Houses of Sleep
Willow Woman
East West
Decline of Taste
Note on Yeats
Oscar Wilde
Again on Hokku
On Poetry
Again on Poetry
Morning Fancy
Ink Slab 



What is the Hokku Poem?

PARTLY to make my annual settlement at the end of the year, at least my spiritual settlement, one month later, as the villagers are still attached to the old lunar calendar, mainly to hunt after the plum-blossoms (why, hunting is the proper word), although I knew it was only a few weeks since the chrysanthemums turned to dust, I left cold Tokyo in December towards Atami where the glad laughing sunlight of Spring always arrives first across the seas. You may call me mad or fantastic if you will, when I tell you that I journeyed one hundred miles for just an early sight of the flowers; that early sight indeed makes my ephemeral life worth living. I was glad, when I reached Atami, to find that my flower exploration was started well, though even at Atami the season was a little early for it; when the plum trees in the well-known "Plum Forest" there, a week or ten days later, began to smile up to the skies and sunlight (and to me), I carried my world-wearied soul every day out under their shade, and talked with them in the silence that was [<126] beyond the world and humanity.  I was at once besieged by the same winter cold; worse than that, I was forced to settle my yearly account from which I had attempted to escape some twenty days before. My little adonis davurica, to use the botanical name, or the Fortune Longevity Grass at the southern window of my home was not yet in bloom; I was again obliged to shut myself within the room with a little brazier on whose ashes I could write and rewrite the pages from the Songs of Innocence, and to look happy travelling before Fuji Mountain's presence in Hiroshige's pictures. But it happened one morning when I was washing my face in my garden (oh, where's yester year's morning-glory?) that the very first note of a nightingale made me raise my face at once to the plum tree where two or three blossoms had just begun to break; "At last, Spring even to Tokyo," I exclaimed. I made a habit from then to sit on the balcony facing the garden when the sunlight fell there with all heart and soul and to count the blossoms [<127] every day; I recall here to my mind the following seventeen-syllable hokku poem:
    "One blossom of the plum—
    Yes, as much as that one blossom, every day,
    Have we of Spring's warmth."
It might be from the conditions of my impaired health of late that such a little poem as the above makes a strong impression on my mind; indeed, I never felt before as this year, the kindness of the sunlight and the joy of spring. I declare myself to be an adherent of this hokku poem in whose gem-small form of utterance our Japanese poets were able to express their understanding of Nature, better than that, to sing or chant their longing or wonder or adoration towards Mother Nature; to call the hokku poem suggestive is almost wrong, although it has become a recent fashion for the Western critics to interpret, not only this hokku but all Japanese poetry (even my work included) by that one word, because the hokku poem itself is distinctly clear-cut like a diamond or star, never mystified by any cloud or mist like Truth or Beauty of Keats' understanding. It is all very well if you [<128] have a suggestive attitude of mind in reading it; I say that the star itself has almost no share in the creation of a condition even when your dream or vision is gained through its beauty. I am only pleased to know that the star had such an influence upon you ; and I am willing to endorse you when you say the hokku poem is suggestive in the same sense that truth and humanity are suggestive. But I can say myself as a poet (am I too bold to claim that word ?) that your poem would certainly end in artificiality if you start out to be suggestive from the beginning; I value the hokku poem, at least some of them, because of its own truth and humanity simple and plain. Let me say for once and all there is no word in so common use by Western critics as suggestive, which makes more mischief than enlightenment, although they mean it quite simply, of course, to be a new force or salvation; I apologise to you for my digression when I say that no critic is necessary for this world of poetry. Who will criticise Truth or Humanity? I always thought that the most beautiful flowers grow close to the ground, and they need no hundred [<129] petals for expressing their own beauty; how can you call it real poetry if you cannot tell it by a few words? Therefore these seventeen syllables are just enough at least to our Japanese mind. And if you cannot express all by one hokku, then you can say it in many hokku; yes, that is all.
