THE ORDER OF ELEMENTS IN DAOKU

We have just passed the Autumnal Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Now we to into the dark of the year, as the days grow ever shorter and the nights longer.

Shiki wrote a very interesting verse that we can translate as a daoku in English.  Remember that a daoku is an objective hokku — a hokku without any commentary or ornamentation or “thinking” from the writer.  Here it is:

(Autumn)

A dog sleeping
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

It is a wonderful expression of autumn.  We feel the quietness of the season and the diminishing of Yang (active) energy in the sleep of the dog, in the emptiness of the vacant house, and in the falling of the yellow willow leaves.  There is a sense of peaceful drowsiness in it that is very much in keeping with the waning energy and golden light of autumn.

It is important to note that when we read a daoku, we experience it in our minds.  This daoku by Shiki is a very visual verse, so we see the dog and the house and the leaves in our minds.  But how we see them is determined by the arrangement of the elements in the verse.

In the version above, we first see the sleeping dog; then we see he is lying at the door of an empty house; and then we experience the wider context — the falling willow leaves.

If we change the arrangement, we experience the daoku somewhat differently, as you will see easily if you read these versions with a quiet and receptive mind:

At the door of an empty house
A dog is sleeping;
Falling willow leaves.

In that, we first see the door and the empty house.  Then we see the sleeping dog, and finally we note the falling willow leaves.

Falling willow leaves;
At the door of an empty house
A dog is sleeping.

Here we first see the wider context:  the falling willow leaves.  Then we see the door and the empty house, and finally the dog sleeping there.

As you can see, there are several ways to arrange the elements in a daoku, and how they are arranged determines how the reader will experience those elements sequentially — and there is a subtle difference of feeling in the difference of sequence.

We can also make other little changes, for example:

A dog asleep
At the door of the vacant house
Falling willow leaves.

“Vacant,” however, is not quite as good a choice here as “empty,” because empty is felt as a stronger word.

This autumn daoku has a very deep sense of poverty and transience, both of which are very important aesthetically.  By poverty here is meant the appreciation of the very simple and basic elements of life — something like what is now in the West known as “minimalism,” only far more profound than mere interior decoration. The daoku is a very minimal form of verse, which is why such things as choice of words and sequential arrangement of elements are very important.

David

THE RECEPTIVE MIND

A very loose rendering of a verse by Kitō put into daoku form:

(Autumn)

Midnight;
With dew-wet eyelashes,
Gazing at the moon.

Notice how the focus is taken off a “me” and placed only on the dew-wet eyelashes, the moon, and the night. When you read this, you should feel the drops of dew on your eyelashes too.  That is how hokku conveys an experience of the senses in simple words, from writer to reader.  The reader becomes the experiencer.  The words are just the “seeds of poetry” that burst into bloom in the mind of the reader.  That is why it is best not to think of daoku as poetry — but more as just an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  The poetry happens in the receptive mind, and it happens quickly.

EVEN CROWS GET HOT

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

It is about 103 degrees Fahrenheit here (39.4 Celsius), and I got a notice from my neighborhood library that some items I had requested were in.  So yes, I went out in the noonday sun to pick them up.  I walked the four miles there and back, and when I got home my shirt was dripping wet.  But at least I experienced a daoku on the way:

Lingering heat;
A crow stands motionless
In the shade of the cedar.

Yes, some of the characteristics of summer daoku apply to the beginning of autumn as well, when there can still be days of lingering strong heat.  You will recall that heat/sun is Yang, and shade is Yin — so there is harmony of contrast in this; and of course the black color of the crow is Yin as well.

David

DAOKU AND “TECHNOLOGY”

Daoku has deliberate limits on its subject matter, and one of those boundaries excludes what we loosely call “technology.”

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent great expansion in use of technology and consumption of fossil fuels, humans entered an Age of Illusion in which the misperception became common that Nature was little more than a vast repository of resources to be gathered and used however humans saw fit.  Humans saw themselves more and more as separate from — and in general superior to — Nature.

rnhasui.

Daoku — and a life in keeping with daoku — reverses this trend.  One cannot write daoku without the realization that Nature gave birth to humans, and thus humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the only realistic and healthy attitude.

It is also an antidote to the wrong thinking so prevalent in the world today — that the world was made for humans, that all of Nature “belongs” to humans to do with as they will.  And it is only by realizing how intimately connected with Nature we are that just possibly, humans might yet have a slim chance of averting the coming final environmental catastrophe brought on by decades of ignorance, arrogance, selfishness and greed.

So it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that daoku avoids technology and never abandons Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature as its inherent subject matter.  It is also a tiny counterbalance to the immensity of wrong thinking and wrong action that has brought us to the perilous condition of world climate today.  By avoiding putting “technology” in our verse, we have to pay greater attention to Nature and how we relate to it, and if anything might save humans from destroying themselves, it would be that realization of our inseparability from the same Nature that humans have so raped, battered and abused.  In harming Nature we harm ourselves.

It is worth mentioning that even Shiki, who ultimately caused much trouble by his somewhat short-sighted, revisionist creation of the new “haiku” as an offshoot of hokku near the end of the 19th century, did not go as far in abandoning Nature as many in the modern haiku community have done.

What we call “technology” in hokku, Shiki called “artifacts of civilization,” and he wrote that most of them are “unpoetic” and thus difficult to use in poetry.  He said that those who supposed that his admonition to “write about new things” meant to write verse about such things as “trains and railways” were mistaken, but that if one does write about them, “one has no choice but to mention something poetic as well.”  If a verse contains an element of technology, Shiki felt, one had to counterbalance it — “make it more attractive” as he put it, by including such other elements as violets blooming by the railroad tracks or poppies dropping their petals after a train had passed (see Dawn to the West, Donald Keene, 1984, pg. 51).

Shiki’s admonition, though it seems overtly based more on his ideas of what was “beautiful” in verse than on anything more profound, nonetheless resembles somewhat the principle in daoku that even though technology is generally avoided, if rarely some aspect of it not too inharmonious with hokku is included, the “technological” element should not predominate, but should always be secondary to Nature.

Daoku may be the ONLY objective verse form in existence today that strictly limits its subject matter to the intimate connection between Nature and humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  For that alone it should be valued in these times when so many have lost touch with Nature, and human life and civilization hang, as Jung said, by a thread.

THE TWO HARMONIES: SIMILARITY AND CONTRAST

In the previous posting I discussed the Daoku Wheel of the Year, the daoku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Daoku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every verse is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a daoku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of daoku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that — by accepted convention — indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period near the beginning of the 20th century, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with natural simplicity.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language daoku, we take away the complexity and return to simplicity by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every daoku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the daoku. And if a group of such verses are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning daoku while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth
In the day: dawn and morning
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age
In the day: mid-day, noon
In plant life: maturing, fruiting

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night
In plant life: death and dormancy.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in daoku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this verse by Bashō:

(Autumn)

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:

(Autumn)

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling. It lacks the obvious harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in daoku as well as harmony of similarity.  Now we come to a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

Again if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characteristics of Yin and Yang.

You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream (Yin) — on a hot day (Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is felt to be a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this verse (I translate a bit loosely here):

(Autumn)

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a verse using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

(Autumn)

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a verse by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

(Autumn)

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old verse by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

(Autumn)

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

(Autumn)

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

Long ago I wrote a somewhat similar verse:

(Autumn)

No moon;
Everywhere in the forest —
Deer eyes.

For those of you who do not know, on a dark night any light carried reflects off the eyes of deer, and all one sees are ghostly eyes in the darkness.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a daoku. You should always remember that a good verse is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a daoku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a daoku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All daoku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter daoku in summer or fall daoku in spring. And we ordinarily also read daoku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer daoku in winter or spring daoku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.  The exception to that is — as here — when we are studying daoku and its principles.  Then we may use examples out of season.

David

THE DAOKU WHEEL OF THE YEAR

If you want to write daoku you will need to know its aesthetics, the principles upon which its practice is based. The chief underlying principle is that everything in the universe is connected. Humans are not separate, but are a part of Nature. That is why we can say that hokku is about Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

If you look in the news of climate change, you will quickly see the disastrous consequences when humans ignore the basic fact that humans are a part of — not apart from — Nature.

Nature implies the seasons and their changes. That is why learning the Daoku Wheel of the Year (which also applies to hokku, given that daoku is a category of hokku)  is an important part of daoku aesthetics.

The Wheel of the Year is the “natural” calendar. Here is a simple image of the Daoku Wheel of the Year as found in English-language daoku. You will note that Midsummer’s Day is at the top, and the Winter Solstice is at the bottom. There is a very good reason for that, as you will see as we continue.

