I often mention that to improve your writing of hokku — and it applies equally to daoku — objective hokku — write about things seen in a new way, from a different perspective. That can turn something ordinary into something interesting.
Here is an example:
On the tree, All the leaves fluttering; A summer breeze.
It is an honest hokku; it reflects what really happens, and it is an experience of the senses. The problem is that it is a very ordinary way of looking at the event. And if we write about things as they very ordinarily appear, it means our verses are likely to lack interest and depth and freshness.
Look, however, at what happens when we approach the same subject from a different perspective — when we see it in a new way:
On the ground, All the leaf shadows fluttering; A summer breeze.
Notice that we have done nothing to change the ordinariness of the things contained in the daoku. There is nothing unusual about leaves, or their fluttering, or a summer breeze. What has changed is our perspective, in moving our focus from the leaves on the tree to their shadows on the ground.
When we do this, we suddenly feel a sense of deeper significance — and that is because we are experiencing a common event in a new way. It gives us a sense of freshness and depth that we do not find in the first example. It awakens our inner sense of surprise, and we suddenly realize, as Blyth said, that the experience tells us something we have known, but did not know that we knew. It is a kind of “little enlightenment.”
June is Gay Pride month in the United States. In view of that, here is a link to a very brief video that came out a few years ago. Whether you are male or female or identify somewhere in between, and whatever gender or genders may attract you, perhaps it will bring back memories of what it is like to have a “crush” on someone in youth.
In writing daoku — objective hokku — we avoid having “thinking” in our verses. But what exactly is “thinking”?
It is using the mind instead of what is before you in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. It is adding something that is not there in what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Anything beyond that is “thinking.”
We may use modern haiku as an example.
When a beginner reads first objective hokku, then examples of modern haiku, there are strong differences that may be overlooked at first glance. The major difference is generally that writers of haiku feel they have to somehow insert “poetry” into a verse — otherwise they feel they are not poets, and writers of haiku like to think of themselves as poets.
That “poetry” often takes the form of added “thinking” by the writer — commentary or interpretation. But in objective hokku — which we call daoku — there is no added commentary or interpretation. And in hokku we do not call ourselves “poets” — we are just people who write hokku.
I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright in using examples, so I will slightly alter one modern haiku I saw recently, while keeping the general content (the original was by Laryalee Fraser):
and the turning earth
a falling leaf.
Now most people would not recognize the difference between that and an objective hokku. Of course there are the obvious differences in format; hokku would capitalize the beginning of each line, and there would be an internal and an ending punctuation mark. Also, hokku would have a seasonal heading in parentheses. But aside from those, where is the difference in content?
It is here:
… and the turning earth
That is added “thinking.” Why? Because the spin of the earth on its axis is scientific knowledge. Someone standing and seeing a leaf fall does not actually see the earth turning, spinning, rotating on its axis. Nor do they feel it turning. This is something added to what is seen from the intellect of the writer. It was not actually part of the sensory experience. It is adding”thinking.”
Now this may seem like a small matter to those unfamiliar with hokku, but really it is the gap that sets heaven and earth apart between the writing of objective hokku and the “writing poetry” attitude of modern haiku. It is the opening that lets in all kinds of intellectualization and the attempt to make “poetry,” rather than simply to express an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.
Now there is nothing wrong with intellectualization if what one wishes to write is modern haiku — in fact it seems more and more obligatory in that varied community. But to write objective hokku — daoku — requires the writer to give up intellectualization and personal imagination and commentary — to give up “thinking” — and to present only what is in the experience itself.
Look at this old verse by Shōhaku — in contemporary hokku form:
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.
There is nothing added by the intellect. There is only the silence, the chestnut leaf, the clear water, and the “action” — the sinking of the leaf. There is only the sensory experience, with no “thinking,” no “added poetry.”
In objective hokku — daoku – the verse itself is not poetry; it is the seed of poetry, and the poetry bursts into existence in the mind when the verse is read.
To put it briefly and succinctly, in modern haiku there are “poets” writing “poetry.” In contemporary objective hokku the writer’s goal is to get out of the way so that Nature may speak — to become a clear mirror reflecting nature, adding nothing to the experience. The key to writing successful daoku, then, is to take the essence of an experience — to condense it in words as a plant is condensed in a seed — and then to offer that seed so the reader may experience it anew.
To avoid “thinking” in hokku, then, is to avoid adding anything from the mind that is not in the experience itself.
Well, sticklers may say, isn’t identifying the sinking leaf in Shōhaku’s verse as a chestnut leaf “thinking” too? The writer uses the mind to identify it as specifically a chestnut leaf, doesn’t he?
We do not consider that “thinking,” because even though it is acquired knowledge, it is something the writer automatically knows. He sees that it is a chestnut leaf. It is what is before him. What we consider “thinking” in hokku is the addition of something from the mind to what is actually before us in the experience. If we do not see, hear, taste, touch or smell it, it is not in the experience.
Now in hokku as we practice it, there is an apparent exception to that obvious “senses only” guideline — and it is emotion. A writer may have an experience, and part of that experience is the emotion it arouses. But the important difference here between what we do in hokku and what is generally done in modern haiku is that the writer of hokku treats the emotion objectively, as Kaen does in this verse:
Loneliness: The pattering of rain On fallen leaves.
In such a case, the emotion is just as much present as the rain and the fallen leaves, but it is inside the writer, not present outside him. Yet still there is something here that comes from the mind of the writer instead of what is before him and his senses. Emotion like this is not quite “thinking,” in the ordinary sense, and it is still objective enough to fit within the kind of hokku we write. A verse with just a hint of thinking, as in this one, we call a shinku, to distinguish it from the completely objective daoku.
Now what do we learn from all this?
