about rare and fresh motifs that lie distant in tie or space."
Opines Ueda further in his chapter on Shiki:
"Shiki's view of the relationship between poetry and external reality was, then, a flexible one. Although it may look self-contradictory, from a pedagogic viewpoint it is coherent. He stressed the value of realistic representation for beginners but, for more advanced students recommended selective realism and allowed expert poets considerable freedom to choose between extremes of direct observation and imaginative creation. If he often appeared the champion of Shasei, that was because he frequently addressed amateurs and beginning students, or established poets who relied overmuch on too meager an imagination."
For many in the Anglo-West, especially those in America, their conceptualization of Shiki's shasei is based upon a surface understanding they have gleaned from articles and e-zines lacking academic depth and thorough coverage. Shiki was an intelligent theorist and critic, whose teachings merit more than a surface perusal.
The trouble with such a style is inherent in the manner the shasei poet presents a surface. Can he compose a shasei poem that can draw the reader into the depth of understanding he envisions below the surface? Shiki's haiku from an Anglo-Western sensibility was considered successful and was sufficient to catapult him to a place in history where he was considered to be after Basho, Buson, and Issa, Japan's fourth greatest haiku master.
Shiki named the new hokku, haiku, wanting to separate it from the mediocrity that were composed during the Meiji Era. During his short lifetime, via perseverance, albeit a justified fanaticism, impatience (he knew his time on earth was numbered), salesmanship, and a profound love for Japanese short form poetry, Masaoka Shiki made a lasting mark on the haiku genre.
Did Shiki change haiku for the good? Was his haiku good enough to merit the fame and level of influence he achieved? Would his conceptualization of haiku as a serious literary genre, on the long run, be enough to permanently revitalize haiku and thrust it into the modern world as a Japanese poetic form worthy of emulation by the Anglo-West?
On the short run, Shiki revitalized interest in hokku (now called haiku), and for that he is to be applauded. Unfortunately, the revival embers he relit didn't take into account the affects and depth of the colonization of the Japanese language and cultural memory via its adoption of the German-based university system; a colonization that would, in time, water down the depth and aesthetic integrity of hokku as it was sculpted by Basho, his contemporaries, and those he influenced including Buson and Issa. Much of the haiku composed today are similar in quality to the unmemorable verse written during the Meiji Era that Shiki attacked as frivolous and shallow.
NOTE: Shiki was a complex individual and, as such, a man of contradictions. This is so of all geniuses, Basho included. Shiki had a limited lifespan and was debilitated by disease, pain, and the fog of morphine. Perhaps if he had lived longer like Basho, and was not limited to a small bedroom, we could have viewed his mind in a deeper way. Shiki would also have had a greater influence on modern haiku instead of just lighting the fire that marked its onset, his torch carried on by followers, some who later disagreed with Shiki.
The hokku composed after the death of Basho had its ups and down, and were it not for Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa, and others who took their art seriously, hokku could have easily sunk into the mire Shiki encountered during his lifetime. Yosa Buson encountered mediocrity during his lifetime, the result of self-impressed poets who saw themselves in mirrors they held up to one another. Wrote Yosa Buson:
"Leaders of the haikai 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 eccentric, 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 the first glance and throw them away."
Translated by Makoto Ueda, The Path of Flowering Thorn; The Life and Poetry of Yosa Buson, Stanford University Press (1998).
NOTE: Then, during Shiki's lifetime, and now, haiku, due to its brevity, has sunk into an abyss of laziness, inadequate study, and cartoonish self-importance, teetering close to oblivion, the Lords of Haiku unable to agree on what is and isn't a haiku, in Japan and in the Anglo-West.
During the Meiji Era, Japanese aesthetic styles were replaced by Anglo-Western aesthetic concepts, as were the meanings of many words and terms. New words and terms were added as well. The concept of kigo was reinvented to accommodate an Anglophile mindset far removed from Daoist thought, Shamanic animism, true Buddhist doctrine, Confucian group ideals, and Shinto's adaptation of animism. Without an understanding of these influences, the aesthetic tools used prior to Shiki became passé, thought to be artifacts of an ancient past out of touch with the now of modernism. Modernism, however, is modern only for the moment. What is modern today and considered fashionable will be antiquated tomorrow. History is not something to jettison. It is a social science to learn from. We must learn from our mistakes, build from what works, and value cultural memory.
