Steven D. Carter’s new book Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Basho is a trove of translations of haiku (or hokku, as they were called then) from the period before Matsuo Basho, and offers readers a chance to explore the evolution of this form. It’s also a study in the sometime extreme subtlety practiced by its masters, and the first two poems in the collection, by the nun Abutsu, who died in 1283, serve as a prime example of that subtlety:
Here we are,
already—on the day
Here we are,
again—on the day
The headnotes for this pair explain that the first was “composed on [Abutsu’s] way to the East Country, on the last day of the Ninth Month, when people planning a linked verse party asked her for a hokku,” and the second was “composed when the same people asked for another hokku the next day.”
The translations are accompanied by background detail that allows readers to understand the contexts of the poems. Carter presents hokku with headnotes to provide immediate context for the poems on the left page, and on the right he gives us background information on the authors, the Japanese (in Roman characters) versions of the hokku, and brief commentary on the seasonal words required in hokku. Because Carter has arranged the poems in approximately chronological order (grouped by author), it is possible to gradually discern a maturing of the form and content of hokku.
These seemingly simple poems expand into something more complex, more layered, when paired so that we can see the parallel structure Abutsu used to create a resonance between the two poems and the relationship between them. With only two words changed (from “already” to “again” and the key seasonal word from “autumn” to “winter”), Abutsu creates a sharp contrast and a clear sense of passing time.
Carter also provides an introduction to place the collection as a whole in the appropriate context of poetic lineage leading up to Basho, the most famous of all haiku poets and author of perhaps the best-known haiku of all time: “Ancient pond/frog jumps in/splash!” But before he composed his oeuvre in the seventeenth century, several centuries of writers practiced the art of writing hokku, which means “initiating verse.” Hokku were originally the first lines in the renga form of linked verses, rather than standalone poems, as many of us now think of haiku.
Progressing through the poems, readers begin to see plays on words, puns that sometimes have to be explained by Carter because translation can’t quite capture the dual meanings of the original Japanese. For example, in the note accompanying a hokku by Takayama Sozei, which Carter translates as: “Wilted by morning:/eaves of sweet flag—a woman/on a one-night stand,” Carter explains, “The poem involves plays on words (karuru meaning both ‘wither’ and ‘depart,’ and tsuma meaning both ‘wife’ and the ‘edge’ of the eaves), which my translation fails to convey.”
Objects begin to take on symbolism, not just of seasons but of other details of human life. Hino Tomiko used a classic Buddhist allegorical symbol when he wrote, “Unsullied/by the pond water below/lotuses.” Lotuses work in this hokku as they do elsewhere in Buddhist writing, as a symbol of the hope for enlightenment.
The hokku become multilayered verses in which natural objects or phenomena serve as metaphors. One example can be seen in this hokku by Miura Tamenori (1573–1652), which was, according to the headnote, “composed at a meeting where someone had a manuscript in Sogi’s hand.” Carter’s commentary here refers to inspiration arriving in the form of a poem in manuscript by the great 15th-century poet Sogi, who is to renga what Basho is to haiku.
The bird flew off
into the haze—
but his tracks remain.
Thanks to Carter’s book, the tracks of many more hokku writers are available for us to enjoy, and to follow if we choose.