We learn to be careful to put into our hokku only what is seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard in an experience, not our thoughts about the experience, not anything we know that is not present in the experience. In doing so, we avoid adding “thinking” and maintain the objectivity necessary to daoku — contemporary objective hokku.
We learn also that we may use an emotion in hokku, but it should be done objectively if at all — and in the minimal way characteristic of shinku. That permits us to write verses such as this one by Buson, without falling into the excessive added “thinking” that is so often characteristic of modern haiku.
What joy! Crossing the summer river, Sandals in hand.
In my previous posting, I discussed the lack of a practical, non-binary gender pronoun in English, bemoaning the unfortunate attempt to use “they”/”their”/”them” for a person who does not identify specifically as male or female — which just causes confusion, because those pronouns traditionally refer to plural subjects in English.
I was again hit by the need for a workable gender-neutral pronoun system yesterday, when I began reading a new nonfiction book in which the writer completely reversed the standard practice of using “he”/”him”/”his” (intended to refer to both genders) — instead, everything was “she”/”her”/”hers.” Where we would usually find “What matters is how he looks, what he achieves, and what he has,” the writer instead used “What matters is how she looks, what she achieves, and what she has.” But actually the author intended it for both males and females. And of course to a male, this is unsettling to say the least, because we males generally do not want to classified as “she.” But it also reveals the one-sided, masculine-dominant nature of the old “he”/”him”/”his” usage that is so predominant in English, and if the switch to a “she”/”her”/”hers” use in a book referring to both genders makes a male uncomfortable, one can only imagine how unpleasant it has been for females to endure the “he”/”him”/”his” standard in books all these long years.
Little did I know that someone (Charles Crozat Converse) had already come up with a gender-neutral pronoun system for English in the 19th century that actually made its way into a couple of dictionaries in 1897 and 1934 — “thon”/”thons.” So the sentence example I used above would read, “What matters is how thon looks, what thon achieves, and what thon has.” And the subject of the sentence can be either male, female, or not specifically-gender-identified — in other words, a fully gender-neutral pronoun system that causes no confusion at all, once one knows its meaning.
I have long felt uncomfortable using the “he”/his”/”him” standard in my own writing, because I know a considerable percentage of my readers are female. I usually end up using the lengthy “he/she” combination to acknowledge both, but have never been particularly happy with it due to the length, and of course in speech it would be even more unwieldy. I would be quite happy to use “thon” — and thus to give thon thon’s due — but of course how many would know its gender-neutral meaning now?
I was enjoying reading some light fiction this afternoon. Enjoying it, that is, until I came to a section in which a non-binary character was introduced.
A non-binary character or person is one who does not identify as specifically male or female, or may alternate between gender identities.
The problem here is pronouns. English, traditionally, divides humans into “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.” As society has become more aware and accepting of people who do not fit comfortably into a single category, there has been a movement to introduce new pronouns — to add them to the traditional he, she, him, her, his, and hers.
Well, I have no problem with that. There are languages that traditionally use a single pronoun for male and female and whatever might lie between, such as the u of Persian, which, in romantic poetry, enabled a male to speak of love with another male without specifying gender — so one might also interpret it as a male in love with a female, and the reverse. And Chinese traditionally has ta, which similarly is gender neutral, and whether it refers to a male or female is made clear by context.
Now personally, I find separate male and female pronouns very useful — but a gender-neutral pronoun could also be useful in many situations — and not just in referring to those with a non-binary self identification.
So why was I made so unhappy in the middle of my light reading when a non-binary character appeared on the page? Well, again, it is a matter of pronouns. When I read that a person is wearing a “white faux-fur hat that’s almost like a crown on top of their head,” my intellect instinctively rebels. And it does so because of the use of a plural pronoun for a singular person. — “on top of their head.” The book goes on to describe “giving them a kiss on the cheek” — but the person given the kiss is singular, not plural — not a them. Them, in English, is a plural pronoun.
The narrative continues by describing a character’s admiration for the brooch (unfortunately incorrectly spelled as “broach,” but that is another matter) worn by the non-binary person. And the person wearing the brooch “moves their fingers over the pin.” Well, no — the person does not. If “their” fingers are moving over the pin, common sense requires more than one person moving “their fingers over the pin.”
My objection to the use of “they,” “them” and “their” for a non-binary person is simply that it is a very impractical, awkward and ill-considered solution to the question of how a non-binary person should be respectfully addressed. And it is impractical simply because of the confusion created by using clearly plural pronouns (“them” / “their”) to refer to a singular person. To be really blunt, such a very poor solution is no genuine solution at all. There is no need to twist clear English into obscure English simply to satisfy a need that can easily be otherwise satisfied with introduction of non-confusing, gender-neutral singular pronouns.
Now again, I have no problem at all with adding such new gender-neutral personal and possessive pronouns to the English language for use with non-binary people who might prefer such a usage. But those pronouns should not be plural when a singular pronoun is required. They may be simply neutral — somewhat like “it” and “its” — but of course no one wishes to be or should be addressed as “it,” — so the need is simply for new pronouns added to the language that are respectful and non-gender specific — like Persian u and Chinese ta — and certainly not a confusing use of the standard plural English pronouns “they” and “them” and “theirs” for a singular subject.
Against the common sense solution, I have read an argument that using a plural pronoun for the singular is an old usage in English:
“This isn’t new – the saying ‘Everybody loves their own mother’ has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.“
That, of course, is a misunderstanding of the usage. When someone says (as they still may) “Everybody loves their own mother,” Everybody — in spite of its singular appearance — is understood in a plural sense as meaning “all people.” That is why the plural pronoun is often used in such cases, and why there is no confusion in understanding what is meant. But to commonly refer to a single person as “they,” and to use such convoluted sentences as “John kissed them on the cheek” when only one person is being kissed, is simply self-indulgent, ill-considered and willful distortion of clarity in the English language. There is no reason for using a very bad and impractical solution when a good and clear solution is so easily at hand.