Anglo-Western poets learned from Japanese poets and Japanese poets learned from their Anglophile counterparts, both unaware of the concatenate haiku was becoming, fused together into a semi-faceted genre, that in time would suffer from an identity crisis people have yet to cure. As I've previously explained in prior articles in this series on Japanese aesthetic, the two trains were destined to meet in the middle: Japan riding on the wings of self-colonization and Anglo-Westernized thought, and the United States caught up in the flawed scholarship of R.H. Blyth, Kenneth Yasuda, and to a lesser degree, Harold Henderson, the Imagist Manifesto, and ironically, Jack Kerouac, who in turn was influenced by the poet, Gary Snyder. Japan was enamored with the Anglo-West and the Anglo-West was enamored with their conceptualization of Japan.
Today's haiku output is proof of this homogenization of cultures; an homogenization that continues to be watered down, and heralded by online publications, most of them influenced by the tenets and flawed teachings propagated by groups still buying into the erred, perhaps naive scholarship of the aforementioned men.
Haiku as practiced by and introduced to the world by Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa, Yosa Buson, Chiyo-ni, and their contemporaries prior to Masaoka Shiki, with few exceptions, has disappeared from our planet. What you see now is an anything goes mindset negating the need for kigo, meter, and aesthetic styles honed by poets living under the Tokugawa regime. Most of the haiku leave little for a reader's imagination. Some are senryu masquerading as haiku, and most resemble miniaturized Imagist free verse poems. There is no East or West. Haiku has become an Anglo-Western poetic genre. Definitions for haiku are obscure, with most publications admitting that haiku is in limbo, definition-wise.
If haiku is to rise above its deathbed, let alone gain acceptance as a serious poetic genre in the mainstream international literary world, it's imperative that poets rediscover haiku's hokku roots. Poetry that is forgettable written by the same old same people who pat each other on the back is a cancer. Haiku is an art form. As such, it needs to be studied, respected, and practiced. It is not a genre one can master overnight, or in a year or two. The day one thinks they have arrived as a haiku poet is the day they begin to stagnate. Most of the haiku published today does not reflect serious scholarly study, the depth of study, college professors expect from their students in mainstream literature classes.
Too many today self-publish books and author online blogs of their poetry having little experience or understanding of the genre save for what they have learned from haiku clubs, workshops, online journals, blogs, and e-zines. My late father, a haiku poet (circa 1959-1990), had a saying: "A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Recently I read criticism in an online haiku workshop by a few self-important poets who were criticizing the translation skills of Makoto Ueda of Stanford University, one of the world's foremost translators. Those complaining are Japanese-language illiterate, write substandard haiku, and use their criticism to justify their straying from certain elements of haiku. More than likely, they read something somewhere in an online publication and adapted it to support their other than scholarly opinions.
Kodansha International in Japan a few years ago published a book by a quasi translator that was heralded as the complete poetic output of Basho. The translator admitted to me that she did not read or write Japanese but had worn out the pages of her Japanese/English language dictionary. Some of the translations are almost word for word identical to some of Basho's hokku published in the Peter Pauper series. I am reminded of a line in the song by Buffalo Springfield, Something Happening Here, that says: "Stop, hey, what's that sound, everyone look what's happening here."
Haiku needs to return to its roots. Before one can change or alter a genre, they need to study and practice it in depth first. This cannot be done overnight by reading publications, attending meetings, and inhabiting Jefferson Airplane's Plastic Fantastic. Poets need to question what they read and hear. The writings of Blyth, Yasuda, Henderson, and as well as the definitions posted by the Haiku Society of America, the World Haiku Association, and other organizations and publications contain many flaws. Some have posited honestly that they cannot accurately pinpoint a specific definition of haiku, though they propagate rules for the writing of haiku. Many assert that English-language and Japanese-language haiku are two different genres, yet each label what they write, haiku. Haiku is haiku. There is little difference between haiku penned in Japan and the Anglo-West, save for syllable count, and even that is fading. Current day haiku is a colonized poetic genre defined and taught via the linguistic mindset of the German-based university system in place in Japan and the Anglo-West. As I wrote early in this paper, the language that dominates education dominates the world.
