Monday, June 15, 2009

looking for the no-center

Is there a formula for haiku? This is from the introduction of Hiroaki Sato's book, One Hundred Frogs: From Tanka to Renga to Haiku:

"[A passage] from Toho's Sanzoshi (Three Booklets) [defines haiku as]:

'As for [haiku], it is, philosophically, the mind that goes off and returns. For example, it is like:

Yamazato wa manzai ososhi ume no hana

In this mountain village the comedians are late: plum blossoms

Like the state of mind that simply says, "In this mountain village the comedians are late," and then says, "The plums are in bloom," the mind that goes off and returns is what makes a [haiku].'

The quoted [haiku] is by Basho, and the observation is believed to be his, too. . . . "

A possible version:

The actors [a traveling theatrical troupe] are late this year
to our mountain village:
plum blossom

(I'll return to this poem toward the end of these notes.)

from Modern Japanese Haiku, by Makoto Ueda:

[Kawahigashi] Hekigoto . . . was a tireless experimenter, and restlessly went from one experiment to another throughout his career.

Of all his experiments [one of the most] controversial [was his] idea of 'haiku without a center of interest,' which he began to advocate in 1910.

[This concept] was based on his belief that a poem should come as close as possible to its subject matter, which is part of life or nature.

He thought that if the poet tried to create a center of interest in his poem he would inevitably have to distort his subject matter for the sake of that interest.

'To do away with a center of interest and to discard the process of poeticizing reality

would help the poet to approach things in nature as close as he can,

without being sidetracked by man-made rules,'

insisted Hekigoto . . .

Hekigoto also flaunted the syllabic rule:

as Donald Keene writes in Dawn to the West,

"By 1915 Hekigoto had come to oppose a fixed form for the haiku. . . . [His] free haiku no longer had the familiar haiku shape, but tended to run on to prosaic lengths. He himself preferred to call them 'short poems' (tanshi). This poem, written in 1918, was typical of his new manner:

ringo wo tsumami
kurikaesaneba naranu

I pick up an apple;
I've said everything that was to be said,
But still must repeat.

[Keene notes:] The poem has twenty-four syllables . . . [T]his is hardly a haiku. Konishi Jin'ichi wrote of such poems, 'When one reaches this point . . . haiku disappear[s], both in name and in reality. . . . Hekigoto valiantly forged ahead on his own road, [and came] finally to destroy the road before him.' "

(An interesting metaphor: by advancing on his own road, he destroyed the road before him.)

Ueda again:

"An example of 'haiku without a center of interest' which was cited by Hekigoto himself" is the following:

Sumo / noseshi / binsen-no / nado / shike / to / nari
Wrestlers / aboard / ferry's / why / storm / thus / becoming

Ueda's translation:

Wrestlers are aboard
the ferry; why has it become
stormy weather?

If even the strongest among us must take the ferry in obeisance to the obstacles presented by the physical world, why is it necessary for Nature to present still more signs of its ruthless power? Will none of our submissions and sacrifices appease that deity?

Remember that T.S. Eliot (looking back in a 1953 lecture) asserted that "[T]he starting-point of modern poetry is the group denominated 'imagist' in London about 1910."

Compare the Wrestlers haiku above to Pound's "In a Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound's note on this poem quotes an unattributed Japanese haiku ('The fallen blossom flies back to its branch: A butterfly.'), and then says:

"The 'one-image' poem is a form of super-position, that is to say it is one idea set on top of another."

Both poems, to use Pound's phrases, set an idea (or representation) of the human 'on top of' an idea (or image) of nature.

Wrestlers/ferry : storm.

Faces/subway : spring petals on a wet [rained-on] branch.

Note that both present the human idea in transit, in modes of transportation (ferry, train), in linear (singular/irrevocable) passage as opposed to the perennial recurrent manifestations of nature.

The human idea is an apparition compared to the ever-embodied, ever-physical presence of the environment.

Thought as opposed to substance.

(Of course rainstorms and petals are more transitory forms of nature than mountains or oceans, but doesn't this heighten the poignancy of the "super-position"?)

Pound's poem is really a simile which refuses to use its "like": the pale European faces seen against the badly-lit gloom of the subway terminal are like white petals on a black branch.

The Hekigoto is not comparing the wrestlers to the storm, or is it?

—Are the sumo here on the ferry when they should be in the sky struggling with the elemental forces to which they seem most akin?

Apples ripen and fall yearly, the human picks one up and says he's picking one up, and then says that's all there is to be said about the matter, though in response to the repetitive patterns of nature he acknowledges that he too must repeat himself.