First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku. It has a lot of “thinking.” To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country. But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.
Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus). In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer. If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:
As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound. Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes.
It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥, meaning “time bird.” So already we have two things associated with time in this verse: first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.
Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.
Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse. First, here it is rather literally:
京にても 京 なつかし や ほとゝぎす Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu
Mo here adds a kind of stress. Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”
So how then shall we translate the verse into English? Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:
Though in Kyōto, Still longing for Kyōto; A cuckoo.
In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out. That is the case with the last line. When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo. So we could also translate like this:
In Kyōto, Yet on hearing a cuckoo, Longing for Kyōto.
Though in Kyōto, On hearing the cuckoo, Longing for Kyōto.
In Kyōto, Yet longing for Kyōto; A cuckoo calls.
Or even like this, being far more loose:
In Kyōto, Yet when the cuckoo calls, Longing for Kyōto.
Now what does all this mean? It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past.
Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment. Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe. It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans. Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found. The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.
When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:
Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade
Suma Temple; Hearing the unblown flute In the shade beneath the trees.
Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.” So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka. And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori — who was about 16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept. Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males. So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.
Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood. And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku. And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.
Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:
If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:
Though in Kyōto, I long for Kyōto past; The call of the bird of time.
Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much. But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.
We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:
Though in Kyōto, On hearing the hototogisu, I long for the Kyōto that was.
Now what do we learn from all this? Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording. No matter how we may try, something will be lost. That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit. It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny. Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength. And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.
Well, by the Hokku Calendar we are in summer now. Coincidentally, someone just forwarded a question to me about a verse found in loose translation in the old Peter Pauper books that some may remember from the middle of the last century (if you were even alive in the last century). There it is mistakenly attributed to a “Gijoens.” But the name of the writer was actually Gijōen. And being a hokku about cicadas, it is of course a summer verse — though a bit farther into summer than we are now.
In the forwarded message, the person had asked for the original Japanese. Well, as you know, now I like to concentrate on hokku in English here most of the time, but given that the inquirer could not locate the original, perhaps others might be curious as well, so here it is:
Matsuyani wo hanare kanete ya semi no koe
Pine-pitch wo get-away-cannot ya cicada’s voice
松脂をはなれかねてや せみ の 聲
Here is my rendering:
Unable To escape the pine pitch; The cicada’s cry.
In the Japanese summer, the cries of cicadas can be very loud and noisy and persistent — a kind of constant background drone.
Though the blossoms On the cherry tree have gone — The young leaves!
It is not a very strong verse, but nonetheless we understand what he is getting at: while the universally-appreciated blossoms of the cherry have all fallen, after them come the fresh young leaves, and it takes someone with a rather developed aesthetic sense to appreciate those as well. That is a part of the hokku aesthetic — to appreciate the beauty of things that are not flamboyant, things that one may easily overlook.
We may say that after the beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom, the fresh green young leaves can hardly compare; but that is the point. In hokku we do not compare, but appreciate each part of Nature for what it is. In general, hokku favors the less obvious beauty, preferring the dandelion to the hothouse orchid.
I have added “though” to the original, because it makes its meaning more evident in English.
Charles Tuskey wrote and kindly shared the following hokku, after an old pattern used by Bashō. But Charles has made it completely new and fresh by giving it a different season and subject. Bashō wrote for winter, but Charles wrote for the season we are in — spring. Well, actually by the old Hokku Calendar, we just entered summer on May Day. So how you place yourself in a season depends not just on the calendar, but on your local climate as well. Where I am, a gentle rain has fallen and flowers are blooming, but higher in the mountains there is still snow on the ground.
Open the window, We’ll share something nice –– The sound of spring rain.
If you are curious about the old pattern used here, it was this verse by Bashō, in R. H. Blyth’s translation:
You light the fire; I’ll show you something nice, –– A great ball of snow.
I have to say that in this case, I much prefer the hokku by Charles Tuskey — but then I really like the spring and the sound of rain — and the delightful sentiment of sharing that simple but wonderful pleasure — the simplicity of spring rain, the simplicity of good hokku. The verse connects us immediately with Nature, which is what hokku is all about, with its subject matter being Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.
Well, we have again reached May Day — May 1st, Bealtaine, Beltane — the ancient beginning of summer by the old agricultural calendar and the Hokku Calendar.
There is an interesting poem by Edith Nesbit. You remember Edith Nesbit, don’t you? She is the lady who wrote those delightful novels for children — among them The Railway Children, and of course The Enchanted Castle. When I was a boy in grade school — elementary school — I came across an old copy of The Enchanted Castle in our tiny country school library. I thought I had found an undiscovered treasure, with the very unusual and absorbing story and the quaint illustrations.
But on to the poem. Perhaps you remember the earlier discussion here of Housman’s poem “Oh See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” about a clever girl who escapes seduction. Well, this poem has much the same theme, only this time seen from the female perspective — the very “liberated” female perspective — of Edith Nesbit. It is in the form of a dialogue between a young man whose thoughts have turned to love — well, most likely to sex, given the interests of young men — and the object of his affections — the girl.
Will you go a-maying, a-maying, a-maying, Come and be my Queen of May and pluck the may with me? The fields are full of daisy buds and new lambs playing, The bird is on the nest, dear, the blossom’s on the tree.’