    I confess that I secretly desired to become a hokku poet in my younger days, that is now twenty years ago, and I used to put the hokku collection of Basho or Buson with Spencer's Education in the same drawer of my desk; what did Spencer mean, you might wonder, for a boy of sixteen or seventeen? I myself wonder to-day about it when I look back on it; but it was the younger day of new Japan when even we boys thought to educate others before being educated ourselves (there was Spencer's Education), and we wished to swallow all the Western wisdom and philosophy, Spencer or Darwin or what else, at a gulp. I used to pass through Shiba Park famous for the Sleeping Houses of the Feudal Princes and also for the pine forest towering over the mortality and age, towards my school at Mita, whither to-day [<130] of twenty years later I turn my steps again to tell the Japanese students about the English poets born in the golden clime or other clime; and I often looked up with irresistible longing of heart, to a little cottage on a hill in this sacred park where Yeiki Kikakudo, the descendant of the famous hokku poet Kikaku in poetical lineage, used to live in his seventieth year. I cannot recollect now exactly how I happened to call on him one night except from my impulse and determination that my meeting with him was thought necessary for my poetical development; it was the night of meigetsu, the full moon of September, when many wanderers like myself, moths restless after soul's sensation, could be seen in the park through the shadows of trees. The little house, I mean that of Master Yeiki, so small that it might be comfortably put in any ordinary-sized Western drawing-room, was deadly silent with no light lighted; I thought at once that it was the poet's beautiful consideration towards the moon whose heavenly light, not being disturbed by any earthly lamp, might thus have full sway. I met the old poet sitting on the step under the golden [<131] shower of the light, when I climbed up to his house, he led me within the house where the all open shoji doors welcomed the moon with old-fashioned hospitality. Indeed that should be the way to treat the celestial guest; when you observe how the Japanese moonlight crawls in with its fairy-like golden steps, you will wonder how humanised it is here. We two, young and old, sat silent, leaving all the talk to the breezes which carried down the moon's autumnal message; the light fell on the hanging at the tokonoma whereon I read the following hokku poem:
    "Autumn's full moon:
    Lo, the shadows of a pine tree
    Upon the mats!"
Really it was my first opportunity to observe the full beauty of the light and shadow, more the beauty of the shadow in fact far more luminous than the light itself, with such a decorativeness, particularly when it stamped the dustless mats as a dragon-shaped ageless pine tree; I thanked Kikaku, the author of the above lines, for giving me just the point where [<132] to find the natural beauty, on which my imagination should have play enough. I bowed to the Poet Yeiki for good-night, and thanked him for the most interesting talk, although we had spoken scarcely a word, but I was perfectly tickled in delight as already then the old story of Emerson and Carlyle who had a happy chat in Silence was known to me. When I left him, the moon was quite high, under whose golden blessing all the trees and birds hurried to dream; it was exactly such a night on which only two or three year ago I wrote the following lines:
    "Across the song of night and moon,
    O perfume of perfume!)
    My soul, as a wind
    Whose heart's too full to sing,
    Only roam, astray . . ."
Indeed, how l wandered that night, now thinking of this poet, then on that hokku poem; I clearly remember it was the very night that I felt fully the beauty of the following impromptu in hokku by Basho:
    "Shall I knock
    At Miidera Temple's gate?
    Ah, moon of to-night!"
Suppose you stand at that temple's gate high upon the hill lapped and again lapped by the slow water, with your dreamy face towards this Lake Biwa in the shape ot a biwa-lute, which, as a certain poetess has written, "like a shell of white lies dropped by the passing day." I am sure you will feel yourself to be a god or goddess in the beginning of the world as in the Japanese mythology, who by accident or mystery has risen above the opalescent mists which softly cover the earth of later night.
