ANCIENT CANDLEMAS: THE BEGINNING OF SPRING

To our ancestors, the forces of Nature and the urges within humans were personified as gods and goddesses both major and minor.  So changes in Nature and the changes in humans were represented as events relating to the deities.

In spring and summer, all of Nature grows and is fruitful, but in autumn things wither, and seem to vanish in the barrenness and cold of winter.

To the ancient Greeks, the abundance of the earth in the seasons of growth and harvest was represented in the joy of the goddess Demeter.  And when plants began to wither and leaves to fall, they saw this season of dying and death as the mourning of Demeter.

She was said to mourn for her daughter Persephone, who one day,while out picking flowers, was abducted by Hades, the god of the realm of death.

Demeter had no idea what had happened, and searched the earth for her missing daughter, and as she searched, the earth lost its fruitfulness and crops no longer grew.   The ruler of the gods, Zeus, knew this intolerable situation could not continue, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone to the upper world and to her mother.

Unfortunately, however, Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  And as we all know from old myths and legends — including the stories of abduction by the Sidhe — the fairies — one should eat nothing while in the Other Realm.

So Persephone was brought back to Demeter, but because she had eaten food from the Land of the Dead, she had to spend part of each year there, and while she was gone the world withered and the fields became barren.

This of course signifies that Demeter is in a sense “Mother Nature,” and her daughter Persephone is the plant life that sprouts out of the earth — out of the “Underworld” each spring, and flourishes through summer and harvest, after which it once more returns to the earth.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to reminding you that the beginning of February marks the ancient beginning of spring.  It happens at February 1 – 2nd.  This corresponds with the holiday called Candlemas, celebrated on the 2nd of February.

Though Candlemas in Christian times came to be a commemoration of Mary’s purification in the Temple, it was in reality a Christian substitution intended to take over a pre-Christian rite, as celebrated in Rome.  The Roman Catholic Pope Innocent XII said:

Why do we carry candles in this feast? Because the Gentiles [meaning non-Christians here] dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods; and as at the beginning of it Pluto [Hades] stole Proserpine [Persephone], and her mother Ceres [Demeter] searched for her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not wipe out this custom, they ordered that Christians should carry around candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres  [Demeter] is now done to the honor of the Virgin.

So that was the old Candlemas — a pre-Christian festival centered on the myth explaining why vegetation dies in autumn and returns again in spring.  By searching for Proserpine/Persephone with candles or torches, one symbolically enacted the desire of humanity for spring to return to the earth.  And so Candlemas is the beginning of Spring in the Wheel of the Year.  The candles are now a reminder that the light and warmth of spring are slowly returning, though of course how soon it becomes obvious depends on where one lives.

Candlemas — a more ancient name is Imbolc —  marks the beginning of spring in the West, and in the East (where hokku originated), this time of Candlemas — give or take a few days depending on the lunar calendar — marks the New Year.  In 2016 the Lunar New Year begins on February 8th.

So as I always say, the old Western “natural” calendar and the Hokku Calendar are very close to one another, which makes it very convenient for those of us who like to maintain the old “nature” traditions such as the celebration of the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes (the “Quarter Days”) and the “Cross-Quarter Days” of the year such as Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween (Imbolc, Beltane, Lugnasadh, and Samhain).

For more on the Hokku Calendar, you may want to revisit this posting:

A REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE

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YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT ‘TIL IT’S GONE

northernloon

A bibliophile friend pointed out to me this quote, hokku-like in spirit, from an old travel book.  The context is that a missionary is explaining Heaven to a Canadian Indian named Saltatha, who then said,

My father, you have spoken well; you have told me Heaven is very beautiful.  Tell me now one thing more;  Is it more beautiful than the country of the musk-ox in summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the water is blue, and the loons cry very often?”

(From The Barren Ground of Northern Canada, by Warburton Pike, 1861-1915)

 

David

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A BURSTING JUG, AND CHANGING THE SITE COMMENTS POLICY

A very effective hokku by Bashō:

(Winter)

Waking suddenly;
A water pot burst
In the icy night.

I have added the “suddenly” (as Blyth also does in his translation) because it is implied by the event.  The jug has burst because of the frozen water expanding within it.