The young fellow asks the girl if she will go out with him “a-maying” — ostensibly to celebrate May Day in one way or another — here he mentions only “plucking the may,” and of course from past discussions here, you will know that by “may” he means the white hawthorn blossoms, a symbol of May in Britain. But of course there is a subtext here, because to “go a-maying” also mean a romantic and often sexual encounter of young man and maid, out of the village and away from prying eyes.
‘If I go with you, if I go a-maying, To be your Queen and wear my crown this May-day bright, Hand in hand straying, it must be only playing, And playtime ends at sunset, and then good-night.
The girl responds with the sensible comment that if she goes a-maying — if she is his Queen and wears her crown, and goes out to celebrate with the young man — she wants him to know it is only for playing — and that playtime ends at sunset — so no rolling on the ground with him in the twilight or night — no sex. She intends to make no commitment. Often in villages a Queen of the May was chosen for May Day festivities, and that is what the girl means when she speaks of being his Queen.
The girl explains her reasons:
‘For I have heard of maidens who laughed and went a-maying, Went out queens and lost their crowns and came back slaves. I will be no young man’s slave, submitting and obeying, Bearing chains as those did, even to their graves.’
Well. She has very definite ideas, and has obviously heard the warnings about girls who were too free with young men, who lost their virginity (their “crown”) and ended up pregnant and in a forced marriage. Those were the days when brides were admonished to “love, honor, and obey,” and this girl has no intention of being seduced into pregnancy and marriage, and certainly no desire to spend the rest of her days “obeying” a male. ‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing, We will pluck the little flowers, enough for you and me; And when the day dies, end our one day’s playing, Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’
So that is the agreed outcome. If they are to go a-maying together, they can have their fun for the day — some delightful kisses perhaps, but nothing that turns into the smouldering desire that leads to sex. And when the day has ended, each can give a kiss, and take a kiss from the other — and then go home free. No bonds. No obligation. No pregnancy. No obeying.
As in Housman’s poem, this is a very clever girl who knows how to avoid trouble, and big trouble it was in those days to have an unwed pregnancy.
Of course behind all this is the ancient connection between spring and fertility and rites of sex among the young.
Some eleven years ago I mentioned here this spring hokku by Chora:
Stillness; The sound of petals falling Through the trees.
It is very appropriate for the ending of the season of spring blossoming trees such as the cherry.
Notice that even though Chora gives us the setting of the poem — stillness — he nonetheless mentions sound. That is because if is only in such stillness that the faint sound of the falling petals can be heard, which emphasizes the stillness even more. And of course what acute hearing one must have — something that often disappears as we age.
From the point of view of contemporary hokku, this is a daoku — a hokku that just presents a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. A daoku is a hokku without any added commentary or interpretation or intellectualization by the writer. In such a verse the writer is like a mirror reflecting the experience to the reader, so that the reader may have it too. To do that, the writer must get out of the way, and just let Nature speak. That makes daoku a very egoless kind of hokku, which gives it a very pure and direct feeling.
This is also a verse using the common and very helpful setting/subject/action form, which is useful not only for beginners in writing hokku in English, but also for experienced writers.
Setting: Stillness Subject: The sound of petals Action: Falling through the trees
A spring daoku hokku by Kodō (my loose translation):
The spring wind: Cloud shadows moving Across the field of barley.
We could also write it like this:
The spring wind; Cloud shadows move Across the field of barley.
It is very reminiscent of Kyoroku’s
A cool breeze; Cloud shadows passing Over the green fields.
A cool breeze; Cloud shadows pass Over the green fields.
Over the past years of discussing hokku here, I paid much attention to the Japanese context of a verse — often giving the original in Japanese. Having done that for a great many hokku over time, from now on I want to focus more on using the old hokku as examples of how to write new hokku in English.
That means I will pay less attention to giving very literal transliterations and translations, and more to just using the old hokku as they would be written in English — which often means a loose translation, and maybe at times even putting an old verse into a specifically Western context.
Of course there will be no change in the basic aesthetics of the hokku as I teach it — the form remains the same, as does the subject matter: Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.
I hope this approach will encourage new writers of hokku in English. Most of the principles given here are also easily adaptable to many other languages, for those who write in German or Dutch or French or Russian or Welsh or Spanish or Italian or whatever your first language may be.
Onitsura wrote a rather odd hokku that is more a philosophical reflection than a sensory experience, so we cannot call it a good hokku — but it is simply a statement of fact:
They bloom, And then we look at the cherry blossoms — And then they fall.
It is an expression of transience — but as a hokku it is too “thoughty” and covers too long a period of time. What we want when we write hokku today is more the daoku — the hokku giving us a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, without the thinking — the intellectualization — or the commentary of the writer.
Here is an example of a spring hokku you will find attributed online to Buson that demonstrates all that a hokku — in my view — should not be:
Swallowing clouds, It spits out cherry blossoms; Mount Yoshino.
That is the kind of cleverness that destroys good hokku. It is written entirely from the imagination — just a surreal fantasy. The mountain is not treated as a mountain, but is personified as something that swallows and spits.
You may also find the verse in reverse form on the Internet, like this:
Swallowing cherry blossoms, It spits out clouds; Mount Yoshino.
Which is original? It really does not matter, because either way is still bad as hokku.
The point of course, is that the white of clouds above Mount Yoshino are likened to the white cherry blossoms blooming on the mountain. But the way it is done — the mountain sucking in one and spitting out the other — turns it into a vulgar joke.
The better treatment of two similar subjects is demonstrated by Kyoroku in this summer hokku, which in English we can classify as a daoku — a verse without the thinking, imagination, or commentary of the writer added:
Above white cloth Spread out in the sun — Billowing clouds.
That way we have the direct sensory experience of the white cloth and the white clouds as they are — and not smeared with the imagination of the writer. And we feel the breeze in the billowing of the sheets.