Donald Keene: "Hekigoto [advocates] in 1910 the principle of "no-centeredness" (muchushin-ron), by which he meant that natural phenomena should be described exactly as they are without imposing any human standards."

In 1912 Pound writes: "I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object. . . ."

A year later, in 'A few Don'ts of an Imagiste,' he insists that "the natural object is always the adequate symbol."

I've taken these quotes from William Pratt's introduction to The Imagist Poem. Pratt comments:

"Pound [is making a] distinction between the image and the symbol . . . the symbolic meaning must have its source in the literal meaning, and not be imposed upon it."

Here, at the "starting-point of modern poetry," Hekigoto and Pound seem to be of one mind:

"Super-position," yes; imposition, no.

"[T]o discard the process of poeticizing reality would help the poet to approach things in nature as close as he can, without being sidetracked," advises Hekigoto . . . .

Sidetracks, foot-tracks; ghosts, after-effects. One such phantom is translation, or adaptation:

April: and still the Mummers have not come
Up to our mountain village; plum-blossom.

I wonder why the Mummers have not come
This year to our mountain town; plum-blossom.

For some reason the Mummers have not come
This season to our hill-town; plum-blossom.

This year The Rolling Stones have not come
To fill our stadium;
The old men fear, and wonder
If April is really here: plum-blossom.

Up snowthawed roads unplowed the Mummers come
To reach our mountain village; plum-blossom.

This time each year the Mummers used to come
Appear in our mountain town; plum-blossom.

Springtime is when the Mummers always come
To play our mountain town; hey, plum-blossom!

Springtime; but where are the Mummers who play
Each year our mountain town: plum-blossom-spray.

Each Spring a troupe of actors used to come
To amuse our mountain town; plum-blossom.

It's Spring, but the Actors Troupe has not come
To strut our mountain village; plum-blossom.

Spring has come, so where's the Actors who come
To our mountain town each year—; plum-blossom.

The Stray Players are late this year—
Plague or Famine maybe—and we're
Still stuck in this dullsville hill-town . . .
Get that plum-tree's get-up red gown!

Still looking for that Actors Troupe?—
Take off those town gowns: back to bed.
Dull mountain village, all lit up!
Your plum-tree blossoms glare too red.

Some non-plum variants:

The mime-troupe of actors is late this year
To climb to our mountain village up here;
Is that why the trees in whiteface appear.

The Lookout yells them Actors ain't nowhere in sight—
Our mountain village mourns; the orchard wears white.

The Actors Troupe is late this year—
Their audience will sleep tonight;
Our mountain village street's all clear:
Only the trees are out in white.

Where the heck are those Kabuki—
Nothing to do but sleep tonight . . .
Our mountain town looks plain empty;
The trees alone step out in white.

Imagine it's the 17th Century, and you live in a mountain village. During winter you're completely cut off: no phone, no radio, no way of communicating with the rest of the world.

But then, each spring, for as long as you can remember, a traveling theatrical troupe finds its way up through the muddy passes to your tiny hamlet, each year it returns to perform its vaudeville entertainments.

What a delight after the endless tedium of snowbound months. What a joy and how appropriate to the season.

—But this year, for some reason, the actors, the comics, the singers and dancers, haven't come.

It's springtime, but they're not here.

Who knows why? Maybe half of them died from cholera and the rest of the company disbanded. Maybe they were crossing a bridge during a flood and it collapsed, killing them all. Maybe they got caught in a war between rival gangsters, and the oxen that haul their coaches were confiscated.

In considering the matter, in wondering and noting and remarking the absence of the 'manzai,'

in thinking about the human rituals and events that symbolize and vainly hope to regulate the passage of time,

your mind goes away from the omnipresent natural markers, for example the signs of spring which are right in front of you,

bedizening the trees of your village—

'As for [haiku], it is, philosophically, the mind that goes off and returns. For example, it is like:

Yamazato wa manzai ososhi ume no hana

In this mountain village the comedians are late: plum blossoms

Like the state of mind that simply says, "In this mountain village the comedians are late," and then says, "The plums are in bloom," the mind that goes off and returns is what makes a [haiku].'

Human phenomena (manzai who strut their brief hour upon the stage) may cease to return,

but natural phenomena (blossoms et al) will always return.

("Always," that is, compared to the brevity of human existence.)

Just so the haiku returns our minds to the moment, the reality which is present.

But the mind must go off (must imagine what is not present)

in order to experience, or mostly re-experience, respond freshly, respond anew, to the present.

The mind must perform the human symbol before it can be acted upon by the natural image.