Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
and now . . . passing through me into eaves — Robert D. Wilson, A Soldier’s Bones: Hokku and Haiku (2013)
Danny Blackwell is spaced out:
This week we had no comments submitted, so it falls upon me to say something about this haiku.
I have to confess that it wasn’t a poem that really spoke to me and, upon trying to say something about it, I’m not even sure what it is about. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many haiku defy easy assimilation on the first reading and truly benefit from further philosophizing, so the question is whether the problem is the haiku or the reader—in this case, me. Maybe I’m not up to the challenge?
The first line “and now . . .” doesn’t really give much information, and I find myself asking whether it is redundant to state “now” in a haiku. What gives me pause for further consideration, however, is the use of the word “and.” One cannot help wonder what came before it. Beginning in medias res can be an incredibly effective technique. I’m reminded of the opening to Lorca’s La casada infiel, for example, which intentionally starts on the second line, leaving us with a sense of something unsaid, which could either be a reference to what the narrator is omitting, or it could be taken as a reference to the oral romance tradition that often left us with fragmentary texts. (The epic Song of My Cid, for example, is missing the opening.) In this case, I’m not sure I can unravel the reason behind this “and now,” other than to create an enigmatic ambiguity for its own sake. Again, I reiterate, I may not be living up to my expectation as a critical reader. The first line doesn’t give me anything to work with in order to (re)construct the poem, or the poet’s experience. But maybe that is the intention.
As regards “passing through me/into eaves”, we don’t know what is passing through the narrator. The word eaves might suggest rain but, if that were the case, how does the rain pass through the poet and then into the eaves?
One reader asked me to clarify if I had published the poem with a typo. (The email simply read: “leaves?!”) So maybe I am not alone in feeling at a loss.
I could conjecture a variety of readings but I feel like I would be potentially clutching at straws.
The poet has good credentials and the collection this haiku is taken from features introductory comments by David G. Lanoue and David Landis Barnhill.
“Open your mind and expect the unexpected,” says Lanoue of these “wonderful, jarring, delightful, and provocative discoveries.”
Maybe this week’s selected poem is intentionally jarring or provocative, I don’t know, but I’m left feeling like I didn’t quite get it.
“They are full of the pause of ma,” says Barnhill, and talking about the way in which Wilson “cleaves” his haiku to create juxtapositions (“three periods acting as his kireji or cutting word”) Barnhill says that the poet “creates a space for the reader, not to “fill in” that space but to be filled by it.”
For me personally this poem has too much space—and while I would be able to construct a poem from the materials I have been given, I doubt it would bear much resemblance to the experience that provoked the poet to write it. One has to be honest: one either feels something or they don’t, and this poem left me without any real emotional or literary reaction, although I will say that the words are beautiful enough . . . and maybe they are in the right order. Maybe the problem is also one of genre and I am not reading this, as I should, as an experimental haiku. My failure to be moved is no value judgment on the author’s work, only on one person’s (possibly faulty) reading of one poem.
There is no doubt that the poem is able to provoke something in others because it was selected by a reader last week for commentary, so I will leave the comments section open this week and hopefully others out there can give their belated reactions to Wilson’s haiku. (Those of you that wish to comment on the haiku I have selected this week please use the contact form as mentioned in the submission instructions below.)
Last minute addition:
I was fortunate enough to be able to contact Robert D. Wilson, the author of this week’s poem, and he was kind enough to elucidate with the following:
“The now, the moment, is passing through me into the eaves that represent the past. All is static, all is in a state of becoming, the now is a passersby.”
These comments included a caveat: “How I interpret my hokku (. . .) is unimportant. Each reader subjects it to his or her own interpretation. No two interpretations are alike.”
Wilson also clarified that this poem, taken from his collection of “hokku and haiku,” is not a haiku, as I had referred to it, but a hokku, and went on to define his hokku as “action biased,” as opposed to “object biased.” Wilson has some articles online for those that wish to read more on the subject—just click here.
As this week’s default winner, Danny gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
雨雲にはらのふくるる蛙かな rain clouds inflating its belly the frog — Fukuda Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (Translation by D. Blackwell)
This Post Has 14 Comments
In this haiku/hokku by Robert D. Wilson, I could imagine the narrator standing transfixed as something that he has been watching from afar suddenly surrounds him, engulfing him so that he almost becomes part of it. I grasped onto the only concrete word, “eaves” and saw this person completely surrounded by bats, birds – or even butterflies as they return to roost. For me, line one places him right inside the flock, colony or swarm of creatures. The “passing through me” left me quite breathless as it suggested a total affinity with nature. I loved this moment- and that’s why I selected it! 🙂
Thanks for choosing the poem and for sharing your interpretation. I think if the poem had not had the word “and” at the beginning I may have reached a similar conclusion to you. As Clayton mentioned the poem may have been clearer if it had said “the now.” Also the ellipses caused me to separate the fragment and phrase, and left me searching for something that wasn’t there, when in fact they are part of one phrase. Maybe we are sometimes over-reading, as it were.