So here is the Daoku Wheel of the Year:

As you see, it has four main points, which beginning in the spring are:

1. The Spring Equinox (Vernal Equinox)
2. The Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day)
3. The Autumn Equinox (Autumnal Equinox)
4. The Winter Solstice (Yule)

Between these four main points come the “cross-quarter” days:

1. Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1, which begins the season of spring
2. May Day (Beltain/Bealtaine), May 1, which begins the season of summer
3. Lammas or Harvest Home (Lughnasa) August 1, which begins the season of autumn
4. Halloween (Samhain), October 31-November 1, which begins the season of winter

You will also note on the Daoku Wheel that in the spring, the Yang aspect of Nature is increasing. This increase really begins in midwinter, just after the Winter Solstice, but it begins to be noticeable near the time of Candlemas and after.

Yang increases until Midsummer’s Day, at which time it begins its decline, though its effects, like those of midwinter, are usually not noticed in Nature until about a month later.

As Yang declines in late summer, its opposite Yin gradually increases. So in autumn we have increasing Yin, and in spring we have decreasing Yin.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year. You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm. Yin is passive, Yang active. Yin recedes, Yang advances. Yin is wet, Yang is dry. Yin is still, Yang moving. Yin is silence, Yang is sound. Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin. At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite. Yang first begins to grow within it. So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite. Yin begins to grow within it. So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter. Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer. Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another. As Yang increases, Yin declines. When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines. This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year. We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

YIN AND YANG IN DAOKU

Yesterday I mentioned the importance of Yin and Yang in daoku.  They are so important that one cannot fully understand daoku without knowing of Yin and Yang.

Yin is pronounced like “tin.”  Yang is pronounced like “song.”

This posting condenses a lot of information that the student of daoku should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of daoku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

300px-yin_yang-1-svg

Yin and Yang are the two opposite yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in daoku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  Here are some characteristics of each:

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking/falling;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

Everything in the universe is — at any moment — in the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

This is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the important technique used in daoku called internal reflection.  Internal reflection in daoku means that the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in daoku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast/difference.  Both of these important aspects of daoku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to daoku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the technique of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus and activity of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how daoku works without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our daoku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period and morning in the season.

You can see from all that what a very excellent spring verse by Onitsura this is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to daoku — because not only was it essential to old Japanese hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

The teaching of Yin and Yang is a part of learning daoku.  In that it differs from all other kinds of short verse such as modern haiku.  Modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku, while daoku has kept the essence.  Perhaps one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the practice of daoku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to daoku than superficially meets the eye.  One must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how it works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once you know about and begin to understand the Yin-Yang principle, you will see it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of daoku.

The best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in daoku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your writing practice — but not in a forced or rigid way.

Keep in mind that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their endless interactions.

David

DAOKU AESTHETICS

A main area in which daoku differs from modern haiku is the matter of aesthetics.  There are no universally-accepted aesthetic principles in modern haiku.  Everything depends on individual whim.  Daoku, however, has very definite principles and aesthetics that are essential to developing as a daoku writer.

aupa

one may have a verse in the outward daoku form, with everything in it correct, and still not have a daoku.  That is because to be a real daoku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of daoku.

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere.  Do not think that every aspect of daoku aesthetics must be seen or included in every verse.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of daoku aesthetics as its “taste” or the “fragrance.”  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single daoku or a collection.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall daoku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of daoku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

(Summer)

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of daoku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The daoku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a verse does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Daoku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, daoku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A verse should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this verse the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in words.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I will talk about the importance of Yin and Yang in daoku soon. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in daoku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  It means the writer should not “stand out.”  Daoku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of daoku is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives daoku another characteristic, which is a quality that is almost loneliness, but not quite — something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of daoku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse:

(Spring)

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience is a sense of time passing.  That is why in daoku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience in daoku is also why every verse is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of daoku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of daoku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every verse, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of writing.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really daoku and not some other kind of short verse.

Daoku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in daoku aesthetics is the overall subject matter, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing.  Even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write daoku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.

David

IS DAOKU OLD OR NEW?

 

Autumn begins;
The evening shower
Has become a night of rain.

That verse — loosely translated here — was originally written in the 18th century by Taigi.  It expresses the transition from the season of summer to that of autumn.

Some may wonder if daoku is an old or a new verse form.  The answer is that it is both.

It is old in that it is based on the best aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku that began to be seriously practiced in the latter half of the 17th century. 

It is new in that it is commonly written in English, though of course it may be written in other contemporary languages as well. 

It is also new in that it uses capitalization (which did not exist in old Japanese) and punctuation (which takes the place of the old “cutting words” used in Japanese hokku).

Daoku is new in that it replaces the old “season words” that made learning hokku so complex with a simple seasonal heading for each shared verse in parentheses —  like this: (Autumn).

And it is new in that it is based on real experiences of the five senses.  Many old Japanese hokku were written from the imagination, though they appear to be real experiences.  When those old hokku are used as models for learning daoku, they are treated as real experiences.

Some may wonder how daoku differs from that other widely-known form of contemporary short verse, the haiku.

Daoku differs from contemporary haiku in that daoku has a definite form and definite subject matter, and keeps the old connection with the seasons.  It also differs from most haiku written today in that daoku capitalizes the first letter of each line and uses punctuation both within and at the end of each daoku, while haiku often omits both, or may use only a perfunctory hyphen.

Daoku also differs from much contemporary haiku in that it is an objective, selfless, contemplative form of verse — not a verse for “self-expression.”  Daoku allows Nature to speak through the writer, rather than the writer giving personal opinions about or reflections on Nature.

In practice, daoku can be treated as a completely modern form of short verse in English and other contemporary languages, though of course its roots go back directly to the best aesthetics of the old hokku.  Because of that, it is generally far closer to the old hokku than modern haiku, which has taken quite a different direction in most cases.  It is so close that old objective hokku may be used in translation as models for learning daoku.  In the transition from the old Japanese hokku to the English language, daoku removed a great deal of unnecessary cultural baggage, which makes it a more universal form of verse.

That frees daoku to be completely of the place and language in which it is written.

And by the way, “daoku” is both the singular and the plural.  So we can say, “This daoku is….” or “Those daoku are ….”

DAOKU BASICS

Autumn begins;
The slow drip of rain
From every leaf
.

Daoku are experiences of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Daoku expresses real experiences of one or more of the five senses. Not fantasy. Not imagination.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.

It has two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The shorter part may come at the beginning or the end.

The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation that gives us a brief meditative pause before moving from the first part to the second. The punctuation mark used determines how the reader moves through the verse.

Each line begins with a capital letter.

Each daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Daoku, unlike many other kinds of verse, is not “self-expression.” Instead, it expresses Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

When the writer gets out of the way, Nature can speak.

Daoku is a very selfless kind of poetry. It avoids the words “I,” “me” and “my” unless they are necessary to the context.

Daoku uses simple words, and is about ordinary things.

Because it is Nature-based, daoku avoids modern technology; there are no daoku about cell phones or televisions, etc.

Every daoku is set in a particular season and is to be read in that season. The exception is for study and teaching purposes, when hokku of any season may be used.

Daoku differs from modern haiku in that it has definite subject matter and a definite form and aesthetic.

Daoku expresses experiences in which we feel an indefinable significance.

Daoku are not assemblages of random things, but have a sense of unity and harmony.

When shared or anthologized, each daoku is headed by its season in parentheses. That keeps the seasonal context with each verse.

The basics of daoku are easily and quickly described. The aesthetics of hokku take longer, and are absorbed through the reading and contemplating of many daoku, so that one may grasp the spirit behind them as one develops personally.



SUMMER ENDS — AUTUMN BEGINS

Today — August 1st — is the very old holiday of Lammas, also known as Harvest Home.

By the old agricultural calendar, which is also the Hokku Calendar and consequently the Daoku Calendar — given that daoku is the objective category of contemporary hokku — Harvest Home is the beginning of autumn.

Because daoku is the verse of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, autumn is very significant. It is the time of things aging and withering. After the abundance of spring and summer, autumn is the decline of growth in Nature — the weakening of the vital forces. In terms of Yang and Yin — the active and passive, warm and cool, bright and dark elements of Nature — autumn is declining Yang and growing Yin.

In the day, autumn corresponds to mid-afternoon to twilight;
In human life, autumn corresponds to the stage of life past middle age — the time of “growing old.” It is in general the early to late “senior citizen” years.

The chief characteristic of autumn is impermanence — seeing that things age and wither, whether in Nature or in human life. In autumn that becomes very obvious in the flowers going to seed and withering, in the falling of the leaves, in the growing shortness of the day and increasing darkness, and in the increasing cooling of the air.

Because we are a part of Nature, when we see all this, we feel our own impermanence. It is like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall.” He tells the girl Margaret, who is sad over the golden grove loosing its leaves,

It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Impermanence — the transiency of things — is built into Nature, and we, being a part of Nature, are also impermanent. We see our aging in the withering of the flowers, in the falling of the leaves.

