BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

DESERT PLACES

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

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

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

David

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AN EARLY WINTER HOKKU

Winter begins;
In the withered fields
No bird sings.

1holterberg

A friend in the Netherlands sent this photo taken by his wife on her walk through the Holterberg region.  She kindly gave her permission for me to use it.  It really expresses the feeling of this time of year.  I liked it so much that I am using part of it as the page header for now.

 

David

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THE YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY

smokestacks

As one who has taught and advocated hokku and other Nature-based verse for decades, I feel that in view of the recent U.S. presidential election, we should all pay very close attention to this warning from the Wilderness Society:

“Donald Trump’s victory ushers in a new era of serious threats to American conservation. When the president-elect has previously weighed in on the issues that matter to us, his words have often run contrary to core American values about protecting our land and water. Pledges to deregulate and drill our way to prosperity without regard for the science and consequences of climate change ought to alarm every person who cares about our country (and planet).”*

On the  day Trump was elected, the World Meteorological Organization reported that 2011 to 2015 were the hottest years on record.  And the New York Times has reported that 2016 is likely to go on record as even hotter.

In The Guardian, an article by Oliver Milman had this to say:

A Trump presidency might be game over for the climate,” said Michael Mann, a prominent climate researcher. “It might make it impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels.”

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, added: “This is an unmitigated disaster for the planet.”*

Of course the changing climate and the increasingly-damaged environment are only two of the many very serious concerns a Trump presidency brings to our country and our planet — but our climate, our air, our water and our earth are of paramount importance.  We should all be looking into ways we can work to minimize the potential damage to our planet and our lives during the coming four years under a Trump administration.

David

*https://wilderness.org/we-will-defend-our-wild-threats-likely-coming-during-trump-administration

*https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/11/trump-presidency-a-disaster-for-the-planet-climate-change

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HALLOWEEN

Well, tonight being HALLOWEEN — Samhain — the ancient beginning of winter, I have my pumpkin carved, lit, and ready to ward off any evil spirits or wicked witches that may be abroad tonight:

jackolantern

Somehow its face reminds me of Calcifer, the fire demon in Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderful fantasy story, Howl’s Moving Castle.  If you have not yet gotten to know Calcifer, Howl, and the enduring Sophie, you have missed out on a great deal of fun.  Perhaps you know it as the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.  The film is very good, but the story is not quite the same, nor with the captivating detail one finds in the book — though both are pleasing in their own ways.

Now we enter the season when the Yin energies become dominant, the season of cold and of long, dark nights — the season when we become very aware of the importance of things we ordinarily do not notice, such as a warm blanket or a hot cup of fragrant tea.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYONE!

 

David

 

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EXPRESSING AUTUMN: TWO HOKKU BY CHARLES TUSKEY

Today I would like to share two verses by the long-time writer of hokku, Charles Tuskey.  They are very expressive of autumn:

All day,
It is twilight;
Autumn rain.

  

The wild geese;
Sounding far off, they come —
Sounding far off, they go.

wildgeeseflying_1

These two very effective examples remind us clearly of the fundamental definition of the aesthetics of the hokku — that it is a verse form expressing Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  And they remind us that hokku at its best is a sensory experience.

I am very pleased that Chuck permitted me to post these verses.  They show that hokku can be written today that are as good as those written in the distant past.   They also show that though the hokku aesthetic tradition is centuries old, it enables one to produce verses that are fresh and timeless.

David

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MY “SCHOOL” OF HOKKU: MOUNTAIN WATER

shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 

qiuying

By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:

(Spring)

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as written:

The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.

David

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CHORA’S RISING MOON

brooklynmuseumutagawahiroshige

A hokku by Chora:

(Autumn)

A windstorm;
Rising from the grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

We could also present it like this:

Rising
From the windblown grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

Notice what a strong sensory impression is made by this hokku:  we feel the strong wind, hear the loud rustling of the dark grasses in wild movement,  and rising very slowly out of them is the silent moon of autumn.  This interplay between the blowing grasses and the moon exemplifies the hokku technique called “harmony of contrast.”  It is the placing of two contrasting elements together in a verse that when joined, paradoxically give us as sense of unity and harmony.  On the one hand we have darkness and violent movement and sound, and on the other stillness and brightness.

Here is the original in transliteration:

Arashi fuku kusa no naka yori kyō no tsuki
Tempest blows  grass  ‘s midst out-of today  ‘s moon

And now a question to regular readers here.  I would like to know how many of you actually write hokku in English — not haiku, but the kind of hokku I present here.  From time to time I think about reviving a kind of online interactive hokku class.  Of course one could learn hokku from all the information I give on this site, but often people need interaction with a teacher and correction of errors to write it successfully.  So if you are learning to write hokku as I present it here, send me a message and let me know.  To do that, just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the end of this posting.  I will keep all messages responding to this  question private.

 

David

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