Monday, November 30, 2009


November sunrise
When I took my morning walk
I saw the first frost

On the field by the river
Where the road comes to an end

Pathces of gray ice
Makes for hesitant walking,
And a steady wind

He struggles to explain why
The affair has reached an end

On Sunday morning
The reporters toss questions
To the Governor

About needed funding
To bring water to the fields

In a cloudless sky
The merciless sun shines bright
On farms turned to dust

"I think we will have to move.
My brother will take us in."

No moon in the sky,
And no shadows on the ground;
The earth in deep sleep

The deva in the garden
Conjures up a soothing song

A flock of sparrows
Among the apple blossoms
Patches of blue sky

She's feeling much better now
After talking with her friends

Sunday, November 29, 2009

In Guerneville

Headlights in the fog;
The bridge over the river
Almost disappears

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Words Like Clay

Words Like Clay

I think of poetry as a craft. As a craft poetry resembles pottery, carpentry, gardening, quilting, and many other crafts that people engage in. The one craft that I compare poetry to most frequently, in my own mind, is pottery.

The potter shapes clay into significant forms such as cups, plates, teapots, etc. The poet shapes words into significant forms such as sonnets, villanelles, tanka, etc.

Each craft has tools. For the potter the potter’s wheel is central. As the wheel turns the potter shapes the clay in the potter’s hands. For the syllabic poet counting has the same function as the wheel does for the potter. Through counting the poet shapes words into specific forms. Each form possesses a pattern of counting and it is that pattern of counting that defines the poetic form. As formless clay is poured through the potter’s hands on the potter’s wheel yielding specific forms, so words are poured through the wheel of counting by the poet resulting in the specific forms of poetry.

A Night of Many Dreams

Thick low lying clouds
A slate gray extended dawn
Silent, with no wind

I put on two pairs of socks
Then begin making coffee

"Good morning," she says.
"Did you sleep soundly last night?
I had many dreams."

In the travel magazine
Stories of distant islands

Windows are open
Now that the snow has melted
Afternoons are warm

He is the first one this year
To see the apple blossoms

From the worn out road
(it's scheduled to be repaved)
Commuting to work

She cell-phones her closest friend,
"Stuck in traffic, in this heat!"

On the horizon
Clouds slowly accumulate
Over the forest

We tend not to notice change
When it happens step by step

He reads some stories
To his three year old daughter,
Her two favorites

Moonlight slips past the curtains
Under the door, down the stairs . . .

Friday, November 27, 2009


A quiet morning
While the sun rises slowly
Through low-lying clouds
The reluctant world returns
From the land of sleep and dreams

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Refuge from the Cold

November morning;
Fog hovering at the door
Of the homeless shelter.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Old Shirt

I loved that old shirt.
I had it for fifteen years.
It fit like a glove.
I tore it into rags today.
Soon, someone will spread my ashes.

Published in Modern English Tanka 10

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Night Vision

No moon
Without wind
The sound of wings
An angel pauses and begins to sing

Monday, November 23, 2009

On Counting: 3

I’ve worked in retail for quite a few years. Sometimes when someone makes a purchase they reject the pennies and ask the store to “pass them on” to another customer who might be short a penny or two. Say the change is $1.37; such a person will accept the $1.35, and then offer the two cents, the two pennies, in such a manner.

Sometimes when a customer is due change that is close to a round number, the cashier will give the customer a rounded up version of the change instead of the exact change. Say the change due to the customer is $5.49. Sometimes the cashier will give the customer $5.50 instead. The cashier might do this for a number of reasons. Perhaps the cashier has been given pennies by previous customers as outlined above. Perhaps the cashier is short of pennies. Perhaps the cashier is in a rush and can save a few seconds with the simpler change. Perhaps the customer is a friend. These are examples of counting, but the final results of the counting are approximations. Such approximations are common in counting. In everyday encounters we often offer approximations instead of exact numbers. For example, I might say that I saw someone “about two weeks ago”; and people understand that this is an approximation, probably because I can’t remember the exact date and time.

In poetry the same kind of principle applies. One starts with a count for a poetic form, but the specific circumstances of the poem may modify the count. If the count is accentual, and the poet is writing in iambics, a substitution may generate an extra syllable and this is considered acceptable. On the other hand, a poet might shorten an accentual line by a syllable or two for emotional effect, or to pick up the pace of the poem.