It is the danger with a form so short, and such a long history of deep reading, to dig a little too deep and overthink things. I prefer Gilbert’s “misreading as meaning” to describe our occasional overshooting of the mark. 😉
This verse poses a riddle. Good to see the answer from the author himself. I interpreted the poem as referring to “the wind,” as it metaphorically passes through the speaker, who feels so desolate as to be hollow enough to allow the passage of the wind, though I can now see how time can be the missing subject. The ku gives me a sense of melancholy and communication of a feeling of insignificance and emptiness from the speaker.
Regarding Wilson’s claim to this being a “hokku” rather than a haiku, well that is a very problematic use of the word hokku. The hokku is the starting verse in renga, and in that context it has very specific rules, not only the presence of kigo and kireji, but some reference to the host of the party or a guest of honor, and a hint of the reason or location of the gathering where the sequence is written.
In addition to this use of hokku as starting verse, in pre-modern times “hokku” were written on their own during kukai (haiku contests) or taken out of sequences and published on their own as collections of hokku. The word hokku in this context had far less restrictions, they could be seasonal or another topic, they could have kireji or not, all of the “haiku” of Basho’s and Issa’s that we read are actually “hokku” in this latter sense. Shiki coined the term “haiku” in the late 19th century as a replacement for the word hokku, though in Europe and America, people continued to call haiku by the older name hokku until Blyth’s books popularized the more modern word haiku. So hokku in the sense of a stand alone poem is entirely synonymous with the modern use of the word haiku, and should not be treated as a separate form.
The word haiku was used much less in pre-modern times, and it was short for “haikai no ku,” or any verse taken out of context from a comic linked verse sequence. Hokku seems to have been the preferred term though.
There are a few circles in ELH that try to treat hokku, haiku, and senryu in English as very different things and define them in very peculiar ways that reflect an utter ignorance of Japanese practice. For our purposes, “haiku” is a perfectly acceptable word that covers everything we do, and the way that words senryu and hokku get thrown around is quite inaccurate and only causes confusion.
I know that senryu is pretty established, but at the very least we should abandon this silly “hokku” business.
From what I’ve gathered, There was one word, ‘hokku’, used for the first verse of ‘haikai-no-renga’ (now ‘renku’) as well as for classical renga and for verses with ‘kiriji’ (cut) published in anthologies and individual works such as Basho’s ‘Narrow Road to the Interior’.
Shiki, not at all happy with the haikai -no-renga of his day, retrieved (didn’t coin) the term ‘haiku’ to designate individual verses which had ‘kireji’/cut, so as to remove any association with renku practice. ‘Hokku’ continued to designate the first verse of renku, which, as Clayton outlines, has performative functions.
In fairly recent times, two American men, one of whom is Robert Wilson, developed their own theories on the difference between hokku and haiku, ignoring the performative function of the hokku in renku . . . (and in individual ‘poems of greeting’ / ‘occasional’ poems … see Terry Ann Carter’s essay, Chiyo-ni and Aisatsu: The Poetry of Greeting
) . . .and in fact, in Shiki’s footsteps, they have ignored renku/ haikai-no-renga entirely. Renku has been somewhat under a cloud since Shiki. Renku (haikai -no-renga) ‘arrived’ in the world beyond Japan much later than haiku did. But it’s here now and more people are becoming involved.
I agree with Clayton that, since we have ‘haiku’ as an accepted term, and renku as an accepted practice, the term ‘hokku’ should be kept to refer to the first verse of a renku. . . perhaps also to designate individual ‘haiku of greeting’ (such as the newsworthy one that USA’s ex-president, Barack Obama, composed . . . and good on him for having a go 🙂 )
As for ‘zoka’, my view is that we might more profitably look to Daoist writings as Basho did than to Robert Wilson’s wordy interpretations. Even flipping our old, dog-eared copy of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching or ‘Book of Changes’ (preface by Carl Jung) open to hexagram 1, ‘The Creative’ is a worthwhile beginning.
As for ” “The now, the moment, is passing through me into the eaves . . . ” etc. better I don’t comment beyond saying that if I place next week’s haiku choice below Robert ‘s ku, as if it was the subsequent verse in a renku, I find an amusing, though irreverent, haikai link:
and now . . .
passing through me
inflating its belly
( revenge of the cat lady 🙂 )
Loren, thanks for the discussion. I think you misinterpreted what I was saying. Individual stanzas were enjoyed as stand-alones long before Shiki, and kukai were dedicated to writing individual “hokku” based on prompts, and the result were standalone poems. So Shiki killed collaborative sequence writing and shifted his focus entirely on the kukai and writing solo poems. To distinguish this from the haikai-renga tradition and make it “new,” he called the solo poems haiku (ironically meaning “a stanza of haikai”), but there already was a trend of similar practice going back quite a while under the title “hokku.”