Matsuo Basho is considered by most scholars to be the father of haiku. His haiku today are included in textbooks, translated into various foreign languages, and memorized by students in Japanese elementary schools. Masaoka Shiki is not as well known, especially his poetry. It is imperative, therefore, that serious haiku poets study the haiku of Basho, if they want their art to rise above the mediocrity prevalent in today's haiku circles.
Note: It would be foolish, of course, to claim that every hokku Basho composed was perfect. Even a master pens his or her share of less than stellar verses, regardless of the genre. To think otherwise is to sink into the theocratic abyss those who worshipped Basho during the Meiji Era sank into.
Let us examine a sampling of Basho's haiku. As we do, let's not focus on the teaching by the master many have bastardized to justify their departure from traditional haiku:
Do not resemble me ---
Tr. by Makoto Ueda
Basho never intended his teaching to inspire his followers to jettison the schemata of hokku metrics, the inclusion of nature, etc., in order to rise above the norm, and wax individualistic. It amazes me that poets new to the medium and older poets who are far from mastering the genre, so quickly jettison the rules indigenous to haiku composition, claiming Basho's poem as their justification for doing so. I am reminded of the games: Follow the Leader and Simon Says. To be an individual is good. To seek an original voice is to be encouraged.
Basho didn't want clones writing clone-like poetry; yet those who are jettisoning the rules and plowing the fields of anything goes today are, in essence, the very clones Basho admonished his followers not to be. They follow Simon, parrot his teachings, not knowing the why or what, Simon being the embodiment of the good old boys and girls who, like the four teachers during the Meiji Era, have ran the show too long, unaware of the flaws in their teachings, influenced by inadequate and outdated scholarship. In North America, for example, knowledge of haiku seems to be in a Blythian-Yasudaic-Hendersonian limbo, the same old-same old.
"Follow the narrow thread of the way of poetry. Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought."
KBZ, 6:512; translation is from Sources of Japanese Tradition, ed. Ryūsaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene (New York: Columbia University Press). *KBZ: Kōhon Bashō zenshū (The Complete Works of Basho)
Matsuo Basho was deeply influenced by nature. Following the tradition of the wanderer poets, Sogi and Saigyo, he became a wanderer, hiking across Japan, a student of zoka, nature's unpredictable, never static, creative force.
Stated Professor Peipei Qui in my interview with her for Simply Haiku:
"Zôka came from a Chinese word written in two characters zaohua, whose literal meaning is 'create and transform.' The word is widely used in classical Chinese texts, but evidences indicate that Bashô and many haikai poets of his time most likely learned the word from their reading of the Daoist classic Zhuangzi. encompasses several important notions of Daoist thought. To summarize briefly, it first refers to the natural way in which all phenomena come into being and transform. In other words, it is the working of the Way or Dao. Second, it suggests that the existence of all things and beings is the direct result of the workings of the Dao, therefore every thing/being spontaneously embodies the Dao. Third, to follow the natural way of each thing/being is at the same time to follow the Dao. Bashô considered following zôka essential to all arts in this philosophical context."
Basho, in a stern message to his followers, wrote:
"In the waka of Saigyo, the renga of Sogi, the paintings of Sesshu and the tea ceremony of Rikyu, one fundamental principle runs through all arts: those who pursue art follow zôka, and have the four seasons as their companion. Everything they see is like a flower and everything they imagine is like 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 the beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from the animals; follow zôka and return to zôka."