If we were to write a similar verse in English, it could be something like this as a summer daoku (but we are not in summer yet):
Above white sheets Billowing on the clothesline — Passing clouds.
I think many young people today do not know that something has been lost in the transition from the old outdoors clothesline to the indoor dryer.
Put very simply, today’s poem by the homosexual poet and Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is a word painting of a small waterfall on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in Scotland. He visited it in autumn of 1881, on a somewhat dark and gloomy day.
The poem is in the usual rather difficult Hopkinsese — his peculiar poetic language that mixes archaic and regional and made-up words — which can be both pleasing and, at times, mystifying. With Hopkins one sometimes has the feeling of reading a foreign language. But fear not; all shall be explained here. Keep in mind that some Hopkins terminology is open to differences of opinion. I shall discuss the poem stanza by stanza.
This darksome burn, horseback brown, His rollrock highroad roaring down, In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
First let’s discuss vocabulary:
“Darksome” means simply dark.
A “burn” is a stream. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), it appears in later English as “bourne,” but has largely fallen out of use except in the Scots language, which is why Hopkins uses it here for a stream in Scotland.
“Rollrock highroad” is Hopkins’ way of describing high, rocky course of the stream, with its tumbled boulders. A highroad is a main road — and it is used here to describe the stream out of which the waterfall plunges. And “rollrock” makes us feel the tumbled rocky nature of the stream and the basin into which it falls — so the “rollrock highroad” here is the high rocky stream from which the waterfall plunges down among tumbled boulders.
“Coop” is an old term for a basket. This describes the rocky depressions in the course of the stream.
“Comb” indicates the rocks through which the water flows, like hair through a comb, or like fleece being combed. “Comb” also is an old word for a valley or large depression, but Hopkins likely intends the first meaning here.
“Fleece” is the wooly hair of a sheep or goat. Hopkins uses it here to describe the white foam on the water.
“Flutes” is a verb here, from the noun “flute” in the sense of a channel or groove, as in an architectural column. It describes the water dividing into narrow strands as it becomes a waterfall, plunging down among the rocks of the lower stream.
Now that we know all that, what Hopkins is saying is simply this:
The dark stream, brown as the back of a horse, comes roaring down among tumbled boulders. Flowing through depressions (“coop”) and divided by rocks in its path (“comb”), the fleece-like foamy water finally “flutes” — that is, divides into strands as it falls over the rocks and into the plunge basin, and flows on down to where, lower, the water finally empties into the lake — that is, into Loch Lomond.
Now why would the water be so brown? Well, first we must keep in mind that this is autumn, in which the Loch Lomond area gets roughly 17 to 20 days of rain per month, which tends to muddy the streams. But also it is an area of peat bogs, which can turn water a brown color. There is something similar in my state — Root Beer Falls on the Williamson River in Klamath County, Oregon. I saw it once, and the water really is brown as root beer, from the tinge the Williamson River picks up from the Klamath Marsh.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth Turns and twindles over the broth Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning, It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Hopkins begins by describing the foam on the water as a “windpuff bonnet.” I believe this is often misunderstood. One commentator, for example, opines that Hopkins mean the foam was like a bonnet puffed up by the wind. But actually Hopkins, in his typical fashion, meant something even more odd here. A “windpuff” is a kind of bubble-like swelling that sometimes appears on the fetlock of horses. The fetlock is that last wide part near the bottom of the leg, after which it narrows and joins the hoof. So Hopkins is likening the foam on the water to a bonnet (a “covering” that is, like a bonnet covers the head) of windpuffs — of bubble swellings.
“Fawn-froth” describes the brown and white coloring of the foam — the “froth” on the water.
“Twindles” is a Hopkins-made word that seems to combine “twirls” and the old word “windle,” meaning “to turn round and round” — describing the whirlpool swirling of the brownish-white foam on the water.
“Pitchblack” refers to the blackness of a pitch made by distilling, a process that makes it very black or dark brown and sticky; it is not the natural amber-colored pitch one sees on the bark of coniferous trees.
“Fell” means evil or cruel, but it also means a high and barren mountainous region — so “fell-frowning” means both to frown in an evil manner and gloomy as the barren hills — like the rocks that brood over the falls.
So, given all that, here is what the stanza means:
A covering of bubbles like the swellings on the fetlocks of horses, dappled like the skin of a fawn, turns and twirls over the water of a pool so pitch black and gloomy-evil-looking that it swirls round and round like a kind of hopeless despair, finally “drowning” — that is, sucking the water down in the center, like water swirling down a drain.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
“Degged” is an old Northern English dialect word meaning “sprinkled”
“Groins” as used here is an architectural term, meaning here the curving of the rocks through which the water flows.
A “brae” is a bank or shore (of a stream) — the word is again Scots.
“Heathpacks” here are clumps of the heather — the heath plant — so common in Scotland.
“Flitches” is rather obscure here. Hopkins seems to be likening the fronds of ferns growing on the banks to thin slices — i. e. “fronds of fern.”
The “bead-bonny ash” is the rowan tree with its clusters of orange-red berries that look like beads, that is, the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) not the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) tree found in Britain. “Bonny” is Scots for “beautiful.”
We can translate all that as:
The curved, rocky banks that the brook flows through are sprinkled and dappled with dew on wiry clumps of heather, fronds of ferns, and the beautiful berries of the mountain ash that hangs over the stream.
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
There is nothing difficult in this last stanza. Hopkins simply states that the world would not be the same without the wetness and wildness of places like Inversnaid, with its rocky stream and waterfall. He pleads that such places should be left as they are, and ends with the hope “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
It is the same sentiment we find in his poem Binsey Poplars, which similarly pleas for leaving nature alone:
O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew — Hack and rack the growing green! Since country is so tender To touch, her being só slender, That, like this sleek and seeing ball But a prick will make no eye at all, Where we, even where we mean To mend her we end her, When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
It is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated, however, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, as expressed in his essay “Walking”:
“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.“
A poem by English poet and Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) — quite a good-looking fellow in his younger years, as you can see.