In most of Western verse we would find this expressed in a very subjective way in poetry. Poets write about their thoughts and feelings concerning autumn and its significance. In daoku that is not done.

Daoku is the objective side of hokku. It simply presents an experience and lets the reader experience it too, without the writer adding any thoughts or commentary or interpretation. In doing so, we get the feeling directly, without the writer standing between the reader and the experience.

In teaching daoku, I generally use very old hokku as models. So when I use such a verse (translated, of course), for the sake of convenience I will just speak of the verse as a daoku — an objective hokku.

Here is how Kyoroku showed the change of season:

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  daoku.  We express all of Nature at that moment in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a daoku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in daoku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things. Notice that in Kyoroku’s verse, there are no added thoughts, no comments, and no ego. We experience what Kyoroku experienced, though through our own mental store of images and sensory impressions.

Here is a daoku I wrote at summer’s end a few years ago:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

As you read it, do you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of daoku. I recently mentioned this quote from Natalie Babbitt’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.”

That sense of impermanence — of transience –is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma MèreMy Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of daoku.

A number of new readers have joined this site recently, so in discussing daoku this autumn, I will begin at the beginning with such basics as form and content, and then we will proceed deeper into the aesthetics of daoku as a brief, objective verse form. For many long-time readers here it will be a review — but this time with the emphasis specifically on daoku. And of course there will be other topics in postings to come.

BEGINNING AUTUMN, BEGINNING DAOKU

Well, my morning glory vine has begun blooming, and that is always a sign that summer is ending, and we are about to enter the downturn of the Wheel of the Year into the beginning of Autumn.

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As long-time readers here know, every year at this time I like to post a quote from Natalie Babbitt’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.”

By the Hokku Calendar, August 1st is the beginning of Autumn.  It is the old festival of Lammas — “Harvest Home.”  It is the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  And as I have written before, that does not mean the hot weather is over; it just means the Wheel of the Year has turned, and now the Yang energy — the active, warm energy — will increasingly wane as Yin energy — the passive and cool energy — grows, though the effects will likely not be really noticeable for about a month.  Except, of course, to those like me, who notice the signs of change in the plants and in the air.

Yesterday I talked about impermanence. Autumn is a season in which impermanence is clearly seen. So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku and so also of that particular category called daoku, that is, objective hokku.

As I have mentioned before, to me daoku is hokku at its purest. It is free of commentary and opinion, free of ego and self-importance. So this autumn, I want to shift the focus of my ongoing discussion of hokku to that of daoku as its deepest expression. It is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, expressed with a spirit of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

LIVING IN A HOUSE AFIRE

It has been a hot, dry summer where I live. In a normally temperate region, we reached 116 degrees a few weeks back. It was hot enough to wither the buds and flowers and burn the leaves on plants. It was the first time in my life that I experienced such intense heat. It was the hottest weather ever recorded in my state.

Unfortunately, odd and dangerous weather events — both short and long term — are happening all over the world now. The whole southwestern part of the United States is drying out and experiencing ever-increasing water shortages. Forest fires are growing in number and extent. Glaciers are melting at shockingly rapid rates. Sea level is rising.

When one reads the scientific statistics, it is inevitable to conclude that our days are the last chance to make changes — and severe changes are needed — to protect life on this planet — human life included. Some predict that civilization could collapse within 20 years.

In short, humanity is on a fast ride to the abyss — and taking all of Nature along on the insane gallop.

One would think people would be concerned enough about their children and grandchildren — about the future of humanity — to rise up and demand change, and be willing to go through what is necessary to save the future for the young and the coming generations. But many seem lost in wilful ignorance — asserting that what is obvious to the rational is some kind of hoax, or that Jesus will come and save them (he won’t). And meanwhile, the planet is metaphorically and in many places literally on fire.

Here is the little alcove in my house:

On the right side is a lamp I found in a thrift store (what used to be called a “second-hand” store). In the center is a Buddha image — a symbol of transcendent wisdom. And at far left is a thin slab of rock with two fossil fish on it — a reminder of impermanence.

I don’t think people are sufficiently aware of impermanence — and what a delicate balance keeps human and other life on this earth possible.

When I was a small child, my “Weekly Reader” school newspaper was already warning about the need for population control. Scientists have been predicting the dangers of pollution and climate change for many, many years. And yet one would think from human behavior that none of these cautions had ever been made.

It is like the old parable of the children playing in a house aflame. They are so wrapped up in their play that getting them to notice the deadly fire is very difficult.

Well, all the signs are obvious. Humanity is headed for catastrophe — environmental disaster, loss of species, food shortages, water shortages, disease, suffering, and death. And yet humanity continues to play with its toys as the flames begin to engulf the house.

For a writer and teacher of hokku, this is not at all the kind of thing I want to blog about. And I certainly do not think my few words are going to have any effect on the course of things. Nonetheless, anyone writing a verse form based on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature cannot but speak out against what is happening to the climate and the planet.

As far as I can tell, nothing sufficient is being done by the governments of the world to stop this impending disaster. So perhaps this will be the last generation to experience something of Nature as we have known it in the past. Everything is now quickly changing, taking us headlong into calamity far faster than even scientists had anticipated. Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Well, we are witnessing it all beginning to go. And with it will go countless lives, human and non-human. A human-caused Great Extinction. All the result of greed and ignorance.

Impermanence.

David

THE WRITER

Who is this old fellow? Well, he is the one writing what you have been reading here. He has been discussing Eastern and Western verse and related subjects (and sometimes not so related) online for many years. He began teaching the writing of brief verse based on the best aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku online in 1996. He looked much younger then.

The calligraphy was written for him many years ago by an elderly Korean Buddhist nun. It says “Buddha Mind.” We could also say “Buddha Heart.” What is the mind of a Buddha? With what mind do we write hokku? These are questions for a lifetime.

SEEN IN A NEW WAY

I often mention that to improve your writing of hokku — and it applies equally to daoku — objective hokku — write about things seen in a new way, from a different perspective.  That can turn something ordinary into something interesting.

Here is an example:

On the tree,
All the leaves fluttering;
A summer breeze.

It is an honest hokku; it reflects what really happens, and it is an experience of the senses.  The problem is that it is a very ordinary way of looking at the event.  And if we write about things as they very ordinarily appear, it means our verses are likely to lack interest and depth and freshness.

Look, however, at what happens when we approach the same subject from a different perspective — when we see it in a new way:

On the ground,
All the leaf shadows fluttering;
A summer breeze.

Notice that we have done nothing to change the ordinariness of the things contained in the daoku.  There is nothing unusual about leaves, or their fluttering, or a summer breeze.  What has changed is our perspective, in moving our focus from the leaves on the tree to their shadows on the ground.

When we do this, we suddenly feel a sense of deeper significance — and that is because we are experiencing a common event in a new way.  It gives us a sense of freshness and depth that we do not find in the first example. It awakens our inner sense of surprise, and we suddenly realize, as Blyth said, that the experience tells us something we have known, but did not know that we knew. It is a kind of “little enlightenment.”

WHAT IT’S LIKE

June is Gay Pride month in the United States.  In view of that, here is a link to a very brief video that came out a few years ago.  Whether you are male or female or identify somewhere in between, and whatever gender or genders may attract you, perhaps it will bring back memories of what it is like to have a “crush” on someone in youth.

WHAT IS “THINKING” IN HOKKU?

In writing daoku — objective hokku — we avoid having “thinking” in our verses. But what exactly is “thinking”?

It is using the mind instead of what is before you in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. It is adding something that is not there in what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Anything beyond that is “thinking.”

We may use modern haiku as an example.

When a beginner reads first objective hokku, then examples of modern haiku, there are strong differences that may be overlooked at first glance. The major difference is generally that writers of haiku feel they have to somehow insert “poetry” into a verse — otherwise they feel they are not poets, and writers of haiku like to think of themselves as poets.

That “poetry” often takes the form of added “thinking” by the writer — commentary or interpretation.  But in objective hokku — which we call daoku — there is no added commentary or interpretation.  And in hokku we do not call ourselves “poets” — we are just people who write hokku.

I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright in using examples, so I will slightly alter one modern haiku I saw recently, while keeping the general content (the original was by Laryalee Fraser):

between heaven
and the turning earth
a falling leaf.

Now most people would not recognize the difference between that and an objective hokku.  Of course there are the obvious differences in format; hokku would capitalize the beginning of each line, and there would be an internal and an ending punctuation mark.  Also, hokku would have a seasonal heading in parentheses.  But aside from those, where is the difference in content?