In strictly syllabic forms, the force of ordinary speech might push the line beyond the normative boundaries a syllable or two. Or, as in accentual verse, a line might be shortened to pick up speed or heighten emotional effect. As in counting change, the poet starts out with a specific result in mind. As in counting change, specific circumstances can modify that count.


Isn't it a joy
When old friends come and visit,
To see them again,
To sit around a table
Talking through the night till dawn.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Enlightened Duality

God is the other,
God is vast, I'm small,
Embraced by God's love
I'm awestruck, enthralled

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cusp of Winter

November morning;
Cold, thick fog from the river
Swirls among the pines

Friday, November 20, 2009


There are things that I regret
Things that I should not have done
Life's complicated, and yet
Actions on their course must run

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Modern Retail

Master Card
All accepted
Cash is the one thing that's not expected

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


On the silent street
A deer quietly grazes
Among the ruins
All the windows are hollow
Open to the moonlit wind

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For Lieh Tzu

It is sufficient, complete,
To live a life that's simple,
To cook one's food, have a job,
To make one's home a temple.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Counting: 2

People count what stands out for them, what has become discrete according to their observations. What stands out depends on the history of the culture and for this reason different cultures will count in different ways. For example, in counting months some cultures count strictly lunar appearances (e.g. the Islamic Calendar), other cultures count months on a strictly solar basis (e.g. the modern Gregorian Calendar and the ancient Egyptian Calendar), and some cultures count months on a mixed solar/lunar relationship (e.g. the Jewish and Chinese Calendars). Every culture counts months, but how months are perceived differs.

Similarly, what constitutes a unit of sound worthy of counting, a syllable, varies from culture to culture. Some cultures count semi-vowels, such as “n”, “m”, and “ng” as syllables while others do not. Japanese counts an “n” as a syllable, but only if it appears at the end, it is not counted if it is an initial sound. Some cultures can have an initial “ng”, counted as a syllable, while in English “ng” is only an ending sound, never initial, and is not counted as a syllable. Some cultures count durations; almost all Sanskrit derived languages have both long and short forms of their vowels so that sometimes the sound “a”, as in “father”, will be counted as one syllable and sometimes two. Japanese also has this aspect of counting syllables with long and short forms of “o” and “a”. Some cultures will count what English speakers would consider a silence as a syllable; as in a glottal stop, or in French poetry where sometimes a silent “e” is counted as a syllable.

In comparing any two languages there are going to be discrepancies over what is considered to be a syllable, just as there are discrepancies among human groups over what is counted when months are counted. This is just a part of the variety of human experience. There’s no logical reason for why certain sounds are counted in one culture, but not in another. It is based on the particular history of that people and their language and just needs to be accepted as how a particular people hears their language; kind of like just accepting irregular verbs or other aspects of a language that one is learning.

The discrepancies in what is counted need not be a barrier for poets. It is the act of counting itself that is shared across cultural lines and it is the act of counting that allows for the transmission of a poetic form from one linguistic context to another. Whatever sounds Japanese count, they are still counting syllables. Whatever sounds English speakers count, they are still counting syllables. The fact that the two groups of sounds do not match is not a problem because the counting itself is shared. It is the counting which is the common ground, a bridge from one culture to another.

On Prayer

The evening sky is cloudless,
Unobstructed, I see far --
Contemplating suffering
I send a wish to a star

Sunday, November 15, 2009

After Grace

The mountain flows over the granite lake
And diamonds like dust vanish in the wind.

From noon to midnight the flowers blossom
On the shifting edge of orange tinted clouds
The jackal sings a lullaby and sighs
On the high valley floor ringed with starlight
The radio blares an urgent newscast
From long ago and very far awhen.