SPRING GOETH ALL IN WHITE
Spring goeth all in white, Crowned with milk-white may: In fleecy flocks of light O’er heaven the white clouds stray:
White butterflies in the air; White daisies prank the ground: The cherry and hoary pear Scatter their snow around.
Bridges tells us spring goes all in white. He actually uses “goeth” — the archaic form of “goes” — because he was still in the period when Elizabethan English in verse was considered poetic. He tells us that Spring (let’s capitalize it to personify it) is crowned with milk-white may — that is, with white Hawthorn blossoms.
He says the white clouds stray “in fleecy flocks of light,” likening the white clouds drifting across the sky to a flock of sheep with their white fleeces.
He adds to this the white butterflies fluttering through the air, the tiny white daisies scattered through the grass, and the cherry trees and the hoary (“white” here) pears both in flower that “scatter their snow around” — meaning scattering their white blossoms like snow. We have seen this likening of white cherry blossoms to snow before, in the discussion of A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” which ends with these lines:
And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
In his “white on white on white…” description of spring, Bridges details six white things:
Milk-white may. By “may,” he means the may blossoms — the white flowers of the Hawthorn tree (Crataegus monogyna):
2. The white clouds floating in the sky, like a flock of straying sheep:
3. White butterflies fluttering in the air (Pieris species; the photo is of Pieris rapae):
4. White daisies that “prank” — that is, adorn or decorate in a showy way — the ground. He is referring to those tiny English daisies (Bellis perennis) that dot the grass in spring>
5. The blossoming cherry:
6. And the blossoming pear:
The poem is a beautiful study in the whites of spring, giving us a feeling of newness, freshness, purity and light.
A well-known poem by American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):
“HOPE” IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickinson, in this simple poem, compares hope to a bird perching in the inmost mind, like a songbird in its cage. And like a songbird, it continually sings its wordless tune — that is, hope is continually expressed wordlessly, from deep within the mind (“the soul”)
She says hope is sweetest in the gale — meaning it is when life is difficult, and our emotions turbulent as a windstorm, that hope is appreciated and valued by us all the more. And it would take a very terrible (“sore”) storm in life to hinder the hope that has given so many something to live for in times of great trouble.
Hope is heard in all kinds of circumstances. Dickinson is not being literal but rather metaphorical when she speaks of hearing it in the “chillest land” — that is, the coldest and most forbidding of circumstances, and on the “strangest sea” — those times when life seems so vast and trying and unfamiliar. And yet through all these trials, even to the farthest limits of human endurance — hope asks nothing of the person who hosts it, but sings on without reward or encouragement.
One of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose hope — that bright, singing spark that keeps us going no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how troubling the psychological challenges. It is at those times that we most need to listen carefully for the “thing with feathers” that sings its encouraging song deep within us.
Every now and then, I just like to share something I have found pleasant or interesting in one way or another. Here is this handsome and extremely talented Polish fellow — Jakub Józef Orliński — singing the Vivaldi aria Vedrò con mio diletto — “I Shall See to my Delight”:
Apparently he was surprised to find an audience present instead of just a private recording session when this video was made — but I find his casual clothing for the event delightful. I don’t know why people feel they have to “dress up” for classical music.
Here are the words in Italian and English:
Vedrò con mio diletto
Vedrò con mio diletto / I shall see, to my delight,
L’alma dell’alma mia / The soul of my soul —
dell’alma mia / Of my soul,
Il core del mio cor / The heart of my heart,
Pien di contento / Full of happiness,
Pien di contento / Full of happiness.
Vedrò con mio diletto / I shall see, to my delight,
Here is another translated poem by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:
THE MORNING SEA
Let me stop here; and let me also look at nature a while. Sea of morning and cloudless sky Brilliant mauve, and yellow shore — All beautiful and bright.
Let me stop here; and let me smile as I see them — I did actually see them a moment when first I stopped, And not my fantasies here — My memories — the sensual images.
Cavafy pauses at the shore of the Mediterranean to look at the view — the morning sea, sky, and shore .
He smiles as he looks, because after only a moment of seeing sea, sky, and shore, his vision turned inward, and then he saw nothing but the images in his mind of sensual — that is, sexual — memories.
As so often happens with us, he is looking but not really seeing — lost in the images within his mind instead of the view before him.
It is amazing how much time we humans spend in our memories, thoughts and imagination rather than in the reality of the world around us. And even when we are aware of that world, we all too often see it through the distorting glass of our fears, hopes, and expectations. We really live in two worlds — the outer and the inner, and frequently — like Cavafy in this poem — far more in the latter.
Where I translate “let me smile,” others have “let me pretend” or “let me fool myself.”
Here is the poem in a phonetic transliteration, so you may get some sense of the sound of the original:
Edó as stathó. Ki as do k’ egó tin fýsi lígo.
Thálassas tou proïoú ki anéfelou ouranoú
lamprá maviá, kai kítrini óchthi:
óla oraía kai megála fotisména.
Edó as stathó. Ki as gelasthó pos vlépo aftá
ta eíd’ alítheia mia stigmí san protostáthika
ki óchi k’ edó tes fantasíes mou, tes anamníseis mou,
ta indálmata tis idonís.
And here is the original Greek:
Θάλασσα του πρωϊού
Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας δω κ’ εγώ την φύσι λίγο.