The hokku is effective not only because of the sensory sound of the bursting pottery jug, but also because it so well expresses the deep cold of a winter night.

Here’s the original:

Kame wareru   yoru  no kōri no   nezame kana
Pot    has-burst night ‘s ice ‘s      waking kana

Now for some “blog business”:

I have tallied reader responses to my question whether comments on this site should be private unless otherwise requested (the long-time policy), or whether all comments should be public unless requested to be kept private by the sender.

The overwhelming consensus of reader opinion was for a change to all comments being made public unless otherwise requested (the exceptions, of course, being spam, irrelevant comments, obscenities, etc.).

So, as of today, that is the new comments policy on this site.  All comments made on any posting, new or old, will from now on be posted as public comments, accessible through the “comments” link at the bottom of the relevant posting.

There will usually be an interval before the comments appear, because they will still go through moderation to sort out the exceptions mentioned above, but they will be posted as soon as I see the incoming comments.

Those who want a comment to be seen by my eyes only need only put the word “private” at the beginning of the comment, and it will not be made public.

I hope we will all be pleased by the results.

 

David

 

 

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HOKKU AS I TEACH IT

From time to time I like to explain, so there will be no confusion, just what it is that I teach as hokku.

It is not precisely the same as old Japanese hokku.  It could not be, given the difference in language.   Most people would, in fact, feel much of old hokku — particularly when it was only the first verse in a haikai sequence of verses, though the most important — to be very alien.

Old hokku was a mixture of genuine experience, imagined experience, and borrowings of lines and phrases not only from Chinese poetry but also from Japanese waka poetry and even from other hokku. In addition, it was often very difficult to understand without recognizing not only those borrowings but also other Japanese and Chinese literary, historical, and geographical allusions.

People often make the mistake of thinking that hokku became independent of linked verse only through the efforts of Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.  That is not true.   Hokku were already found independent of linked verse in the time of Bashō (17th century).  And, as Makoto Ueda writes, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the writing of hokku as independent verses was just as popular or even more popular than the writing of hokku in linked verse.  Though I have enjoyed hokku for many decades, I have never cared for its use in linked verse, though I would certainly not go as far as Shiki and say it should not be so used.  It is just not something I like or teach.  I prefer following the early “independent” course of hokku when used alone, or in travel journals or other writings.

Bashō wrote hokku, but much of his time was spent in the teaching of the active communal composition of linked verse — haikai linked verse.   A good deal of time was devoted in old Japan to teaching all the complexities of linked verse to amateurs, and it was from this teaching that those like Bashō actually made a living.  Can you imagine anyone making a living by doing that in America today?

If, then, what I teach as hokku today is not in all respects the same as old Japanese hokku, what exactly is it?

As already mentioned, I do not put any emphasis on linked verse, which most Westerners (myself included) find unutterably boring. Nor do I teach a hokku heavily laced with literary, geographic, and historical allusions of one kind or another.  I have always favored dispensing with such needless complexities.

What I teach as hokku is the best of old hokku distilled to its essence, which is sensory experience involving Nature and the place of humans within Nature, expressed in the context of the changing seasons. It is hokku simplified and concentrated, though simplification in this case does not mean in any way a lessening. In fact by eliminating the extraneous matter of old hokku, I believe we reach its deepest possibilities by keeping its most important qualities and leaving aside unnecessary baggage.

To do that, one must be selective, looking for that in old hokku which transcends culture and is universal.  Doing so is what allows us to legitimately speak of writing hokku in English and other languages.  We take what is universal in hokku out of a limited cultural context and make it available to everyone.

We do not have to invent a “new” hokku to do that, as modern haiku constantly thinks it must be doing to keep up to date. Instead we only have to look to the best examples of old hokku, and they show us precisely what the universal and most significant characteristics of old hokku are. Then we need only apply those to writing in English.

The result of this is that hokku as I teach it is so close to old hokku that I can still teach directly from old verses translated into English, precisely because those “model” hokku are expressions of the best that the old hokku tradition produced, and they provide the solid foundation on which modern hokku is based.