While the starting verse had many rules and was called hokku, from Basho on the name for any standalone 5-7-5, regardless of its place in the sequence, and even those written as stand-alones in kukai was “hokku.” The rules for these hokku were not that strict and you will find hokku by Basho with no kireji or kigo. And these are the “haiku” of Basho that you find translated into English.
You’ll see the switch between the use of the word “hokku” and “haiku” in English language discussions of the topic transitioning between the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Blyth really made “haiku” a household name in English. But really, they’re synonyms in terms of the use in English.
From the Japanese wikipedia:
This point is particularly interesting. It is saying that “hokku” was used in the context both of renga as a starting verse and as an independent verse, but that now in the context of linked verse (renku) a linked pair is called tachi-ku and a stand-alone verse is called a jihokku.
So modern renku has changed the terminology to avoid the distinction between a ku removed from the sequence as a stand-alone (jihokku) and a true starting verse that is written for the first position (hokku).
So if you’re not writing renku, it is probably best to completely avoid the word hokku. Haiku will suffice for anything you write in the tradition. I know that Don Baird has some goofy definitions and a bunch of different categories at Under the Basho (including “stand-alone hokku”), and some writers have adopted them, but these are not, in my opinion, grounded in any firm knowledge of Japanese practice and are pretty fanciful at best, at worst they lessen our understanding of the history of the forms in Japanese.
Another note though, I see this misconception cropping up a lot about linked verse, that after the hokku there wasn’t any kireji. You see that in longer renku sequences in English, where they almost avoid cuts as if there were a proscription against them. But if you read a full Kasen by Basho or Buson, you’ll find that the majority of the 5-7-5 verses have kireji, and that even many of the 7-7 verses have kireji. Season word and kireji are still found in about 50-70% of the ku in any given sequence.
Add to that the fact that the classic kireji are used less in gendai now, though they’re still in the majority of ku, then kireji isn’t really that much of a distinction between renku and haiku. It is often cited as a difference between senyru and haiku, and that holds true to some extent before the Meiji Restoration, but all of these forms, hokku, senryu and haiku, become very difficult to tease apart and tell any meaningful distinction from in the 20th century.
The main differences go down to the context, what specific reason they were written, and the social aspect, what associations the author belongs to and magazines or contests they submit their work to.
Hi Clayton, no, I didn’t misinterpret you. Perhaps my expression was less than the academic sort you’d prefer, but I agreed with your
“Regarding Wilson’s claim to this being a “hokku” rather than a haiku, well that is a very problematic use of the word hokku. The hokku is the starting verse in renga, and in that context it has very specific rules, not only the presence of kigo and kireji, but some reference to the host of the party or a guest of honor, and a hint of the reason or location of the gathering where the sequence is written.
In addition to this use of hokku as starting verse, in pre-modern times “hokku” were written on their own during kukai (haiku contests) or taken out of sequences and published on their own as collections of hokku.”
I don’t know enough about Japanese practice of renku (I don’t read or speak Japanese) but welcome this information:
“So modern renku has changed the terminology to avoid the distinction between a ku removed from the sequence as a stand-alone (jihokku) and a true starting verse that is written for the first position (hokku).”
But I agreed with this:
“So if you’re not writing renku, it is probably best to completely avoid the word hokku. Haiku will suffice for anything you write in the tradition. ”
…and I agree about this, too:
“Another note though, I see this misconception cropping up a lot about linked verse, that after the hokku there wasn’t any kireji. You see that in longer renku sequences in English, where they almost avoid cuts as if there were a proscription against them.”
I’m aware (via John Carley) that in Basho’s Shofu-style renku there can be found cut verses beyond the hokku. . . but not too many. .. and the ageku, as far as John showed us, is often enough cut anyway. However, since many if not most EL haiku practitioners don’t distinguish ‘kire’ from ‘kireji’, cut from cut marker, and since it will never become a popular practice (I hope!) to make up EL kireji (eg. “old pond innit? a frog jumps. . .”) the thing is, for EL renku, especially for beginners like myself, to avoid a sequence of haiku-like verses.
“all of these forms, hokku, senryu and haiku, become very difficult to tease apart and tell any meaningful distinction from in the 20th century.
The main differences go down to the context, what specific reason they were written, and the social aspect, what associations the author belongs to and magazines or contests they submit their work to.”
Do publish an essay or three on these subjects, Clayton, preferably online and please let me know when they’re available. Contact address is in THF Registry.