Across a desolate rock strewn landscape
I follow a muscle bound silent guide
(Blue eyes, a three day stubble, and hairy).
Passing a fallen, deserted ruin,
He turns to me and looks into my eyes,
"That building was the library of lies."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Towards Winter

The leaves have fallen
Off of the oak tree
Between bare branches
Cloudless blue is seen

Friday, November 13, 2009

Looking Back

Has appeared
As I grow older
I am more and more amazed
Filled with gratitude for the years, months, and days

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I’m an amateur historian of the history of poetry. I am particularly intrigued by the transmission of poetic forms from one culture to another. The most famous example in the west of a transmission of a poetic form is the Sonnet, which started out in Italy and spread to other countries, notably England and France, becoming a major form in both of these regions. Changes usually occur when a form moves from one culture to another; and that is what interests me, how one culture will morph the form of another culture based on history, esthetic preference, and other factors. I refer to the descendants of the original form as “siblings”, meaning that they are all, in a sense, the children of the original form. Using this metaphor, the French Sonnet and the English Sonnet would be siblings, descendants of the original Italian Sonnet.

A recent example of a transmission of a poetic form across cultures took place in post World War II America; it was the transmission of the Haiku, a Japanese form, to the United States. (Haiku was also transmitted to other cultures and countries; but I lack information of specifics outside of the U.S., so I’ll confine my observations to this one specific case.)

What I have observed is that when a form moves from one culture to another certain aspects of the original form pass, while other aspects of the original form are blocked. The receiving culture does this by defining what the receiving culture values in such a way that those elements the receiving culture values are highlighted (often termed the “essence” of what they are interested in), while other aspects are allowed to fall away (because they are “non-essential”).

What I have observed in the specific case of Haiku is that this process has happened three times, generating three different Haiku traditions in the U.S. I refer to the three traditions as the “Duration Tradition”, the “Nature Tradition”, and the “Syllabic Tradition”.

The Duration Tradition

The Duration Tradition is impressed by the brevity of Haiku and takes that brevity as the essence of Haiku. It is understandable that brevity would be focused on; Haiku are very brief and this brevity serves to distinguish Haiku from other poetic forms such as the Sonnet or Villanelle or Ballad, etc. It was partly this brevity which attracted the Imagist poets to Haiku. I think the most influential proponent of the Duration Tradition was the late William Higginson. Quoting from Higginson's “The Haiku Handbook”:

“For haiku in English an overall form consisting of seven accented syllables, plus unaccented syllables up to a total of about twelve [syllables], would yield a rhythmical structure native to English and at the same time approximate the duration of traditional Japanese haiku.”

(The Haiku Handbook, William J. Higginson, page 105, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1985)

Notice the emphasis here on matching the duration, the literal duration, of the Japanese Haiku. Japanese Haiku consist of seventeen syllables, but because Japanese syllables are, for the most part, shorter than English syllables, Higginson suggests an English model that uses approximately twelve English syllables so that the English Haiku will match the duration of the Japanese Haiku. The reason for wanting to match the duration is that brevity is considered to be the essence of the form. If you capture the brevity, then you have captured the form.

Another quote from Higginson:

“Grammar should be stripped to the minimum that seems reasonably natural. Complete sentences may or may not occur; articles (‘a, an, and the’) and prepositions should be used sparingly, but not unnaturally omitted.”

(Ibid, page 106)

The overall emphasis in the Duration Tradition is to be as brief as possible, even to the extent of altering English syntax.

Higginson was a very articulate spokesman for this point of view. Through his work at the Haiku Society of America (I believe he was President of the H.S.A. for about forty years), through his connections with Japanese Haiku Poets and Societies, and through his dedication and the high level of his own writing, he exerted a widespread and lasting influence on Haiku in the United States. Of the three Haiku Traditions I have observed, the Duration Tradition is by far the dominant one.

It is instructive to observe what is left behind, that is to say what the Duration Tradition does not emphasize that is emphasized in the Japanese tradition. First is syllable count. Higginson’s focus on duration ignores a specific syllable count. Though he recommends “about twelve syllables”, in practice syllable count is not taken as a criterion for whether or not a poem is a Haiku; brevity is. It is characteristic of the Duration Tradition of English Haiku that they will criticize a full count Haiku (meaning a Haiku of seventeen English syllables) as too long, too wordy, or padded (a deadly criticism from this tradition’s perspective).

