Friday, April 8, 2011

R. H. Blyth on Waka and Haiku

R. H. Blyth

Waka as an Eastern poetic form has largely become synonymous with the term tanka, which was originally a 5 line poem of 31 Japanese syllables (on or mora) dealing predominately with courtly love.  In his 4 volume masterwork, entitled simply Haiku, R. H. Blyth has a section in volume 1 which deals with the complex relationship between haiku and tanka (waka).

I am going to not so deftly attempt to sidestep the complexities and cut straight to the heart of things philosophically as Blyth presents them.

So many waka have titles, but haiku have none, because their real subject is unmentionable.

I am not going to gloss the master Blyth.  I am, on occasion, going to step aside, effectively to let sink in the depth of what he has to say.   This statement is one of those times.

Unmentionable, indeed.  Blyth continues:

Haiku are self-obliterating; they are the real "Songs without words.

Again with the stepping aside thing.

Like Ulysses, let's go sentence by sentence or, better, like Finnegans Wake, word by word, syllable by syllable.  Next:

In waka there is still a kind of poetic haze between us and the thing.  The music of the words and the cadence of the lines induce in us a certain state of mind which we designate "poetic", but in haiku the melody and rhythm remove the barriers of custom and prejudice between ourselves and the object.

Hmn.  Next paragraph:

When we say "object", this does not mean that it is necessarily a material thing.

Good thing, too, because I was beginning to wander a bit there ... on to the meat of the matter:

What we gain (with waka) in lyrical sweetness and historical allusions, we lose in scope and freedom of imagination (with haiku).  (Waka) is like an illustrated novel ...

The master, Blyth, turns to another master, Bashō, to bring his point home:

Bashō wanted our daily prose turned into poetry, the realization that the commonest events and actions of life may be done significantly, (and) the deeper use of language, both written and spoken.  We live, as Lawrence said, like the illustrated covers of magazines.  Comforts is our aim, and dissatisfaction is all we achieve.  The aim of haiku is to live twenty four hours a day, that is, to put meaning into every moment, a meaning that may be intense or diffuse, but never ceases.
Haiku often turns the weak subjectivity of waka into an objectivity which is a more subtle subjectivity, or rather a regin where "subjective" and "objective" lose their meaning and validity.

"Comforts is our aim, and dissatisfaction is all we achieve."

There is a very great deal on the plate here for the beginner (i.e. me); one should proceed very slowly, there is profundity in great abundance.  I will only say that for Bashō haiku was a spiritual Way, the practice of writing it and the practice of reading it.  The Way of Haiku, like the Way of the Warrior, the Way of Tea, the Way of Flowers etc.  Blyth is leading us here but ... like haiku itself, he is showing us not telling.

And then a little bombshell:

When we try to separate waka and haiku, we come across that law mentioned before, the law that the more the mind endeavours to distinguish two things the closer they insensibly become; the more we assert their unity, the more they separate.  Both waka and haiku are the activity of the spirit of man, and we must not exaggerate the differences between them.

And you thought we weren't talking about particles and waves, modern quantum physics, which has just but recently seemingly affirmed the ancient teachings of Eastern philosophers.   Oh, no, wait, we're talking about haiku - right?  Blyth puts all his cards on the table, throwing off yet another brilliant definition of haiku in the process:

Waka began as literature, haiku as a kind of sporting with words.  Bashō made it literature, and yet something beyond and above literature, a process of discovery rather than of creation, using words as means, not ends, as a chisel that removes the rock hiding the statue beneath.

Perfect, as is a haiku by Bashō Blyth used to illustrate this section:

In the field of rape,
       With flower-viewing faces.


I ran into the following courtesy of one of my favorite blogs, Dr. Caligari's Cabinet, and it was just too, too good not to pass on.  America by Allen Ginsberg, music by Tom Waits.  Listen to it.  Listen to it again.

Listen again.

Here's what they should be teaching in the treadmills that pass for higher education in this country.  This is history.

"America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."


This week's feature poem is "Cannibal" by Sue De Kelver from Lilliput Review, #147 (which has been featured twice before - here and here), October 2005.  I've performed it live and it gets exactly the reaction you'd expect.

   When you've rent the flesh and sinew
    from my supple skeleton and you've
   sucked the last sweet drop of marrow
   leaving lonely, brittle bones
   will you save the jagged splinters
   to adorn your chieftain chest
   or scatter them like toothpicks
   over yesterday's dung.
   Sue De Kelver

he wipes horse dung off his hand
with a chrysanthemum
translated by David G. Lanoue


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature.  Here's how.

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 97 songs
Hear 'em all at once on the the LitRock Jukebox


Anonymous said...

Again, what a post! Reginald Horatio Blythe, waka, hokku, haiku, Basho's discovery of the haibun as he walked and those sparrows with their flower viewing faces. Chisel that negative space, discover the nothing there, first time each time. Say no more but song. Many thanks for such as these.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"First time, each time ..." , oh, yes, glad you liked, Donna.

snowbird said...

out of morning fog
this silence

Thanks so much for this post... you are right... for me at least I must approach this very slowly...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

snowbird, beautiful, beautiful ku ....

glad you liked the post ...