Said Professor Peipei Qui deeper into the interview:
"The concept of nature and the frame of reference by which Bashô and his fellow poets constructed their verses and poetics were not exactly the same as those today. Although in Bashô’s writings the term zôka often is found in his depiction of scenic beauty, he seems to distinguish it from the physical world. 'I saw the masterwork of zôka in the beautiful scenes of mountains, fields and the coast, and following the footprints of devoted travelers who are free of worldly concerns, I came to know the way of a true artist.' (Kôhon Bashô zenshû, 6:85) In this passage zôka is not the landscape per se but what has bought it into being; this concept finds its philosophical roots in Daoist thought."
Wrote Basho: "The way of life and the way of haikai can also be made equal; in fact, they are inseparable."
Shiyu Kyosui ate (To Shiyū and Kyosui), in KBZ, 8: 146, translated by Peipei Qui, Bashō and the Dao.
the winter garden ---
fuyuniwa | ya | Tsukuba | mo | ito | naru | mushi | no | gin
Tr. Makoto Ueda
Basho writes of being alone in a winter garden. Winters in Japan are cold, sometimes harsh. A poet/wanderer, he didn't reside in a comfortable home with a woodstove. There was snow on the ground. Basho was outside, unaccompanied, acutely aware of his surroundings, audibly and visually. It was nighttime, when winter weather is the coldest. The poet's mind was free from human distraction: indifferent, objective, and observant, his mind like a child's. Children, by nature, are naturally observant, filling in the blank tablet (tabula rasa) that is their mind.
Basho contrasted being alone, outside, during a frigid winter night with the fruits of his observation: he saw a thread-thin moon, a scene that can be cold, stark, or beautiful, depending on a person's frame of mind. He saw nothing else. The only sound that freezing night was an insect singing. Sections two and three serve as a contrast between the high and the low. Basho was not just viewing nature, he was watching nature sculpt and shape his surroundings and thoughts. He was watching zoka with his five senses. Somewhere an insect was singing a song, calling to my mind the winter song of a coyote howling at the moon on a frigid night. The picture painted by the poet is one of loneliness, solitude, and coldness. Nothing else seemed to exist, just himself, the thread-thin moon, and a singing insect. The emotion of the poet was unearthed without the use of the word, I. He doesn't act as an observer who thought of himself as above the whole of nature. Matsuo Basho, the moon, and an insect are symbiotic reflections of one another: the finite and infinite on an equal table. Basho was able to find beauty in every aspect of nature, which his haiku here conveys. Nature is not mono, a physical entity. It is koto, the act of becoming; a creative force in a continuum of change. His poetry is activity- (process, objective) biased.
Wrote Michael F. Marra in his book, Japan's Frames of Meaning, regarding the difference between koto and mono:
"Japanese languages have two words that are translated as thing: koto and mono. . . expertness or absorption in thoughts cannot exist aside from their being (to be an expert or to be absorbed in thoughts) and that such a being is nothing but the koto that makes the movement and the condition of action possible. Whereas mono indicates the content of movement or the content of quietness, koto indicates their being. The specific being of the content (mono) always presupposes its existence or Being (koto). The fact (koto) of seeing presupposes that something (mono) must be seen."
The question: What is being(?) must be considered when entertaining the notion of what is and isn't a haiku. It is also imperative that we as poets and/or students of haiku understand what was the conceptualization of nature and being in the minds of those who originated hokku (haiku), if we are to comprehend the true breath of the genre as it was sculpted. Haiku is not simply a definition consisting of words. For those who originated the genre it was much more. It was a path, a direction, and a teacher.
Matsuo Basho said so much in his haiku using few words. He was able to accomplish this via his utilization of aesthetics tools that convey a mood, unearth a surplus of words with poetic suggestion, and invites the reader to examine that which lies below the surface.
Nature to Basho was something different then that conveyed by the modern day Japanese language. Writes Peipei Qui:
"When speaking of ‘the traditional view of nature during Matsuo Bashô’s time’ we need to be aware that during Bashô’s time the word used to mean ‘nature’ in modern Japanese, shizen, meant ‘naturalness and spontaneity’ rather than the physical world. A term frequently used by the major poets to discuss the relationship between nature and poem writing at the time was."