    I did not forget to carry with me the hokku collection of Basho or Buson or some other poet in my American life, even when I did the so-called tramp life in 1896-1898 through the California field full of buttercups, by the mountain where the cypress trees beckoned my soul to fly, not merely because the thought of home and longing for it was then my only comfort, but more because by the blessing of the book, I mean the hokku book, I entered straight into the great heart of Nature; when I left the Pacific Slope in later years towards the Eastern cities built by the modern civilisation and machineries, I suddenly thought I had lost the [<134] secret understanding of the hokku poems born in Japan, insignificant like a lakeside reed and irresponsible like a dragon-fly; how could you properly understand, for instance, the following poem in New York of skyscrapers and automobiles:
    "A cloud of flowers!
    Is it the bell of Uyeno
    Or that of Asakusa?"
The poet, by the way Basho, means the cloud of flowers, of course, in Mukojima of Tokyo, whose odorous profusion shuts out every prospect and thought of geographical sense, of East or West; listen to the bell ringing from the distance! Does it come from the temple of Uyeno or Asakusa? Why, it is the poem of a Spring picture of the river Sumida.
    Although I was quite loyal to this seventeen syllable form of Japanese poetry during many years of my foreign wandering, I had scarcely any moment to write a hokku in original Japanese or English, till the day when I most abruptly awoke in 1902 to the noise of Charing Cross Where I wrote as follows: [<135]
    "Tell me the street to Heaven.
    This? Or that? Oh, which?
    What webs of streets!"
And it was by Westminster Bridge where I heard the evening chime that I wrote again in hokku which appears, when translated, as follows:
    "Is it, Oh, list!
    The great voice of Judgement Day?
    So runs Thames, so runs my Life."
In September of 1904, I returned home; the tender silken autumnal rain that was Japanese poetry, and my elder brother welcomed me (what a ghost tired and pale I was then), and I was taken to his house in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo to wash off my foreign dust and slowly renew my old acquaintance with things Japanese; Oh, that memorable first night after thirteen years abroad! I spent it alone in the upstairs room where I was left to sleep. I did not fall asleep for many many hours as my back already began to ache from lying on the floor in the Japanese fashion; and my nostrils could not make themselves free from a strange [<136] Japanese smell, indeed the soy smell, which I thought was crawling from the kitchen. As I said, the rain dropped quite incessantly; the lamplight burned feebly; and I was alone. Listen! What was that I heard? Well, it was a cricket singing under the roof or behind the hanging at the tokonoma. I exclaimed then: "Was it possible to hear the cricket in the very centre of the metropolis ?" My mind at once recalled the following hokku poem by Issa:
    "Let me turn over,
    Pray, go away,
    Oh my cricket !"
My thought dwelt for a long while that night upon Issa, the hokku poet at the mountainside of Shinshu, and his shabby hut "of clay and Wattles made" where he indeed lived with the insects, practically sharing his house with them; whenever I read him, the first thing to strike me is his simple sympathy with a small living thing like a butterfly or this cricket, that was in truth the sure proof of his being a poet. Although I had often read the above poem, I can say [<137] that I never felt its humanity so keenly as that night.
    When the late Mr. Aston published A History of Japanese Literature quite many years ago, I know that the part about Basho, the greatest hokku poet of the seventeenth century, and the hokku poems in general, did not make a proper impression on the Western mind. And here I have no particular intention to force on your appreciation with this Japanese form of poetry; this article is only to express my own love for it. When we say that the East is the same as the West, we mean that the West is as different from the East as the East is from the West; how could you understand us through and through? Poetry is the most difficult art; it will lose the greater part of its significance when parted from its background and the circumstances from which it spring forth. I should like to ask who in the West will be able to think the following hokku poem the greatest of its kind as we Japanese once thought:
    "On a withered twig,
    Lo, the crow is sitting there,
    Oh, this Autumn eve!" [<138]
Even to us, I confess, this solitariness of a Japanese Autumn evening with the crow crying monotonously on the tree is growing lately less impressive, when in fact as to-day the crows become scarce before the factories and smoke; and our modern heterogeneous minds are beginning to turn somewhere else. [<139]