Θάλασσας του πρωϊού κι ανέφελου ουρανού
λαμπρά μαβιά, και κίτρινη όχθη· όλα
ωραία και μεγάλα φωτισμένα.
Εδώ ας σταθώ. Κι ας γελασθώ πως βλέπω αυτά
(τα είδ’ αλήθεια μια στιγμή σαν πρωτοστάθηκα)·
κι όχι κ’ εδώ τες φαντασίες μου,
τες αναμνήσεις μου, τα ινδάλματα της ηδονής.
In the last quarter of 2020, I began reading a genre of books totally new to me — something that did not exist at all when I was a boy — YA (“young adult”) gay-themed fiction.
I got quite a surprise , because not only did I find some (of course not all) of the books entertaining, but I also saw how helpful they could be to people in their teens with same-sex attraction, as well as to their friends, relatives, and others wanting to have a better understanding of that orientation. And YA books — though they do include a bit of sex here and there — tend to do it very tastefully and as a helpful ancillary to the overall plot. That is quite in contrast to many adult gay-themed books, which as I quickly found all too often emphasize graphic sex over story line.
In the past few months I have read quite a number of books in this new-to-me genre, and would like to recommend some of the best of them — the ones I enjoyed most — to those who might be interested. I will do that gradually over time.
First, I would like to introduce you briefly to two related books by Michael Barakiva that I highly recommend — One Man Guyand Hold My Hand.
First, One Man Guy:
Meet Alek Khederian and his very Armenian-American family. They are seated at a restaurant as Alek’s mother runs the unsuspecting waitress through a lengthy interrogation concerning the water and food, prompting Alek’s view that Armenian restaurant-goers should come with a warning label: “Waiting on Armenians Might Be Hazardous to Your Health.”
While they are at table, Alek’s parents inform him he is going to summer school — much to his displeasure. That is the first hint we have that Alek’s life is largely guided by his parents, who keep a short but concerned and loving leash on his activities. But just before summer school begins, Alek has an unexpected and life-changing encounter with a boy named Ethan — just the beginning of the coming together of their two very different worlds. Where dark-haired Alek is conservative and restrained, liberal, blond Ethan — at least to Alek’s eyes — is the very embodiment of cool.
We follow the two as Alek reacts to Ethan’s challenging, adventurous and free-spirited personality — and Ethan follows his strong attraction to Alek.
Michael Barakiva has created a very absorbing and loving portrait of two very different young guys exploring their youthful world and their feelings together — and of how the beginning of their journey affects those around them.
Hold My Hand is the must-read sequel for those who met Alek and Ethan in One Man Guy. As often happens in life, it turns out the road for these two is not always without obstacles. Through their experiences, we learn the importance of trust, honesty, fidelity and forgiveness in relationships. We also learn that normally-quiet Alek is not afraid to take on the backward attitudes and prejudices of the Armenian Orthodox Church concerning same-sex attraction.
As you can tell, I don’t want to reveal too much of the story. I don’t want take away from the freshness and enjoyment of it. Suffice it to say that Michael Barakiva has written a very touching and often deeply moving story of young love and of growth through facing the difficulties that life and relationships can bring us.
As I turned the pages of Hold My Hand, I found myself giving an unexpected amount of thought to the psychology of the interactions of Ethan and Alek — how their backgrounds and personal issues may have motivated them to react to events as they did. The book certainly offers much to ponder about the nature of relationships, whether among teens or adults.
I will add that when you finish the second of the two books, you will probably — like me — not want the story of Alek and Ethan to end.
One Man Guy, by Michael Barakiva; Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 27, 2014)
Hold My Hand, by Michael Barakiva Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) (May 21, 2019)
Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.
I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.
The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well. That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.
The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:
LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING
I heard a thousand blended notes, While in a grove I sate reclined, In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees. Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds. It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.
To her fair works did Nature link The human soul that through me ran; And much it grieved my heart to think What man has made of man.
The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature. We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that. But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; And ’tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes.
The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove. Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played, Their thoughts I cannot measure:— But the least motion which they made It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan, To catch the breezy air; And I must think, do all I can, That there was pleasure there.
Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure. So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.
If this belief from heaven be sent, If such be Nature’s holy plan, Have I not reason to lament What man has made of man?
Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing. He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows. He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?
The poem has some memorable lines: And ’tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect. Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.
So that is the flaw in this poem. Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided. It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete. Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.
While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works. To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them. We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.
The horse Chomping and chomping straw; A snowy night.
The loud chomping noises only emphasize the stillness of the night of snow, so we can say this is a hokku with harmony of contrast — two very different things put together that nonetheless come out as harmonious instead of discordant.
Best wishes to everyone on this New Year’s Eve for a far better and happier coming year than the last has been.
It has rained on and off — and very heavily when on — here for many days now. Most of the colorful autumn leaves have fallen.
Here is a verse by Kaen from the old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams, but in my loose translation. You will notice that it has a dash of “thinking,” so in our system it is a shinku (hokku with a bit of thinking added) rather than a daoku (completely objective hokku):
Loneliness: The pattering of rain On fallen leaves.
Hara-hara to oto shite sabishi ame ochiba
Falling to sound making lonely rain fallen-leaves
It of course reminds us of a similar well-known verse by Gyōdai that qualifies as daoku, being completely objective: It is one of the simplest and best old hokku:
Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu
Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats
Leaves fall And pile up; Rain beats on rain.
R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:
Leaves falling, Lie on one another; The rain beats on the rain.
When we compare Kaen’s verse with that of Gyōdai, we can easily see it is the addition of “loneliness” that makes it a shinku instead of a daoku. That “loneliness” is the adding of the writer’s personal interpretation of the sound of the rain pattering on the fallen leaves. Gyōdai, however, simply presents us with the leaves falling and piling up and the rain beating on the rain, and we feel what is openly stated in Kaen’s verse without the need to say it. It is the old maxim we heard so often in school — “Show, don’t tell.”
