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:
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;
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 Mère — My 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.