Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Poetry and Song 4

I want to write a little bit more about Basho’s hokku:

fūryū no hajime ya oku no taueuta

roots of elegance
on this trip to the far north
rice-planting song

(Reichhold translation)

I mentioned this hokku in “Poetry and Song 3” and how Basho points to the intimate connection between song, specifically folk song, and poetry. I want to make a few more observations about this hokku.

First, this hokku is grammatically divided into two possessive clauses as follows:

fūryū no hajime

This opening clause means “beginning of fūryū”, or “beginning/origin/root of culture/poetry/all art”.


oku no taueuta

This concluding clause means “rice planting song of the far north/wilderness/back country”.

Both of these possessive clauses are eight syllables long (“fūryū” takes four counts because both “u’s” are long, taking two counts each). The two clauses are separated by the syllable “ya” which is what is known as a “cutting word”, or “kireji”. This particular cutting word has no ordinary meaning. It serves the purpose of giving notice to the listener that a clause has concluded and what follows is a new clause. (There is no equivalent in English for cutting words.)

This means that grammatically the hokku is divided into two possessive clauses of equal length, a two part structure. Against this two part structure, and interwoven with it, is the traditional three part syllabic structure of a hokku; that is to say the traditional 5-7-5 syllabic division. How does Basho signal this three-part structure? Through the placement of the possessive particle “no” at the end of the five syllable opening line and the end of the seven syllable second line. Observe:

fūryū no
hajime ya oku no

The possessive particle placed strategically marks the conclusion of the traditional syllabic form, while simultaneously carrying the reader past that traditional line to the next line. Here are the two ways of reading the hokku:

fūryū no hajime ya
oku no taueuta

fūryū no
hajime ya oku no

I bring this up for several reason. First, it shows the sophistication of Basho’s hokku technique. Second, because I think it is inherently interesting to observe the syllabic counterpoint; it adds additional dimensions to this hokku. And third, because I think Basho was deliberately using a highly sophisticated, that is to say culturally advanced, or consciously literary, hokku to illustrate the point that the hokku is making. Here Basho is saying that even though this hokku is complex, even though it shows evidence of a highly refined esthetic, even so, this hokku is rooted in the kind of song one hears when listening to peasants planting rice. If Basho had used a mimic of folk song to make his point I don’t think it would have been as effective. Here the form of the hokku is an instantiation of the meaning Basho is seeking to impart.

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