LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Though the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

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SOME NECESSARY DOOM AND GLOOM

Here is what is happening where I am:

Autumn heat;
The red sun sets
In a smoky sky

The smoke is from distant wildfires.  Wildfires are a part of Nature, so the scene in the hokku is not unusual from time to time.

But lately — because of the changing climate — wildfires have become widespread and more frequent — along with heat waves and drought — and that, scientists tell us, is only the beginning.

We are quickly moving — sad to say — toward the edge of an environmental cliff.  I would encourage everyone to read this article:

Dyer: Scientific word is out on coming ‘Hothouse Earth’

Things have reached a crisis point.  We need to do what we can — including some basic lifestyle changes — to attempt to slow and if possible eventually reverse this disastrous course; and of course we must as quickly as possible vote out of office anyone who refuses to seriously work to offset climate change. Hold politicians accountable.

There are lots of little things that can be done. If  you eat meat, stop.  The raising of cattle for meat contributes substantially to the destruction of the environment and to climate change.  Of course the worst offender is the burning of fossil fuels.  Be aware of the companies and businesses that are the worst offenders in fossil fuel consumption, and deal with them accordingly in your personal habits.  Apply an awareness of fossil fuel use in your daily life.  Look for alternative transportation when possible.  If you have a lawn, use a push mower — or better yet, reduce your lawn to a minimum or take it out entirely, and plant flowers that encourage bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  Cut your water usage by favoring drought-resistant flowers and other plants in keeping with your region.

I have a very small flower garden.  This summer my neighbors’ lawns on both sides were like mini-deserts devoid of life, while my little garden was filled with blossoms and honey bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and regular visits from a hummingbird.  It not only makes an environmental difference, but it is far more pleasant than a monotonous stretch of lawn.

Climate change will not go away by ignoring it and going on with business as usual.   The heat waves we are seeing now in various places around the world — and the deaths and discomfort resulting — are only the beginning of what are likely to be even more catastrophic and widespread events as normal weather patterns become increasingly disrupted and abnormal. Food and water supplies are threatened; mass migrations and social upheaval will be serious consequences.

I don’t like to talk about these things, but the situation is far too serious and the resulting effects on the world climate  — and consequently on human, animal, and plant life — far too dangerous to ignore.  We all need to become advocates for climate and environmental protection.   What we collectively and individually do — or do not do — will determine the future of our species on this planet — including whether our species is to have a future.

GOING TEN STEPS

Shiki wrote a very simple but effective autumn verse, though it does not look like much literally translated:

Mon wo dete  juppo ni  aki no umi hiroshi
Gate wo going-out  ten-steps at autumn sea wide

We have to put it in English and loosen it up a bit to see its significance:

Going ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

We could phrase it like this:

Going ten steps
Out the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

Or we could write it like this:

Just ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea

We could also translate it as:

Just ten steps
Beyond the door —
The vast autumn sea.

“Vast” — which is also the word Blyth chose in his version — is preferable in English to the less effective “wide.”

The point of the verse lies in the sudden expansion of the visual horizon:  as one goes out the gate/door, there before us lies the vast sea of autumn.  It is a very strong use of the “small to large” technique in writing, in which one first sees the small element (the gate/door), and then the large element (the sea).

We saw a similar expansion from small to large in Issa’s autumn hokku:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

First we experience the (small) hole in the paper door, then through it we move to the (large) vastness of the Milky Way — the “River of Heaven.”

It is noteworthy that one could set Shiki’s verse in any season, but each would have its own feeling:

The spring sea;
The summer sea;
The autumn sea;
The winter sea;

That is because we experience things as a whole.  Much of modern life tries to abstract things from their environment, but that is wrong.  We do not just see the moon.  We see the spring moon, or the summer moon, or the autumn moon, or the winter moon, each with its own feeling and significance.  In hokku we return to this connection between humans, Nature, and the seasons — seeing things in a more “wholistic” and connected way — which is really the way they are.  Things do not exist as abstractions, but only in relation to other things such as season, weather, etc.  In Shiki’s verse, we are not separate from the autumn, and the autumn is not separate from the sea.

Learning — or rather re-learning this relationship of all things — is fundamental to the successful writing of hokku.

 

David

 

COMPOSING HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF AUTUMN

Now that we have entered the season of autumn — which by the old calendar extends from Lammas to Halloween — we will look at how the old writers expressed the season.

Not all old hokku were equally effective, and many do not make good models.  We will look at those that do, and perhaps also at some that do not, because it is helpful to see why some succeed while others are weak.

Here is a hokku by Issa:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale blue sky —
Autumn mountains.

That is a very simple hokku — in fact rather reminiscent of the later Shiki, in that the sensory impression is primarily visual.  But of course we are to feel autumn in the air, and the waning of the Yang energies.  There is harmony between the autumn season and the evening.