It is here:

… and the turning earth

That is added “thinking.”  Why?  Because the spin of the earth on its axis is scientific knowledge.  Someone standing and seeing a leaf fall does not actually see the earth turning, spinning, rotating on its axis.  Nor do they feel it turning.  This is something added to what is seen from the intellect of the writer.  It was not actually part of the sensory experience.  It is adding”thinking.”

Now this may seem like a small matter to those unfamiliar with hokku, but really it is the gap that sets heaven and earth apart between the writing of objective hokku and the “writing poetry” attitude of modern haiku.  It is the opening that lets in all kinds of intellectualization and the attempt to make “poetry,” rather than simply to express an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Now there is nothing wrong with intellectualization if what one wishes to write is modern haiku — in fact it seems more and more obligatory in that varied community.  But to write objective hokku — daoku — requires the writer to give up intellectualization and personal imagination and commentary — to give up “thinking” — and to present only what is in the experience itself.

Look at this old verse by Shōhaku — in contemporary hokku form:

Silence;
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.

There is nothing added by the intellect.  There is only the silence, the chestnut leaf, the clear water, and the “action” — the sinking of the leaf.  There is only the sensory experience, with no “thinking,” no “added poetry.”
In objective hokku — daoku – the verse itself is not poetry; it is the seed of poetry, and the poetry bursts into existence in the mind when the verse is read.

To put it briefly and succinctly, in modern haiku there are “poets” writing “poetry.”  In contemporary objective hokku the writer’s goal is to get out of the way so that Nature may speak — to become a clear mirror reflecting nature, adding nothing to the experience.  The key to writing successful daoku, then, is to take the essence of an experience — to condense it in words as a plant is condensed in a seed — and then to offer that seed so the reader may experience it anew.

To avoid “thinking” in hokku, then, is to avoid adding anything from the mind that is not in the experience itself.

Well, sticklers may say, isn’t identifying the sinking leaf in Shōhaku’s verse as a chestnut leaf “thinking” too? The writer uses the mind to identify it as specifically a chestnut leaf, doesn’t he?

We do not consider that “thinking,” because even though it is acquired knowledge, it is something the writer automatically knows. He sees that it is a chestnut leaf. It is what is before him. What we consider “thinking” in hokku is the addition of something from the mind to what is actually before us in the experience. If we do not see, hear, taste, touch or smell it, it is not in the experience.

Now in hokku as we practice it, there is an apparent exception to that obvious “senses only” guideline — and it is emotion. A writer may have an experience, and part of that experience is the emotion it arouses. But the important difference here between what we do in hokku and what is generally done in modern haiku is that the writer of hokku treats the emotion objectively, as Kaen does in this verse:

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

In such a case, the emotion is just as much present as the rain and the fallen leaves, but it is inside the writer, not present outside him. Yet still there is something here that comes from the mind of the writer instead of what is before him and his senses. Emotion like this is not quite “thinking,” in the ordinary sense, and it is still objective enough to fit within the kind of hokku we write. A verse with just a hint of thinking, as in this one, we call a shinku, to distinguish it from the completely objective daoku.

Now what do we learn from all this?

We learn to be careful to put into our hokku only what is seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard in an experience, not our thoughts about the experience, not anything we know that is not present in the experience. In doing so, we avoid adding “thinking” and maintain the objectivity necessary to daoku — contemporary objective hokku.

We learn also that we may use an emotion in hokku, but it should be done objectively if at all — and in the minimal way characteristic of shinku. That permits us to write verses such as this one by Buson, without falling into the excessive added “thinking” that is so often characteristic of modern haiku.

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

GIVE THON THON’S DUE

In my previous posting, I discussed the lack of a practical, non-binary gender pronoun in English, bemoaning the unfortunate attempt to use “they”/”their”/”them” for a person who does not identify specifically as male or female — which just causes confusion, because those pronouns traditionally refer to plural subjects in English.

I was again hit by the need for a workable gender-neutral pronoun system yesterday, when I began reading a new nonfiction book in which the writer completely reversed the standard practice of using “he”/”him”/”his” (intended to refer to both genders) — instead, everything was “she”/”her”/”hers.” Where we would usually find “What matters is how he looks, what he achieves, and what he has,” the writer instead used “What matters is how she looks, what she achieves, and what she has.” But actually the author intended it for both males and females. And of course to a male, this is unsettling to say the least, because we males generally do not want to classified as “she.” But it also reveals the one-sided, masculine-dominant nature of the old “he”/”him”/”his” usage that is so predominant in English, and if the switch to a “she”/”her”/”hers” use in a book referring to both genders makes a male uncomfortable, one can only imagine how unpleasant it has been for females to endure the “he”/”him”/”his” standard in books all these long years.

Little did I know that someone (Charles Crozat Converse) had already come up with a gender-neutral pronoun system for English in the 19th century that actually made its way into a couple of dictionaries in 1897 and 1934 — “thon”/”thons.” So the sentence example I used above would read, “What matters is how thon looks, what thon achieves, and what thon has.” And the subject of the sentence can be either male, female, or not specifically-gender-identified — in other words, a fully gender-neutral pronoun system that causes no confusion at all, once one knows its meaning.

I have long felt uncomfortable using the “he”/his”/”him” standard in my own writing, because I know a considerable percentage of my readers are female. I usually end up using the lengthy “he/she” combination to acknowledge both, but have never been particularly happy with it due to the length, and of course in speech it would be even more unwieldy. I would be quite happy to use “thon” — and thus to give thon thon’s due — but of course how many would know its gender-neutral meaning now?

WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD …

I was enjoying reading some light fiction this afternoon. Enjoying it, that is, until I came to a section in which a non-binary character was introduced.

A non-binary character or person is one who does not identify as specifically male or female, or may alternate between gender identities.

The problem here is pronouns. English, traditionally, divides humans into “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.” As society has become more aware and accepting of people who do not fit comfortably into a single category, there has been a movement to introduce new pronouns — to add them to the traditional he, she, him, her, his, and hers.

Well, I have no problem with that. There are languages that traditionally use a single pronoun for male and female and whatever might lie between, such as the u of Persian, which, in romantic poetry, enabled a male to speak of love with another male without specifying gender — so one might also interpret it as a male in love with a female, and the reverse. And Chinese traditionally has ta, which similarly is gender neutral, and whether it refers to a male or female is made clear by context.

Now personally, I find separate male and female pronouns very useful — but a gender-neutral pronoun could also be useful in many situations — and not just in referring to those with a non-binary self identification.

So why was I made so unhappy in the middle of my light reading when a non-binary character appeared on the page? Well, again, it is a matter of pronouns. When I read that a person is wearing a “white faux-fur hat that’s almost like a crown on top of their head,” my intellect instinctively rebels. And it does so because of the use of a plural pronoun for a singular person. — “on top of their head.” The book goes on to describe “giving them a kiss on the cheek” — but the person given the kiss is singular, not plural — not a them. Them, in English, is a plural pronoun.

The narrative continues by describing a character’s admiration for the brooch (unfortunately incorrectly spelled as “broach,” but that is another matter) worn by the non-binary person. And the person wearing the brooch “moves their fingers over the pin.” Well, no — the person does not. If “their” fingers are moving over the pin, common sense requires more than one person moving “their fingers over the pin.”

My objection to the use of “they,” “them” and “their” for a non-binary person is simply that it is a very impractical, awkward and ill-considered solution to the question of how a non-binary person should be respectfully addressed. And it is impractical simply because of the confusion created by using clearly plural pronouns (“them” / “their”) to refer to a singular person. To be really blunt, such a very poor solution is no genuine solution at all. There is no need to twist clear English into obscure English simply to satisfy a need that can easily be otherwise satisfied with introduction of non-confusing, gender-neutral singular pronouns.

Now again, I have no problem at all with adding such new gender-neutral personal and possessive pronouns to the English language for use with non-binary people who might prefer such a usage. But those pronouns should not be plural when a singular pronoun is required. They may be simply neutral — somewhat like “it” and “its” — but of course no one wishes to be or should be addressed as “it,” — so the need is simply for new pronouns added to the language that are respectful and non-gender specific — like Persian u and Chinese ta — and certainly not a confusing use of the standard plural English pronouns “they” and “them” and “theirs” for a singular subject.

Against the common sense solution, I have read an argument that using a plural pronoun for the singular is an old usage in English:

This isn’t new – the saying ‘Everybody loves their own mother’ has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.

That, of course, is a misunderstanding of the usage. When someone says (as they still may) “Everybody loves their own mother,” Everybody — in spite of its singular appearance — is understood in a plural sense as meaning “all people.” That is why the plural pronoun is often used in such cases, and why there is no confusion in understanding what is meant. But to commonly refer to a single person as “they,” and to use such convoluted sentences as “John kissed them on the cheek” when only one person is being kissed, is simply self-indulgent, ill-considered and willful distortion of clarity in the English language. There is no reason for using a very bad and impractical solution when a good and clear solution is so easily at hand.

BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

GIJŌEN’S CICADA

Well, by the Hokku Calendar we are in summer now. Coincidentally, someone just forwarded a question to me about a verse found in loose translation in the old Peter Pauper books that some may remember from the middle of the last century (if you were even alive in the last century). There it is mistakenly attributed to a “Gijoens.” But the name of the writer was actually Gijōen. And being a hokku about cicadas, it is of course a summer verse — though a bit farther into summer than we are now.

In the forwarded message, the person had asked for the original Japanese. Well, as you know, now I like to concentrate on hokku in English here most of the time, but given that the inquirer could not locate the original, perhaps others might be curious as well, so here it is:

Matsuyani wo hanare kanete ya semi no koe

Pine-pitch wo get-away-cannot ya cicada’s voice

松脂をはなれかねてや せみ の 聲

Here is my rendering:

Unable
To escape the pine pitch;
The cicada’s cry.

In the Japanese summer, the cries of cicadas can be very loud and noisy and persistent — a kind of constant background drone.

Not a very cheerful hokku — but there it is.

David

CHERRY BLOSSOMS AND GREEN LEAVES

An early summer hokku by Dempuku:

Though the blossoms
On the cherry tree have gone —
The young leaves!

It is not a very strong verse, but nonetheless we understand what he is getting at:  while the universally-appreciated blossoms of the cherry have all fallen, after them come the fresh young leaves, and it takes someone with a rather developed aesthetic sense to appreciate those as well.  That is a part of the hokku aesthetic — to appreciate the beauty of things that are not flamboyant, things that one may easily overlook.

We may say that after the beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom, the fresh green young leaves can hardly compare; but that is the point.  In hokku we do not compare, but appreciate each part of Nature for what it is.  In general, hokku favors the less obvious beauty, preferring the dandelion to the hothouse orchid.

I have added “though” to the original, because it makes its meaning more evident in English.

David

THUNDER AND POPPIES

A summer hokku by Shōritsu, in daoku form:

At the sound of thunder,
Its petals fall —
The poppy.

Well, that’s a rather dramatic hokku.  The thunder must have been boomingly loud.

The verse is reminiscent of Buson’s summer hokku as loosely translated by R. H. Blyth:

The heavy wagon
Rumbles by;
The peony quivers.

But Shōritsu’s verse makes the effect even stronger.

One could change Buson’s verse like this:

At the passing
Of the heavy wagon,
The peony petals fall.

But getting back to Shōritsu’s verse, what we have is a harmony of opposites:  the loud, strong boom of the thunder against the delicate frailty of the poppy petals.

David

SPRING RAIN FOR TWO

Charles Tuskey wrote and kindly shared the following hokku, after an old pattern used by Bashō.  But Charles has made it completely new and fresh by giving it a different season and subject. Bashō wrote for winter, but Charles wrote for the season we are in — spring. Well, actually by the old Hokku Calendar, we just entered summer on May Day. So how you place yourself in a season depends not just on the calendar, but on your local climate as well. Where I am, a gentle rain has fallen and flowers are blooming, but higher in the mountains there is still snow on the ground.

Open the window,
We’ll share something nice ––
The sound of spring rain.

If you are curious about the old pattern used here, it was this verse by Bashō, in R. H. Blyth’s translation:

You light the fire;
I’ll show you something nice, ––
A great ball of snow. 

I have to say that in this case, I much prefer the hokku by Charles Tuskey — but then I really like the spring and the sound of rain — and the delightful sentiment of sharing that simple but wonderful pleasure — the simplicity of spring rain, the simplicity of good hokku. The verse connects us immediately with Nature, which is what hokku is all about, with its subject matter being Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

David

MAY DAY — AND THAT’S ALL

Well, we have again reached May Day — May 1st, Bealtaine, Beltane — the ancient beginning of summer by the old agricultural calendar and the Hokku Calendar.

There is an interesting poem by Edith Nesbit. You remember Edith Nesbit, don’t you? She is the lady who wrote those delightful novels for children — among them The Railway Children, and of course The Enchanted Castle. When I was a boy in grade school — elementary school — I came across an old copy of The Enchanted Castle in our tiny country school library. I thought I had found an undiscovered treasure, with the very unusual and absorbing story and the quaint illustrations.


(Edith Nesbit: 1858-1924)

But on to the poem. Perhaps you remember the earlier discussion here of Housman’s poem “Oh See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” about a clever girl who escapes seduction. Well, this poem has much the same theme, only this time seen from the female perspective — the very “liberated” female perspective — of Edith Nesbit. It is in the form of a dialogue between a young man whose thoughts have turned to love — well, most likely to sex, given the interests of young men — and the object of his affections — the girl.

MAY DAY

Will you go a-maying, a-maying, a-maying,
Come and be my Queen of May and pluck the may with me?
The fields are full of daisy buds and new lambs playing,
The bird is on the nest, dear, the blossom’s on the tree.’

The young fellow asks the girl if she will go out with him “a-maying” — ostensibly to celebrate May Day in one way or another — here he mentions only “plucking the may,” and of course from past discussions here, you will know that by “may” he means the white hawthorn blossoms, a symbol of May in Britain. But of course there is a subtext here, because to “go a-maying” also mean a romantic and often sexual encounter of young man and maid, out of the village and away from prying eyes.

‘If I go with you, if I go a-maying,
To be your Queen and wear my crown this May-day bright,
Hand in hand straying, it must be only playing,
And playtime ends at sunset, and then good-night.

The girl responds with the sensible comment that if she goes a-maying — if she is his Queen and wears her crown, and goes out to celebrate with the young man — she wants him to know it is only for playing — and that playtime ends at sunset — so no rolling on the ground with him in the twilight or night — no sex. She intends to make no commitment. Often in villages a Queen of the May was chosen for May Day festivities, and that is what the girl means when she speaks of being his Queen.

The girl explains her reasons:


‘For I have heard of maidens who laughed and went a-maying,
Went out queens and lost their crowns and came back slaves.
I will be no young man’s slave, submitting and obeying,
Bearing chains as those did, even to their graves.’

Well. She has very definite ideas, and has obviously heard the warnings about girls who were too free with young men, who lost their virginity (their “crown”) and ended up pregnant and in a forced marriage. Those were the days when brides were admonished to “love, honor, and obey,” and this girl has no intention of being seduced into pregnancy and marriage, and certainly no desire to spend the rest of her days “obeying” a male.

‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing,
We will pluck the little flowers, enough for you and me;
And when the day dies, end our one day’s playing,
Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’

So that is the agreed outcome. If they are to go a-maying together, they can have their fun for the day — some delightful kisses perhaps, but nothing that turns into the smouldering desire that leads to sex. And when the day has ended, each can give a kiss, and take a kiss from the other — and then go home free. No bonds. No obligation. No pregnancy. No obeying.

As in Housman’s poem, this is a very clever girl who knows how to avoid trouble, and big trouble it was in those days to have an unwed pregnancy.

Of course behind all this is the ancient connection between spring and fertility and rites of sex among the young.

David

FALLING PETALS

Some eleven years ago I mentioned here this spring hokku by Chora:

Stillness;
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

It is very appropriate for the ending of the season of spring blossoming trees such as the cherry.

Notice that even though Chora gives us the setting of the poem — stillness — he nonetheless mentions sound. That is because if is only in such stillness that the faint sound of the falling petals can be heard, which emphasizes the stillness even more. And of course what acute hearing one must have — something that often disappears as we age.

From the point of view of contemporary hokku, this is a daoku — a hokku that just presents a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. A daoku is a hokku without any added commentary or interpretation or intellectualization by the writer. In such a verse the writer is like a mirror reflecting the experience to the reader, so that the reader may have it too. To do that, the writer must get out of the way, and just let Nature speak. That makes daoku a very egoless kind of hokku, which gives it a very pure and direct feeling.

This is also a verse using the common and very helpful setting/subject/action form, which is useful not only for beginners in writing hokku in English, but also for experienced writers.

Setting: Stillness
Subject: The sound of petals
Action: Falling through the trees

David

WIND AND SUN AND CLOUDS

A spring daoku hokku by Kodō (my loose translation):

The spring wind:
Cloud shadows moving
Across the field of barley.

We could also write it like this:

The spring wind;
Cloud shadows move
Across the field of barley.

It is very reminiscent of Kyoroku’s

A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows passing
Over the green fields.

Or:

A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows pass
Over the green fields.

Over the past years of discussing hokku here, I paid much attention to the Japanese context of a verse — often giving the original in Japanese. Having done that for a great many hokku over time, from now on I want to focus more on using the old hokku as examples of how to write new hokku in English.