Also left behind is adherence to seasonal reference and a natural setting. In traditional Japanese Haiku a seasonal reference is considered to be necessary; if there is no seasonal reference it is not considered to be a Haiku. By defining Haiku in terms of brevity, the Duration Tradition opens up Haiku to non-traditional topics, to Haiku focused on cityscapes for example, or Haiku focused on work, personal relationships, or other non-seasonal aspects of daily life. This shift to brevity as the essence of Haiku has greatly increased the range of subject matter available to Haiku.

The Duration Tradition, by emphasizing brevity, and by minimizing common English usage, has opened itself to the influence of modern free verse norms, which have extensively penetrated the Duration Tradition of Haiku. The lack of capitals, lack of punctuation, the often eccentric layout, and other aspects show a strong allegiance to modern free verse on the part of the Duration Tradition. The conformity of the Duration Tradition to modern free verse norms is, I believe, one of the reasons why the Duration Tradition is the largest of the three; because it is relatively easier to move from standard free verse to the Haiku of the Duration Tradition than it is to move from standard free verse to either the Nature Tradition or the Syllabic tradition.

The Duration Tradition advocates for lean, minimalist, expression. For the Duration Tradition this is the essence of Haiku.

The Nature Tradition

The next example of transmission of Haiku to the United States focuses on Haiku as Nature Poetry. For this group the defining characteristic of Haiku is that it is poetry about Nature. For this reason this tradition has adopted seasonal reference as essential, and beyond that the Nature Tradition de-emphasizes human centered topics. Thus for this tradition Haiku about work, politics, the erotic, or cityscapes would run counter to their understanding.

The Nature Tradition of Haiku transmission is rooted in the work of R. H. Blythe, whose monumental translations of four volumes of Japanese Haiku into English remains a pivotal work for this tradition (in contrast, the Duration Tradition acknowledges Blythe’s contributions, but considers them somewhat dated). The four Blythe volumes are each devoted to a particular season; so one can see how central the seasonal element, and nature, are from this perspective. As David Coomler, a prominent spokesman for the Nature Tradition says,

“One cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reflect the seasons in hokku.”

(Hokku – Writing Traditional Haiku in English, David Coomler, Templegate Publishers, Springfield, Illinois, page 45, 2001)

The Nature Tradition also considers brevity important, but it is secondary to Haiku as Nature Poetry. Like the Duration Tradition, the Nature Tradition ignores the syllable count of traditional Haiku and for similar reasons.

The Syllabic Tradition

The third Tradition of Haiku in the United States focuses on the syllabics of Haiku. In Japan, Haiku has a strict syllabic structure consisting of three lines, or phrases (ku), distributed as follows: 5-7-5. This gives an overall syllable count of 17 syllables.

Observing this, the Syllabic Tradition of Haiku in English mimics the syllabic structure of Japanese Haiku by using the same syllabic count and distribution of phrasing in English. For the Syllabic Tradition a Haiku should mimic this syllable count in order for it to be a genuine Haiku.

The great example of the Syllabic Tradition in English is the Haiku of Richard Wright. Late in his life, this famous author published 800+ Haiku. I think it is the finest example of Haiku in the English language. The Haiku in Wright’s book, titled “Haiku: This Other World” are syllabic, that is to say they mimic the syllabic structure of Japanese Haiku.

A recent example of the Syllabic Tradition of Haiku is “The Calligraphy of Clouds” by Yeshaya Rotbard. I think this is a very fine collection of Haiku and other syllabic forms of poetry.

The Syllabic Tradition is represented in the U.S. by the Yukei Teikei Haiku Association. The advocacy of Syllabic Haiku by Yukei Teikei is muted; they allow for it and the founders thought highly of it, but they are open to other approaches as well.


There is a lot of sibling rivalry among these different approaches. This is natural, if at times stressful. Negative reviews of publications by one of these traditions on the part of another tradition are fairly common. Again, this is to be expected just as disagreements among siblings are to be expected.

These disputes are, however, not necessary. As soon as one realizes that there are three different traditions, writing three different kinds of poetry, any need for these kinds of disputes falls away. Such disputes would be like arguing if the Sonnet or the Villanelle is the better form of poetry. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

I am suggesting that the three traditions of Haiku have become three different forms of poetry. They all have a common ancestor, but as the decades have passed they have grown and matured into their own traditions, with their own esthetic criteria, their own precedents. May they all flourish.