Thanks, I’m putting a book together, I may try to make articles out of a few of the more important issues. I’m not sure what Carley bases his distinction between kire and kireji on, there are 18 classical kireji, (kana, mogana, zo, ka, yo, ya, keri, ran, tsu, nu, zu (su), ji, se, re, he, ke, ikani, shi) some of those are verb endings (-keri) connective particles (ya) or exclamatory sentence endings (kana). So there is a lot of variety in the use of cutting, but it’s almost always still with a classical kireji. There are non-standard cuts where you can see a different word being used in place of a classic kireji, and katakoto (cut up, choppy syntax), but those are actually techniques that come more from senryu and were integrated into gendai.
I don’t know that much about contemporary Japanese renku practice, if he’s basing it on that then he may be right, but if he’s talking about renga and haikai-renga sequences like those of Basho, Issa, and Buson, I don’t agree with his assessment about the frequency of kireji. Like in the opening 6 of Throughout the Town (Basho et. al) every 5-7-5 has a cut, but none of the 7-7 do. That’s 50/50 with 100% of the 5-7-5. Every sequence was different, but they could have quite a bit of cutting and at least usually had about half with classical kireji.
I think the biggest issue that we need to address in ELH is moving beyond the old pond fragment/phrase( kigo+”ya/…”sentence fragment) and looking at the fact that oftentimes, cutting words are merely verb conjugations that connect ideas, verbally enunciated punctuation markers like (!,?,…). So we need to figure out ways to create a sense of cutting that is more fluid and versatile than frag/phrase theory allows for.
My commentary for next week on the Chiyo deals with this. Here it is translated like a fragment and phrase but it is actually all one phrase with an end cut (kana).
O, dear, Clayton, this was me speaking, not John Carley:
“However, since many if not most EL haiku practitioners don’t distinguish ‘kire’ from ‘kireji’, cut from cut marker, and since it will never become a popular practice (I hope!) to make up EL kireji (eg. “old pond innit? a frog jumps. . .”) the thing is, for EL renku, especially for beginners like myself, to avoid a sequence of haiku-like verses.”
… and I was referring to EL haiku practice and commentary on various forums over the years. not renku. We don’t have vocalised cut markers, ‘cuttings words’/ kireji …that’s clear enough. . . in EL haiku.
John C. pointed out that there were various “degrees of turn” in verses in Basho’s Shofu renku.
I vaguely recall reading somewhere along the way (not to do with John Carley or renku specifically) a comment attributed to Basho regarding what I’d call a ‘false cut’. . . something along the lines of “Just because you throw in a kireji doesn’t mean your verse is really cut. The less experienced rely on the kireji to show the cut but the more advanced know where the cut is without a kireji.”
(Obviously my words, from what I understood, not the words I read…somewhere) I wish Basho had been less enigmatic, but I suspect he knew what he was doing in refraining from leaving any written instructions. 🙂
I’m interested in this:
“So we need to figure out ways to create a sense of cutting that is more fluid and versatile than frag/phrase theory allows for.”
I look forward to reading your commentary on the Chiyo-ni ku next week. I’m very interested in learning more.
Well, yes, maybe provocation or inscrutability or denying the reader any anything whatsoever to grasp was the poet’s intention. Maybe it’s the failure on the reader’s part to submit sufficiently to the “pause of ma”. Maybe there’s some level here of haiku/hokku genius which is currently beyond my ken.
Or maybe Robert D. Wilson has done himself and his readers a disservice by publishing something which may have created, in the sky of his mind, an evocative pause, but which I suspect most readers will experience not as a creative void but as blankness.
It reminds me of the poem or message which one “receives” in a dream, full of great portent and numinosity, which one sleepily scribbles in a notebook but which, when examined in full daylight leaves one baffled as to how it could ever have seemed anything at all.
and now . . .
passing through me
The ellipsis at the end of the first line points to the fact that much is left out deliberately. Is it just me? I think I hear Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”. The momentousness of the present moment finds no root being as inconspicuous as the chestnut blossoms against the house of Basho’s friend.
few in this world
even notice the blossom—
chestnut by the eaves
“and now . . . ” – RW
“Is it just me? I think I hear Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”.” – Hansha
🙂 No, it’s not just you.
Perhaps the bathos provided by the potential Sinatra reference could have been avoided, and the temporal aspect that most of of missed could have been more clearly elucidated if the first line had been “the now,”
the now . . .
passing through me
It still doesn’t quite pop for me as a ku, but at least it doesn’t bring in the rockettes. 😉
As the spouse of a 100% disabled Vietnam vet (which Robert Wilson is) my first thought went to a possible “a rain of bullets” or any of the horrors inflicted, either real or imagined, passing through what permeates his now.
Even possibly those blank stares passing through that scruffy homeless man or woman slouched beneath the eaves as shoppers go on about their window shopping…do they know of the pain of those walking dead?
Deeply personal, given the ongoing nightmares for my husband lo these many years later.
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