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 




THE word "epigram" is no right word (and there's no right word at all) for Hokku, the seventeen syllable poem of Japan, just as overcoat is not the word for our haori. "That is good," I exclaimed in spite of myself, when I found this comparison to begin my article. We know that haori is more, or less, according to your attitude, than the overcoat of Western garb which rises and falls with practical service; when I say more, I mean that our Japanese haori is unlike the Western overcoat, a piece of art and besides, a symbol of rite, as its usefulness appears often when it means practically nothing. If I rightly understand the word epigram, it is or at least looks to have one object, like that overcoat of practical use, to express something, a Cathay of thought or not, before itself; its beauty, if it has any, is like that of a netsuke or okimono carved in ivory or wood, decorative at the best. But what our hokku aims at is, like the haori of silk or crepe, a usefulness of uselessness, not what it expresses but how it expresses itself spiritually; its real [<140] value is not in its physical directness but in its psychological indirectness. To use a simile, it is like a dew upon lotus leaves of green, or under maple leaves of red, which, although it is nothing but a trifling drop of water, shines, glitters and sparkles now pearl-white, then amethyst-blue, again ruby-red, according to the time of day and situation; better still to say, this hokku is like a spider-thread laden with the white summer dews, swaying among the branches of a tree like an often invisible ghost in air, on the perfect balance; that sway indeed, not the thread itself, is the beauty of our seventeen syllable poem.
    I cannot forget Mrs. N. S. who came to see me at the poppy-covered Mountainside of California one morning, now almost seventeen years ago; what I cannot forget chiefly about that morning is her story that she made a roundabout way in entering into my garden as the little proper path had been blocked by a spider-net thick with diamonds. I exclaimed then as I do often to-day: "Such a dear sweet soul (that could not dare break that silvery thread) would be the very soul who will appreciate our [<141]  hokku." What do you say, if there is one, suppose, who brings down the spider-net and attempts to hang it up in another place? Is it not exactly the case with a translator of Japanese poem, hokku or uta, whatever it be? To use another expression, what would you say if somebody ventured to imitate with someone's fountain pen the Japanese picture drawn with the bamboo brush and incensed Indian ink? Is it not again the exact case with the translator like Mr. William N. Porter in A Year of Japanese Epigrams?
    We confess that we have shown, to speak rather bluntly, very little satisfaction even with the translations of Prof. Chamberlain and the late Mr. Aston; when I say that I was perfectly amazed at Mr. Porter's audacity in his sense of curiosity, I hope that my words will never be taken as sarcasm. With due respect, I dare say that nearly all things of that book leave something to be desired for our Japanese mind, or to say more true, have something too much that we do not find in the original, as a result they only weaken, confuse and trouble the real atmosphere; while perhaps, it means [<142] certainly that the English mind is differently rooted from the Japanese mind, even in the matter of poetry which is said to have no East or West. When I appear to unkindly expose Mr. Porter's defects (excuse my careless use of word) to the light, that is from my anxiety to make this Japanese poetry properly understood. To take a poem or two from his book at random
Uzumibi ya
Kabe ni wa kyaku (not kaku) no
Kage-boshi. Basho.
Mr. Porter translates it as follows:
"Alas! My fire is out,
And there's a shadow on the wall—
A visitor, no doubt.["]
I should like to know who would ever think of the above as poetry, even poor poetry, in his reading of it in one breath; what does "no doubt " (which the original hasn't) mean except that it rhymes with the first line; and the rhyme cheapens the poetry at least to the Japanese mind from the reason of its English conventionality. The first line of the original is not "my [<143] fire is out;" on the contrary, it means that the fire, of course the charcoal fire, is buried under the ashes. The poem is a poem of winter night which becomes late, and when a charcoal fire already small grows still dearer as it is more cold without, perhaps windy; now the talk of the guest or visitor (lo, his sad lone shadow on the wall) and the master poet stops, then it starts again, like a little stream hidden under the grasses; and the desolation of the advanced night intensifies the sadness of the house, doubtless Basho An whose small body is wrapped by a few large leaves of Basho's beloved banana tree in the garden. You must know, before you attempt to understand it, a few points of the poet's characteristics, above all the way of his living, and the general aspect of his house, I mean Basho An, the poetical poverty of which will be seen from the fact that he made a big hole in the wall to place a tiny Buddha statue as he had no place to enshrine it; not only this Basho's hokkus, nearly all the seventeen-syllable poems that were produced in the early age, you will find difficult to understand when separated from the circumstances [<144] and background from which they were born, to use a simile, like a dew born out of the deepest heart of dawn.
    It is not my purpose here to criticise and examine Mr. Porter's translation to satisfy my fastidious heart of minuteness-loving; let it suffice to say that the hokku is not a poetry to be rightly appreciated by people in the West who lie by the comfortable fire in Winter, or under an electric fan in Summer, because it was originally written beside a paper shoji door or upon the straw mats. We have a saying: "Better to leave the renge flowers in their own wild plain;" it suggest[s] quite many things, but what it impresses me most is that you should admire things, flowers or pictures or what not, in their own proper place. To translate hokku or any other Japanese poem into English rarely does justice to the original; it is a thankless task at the best. I myself was a hokku student since I was fifteen or sixteen years old; during many years of my Western life, now amid the California forest, then by the skyscrapers of New York, again in the London 'bus, I often, tried to translate the hokkus of our old masters [<145] but I gave up my hope when I had written the following in English:
"My Love's lengthened hair
Swings o'er me from Heaven's gate:
Lo, Evening's shadow!"
It was in London, to say more particularly, Hyde Park, that I wrote the above hokku in English, where I walked slowly, my mind being filled with the thought of the long hair of Rossetti's woman as I perhaps had visited Tate's Gallery that afternoon; pray, believe me when I say the dusk that descended from the sky swung like that lengthened hair. I exclaimed then: "What use to try the impossibility in translation, when I have a moment to feel a hokku feeling and write about it in English?" Although I had only a few such moments in the past, my decision not to translate hokku into English is unchanged. Let me wait patiently for a moment to come when I become a hokku poet in my beloved English. [<146]