The Face of War

Would you murder a stranger
Who just happened to walk by?
War's an excuse for slaughter
Of strangers like you and I.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As the Days Grow Shorter

The autumn garden;
Under the overcast sky,
Withered white roses.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Counting: 1

Counting is a primal human act. Meditators count breaths, customers count change, musicians count beats and measures, when a rocket is launched we count down, in a gym class we count up for team assignment, we count the days of a month and the years of our lives, astronomers count the stars in the sky.

Somewhere in the mists of time people found that they could count repeating units of sound that, when grouped together, make words. And thus formal poetry was born.

These sound units are what we today call syllables. Just as people articulate the flow of time by counting days, poets articulate the flow of language by counting syllables.

Along with this discovery came the understanding that some words have the same number of syllables and so they share a number in common; even if the two words have different meanings, they share the same number of syllables. This also applies to groups of words; two groups of words may have the same number of syllables and so have an underlying unity, a unity of number which can transcend a difference in meaning.

Counting syllables grounds the poet in an activity that all human beings share. Because it is an activity that all people share, counting is a kind of humbling activity, keeping the poet connected to the ordinary. When the poet counts syllables, that counting is the same counting that ordinary people do when they count whatever they are counting (change, plates, votes, etc.).

By counting syllables poets replicate a pervasive human mode of comprehending existence. I think this is a central reason why formal poetry, based on counting syllables, is so attractive to people. The regularity of counted lines instantiates, and then displays, a mechanism that is central to our humanity, something that all of us do every day numerous times. Lines that are based on counting, are, therefore, immediately accessible, resonating with this pervasive, and very human, way of interacting with existence.

Speaking to the Absence

The river of night
Memories floating away
Did something happen?
The day after you appeared
The day after you vanished

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sea and Sky

The sun has fallen
Into the ocean
The tide is at ebb
Mars in slow motion

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Then depart
The river flows
Into the sunset that ceaselessly glows

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ordinary Morning

Sparrows on the oak
In the light of dawn
Hot tea on my desk
I hum an old song

Poetry and Song 6

Here’s an idea for consideration: The majority of poetry written in twentieth century United States is rhymed, formal verse.

Just think about it for a few minutes and see if that consideration makes sense.

Initially, I suspect, it won’t make sense. This particularly applies to those who have studied twentieth century poetry in college and those who self-identify as poets. The standard view is that the twentieth century saw a revolution in poetry known as free verse, or verse libre. Free verse is, as a general rule, unmetered and unrhymed. There are good reasons for this standard view; there is much to support it. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and then picking up speed and sweep in the early twentieth, free verse seemingly came to dominate the world of poetry.

There is, however, another way of looking at this. If one turns to song, and studies song lyrics in particular, if one classifies song lyrics as poetry, then all of a sudden the landscape of twentieth century poetry in the U.S. shifts. What was in the background suddenly dominates the foreground. Consider the major songwriters of the twentieth century; people like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein, all those Blues composers, the Country Western genre, everyone from Broadway tunesmiths to Rock n Roll to Rap and Hip Hop, all of them wrote rhymed formal verse.

Including song lyrics in the realm of poetry would have been normal throughout most of the history of poetry. The division between poetry and song was porous; a poem could be made into a song and a song’s lyrics could be read as a poem. In some ways that is still true today in that the lyrics of famous music groups are published on their own; one can find them at bookstores. In that case the lyrics are being marketed as poems.

If what I am suggesting makes sense, then it raises the question of why it is that the idea of free verse dominance of twentieth century poetry is so taken for granted. Tentatively, I would suggest that part of the free verse revolution was a shift away from song to other sources and models for the distinguishing features of free verse. I am suggesting that free verse poets cut themselves off from song and instead found the characteristic features of their approach in fiction and essay. For example, authors of fiction and essay are not concerned with either rhyme or meter, or regulated lineation. In fact attention to rhyme and meter would interfere with their modes of writing. In some forms of essay, such as the scientific essay, rhyme is deliberately avoided and probably would be removed as a distraction to the conceptual content of what is being communicated.