That means I will pay less attention to giving very literal transliterations and translations, and more to just using the old hokku as they would be written in English — which often means a loose translation, and maybe at times even putting an old verse into a specifically Western context.

Of course there will be no change in the basic aesthetics of the hokku as I teach it — the form remains the same, as does the subject matter: Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

I hope this approach will encourage new writers of hokku in English. Most of the principles given here are also easily adaptable to many other languages, for those who write in German or Dutch or French or Russian or Welsh or Spanish or Italian or whatever your first language may be.

David

THEY BLOOM …

Onitsura wrote a rather odd hokku that is more a philosophical reflection than a sensory experience, so we cannot call it a good hokku — but it is simply a statement of fact:

They bloom,
And then we look at the cherry blossoms —
And then they fall.

It is an expression of transience — but as a hokku it is too “thoughty” and covers too long a period of time. What we want when we write hokku today is more the daoku — the hokku giving us a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, without the thinking — the intellectualization — or the commentary of the writer.

David

DEALING WITH SIMILAR THINGS IN HOKKU

Here is an example of a spring hokku you will find attributed online to Buson that demonstrates all that a hokku — in my view — should not be:

Swallowing clouds,
It spits out cherry blossoms;
Mount Yoshino.

That is the kind of cleverness that destroys good hokku. It is written entirely from the imagination — just a surreal fantasy. The mountain is not treated as a mountain, but is personified as something that swallows and spits.

You may also find the verse in reverse form on the Internet, like this:

Swallowing cherry blossoms,
It spits out clouds;
Mount Yoshino.

Which is original? It really does not matter, because either way is still bad as hokku.

The point of course, is that the white of clouds above Mount Yoshino are likened to the white cherry blossoms blooming on the mountain. But the way it is done — the mountain sucking in one and spitting out the other — turns it into a vulgar joke.

The better treatment of two similar subjects is demonstrated by Kyoroku in this summer hokku, which in English we can classify as a daoku — a verse without the thinking, imagination, or commentary of the writer added:

Above white cloth
Spread out in the sun —
Billowing clouds.

That way we have the direct sensory experience of the white cloth and the white clouds as they are — and not smeared with the imagination of the writer. And we feel the breeze in the billowing of the sheets.

If we were to write a similar verse in English, it could be something like this as a summer daoku (but we are not in summer yet):

Above white sheets
Billowing on the clothesline —
Passing clouds.

I think many young people today do not know that something has been lost in the transition from the old outdoors clothesline to the indoor dryer.

David

INVERSNAID

Put very simply, today’s poem by the homosexual poet and Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is a word painting of a small waterfall on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in Scotland. He visited it in autumn of 1881, on a somewhat dark and gloomy day.

The poem is in the usual rather difficult Hopkinsese — his peculiar poetic language that mixes archaic and regional and made-up words — which can be both pleasing and, at times, mystifying. With Hopkins one sometimes has the feeling of reading a foreign language. But fear not; all shall be explained here. Keep in mind that some Hopkins terminology is open to differences of opinion. I shall discuss the poem stanza by stanza.

INVERSNAID

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

First let’s discuss vocabulary:

“Darksome” means simply dark.

A “burn” is a stream. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), it appears in later English as “bourne,” but has largely fallen out of use except in the Scots language, which is why Hopkins uses it here for a stream in Scotland.

“Rollrock highroad” is Hopkins’ way of describing high, rocky course of the stream, with its tumbled boulders. A highroad is a main road — and it is used here to describe the stream out of which the waterfall plunges. And “rollrock” makes us feel the tumbled rocky nature of the stream and the basin into which it falls — so the “rollrock highroad” here is the high rocky stream from which the waterfall plunges down among tumbled boulders.

“Coop” is an old term for a basket. This describes the rocky depressions in the course of the stream.

“Comb” indicates the rocks through which the water flows, like hair through a comb, or like fleece being combed. “Comb” also is an old word for a valley or large depression, but Hopkins likely intends the first meaning here.

“Fleece” is the wooly hair of a sheep or goat. Hopkins uses it here to describe the white foam on the water.

“Flutes” is a verb here, from the noun “flute” in the sense of a channel or groove, as in an architectural column. It describes the water dividing into narrow strands as it becomes a waterfall, plunging down among the rocks of the lower stream.

Now that we know all that, what Hopkins is saying is simply this:

The dark stream, brown as the back of a horse, comes roaring down among tumbled boulders. Flowing through depressions (“coop”) and divided by rocks in its path (“comb”), the fleece-like foamy water finally “flutes” — that is, divides into strands as it falls over the rocks and into the plunge basin, and flows on down to where, lower, the water finally empties into the lake — that is, into Loch Lomond.

Now why would the water be so brown? Well, first we must keep in mind that this is autumn, in which the Loch Lomond area gets roughly 17 to 20 days of rain per month, which tends to muddy the streams. But also it is an area of peat bogs, which can turn water a brown color. There is something similar in my state — Root Beer Falls on the Williamson River in Klamath County, Oregon. I saw it once, and the water really is brown as root beer, from the tinge the Williamson River picks up from the Klamath Marsh.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Hopkins begins by describing the foam on the water as a “windpuff bonnet.” I believe this is often misunderstood. One commentator, for example, opines that Hopkins mean the foam was like a bonnet puffed up by the wind. But actually Hopkins, in his typical fashion, meant something even more odd here. A “windpuff” is a kind of bubble-like swelling that sometimes appears on the fetlock of horses. The fetlock is that last wide part near the bottom of the leg, after which it narrows and joins the hoof. So Hopkins is likening the foam on the water to a bonnet (a “covering” that is, like a bonnet covers the head) of windpuffs — of bubble swellings.

“Fawn-froth” describes the brown and white coloring of the foam — the “froth” on the water.

“Twindles” is a Hopkins-made word that seems to combine “twirls” and the old word “windle,” meaning “to turn round and round” — describing the whirlpool swirling of the brownish-white foam on the water.

“Pitchblack” refers to the blackness of a pitch made by distilling, a process that makes it very black or dark brown and sticky; it is not the natural amber-colored pitch one sees on the bark of coniferous trees.

“Fell” means evil or cruel, but it also means a high and barren mountainous region — so “fell-frowning” means both to frown in an evil manner and gloomy as the barren hills — like the rocks that brood over the falls.

So, given all that, here is what the stanza means:

A covering of bubbles like the swellings on the fetlocks of horses, dappled like the skin of a fawn, turns and twirls over the water of a pool so pitch black and gloomy-evil-looking that it swirls round and round like a kind of hopeless despair, finally “drowning” — that is, sucking the water down in the center, like water swirling down a drain.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

“Degged” is an old Northern English dialect word meaning “sprinkled”

“Groins” as used here is an architectural term, meaning here the curving of the rocks through which the water flows.

A “brae” is a bank or shore (of a stream) — the word is again Scots.

“Heathpacks” here are clumps of the heather — the heath plant — so common in Scotland.

“Flitches” is rather obscure here. Hopkins seems to be likening the fronds of ferns growing on the banks to thin slices — i. e. “fronds of fern.”

The “bead-bonny ash” is the rowan tree with its clusters of orange-red berries that look like beads, that is, the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) not the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) tree found in Britain. “Bonny” is Scots for “beautiful.”

We can translate all that as:

The curved, rocky banks that the brook flows through are sprinkled and dappled with dew on wiry clumps of heather, fronds of ferns, and the beautiful berries of the mountain ash that hangs over the stream.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

There is nothing difficult in this last stanza. Hopkins simply states that the world would not be the same without the wetness and wildness of places like Inversnaid, with its rocky stream and waterfall. He pleads that such places should be left as they are, and ends with the hope “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

It is the same sentiment we find in his poem Binsey Poplars, which similarly pleas for leaving nature alone:

  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.

It is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated, however, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, as expressed in his essay “Walking”:

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.

David

WHITE ON WHITE ON WHITE …

A poem by English poet and Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) — quite a good-looking fellow in his younger years, as you can see.

SPRING GOETH ALL IN WHITE

Spring goeth all in white,
Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
O’er heaven the white clouds stray
:

White butterflies in the air;
White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
Scatter their snow around.

Bridges tells us spring goes all in white. He actually uses “goeth” — the archaic form of “goes” — because he was still in the period when Elizabethan English in verse was considered poetic. He tells us that Spring (let’s capitalize it to personify it) is crowned with milk-white may — that is, with white Hawthorn blossoms.

He says the white clouds stray “in fleecy flocks of light,” likening the white clouds drifting across the sky to a flock of sheep with their white fleeces.

