It is easy to see the influence of Japanese short verse on the American Imagist poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) in her poem
Listen . . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
But we can also see where — from the perspective of hokku — she went astray. Her chief error was in saying too much.
The first word — “Listen” — is superfluous. In hokku we do not tell someone to listen. We just present a sound, and they hear it, as in this Winter hokku by Ryūshi:
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.
Hokku would also remove the third line:
“Like steps of passing ghosts”
The simile — saying one thing is “like” another — is not used in good hokku. Each thing is allowed to be what it is, without comparing it or likening it to something else. Have you ever noticed how often in English-language prose and poetry we are told that something is “like” something else? It is almost an addiction of many writers. A good practice for composers of hokku is to learn to describe a thing or action without saying it is “like” something else.
So, having removed those unnecessary elements from the verse, we are left with:
With faint dry sound,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
From the perspective of hokku that is already a great improvement, but it needs a bit more work. Here is only one option for turning her verse into a hokku:
From frozen trees, The faint, dry sound Of falling leaves.
In that version, there is a kind of accidental benefit in the repetition of the breathy “f” sounds:
from; frozen; faint; falling;
It happens because in that repeated f-f-f-f we hear the “faint dry sound” of the leaves falling. The effect created by such repetition of sounds is often used to advantage in hokku, though it often “just happens” instead of one straining to achieve it.
If we want to lessen it a bit and get a slightly different effect, we could write the hokku as follows:
In frozen trees, The faint, dry sound Of falling leaves.
According to the old calendar, it would be a “Winter” verse, given that November is after the cross-quarter marker Halloween/Samhain.
Though they seem very simple, the principles applied here in the transformation of this poem by Adelaide Crapsy into a hokku — if kept in mind — will do much to improve the compositional ability of those who wish to write hokku in English.
Wild geese cry Above the frosty roofs; Autumn’s end.
Yes, according to the old calendar, autumn is ending. It ends with Halloween, the present day incarnation of the ancient holiday Samhain that marked the point at which the time of darkness and cold increases — the beginning of winter.
There is an interesting sonnet (#73) by Shakespeare that, in spite of its antiquated language, reveals the same universal correspondences we find in hokku. I will give each stanza in the original, followed by a paraphrase.
But first, I want to talk about about the poet and the person to whom the poem is addressed. Contrary to some interpretations, I do not read this poem as a love poem addressed by an old man to a young woman. It just does not fit. And in spite of all the publicity given youth-age Hollywood “for profit” marriages, romantically the young — let’s face it — love the young, not the old. And as the old Victorian song goes,
‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life, For youth cannot mate with age.
That is why when I read this poem, I think of an old man addressing someone only a little younger than himself, such as might be said in an old married couple who have shared their mellowed love for many years beyond the time of burning, sensual romance. I think it will make more sense to you as well if read that way. So let’s give it a try.
The poet begins with an analogy: he, in his old age, is like the season of late autumn:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
You can see in me that I am like that time of year When yellow leaves — or few of them or none of them — Hang on branches that shake in the cold [wind] — Like bare ruined choirs where just a little time ago the sweet birds sang.
The poet is saying that his listener can see he is in the late autumn of life, when only a few altered traces — or maybe even none — of his youth remain. He feels his aged appearance is like the cold bare branches of trees from which the leaves that made them attractive have nearly or all fallen.
Shakespeare uses a very effective and poetic metaphor here:
“Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.“
He is using “choirs” here in its architectural sense, so he does not mean choirs of singers here, but rather choirs as those parts of old English churches that were furnished with wooden stalls in which the members of the choir sat. Here is a modern image of such stalls in an architectural choir:
Knowing now that meaning of “choirs” here, you can picture the
“Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang“
as the cold tree branches bereft of leaves, where earlier in the season the birds still sang sweetly.
Now he makes second analogy: his life is like the twilight, the end of day:
In me thou seest the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me, the poet says, you see the twilight of a day that will fade in the West after sunset, its light taken away by black night — a thing akin to Death, and like Death, the night will cover everything with rest.
Then he uses a third analogy: his life is like a weak fire that will soon go out:
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consum’d by that which it was nourished by. This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
In me, he says, you see the glow of a fire that barely remains on the ashes it created when it was stronger — the death-bed-like ashes upon which it will extinguish itself, consumed by the same energy that previously made it burn brightly. The same energy of life that made me strong and attractive in youth will now in old age burn the last of what remains of my life.
As Lord Byron wrote,
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the poet finishes it all by saying,
You see all of these signs of aging and death approaching, and they only make your love for me stronger, because they tell you that soon I shall die and you must say goodbye to all our years together, because I shall be no more.
We often find in hokku the equivalency between autumn and human aging, just as we find the equivalency between twilight and age. The difference, however, is that in Western poetry for the most part — as here in Shakespeare — these equivalencies are openly expressed. In hokku, however, twilight and autumn are not symbols of aging, or analogies or similes of aging — they are merely things that happen in Nature. Yet seeing them happen, they evoke in us the equivalencies, even though they are not openly expressed. Instead, we say that age is “reflected” in twilight and autumn, meaning the equivalency is much more subtle — unspoken in hokku, but expressed openly and clearly in English poetry.
Many people overthink hokku. Once one understands the aesthetics, it becomes quite simple.
Here is a summer hokku:
A summer shower; All over the river — Widening circles.
It has no hidden message. It expresses the season in a natural event, without any commentary or interpretation, and without any “self” of a writer appearing. A shower has begun, and everywhere on the surface of the water are the widening circles caused by each raindrop as it touches the surface.
It is a simple experience of the senses, not of the intellect.
If we use our old “setting/subject/action” pattern, we can look at it this way:
Setting: A summer shower
Action: Widening all over the river
Now you can see that these elements are not arranged precisely in order in the hokku, but they are there nonetheless. The setting/subject/action pattern is just a helpful tool in composing, not a rigid group of boxes into which each element must be forced in a strict order.
All one needs to write hokku is to realize that it is not a conventional “poem.” It is an experience of the senses that is felt to be meaningful, involving Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, and devoid of ego and added commentary. Hokku uses ordinary words and ordinary things, but in these we should feel a sense of significance that is beyond explanation.
Of course hokku has its own aesthetic of simplicity and selflessness, and always in the background we feel that universal characteristic of existence — impermanence, the transience of things. In this hokku we see it in the circles that appear, widen, and vanish on the surface of the river.