Upon visiting Mount Kazuraki, one of the highest mountains in Japan, said to be the abode of the Shinito kami (spirit), Hitokotonushi, who is reputed to be nocturnal and grotesque, Basho drew a picture of a Zen mountain priest sleeping under a tree, with the notation: "This is what the priest said in his sleep." The following hokku accompanied the drawing:
all the more I wish to see
nao | mitashi | hana | ni | ake | yuku | kami | no | kao
Basho in his hokku contrasts the high and the low, seeing beauty in every aspect of nature. Basho was not the Zen novitiate priest some have reputed him to be. His mindset while writing this poem was not, as Blyth and Yasuda purport, calling hokku a Zen poetic genre. Only a person with limited research tools or a poor grasp of Japanese history would make such an assertion . . . an assertion that has tainted the perceptions of many 20th and 21st century haiku poets.
Basho lived in nature's bosom. Nature to him was much more than physicality and weather. Everything in nature was alive, vital, non-static, in a continuum of becoming (koto). He was an equal player, not the caretaker or shepherd of the realm. The poet was influenced by Shamanic animism and Shinto animism. He was also a student of the Zhuangzi, the Daoist Bible, for lack of a better term. He viewed life as animate, and saw nature from the Daoist perspective, which he called zoka, the non-static, always changing, creative spirit of nature. Zoka is not to be viewed from a Judeo-Christian perspective as a deity. Zoka is non-personable, a non-entity, defying human comprehension, a force that cannot be controlled or harnessed by science.
Compare the following teaching of Basho recorded by his disciple, Hattori Doho, with a section from the Zhuangzi underneath:
"The Master said: 'The changes of Heaven and earth are the seeds of poetry.'"
"So it is said, With the sage, his life is the working of Heaven, his death the transformation of things. In stillness, he and the yin share a single Virtue, he and the yin share a single flow."
Tr. by Burton Watson
Pivotal to Matsuo Basho's teachings on the composition of hokku is his belief in the essentialness of following zoka versus the adoption of finite teachings determined as truth by science. The Daoist concept of zoka was the foundation upon which Basho based his haiku teachings.
"Those who pursue art follow zôka 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 had no moon in mind, he is no different than the birds and the beasts. Go beyond the barbarians and depart from the animals; follow zôka a and return to zôka."
Tr. by Peipei Qui from KBZ, 6: 75
This teaching by Basho needs to be understood via the context it was written in.
I first read this hokku, not knowing about its historical and religious background, and was touched deeply by its beauty. It's not important that I get into the mind frame of Basho. A good haiku is open for interpretation. "Tell all" haiku are a dime a dozen, in other words, boring and non-memorable. Basho's hokku are deep due to his expertise in the use of aesthetic styles. He wove the said and the unsaid into a single tapestry. I interpreted Basho's hokku from my own subjective, experiential database. I wanted to see the face of God in the blossoms at dawn. Incredible, evocative imagery spoken in the language of poetry; the high and the low conjoining below the surface, waiting to be harvested no. "The face of god" is not visible, regardless of one's spiritual orientation. To Basho, god was ephemeral, ethereal, a force that could not be explained concretely or fully fathomed. His hokku is activity- (process, koto) biased. It is not about an object in nature. It is about the becomingness birthed by zoka, the creative expression of nature. A dream, a desire, an awakening and longing on a mountain in the wilderness. This is haiku; a journey that has no end.
all the more I wish to seek
Matsuo Basho's final hokku, penned as he was dying, was an eloquent goodbye from a poet who welcomed death, and saw no finiteness in the act:
Sick on a journey,
tabu ni yande/ hume aw kareno o/ kakemeguru
Tr. by Peipei Qui from KBZ*, 2: 109
It would be ignorant to claim that haiku is completely dead. Some of the haiku composed during the 21st century inside and outside Japan are exquisite, embodying the essence of what the originators of the genre had in mind long ago, yet infused with fresh non-musk melon voices that refuse to play Simon Says.