He adds to this the white butterflies fluttering through the air, the tiny white daisies scattered through the grass, and the cherry trees and the hoary (“white” here) pears both in flower that “scatter their snow around” — meaning scattering their white blossoms like snow. We have seen this likening of white cherry blossoms to snow before, in the discussion of A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” which ends with these lines:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

In his “white on white on white…” description of spring, Bridges details six white things:

  1. Milk-white may. By “may,” he means the may blossoms — the white flowers of the Hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna):

2. The white clouds floating in the sky, like a flock of straying sheep:

3. White butterflies fluttering in the air (Pieris species; the photo is of Pieris rapae):


4. White daisies that “prank” — that is, adorn or decorate in a showy way — the ground. He is referring to those tiny English daisies (Bellis perennis) that dot the grass in spring>

5. The blossoming cherry:

6. And the blossoming pear:

The poem is a beautiful study in the whites of spring, giving us a feeling of newness, freshness, purity and light.

THE THING WITH FEATHERS

A well-known poem by American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):

“HOPE” IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson, in this simple poem, compares hope to a bird perching in the inmost mind, like a songbird in its cage. And like a songbird, it continually sings its wordless tune — that is, hope is continually expressed wordlessly, from deep within the mind (“the soul”)

She says hope is sweetest in the gale — meaning it is when life is difficult, and our emotions turbulent as a windstorm, that hope is appreciated and valued by us all the more. And it would take a very terrible (“sore”) storm in life to hinder the hope that has given so many something to live for in times of great trouble.

Hope is heard in all kinds of circumstances. Dickinson is not being literal but rather metaphorical when she speaks of hearing it in the “chillest land” — that is, the coldest and most forbidding of circumstances, and on the “strangest sea” — those times when life seems so vast and trying and unfamiliar. And yet through all these trials, even to the farthest limits of human endurance — hope asks nothing of the person who hosts it, but sings on without reward or encouragement.

One of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose hope — that bright, singing spark that keeps us going no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how troubling the psychological challenges. It is at those times that we most need to listen carefully for the “thing with feathers” that sings its encouraging song deep within us.

I SHALL SEE …

Every now and then, I just like to share something I have found pleasant or interesting in one way or another.  Here is this handsome and extremely talented Polish fellow — Jakub Józef Orliński — singing the Vivaldi aria Vedrò con mio diletto — “I Shall See to my Delight”:

Apparently he was surprised to find an audience present instead of just a private recording session when this video was made — but I find his casual clothing for the event delightful.  I don’t know why people feel they have to “dress up” for classical music.

Here are the words in Italian and English:

Vedrò con mio diletto

Vedrò con mio diletto / I shall see, to my delight,
L’alma dell’alma mia  /  The soul of my soul —
dell’alma mia               /  Of my soul,
Il core del mio cor      /  The heart of my heart,
Pien di contento         /  Full of happiness,
Pien di contento          / Full of happiness.
Vedrò con mio diletto  / I shall see, to my delight,
L’alma dell’alma mia   / The soul of my soul —
dell’alma mia                /  Of my soul,
Il core del quisto cor   /  The heart of this heart,
Pien di contento           /  Full of happiness —
Pien di contento           /  Full of happiness.
E se dal caro oggetto   /And if from the dear one
Lungi convien che sia /I may have to be far —
convien che sia             /I may have to be —
Sospirerò penando       /I shall sigh, suffering
ogni momento               /Every moment.

David

LOOKING BUT NOT SEEING

Here is another translated poem by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:

THE MORNING SEA

Let me stop here; and let me also look at nature a while.
Sea of morning and cloudless sky
Brilliant mauve, and yellow shore —
All beautiful and bright.

Let me stop here; and let me smile as I see them —
I did actually see them a moment when first I stopped,
And not my fantasies here —
My memories — the sensual images.

Cavafy pauses at the shore of the Mediterranean to look at the view — the morning sea, sky, and shore .

He smiles as he looks, because after only a moment of seeing sea, sky, and shore, his vision turned inward, and then he saw nothing but the images in his mind of sensual — that is, sexual — memories.

As so often happens with us, he is looking but not really seeing — lost in the images within his mind instead of the view before him.

It is amazing how much time we humans spend in our memories, thoughts and imagination rather than in the reality of the world around us.  And even when we are aware of that world, we all too often see it through the distorting glass of our fears, hopes, and expectations.  We really live in two worlds — the outer and the inner, and frequently  — like Cavafy in this poem — far more in the latter.

Where I translate “let me smile,” others have “let me pretend” or “let me fool myself.”

Here is the poem in a phonetic transliteration, so you may get some sense of the sound of the original:

Edó as stathó. Ki as do k’ egó tin fýsi lígo.
Thálassas tou proïoú ki anéfelou ouranoú
lamprá maviá, kai kítrini óchthi:
óla oraía kai megála fotisména.

Edó as stathó. Ki as gelasthó pos vlépo aftá
ta eíd’ alítheia mia stigmí san protostáthika
ki óchi k’ edó tes fantasíes mou, tes anamníseis mou,
ta indálmata tis idonís.

And here is the original Greek:

Θάλασσα του πρωϊού

Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας δω κ’ εγώ την φύσι λίγο.
Θάλασσας του πρωϊού κι ανέφελου ουρανού
λαμπρά μαβιά, και κίτρινη όχθη· όλα
ωραία και μεγάλα φωτισμένα.

Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας γελασθώ πως βλέπω αυτά
(τα είδ’ αλήθεια μια στιγμή σαν πρωτοστάθηκα)·
κι όχι κ’ εδώ τες φαντασίες μου,
τες αναμνήσεις μου, τα ινδάλματα της ηδονής.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS: ONE MAN GUY and HOLD MY HAND

And now for something completely different.

In the last quarter of 2020, I began reading a genre of books totally new to me — something that did not exist at all when I was a boy — YA (“young adult”) gay-themed fiction.

I got quite a surprise , because not only did I find some (of course not all) of the books entertaining, but I also saw how helpful they could be to people in their teens with same-sex attraction, as well as to their friends, relatives, and others wanting to have a better understanding of that orientation.  And YA books — though they do include a bit of sex here and there — tend to do it very tastefully and as a helpful ancillary to the overall plot.  That is quite in contrast to many adult gay-themed books, which as I quickly found all too often emphasize graphic sex over story line.

In the past few months I have read quite a number of books in this new-to-me genre, and would like to recommend some of the best of them — the ones I enjoyed most — to those who might be interested.  I will do that gradually over time.

First, I would like to introduce you briefly to two related books by Michael Barakiva that I highly recommend — One Man Guy and Hold My Hand.

First, One Man Guy:

Meet Alek Khederian and his very Armenian-American family. They are seated at a restaurant as Alek’s mother runs the unsuspecting waitress through a lengthy interrogation concerning the water and food, prompting Alek’s view that Armenian restaurant-goers should come with a warning label:  “Waiting on Armenians Might Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

While they are at table, Alek’s parents inform him he is going to summer school — much to his displeasure.  That is the first hint we have that Alek’s life is largely guided by his parents, who keep a short but concerned and loving leash on his activities.  But just before summer school begins, Alek has an unexpected and life-changing encounter with a boy named Ethan — just the beginning of the coming together of their two very different worlds.  Where dark-haired Alek is conservative and restrained, liberal, blond Ethan — at least to Alek’s eyes — is the very embodiment of cool.

We follow the two as Alek reacts to Ethan’s challenging, adventurous and free-spirited personality — and Ethan follows his strong attraction to Alek.

Michael Barakiva has created a very absorbing and loving portrait of two very different young guys exploring their youthful world and their feelings together — and of how the beginning of their journey affects those around them.

Hold My Hand is the must-read sequel for those who met Alek and Ethan in One Man Guy.  As often happens in life, it turns out the road for these two is not always without obstacles.  Through their experiences, we learn the importance of trust, honesty, fidelity and forgiveness in relationships.  We also learn that normally-quiet Alek is not afraid to take on the backward attitudes and prejudices of the Armenian Orthodox Church concerning same-sex attraction.

As you can tell, I don’t want to reveal too much of the story.  I don’t want take away from the freshness and enjoyment of it.  Suffice it to say that Michael Barakiva has written a very touching and often deeply moving story of young love and of growth through facing the difficulties that life and relationships can bring us.

As I turned the pages of Hold My Hand, I found myself giving an unexpected amount of thought to the psychology of the interactions of Ethan and Alek — how their backgrounds and personal issues may have motivated them to react to events as they did.  The book certainly offers much to ponder about the nature of relationships, whether among teens or adults.

I will add that when you finish the second of the two books, you will probably — like me — not want the story of Alek and Ethan to end.

One Man Guy, by Michael Barakiva;
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 27, 2014)

Hold My Hand, by Michael Barakiva
Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 21, 2019)

 

David

 

LIGHT AND SHADOW

A loose translation of a spring hokku by Kikaku:

Dim in the shadows
Of the pines —
The moonlit night.