To me, the best of old hokku are those which express the spiritual tradition that gave rise to it. That spiritual tradition involves the ancient knowledge that humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature. And it involves the notion that the deepest experiences are those which transcend the individual self and its desires. To express this, we look to Nature and its transformations, which show us the interplay of Yin and Yang, the two opposing yet harmonious elements in the universe. And to transmit an experience of Nature, we must calm the mirror of the mind so that it becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, unobscured by the wants and whims of the ego. That is why I always say that to write hokku, one must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.

This is significantly different than what we are accustomed to in Western literature, but in Japan it was the spirit behind all the contemplative arts, so that if one understands one of them, one understands all. We must not think of hokku, however, as something “Japanese” adopted into the English language. Instead we must look at it as a verse form with universal aspects that can put on the garb of any culture and any time, as long as it remains true to its fundamental goals and principals.

Hokku that does not remain faithful to these fundamental goals and principles is hokku no longer. We have seen what it then becomes in modern haiku, which became greatly distorted only a short time after it separated from hokku near the beginning of the 20th century.  Much of modern haiku is an ever-fragmenting ersatz version of the old hokku, having sometimes its form but almost never its substance — a shell filled with Western notions about poets and poetry.  It is distant even from the “haiku” of Shiki, which was for all practical purposes mostly just hokku under a different name.  It has generally abandoned the original connection with Nature and the seasons, and in doing so it has lost both the spirituality and the depth of old hokku, and in doing so it has become completely rootless and adrift, pushed about by every wind of individual whim and fancy.

To avoid that happening to hokku, one has to understand its underlying principles — not only how to write hokku, but also why it is written in a particular way.  This, of course, demands more of both writer and reader than modern haiku, which no longer has definite standards of form and content.

Hokku today, as I always say, should be thoroughly American if written in America, thoroughly Welsh if written in Wales, thoroughly Swedish if written in Sweden, thoroughly Spanish if written in Spain, thoroughly South African if written in Zulu or Afrikaans, and so on until every country and region of the world has been included. Hokku should never be seen as a cultural outpost of Japan, regulated by some sort of Japanese Vatican of supposed modern experts. Instead it should always grow as a native plant in whatever country it is found. But still it expresses the best of old hokku in modern-day languages, not as an artifact kept in a museum, but as a living, breathing thing, always nourished by Nature and its changes, from which hokku cannot be separated and still be considered hokku.

I call the kind of hokku I teach contemplative hokku, because it is rooted in the meditative traditions that were the spiritual basis underlying the cultural development of early hokku. These of course, at their essence, are also universal. So modern hokku retains the spiritual basis that gave rise to old hokku. It has not severed its roots, as has modern haiku, and that makes it worthwhile as far more than simply a pastime or a hobby.

Hokku can be part of a spiritual path if practiced correctly. Nonetheless, hokku by itself never enlightened anyone. That is why I always recommend that those wishing to write hokku take up a meditative practice that will enable them to gradually lessen the hold of the ego. Only that will prove of lasting benefit, and without it hokku is of no more spiritual value than collecting stamps or doing crossword puzzles. In fact without that spiritual basis, hokku can actually be harmful if it contributes to the strengthening of the ego and of materialism instead of their lessening.

We live in a world that more than ever needs to recognize and restore the connection between human life and Nature.  Our ignorance of, and disrespect for that vital union has led to massive deforestation, great pollution of the atmosphere and ocean, and changes that threaten not only a multitude of species of life but even human life on this planet.  The practice of hokku is only one step toward changing that, but as the old Daoist saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins where you are standing.”

 

David

 

 

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SNOW CROW

Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.

 

David

 

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NEW YEAR’S SUN

(Winter)

New Year’s Day;
A crow sips a puddle
Thawed by the sun.

 

This is probably a good time to again ask reader opinions about the comments policy on this site.  It has long been that comments are only made public if requested by the sender.  Do you prefer that, or would you like to see all comments made public except when the sender requests privacy?  If you have a preference one way or the other, please reply using the “leave a comment” link at the end of this message.  I will wait about a week before tallying the results.

A change would mean all comments would be visible by the public except those the sender specifically requests be kept private and visible only by me.  Except, of course, for spam, obscenity, and other irrelevant messages, which are deleted.

 

David

 

 

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A FEW SNOWFLAKES

The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:

(Winter)

Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….

 

David

The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana

 

 

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