Does this sound familiar? Doesn’t this accurately point to the distinguishing features of free verse? Critics of free verse have long observed that for an awful lot of free verse, if one reformatted the free verse as a continuous paragraph there would, often, be no deformation of meaning. In other words, lineation is often arbitrary and not a signifier. This mimics what one finds in fiction and essay, in diary and epigram.

The preceding paragraph does not apply to all free verse; there are significant exceptions. But it is a generalization that often seems apt.

I think that the shift away from song to the literary structures of fiction and essay was due, at least in part, to the growing prestige of the novel, and to a lesser extent, to the growing influence of the essay. Fiction writing from the eighteenth century onward exerted a growing dominance on literature. More and more people read it. Less and less people read poetry.

The influence of the essay, the broadside, also became more widespread; an example of its growing influence and presence is the newspaper editorial and the pastoral sermon. An example of this is Emerson’s three series of “Essays” which were hugely popular.

In other words, poetry was losing its role as the central fact of literature. It is difficult for us in the twenty-first century to realize that poetry in the past was considered almost a divine art. This is true cross-culturally. In China, for example, poetry was considered to be the highest of the arts and great poets were hugely admired. One of the Confucian Classics is the “Book of Songs”, a collection of ancient Chinese verse put together by Confucius whose status was on a par with the “Analects”. In Japan imperially commissioned collections of poetry greatly influenced culture for many generations. In the west Homer is quoted in classical Greece and Rome as authoritative; the way one would quote scripture. And this sense of poetry as divinely inspired continued for many centuries.

The situation for poetry slowly shifted, and then in the late nineteenth century radically changed. Poetry slowly became marginalized, just one of a group of literary endeavors. A good example of this is someone like Thomas Hardy; known as a poet and a novelist.

The consciously literary poet no longer could assume admiration simply because of the high status of poetry. Poems now competed with fiction, essay, diary, and editorials.

Meanwhile, as all this was going on, people continued to write songs and these songs continued to be rhymed and metrical. Under the pressure of a growing literature that did not assume poetic norms, poetry began to mimic the structures of fiction and essay. And in this way poetry cut itself off from what had always been its root, its source of nourishment.

Friday, November 6, 2009

November Branches

At this time of year
The sun sets before dinner --
November branches

Clouds have evaporated
Dispersed into spaciousness

In the afternoon
He waters the potted plants
Under the hot sun

Near the shopping mall's new bank
A truck parks in a "compact" space

While a couple shops
(It's their weekly excursion)
They count their coupons

On the dining room table
A dinner of leftovers

"I really feel cold.
I'll put on one more sweater."
Ice on the windows

Casting fractal-like patterns
That change with the shifting light

Caught by the fountain
An evanescent rainbow
In the courthouse square

Dozens of people strolling
While a few sit on benches

The warmth of the wind
Causes the full moon to rise --
The Gemini sky

Magnolias blossoming
Even in our deepest dream

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Bright Jupiter shines
Under the scimitar moon
And diamond-dust stars --
Your hair across your forehead
And your hand upon my thigh

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Poetry and Song 5

The point I have been exploring about the intimate relationship between poetry and song is neither new nor original. Though the examples I have used have been from East Asia (Tanka in Japan and the Quatrain forms from China), the same applies to western poetry. Epic poetry, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, were originally sung. The Sonnet form began as a short Italian song, the Sonnetto.

Underlying the meter, rhythm, and pulse of poetry is the rhythmic beat of song.

Mystical Theology

And solitude
These two
Nourish my soul
They guide me to new realms
Where self-concern
Falls easily away
And I begin to realize
That existence is vast
That the world is more than human
That the stunning glory of creation
Is beyond my comprehension
Beyond the grasp of my limited mind
Passing through the gate of a luminous darkness
Darkness within darkness within darkness . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

California Country

A pause in the rain
Enough time to walk
The wet rural roads
The sky holds a hawk

Published in Concise Delight Magazine of Short Poetry, Issue 1, Summer 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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hidden Moon

It's not so often
That I get to see the moon,
Clouds come in too soon,
Or the city lights consume
The splendor of the nightscape.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Sunlight on the parking lot
As the leaves scatter and fall
I think about yesterdays --
Friends whose names I can't recall