Oboro to wa  matsu no kurosa ni tsuki yo kana

It has somewhat the feeling of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

David

A ONE-SIDED SPRING

Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.

I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.

The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well.  That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:

LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees.  Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds.  It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature.  We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that.  But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove.  Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure.  So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing.  He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows.  He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?

The poem has some memorable lines:  And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect.  Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.

So that is the flaw in this poem.  Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided.  It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete.  Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.

While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.  To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them.  We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.

CHOMPING

A winter hokku by Kiūkoku:

The horse
Chomping and chomping straw;
A snowy night.

The loud chomping noises only emphasize the stillness of the night of snow, so we can say this is a hokku with harmony of contrast — two very different things put together that nonetheless come out as harmonious instead of discordant.

Best wishes to everyone on this New Year’s Eve for a far better and happier coming year than the last has been.

David

IN ALL THE WHITENESS

Here is my rather loose translation of a winter hokku by Yasui:

In all the whiteness,
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

Perhaps it reminds you of another winter hokku by Chiy0-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

In two days comes the Midwinter Solstice and the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Then the days will slowly begin to grow longer. and the new cycle will begin.

 

David

WHERE THEY SLEEP

There is already snow in the high mountains.

Here is another objective “daoku” verse from A Year of Japanese Epigrams, this time by Rimei — in my translation:

Snow falling
On the pines where they sleep —
The crows.

Ne-dokoro no matsu ni yuki    furu    karasu kana
Sleep-place  pine   on  snow falling  crows  kana

Largely visual, this hokku evokes an interesting contrast in the mind between the whiteness of the gently-falling snow and the black crows.

 

David

 

RAIN ON FALLEN LEAVES

It has rained on and off — and very heavily when on — here for many days now.  Most of the colorful autumn leaves have fallen.

Here is a verse by Kaen from the old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams, but in my loose translation.  You will notice that it has a dash of “thinking,” so in our system it is a shinku (hokku with a bit of thinking added) rather than a daoku (completely objective hokku):

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

Hara-hara to oto       shite       sabishi ame ochiba
Falling       to  sound making   lonely  rain  fallen-leaves

It of course reminds us of a similar well-known verse by  Gyōdai that qualifies as daoku, being completely objective:  It is one of the simplest and best old hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

When we compare Kaen’s verse with that of Gyōdai, we can easily see it is the addition of “loneliness” that makes it a shinku instead of a daoku.  That “loneliness” is the adding of the writer’s personal interpretation of the sound of the rain pattering on the fallen leaves.  Gyōdai, however, simply presents us with the leaves falling and piling up and the rain beating on the rain, and we feel what is openly stated in Kaen’s verse without the need to say it.  It is the old maxim we heard so often in school — “Show, don’t tell.”

There is no single English word that exactly corresponds to sabishi.  It combines elements of being alone and solitary with a kind of profound, wistful, existential sadness.  It does not have so much of the implications of “deprived of human company” that we sense in the English word “loneliness.”

 

David

JUST FOOLING — OR NOT

Tonight is Halloween — Samhain. In the old agricultural calendar and in the hokku calendar, it marks autumn’s end and the beginning of winter.

This year it is unusual in having a “blue moon” — the second full moon in a month. It is unusual also in that the usual festive activities of children and adults have been disrupted by the uncontrolled spread of the virus, due partly to the dangerously incompetent presidential administration in Washington.

The American “prairie” poet, writer, and biographer of Lincoln Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) wrote an unusual poem in which he gives a single, colletive voice to the pumpkin — that common symbol of Halloween in the United States, particularly when carved into a Jack-o’ lantern. It is titled

THEME IN YELLOW

I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am jack-o’lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.

It is an easy poem to understand, and one can readily visualize the low hill fields spotted with pumpkins, and the prairie cornfields ( fields of maize to speakers of British English) with their clusters of pumpkin vines.

Then Sandburg moves to Halloween (“the last of October”) and the celebrations of children, having fun scaring one another with the notion of ghosts, and so expressing their love of Halloween “to the harvest moon.”

The summation of Halloween comes in the last line, when in spite of the frightful appearance of “jack-o’-lantern / With terrible teeth,” Sandburg as pumpkin gives the secret of the joy of the night away:

“And the children know I am fooling.”

It is the combination of the fearful elements of Halloween with the knowledge that it is all “fooling” that has made it a unique and much-anticipated celebration for children and young adults.

This Halloween marks a crucial time for the United States. It will shortly be followed by the Presidential election, and there is great fear and stress that if we do not have a change of administration voted in this beginning of November, it will mean not only four more years of unpredictable and perilous chaos, but also an even deeper decline and fall into ongoing authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and the perhaps final national loss of the best of traditional American values — as well as the disastrous continuation of unbridled climate change and environmental rape and destruction. That should be enough to frighten anyone this Halloween, not only in the United States but in the entire free world. And that is no fooling.

David

A TWILIGHT OF THE HEART: DOWSON’S “AUTUMNAL”

We have already discussed Ernest Dowson’s most famous poem, with its memorable line “They are not long, the days of wine and roses.”  See https://hokku.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/they-are-not-long-the-days-of-wine-and-roses-the-brief-life-of-ernest-dowson/
Today we shall look at another by him, with the same atmosphere of beauty, brevity and impending loss.  Here is his

AUTUMNAL

Pale amber sunlight falls across
The reddening October trees,
That hardly sway before a breeze
As soft as summer: summer’s loss
Seems little, dear! on days like these!

Autumn (or the Fall, as we say in America) does have its lovely days of honey-golden light.  And it can have its gentle October days filled with the coloring and falling of the leaves, which add their own distinctive fragrance to the season.  One might well think on such days that the passing of summer is little loss.

Let misty autumn be our part!
The twilight of the year is sweet:
Where shadow and the darkness meet
Our love, a twilight of the heart
Eludes a little time’s deceit.

Let us have autumn!, Dowson says.  Autumn is the twilight of the year, as in hokku it is the late afternoon to early evening, and in human life it is the passage into old age — the “autumn of life.”  But here Dowson is talking about a love affair during this twilight of the year — a last love affair — a twilight of the heart — before the passage of time takes it all away.

Are we not better and at home
In dreamful Autumn, we who deem
No harvest joy is worth a dream?
A little while and night shall come,
A little while, then, let us dream.

Is it not better, he says, to stay away from the rest of the world in its harvest celebrations, and keep to ourselves and our “dream of love,” illusory though it may be.  And he thinks no joy in harvest is worth this brief dream of love.  So soon the night will come and the dream will end, but let us dream while we may.  Yes, it is escapism, but poor Dowson, as we have seen in the earlier posting, had reason in his sad life for escapism.

Beyond the pearled horizons lie
Winter and night: awaiting these
We garner this poor hour of ease,
Until love turn from us and die
Beneath the drear November trees

Beyond the pearled (bluish-gray) horizons — that is, beyond the present time, lie winter and night, symbolizing to Dowson the end of things — of life and joy and pleasure and sadness.  So, he says, we garner (take and hold) this “poor hour of ease,” that is, the brief time of their love affair, their dream — until it all comes to an end, and he sees “love turn from us and die / Beneath the drear November trees.  By November, of course, the gentle and lovely October days of bright leaves and leaf-scented walks are past — and cold and rain have replaced them.  And for Dowson, love inevitably would end, would “turn from us and die.”

Basically, this is another “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” poem that tells people life is not easy nor is it lasting.  Matthew Arnold wrote,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

Dowson would certainly have agreed with much of that, though he obviously felt that love itself is a temporary illusion rather than a long and faithful bond; beautiful while it lasts, like the fragrance of a rose — but evanescent and all too soon gone.  That, of course reflects the downward course of his young life, but he did leave some memorable words behind.

David

MORNING WIND

The old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams attributes this autumn hokku to Bashō — though I have not been able to find it in collections of his verses.  In modern hokku terms it would be a daoku, that is, an objective hokku, but whether it was so originally, I cannot say.  Remember that sometimes old hokku were written with a double meaning.  I prefer to take it as objective, which makes it in my view a far better verse than a subjective interpretation would offer:

Morning wind;
Only one wild goose
In the white clouds.

Or we could revise it somewhat to improve the flow:

Morning wind;
Among the white clouds —
A lone wild goose.

Asa          kaze   ya  tada shira kumo  ni     kari          hitotsu
Morning wind   ya  only white clouds at wild-goose one

It gives us a feeling of solitude that one senses in many autumn hokku, when, as Nature begins to turn inward, so do humans.

It often seems to me as I translate, that when writing hokku, English generally gives us far more options for word choices and shades of meaning than the traditional Japanese “hokku” vocabulary.  Is that just a limited perception or reality?  It would be interesting to hear a  learned Japanese view on this.

 

David