In the original, Issa does not say “pale blue sky,” he just says asagi — which in earlier Japanese literature meant a kind of pale yellow color, but later came to be considered primarily a pale to turquoise blue.  Notice how the hokku changes if we were to use the more literary meaning of the word:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow —
Autumn mountains.

In English we would want to make it more clear to avoid confusion:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow sky —
Autumn mountains.

Blyth treats “clear” as a verb in his rendering:

Clearing up in the evening;
In the pale blue sky.
Row upon row of autumn mountains.

That makes for a rather overly-long verse (in keeping with Blyth’s tendency toward explanatory translations).

We could simplify it to:

A clear evening;
Rows of mountains
Against the pale blue sky.

Again, it is primarily a visual hokku, but it gives a pleasant picture of evening mountains seen against the sky.

We can see in these various renderings the same principles we apply when writing new hokku — look for the essentials of an experience, and simplify, cutting out words not necessary for meaning.  But we do not cut so much that the verse becomes unclear.  That is why “sky” is added above, even though it is not in the original — for clarity.  We do not want to leave a reader wondering what is meant, because that obstructs the immediate experiencing of the verse.

Here is another primarily visual autumn hokku by Ryōta:

August;
At every house,
The  morning glory blooms.

The blooming of morning glories is a sign of the beginning of autumn, so in this verse, we see autumn in the flowers that twine and bloom at every house — autumn’s beginning is seen everywhere.

The original actually uses a rather poetic term for August — hazuki (ha-tsuki) “leaf-moon/leaf-month,” but of course that does not work in English.

We could also write a verse like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We could have phrased it like this —

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

That changes how we experience the verse.  If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house
The morning glory blooms.

— we see the houses first, then the morning glories blooming at them.

If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

— then we see first the blooming morning glories, then all the houses at which they bloom.

We could also write it like this;

At every house
The morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

We could also put it like this:

August begins;
At every house,
Blooming morning glories.

However, the repetition of the -ing sound in blooming morning glories is not quite smooth, so instead we could say —

August begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We know that Lammas — August 1st — is the beginning of autumn, so even though the month is mentioned rather than the season, we know it is the beginning of autumn.  Still, it is not quite as effective as

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

As you see, there are lots of options — even more than given here.  It all depends on what we wish to emphasize, and how we want the reader to experience the verse.

For practice, think of indicators you see or have seen that signify the beginning of autumn — and remember that in the hokku calendar, autumn does not just begin with falling leaves, but with any sign of the seasonal change — including even the sensing of the change “in the air,” as in this verse by Kyoroku:

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

There is also the similar verse of Chora, which again has morning glories as a signifier of summer’s end — the beginning of autumn:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

Try to use one or more indicators you notice in your area (in separate hokku if more than one) to express the beginning of autumn.

 

David

HARVEST HOME: SUMMER’S END

When my morning glory begins to bloom and blossoms appear on the Japanese Anemone, I know summer is ending by the old calendar, and it is time for autumn to begin.

The calendar marker for this change is the old festival of Lammas — “Harvest Home,”  — the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  That happens on August 1st.   It was at this time  — or a few days later, depending on location — that the harvesting of the grain began, and its storage in barns.

That does not mean the hot weather is over; it just means the Wheel of the Year has turned, and now the Yang energy will increasingly wane as Yin energy grows, though the effects will likely not be really noticeable for about a month.

To us it signifies that we are now moving from summer hokku to autumn hokku.  Here is a repeat of something I have posted before:

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

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.”

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

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

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst 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  hokku.  We express all of Nature 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 hokku.  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 hokku, 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.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

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

When you read it, see it, feel it.  Can 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 hokku.  It 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 hokku.

 

David

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.

SEEN THROUGH A HOLE

R. H. Blyth wrote that in autumn the Milky Way is most clearly seen and felt.  Sadly that is no longer true in many places.  The reason is the pollution of the night sky by uncontrolled artificial lighting.  These days, a city dweller is fortunate to see even a few stars at night.  We have lost touch with our place among the stars.

Issa wrote:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

To understand that, one must know that a shōji is a door or window that is a light wooden frame covered with white paper.  It allows light to penetrate, but of course one cannot see through it unless there is an accident — a hole poked or torn in the shōji.

So in this hokku, Issa is in the darkened interior of a poor house where holes in the shōji paper are not quickly mended.  He notices that through the hole, he can see the dark night sky outside; and slanting across it, the faint brightness of the Milky Way, which Japanese call the River of Heaven.  Among Native Americans it was commonly known as the Spirit Road or Spirit Path — the path followed by spirits to the afterlife.

Neither Issa nor nor Native Americans knew that the Milky Way is actually what we see when we look toward the center of a galaxy in which our planet is less than a dust mote.  We live on our tiny planet about halfway between the center and the outer edge of a cosmic whirlpool composed of untold billions of stars.  And our galaxy is just one of many billions of galaxies in the universe.