The first poet that comes to mind is the Russian haiku master, Svetlana Marisova, who passed away last year after a long bout with cancer. It is this author's opinion that Marisova was this century's first haiku master, her haiku far exceeding the depth, breath, and relevancy of those penned by Shiki, Akito Arima, Gary Snyder, and other post Tokagawa Era poets touted as modern haiku masters.
silent bird bird: object
Marisova's haiku is an activity- (objective, koto) biased poem. The focus of the poem isn't an object or objects. What is a silent bird? Is it dead or just silent in the moment? How does one carry a silent bird's song through shadows? This is a far cry from shasei (sketch of life) poems. Her poem is about nature of which she was a participant, and still is, metaphysically. The key words to her haiku are "carry through." The poet was dying from cancer. She was a young woman experiencing great pain. Haiku like this invites exploration and meditation. Her soul has written this haiku. It is unpretentious and cuts to the bone. The depth of this activity-biased haiku can be sounded for eons.
Don Baird, a world-renowned American martial arts teacher, knows the discipline and work it takes to earn a black belt. It is not something one earns in a few months or a year. Sensei Baird knows that getting a black belt is not the end-all of end-alls. There are higher degree black belts. Learning and ascending never ends. I've watched this man's poetry mature. His activity-biased haiku (is there any other?) and the breath behind them, illustrates the importance of koto over mono: not the object but becoming the object. It is a breakthrough he has grown into.
tea cup moon . . .
How does line one relate to lines two and three? Baird makes effective use of juxtaposition to unveil a surplus of words previously hidden, contrasting the high and the low. Juxtaposition as practiced by the great haiku poets prior to the Meiji period is a powerful aesthetic style.
teacup: an adjective referring to the visible appearance moon: physical object
Baird is saying more than the obvious in this haiku. Haiku painted with only the obvious are worthless. Haiku that are mere word paintings are just that, nothing more: a Herman Melvillianian photograph that has no place in a poetic genre built around an economy of words. Without depth, a haiku is an amateurish expression indicative of laziness and a lack of study.
What does the white owl signify? Is it a metaphor? The reader of a haiku's job is to interpret a haiku via his or her own experiential reference and cultural memory. Reading Baird's haiku, I am reminded of the white owls I saw at night during the Vietnam War. I, of course, read and interpret this haiku differently than most.
Bruce Ross is a poet who does his homework. A university professor, he knows the value and essentiality of study and practice, which is evident in his voice (See the reprint of an article he wrote on haiku poetics in this issue).
Ross, too, utilizes contrast, via juxtaposition, to say much using an economy of words.
abandoned: a state of being house: an organic object
The key words are "just as bright." By using the aforementioned key words, Ross is expanding the juxtaposition to plumb greater depths in his activity-biased haiku. A house is abandoned. The lilacs in bloom are as bright as they were in previous years. What is the poet's message? Are you, as readers, invited to covertly interpret Ross's haiku according to your own subjective references and illusionary perceptions?
Eastern Europe in recent years, which is uniquely not totally Anglo-Western nor Asian, has produced haiku that are more activity-biased versus object-biased. Due to the curtain of separation via communist rule, Eastern Europe was cut off from the Anglo-West for almost a century, her aesthetics and cultural memory subjugated by the Soviet Union, who itself allowed itself to be subjugated by a repressive political power within.
Vladimir Devidé of Croatia, who passed away two years ago, was one of Eastern Europe's finest haiku poets.
The climber's shadow
climber's shadow: shadows are not objects. They are phenomena created by a juxtaposition of light, objects, and weather via zoka. Climber is an indicative/descriptive modifier.
Are we to take Devidé's activity-biased haiku literally? Is it a metaphor for something needing to be plumbed? Why the mention of hesitation? Why the juxtaposition of two different shadows? Why did Devidé contrast the high with the low? This poet's haiku is not a quickie online post. It is the poetic product of a highly skilled haiku poet who took the time to compose meaningful poetry that are more than aha, momentary burps. We are invited by the yugen to plumb this haiku's depth, to uproot what isn't seen, heard, felt, or said.
