Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Winter Grasses

There are some impressively steep and deep earthworks on the north edge of Twyford Down, where it looks like relatively recent chalk-mining has underscored the lines of some Iron Age hillfort defences.  I've always presumed these are the famous "dongas", a word brought back as a souvenir from South Africa in the late 19th century, and appropriated by the Dongas Tribe of road protesters in the 1980s.  In the right light, they can look like giant waves breaking on a geological timescale.

On the parallel south side, there is a curious little "dry valley", of a sort typical of chalk downland, which has that watchful, haunted feel that abandoned places of habitation tend to have, although it's hard to imagine anyone living in such a sunless pinch in the landscape.  The gravelly track running through it is full of fragments of old brick and tile, which adds to the melancholy impression of desertion, but these have probably been dumped here to improve the going for the occasional farm vehicle.

Such quiet, layered places bring to mind a famous haiku of Bashō, composed in summer 1689:
Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors' dreams.

trans. R.H. Blyth
There's an interesting gloss on this poem in a book by Jane Reichhold, which takes a slightly different tack to most interpretations:
It seems that Bashō, looking over a former battleground now covered with grass, felt that he was seeing the old soldiers hurrying towards battle and victory.  Another element is the old poetic exp0ression "pillow of grass", which signifies "being on a journey" in Japanese poetry.  The grass cut and folded for pillows for the poorest soldiers would still contain a trace of their dreams, perhaps enough to make the dream of war rise up and grow again.  Sora wrote in his diary that after writing this verse, Bashō sat down on his hat and wept.  Bashō wrote the same in his account.

Bashō: the Complete Haiku, translated with an introduction, biography & notes by Jane Reichhold
I'm not sure of the significance of sitting on one's hat...  Is this like Zen master Joshu placing his shoes on his head, I wonder, or merely a practical way of keeping your backside dry?

The translation of haiku is a fraught business: most Western enthusiasts are unaware of the real differences between the Japanese originals and the familiar English versions, or the strict poetic conventions at work in the genre, although the idea of "seventeen syllables" arranged 5:7:5 is well known.  Perhaps, for us, the close association of haiku poets with Zen combined with the popularization of Zen via the American "beats" of the 20th century post-War period has caused us to see these poems through a hepcat's dark glasses as simplisticly imagistic, loose and spontaneous word games, deceptively easy to imitate.

Here's a commentary on some issues in translation, from a brief piece by John Carley which focuses on the Bashō haiku quoted above:
Haiku, like the hokku before them, are written in Japanese as a single line (or column). Excepting some cases where the calligraphy itself is a central feature of the art, there are no spaces between characters of groups of characters; so words and phrases are distinguished by the reader from an otherwise undifferentiated text. There is no capitalisation. Such punctuation as there may be is in the form of verbalised (and therefore written) interjections which are considered as words in their own right.

The following poem is a hokku (haiku) by Basho. I give it in its generally accepted original, followed by the same text entirely in Japanese phonetic script (i.e., without ideograms) - this is separated out into individual words with the metrical phrase boundaries shown by a double line. Then comes an approximate phonetic transliteration in the Roman alphabet. And lastly there is a crude word-for-word rendering.


なつくさ | や || つわものども | が || ゆめ | の | あと

natsugusa | ya || tsuwamonodomo | ga || yume | no | ato

summer-grass | !/:/? || warrior | 's || dream | 's | mark/remainder
The Japanese word "ya" is the so-called "cutting word", indicating the break in the poetic logic, rendered by Carley as "!/:/?" (i.e. any of these punctuation marks might serve), and the words "ga" and "no" indicate the equivalent of a genitive (rendered by Carley as "'s").

The gulf between Japanese and English language and poetics is quite steep and deep, widened by our very different cultures and histories, and quite difficult to cross.  Rhyme, rhythm and patterns of stress, not syllable counting, are our poetic traditions -- our Way (though syllabic poetry is the norm in French). In both Britain and Japan in February, however, it's generally best to keep your shoes on your feet, and your hat on your head.


Chrisb said...

I recently stumbled upon your blog via a link from Pradip Malde's site, enjoying your fine writing and images. Chris

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Chris, you're welcome. Don't be put off by the rather more noisy environment around here!

Chrisb said...

One is reminded of the work of Minor White and the sequencing of images into "photo haiku".

Mike C. said...


[Here I am, back in the door 10 minutes after returning from Amsterdam, and I'm drinking proper English tea and answering blog comments. Do I have a problem, doctor?]

Interesting -- Minor White is not a name much spoken, these days -- he sort of dropped out of the mainstream somewhere in the 90s, and has become the equivalent of, say, Genesis or even the Grateful Dead in music... I like a lot of his work, and he has some wise things to say about sequencing, but some of those Aperture compilations he made (Light7, etc.) are about as dated as photography can get.


Chrisb said...

Yes, some of White's work is dated like much of the photography of that time, St Ansel for example. But one shouldn't underplay it's importance in informing contemporary work. Comparing post war modernist photography to Haiku or the Grateful Dead is valid, all required a serious commitment to their respective disciplines. I still need those mystical sequences and twenty minute guitar improvisations as balm to the constant trivia I am force fed. Trust Amsterdam was invigorating if not the tea.