Ikumi Yoshimura of Japan knows the value of juxtaposition in a haiku, how it brings to the surface the unsaid. Contrasting the high and low, Yoshimura is able to say much with few words in this activity-biased haiku. It is the surplus of words that rises from depths of a poem that separates a haiku from the mimetic tripe passed off as haiku, that poet/teacher Kai Hasegawa so aptly labels "junk haiku."
wild roses --
wild roses: animate, organic objects, untamed with by human hands
Contrasting wild roses with lines two and three makes for a deep, powerful, evocative activity- biased haiku. Why did Yoshimura choose to contrast lines two and three with "wild roses?" The act of papermaking is a quiet activity compared with most activities related to earning a living. Quiet versus quiet? Do the "wild rose" symbolize something other than the obvious? How does zoka interact and sculpt wild roses? What can be learned from what is not obvious (yugen: depth and mystery)? A haiku to plumb!
Kaneko Tohta is one of Japan's most famous living haiku poets. Haiku is a major part of who he is. Like all great poets, not everything he composes is stellar. Most of his haiku are powerful, evocative, freshly voiced, and memorable, like the following:
chikurin o dereba haku-un manjushage
out of the bamboo grove
bamboo grove: organic, an animate physical entity and metaphysical entity, depending upon the poet's theocratic mindset
Tohta's poem is an activity-biased haiku with great depth, waiting to surface. The key words in the poem are "out of." The poet, like Basho, contrasts the high and the low (clouds and lilies) to unearth the unsaid, unseen, and unheard, an aesthetic style wielded by highly skilled haiku poets. Why did Tohta select "white clouds?" Were the clouds when he composed his poem actually white? How would this haiku differ if the color was omitted or changed? How can white clouds come out of a bamboo grove? Why did Tohta choose spider lilies versus another more physically beautiful lily? This too is a haiku that invites interpretation. It is not the kind of mimetic haiku-like poetry we see all too often online. We all need to re-examine our poetic voices and output, and ask ourselves as we do, what we are writing, saying, and why? We need, as Tohta aptly demonstrates, to take our art seriously, if we want haiku to be taken seriously by the mainstream literary world.
Wrote Bruce Ross in his essay for Modern Haiku, “The Art of Haiku” (38:3, 2007):
". . . nature itself seems in a state of crisis. We all crave a connection with each other and the world, and seek some sort of wholeness. Now less and less relevant in everyday life are nature and beauty, the haiku moment, or attention to the particular. This is perhaps why at the Second European Haiku conference Shôkan Tadashi Kondô of Japan invoked Thoreau when discussing hissaijiki-like project '72 Seasonal Spells' and called haiku 'ecological poetry.' The absolute metaphor of haiku might help save the particular, our feelings, nature and beauty. It could help preserve our sense of wholeness—even in this postmodern age—and, just maybe, the world itself."
Posits Hisao Furukawa in paper: “Meiji Japan's Encounter with Modernization” (Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, December 1995):
"We should recognize the historical life not only of living creatures besides man but also of inanimate things, and we shuld not torture nature, which is brimming with life. I feel that in pre-modern Japanese society, the principle of life was beig observed. That tradition still envelopes us. I believe that it is still possible to recify Western learning that has gone to far. To advocate the rstoration of the principle of life without seeking supremacy over life --- here lies Japan's potential for contributing to the creation of a new concept of development."
How can we as haiku poets claim to understand nature, let alone fathom the "great clod's" connection to our lives? We, as homo sapiens, are but a small part of the whole of nature. Our knowledge is limited to the archaic "now" which will be mocked tomorrow as "so out of date!"
Wrote Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post newspaper on May 18, 2012:
"Only in recent decades have scientists come to realize that life on the surface is but the flashy veneer of the biosphere."
To survive into the next century, haiku needs to quit being something it isn't. It cannot be all things to all people. It's not the label but the spirit beneath the label that must come to light; a spirit that's been dormant for too long. To compose an effective haiku, our poetry must transcend the banal limitations we place on our inner voices. We must rise above the ashes of "as is", and drop from the wings of "now" into a rice field planted with our answers to the physicist Stephen Hawking's question:
"What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"