There is no single English word that exactly corresponds to sabishi. It combines elements of being alone and solitary with a kind of profound, wistful, existential sadness. It does not have so much of the implications of “deprived of human company” that we sense in the English word “loneliness.”
Tonight is Halloween — Samhain. In the old agricultural calendar and in the hokku calendar, it marks autumn’s end and the beginning of winter.
This year it is unusual in having a “blue moon” — the second full moon in a month. It is unusual also in that the usual festive activities of children and adults have been disrupted by the uncontrolled spread of the virus, due partly to the dangerously incompetent presidential administration in Washington.
The American “prairie” poet, writer, and biographer of Lincoln Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) wrote an unusual poem in which he gives a single, colletive voice to the pumpkin — that common symbol of Halloween in the United States, particularly when carved into a Jack-o’ lantern. It is titled
THEME IN YELLOW
I spot the hills With yellow balls in autumn. I light the prairie cornfields Orange and tawny gold clusters And I am called pumpkins. On the last of October When dusk is fallen Children circle round me Singing ghost songs And love to the harvest moon; I am jack-o’lantern With terrible teeth And the children know I am fooling.
It is an easy poem to understand, and one can readily visualize the low hill fields spotted with pumpkins, and the prairie cornfields ( fields of maize to speakers of British English) with their clusters of pumpkin vines.
Then Sandburg moves to Halloween (“the last of October”) and the celebrations of children, having fun scaring one another with the notion of ghosts, and so expressing their love of Halloween “to the harvest moon.”
The summation of Halloween comes in the last line, when in spite of the frightful appearance of “jack-o’-lantern / With terrible teeth,” Sandburg as pumpkin gives the secret of the joy of the night away:
“And the children know I am fooling.”
It is the combination of the fearful elements of Halloween with the knowledge that it is all “fooling” that has made it a unique and much-anticipated celebration for children and young adults.
This Halloween marks a crucial time for the United States. It will shortly be followed by the Presidential election, and there is great fear and stress that if we do not have a change of administration voted in this beginning of November, it will mean not only four more years of unpredictable and perilous chaos, but also an even deeper decline and fall into ongoing authoritarianism, kleptocracy, and the perhaps final national loss of the best of traditional American values — as well as the disastrous continuation of unbridled climate change and environmental rape and destruction. That should be enough to frighten anyone this Halloween, not only in the United States but in the entire free world. And that is no fooling.
Pale amber sunlight falls across The reddening October trees, That hardly sway before a breeze As soft as summer: summer’s loss Seems little, dear! on days like these!
Autumn (or the Fall, as we say in America) does have its lovely days of honey-golden light. And it can have its gentle October days filled with the coloring and falling of the leaves, which add their own distinctive fragrance to the season. One might well think on such days that the passing of summer is little loss.
Let misty autumn be our part! The twilight of the year is sweet: Where shadow and the darkness meet Our love, a twilight of the heart Eludes a little time’s deceit.
Let us have autumn!, Dowson says. Autumn is the twilight of the year, as in hokku it is the late afternoon to early evening, and in human life it is the passage into old age — the “autumn of life.” But here Dowson is talking about a love affair during this twilight of the year — a last love affair — a twilight of the heart — before the passage of time takes it all away.
Are we not better and at home In dreamful Autumn, we who deem No harvest joy is worth a dream? A little while and night shall come, A little while, then, let us dream.
Is it not better, he says, to stay away from the rest of the world in its harvest celebrations, and keep to ourselves and our “dream of love,” illusory though it may be. And he thinks no joy in harvest is worth this brief dream of love. So soon the night will come and the dream will end, but let us dream while we may. Yes, it is escapism, but poor Dowson, as we have seen in the earlier posting, had reason in his sad life for escapism.
Beyond the pearled horizons lie Winter and night: awaiting these We garner this poor hour of ease, Until love turn from us and die Beneath the drear November trees
Beyond the pearled (bluish-gray) horizons — that is, beyond the present time, lie winter and night, symbolizing to Dowson the end of things — of life and joy and pleasure and sadness. So, he says, we garner (take and hold) this “poor hour of ease,” that is, the brief time of their love affair, their dream — until it all comes to an end, and he sees “love turn from us and die / Beneath the drear November trees. By November, of course, the gentle and lovely October days of bright leaves and leaf-scented walks are past — and cold and rain have replaced them. And for Dowson, love inevitably would end, would “turn from us and die.”
Basically, this is another “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” poem that tells people life is not easy nor is it lasting. Matthew Arnold wrote,
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
Dowson would certainly have agreed with much of that, though he obviously felt that love itself is a temporary illusion rather than a long and faithful bond; beautiful while it lasts, like the fragrance of a rose — but evanescent and all too soon gone. That, of course reflects the downward course of his young life, but he did leave some memorable words behind.
The old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams attributes this autumn hokku to Bashō — though I have not been able to find it in collections of his verses. In modern hokku terms it would be a daoku, that is, an objective hokku, but whether it was so originally, I cannot say. Remember that sometimes old hokku were written with a double meaning. I prefer to take it as objective, which makes it in my view a far better verse than a subjective interpretation would offer:
Morning wind; Only one wild goose In the white clouds.
Or we could revise it somewhat to improve the flow:
Morning wind; Among the white clouds — A lone wild goose.
Asa kaze ya tada shira kumo ni kari hitotsu Morning wind ya only white clouds at wild-goose one
It gives us a feeling of solitude that one senses in many autumn hokku, when, as Nature begins to turn inward, so do humans.
It often seems to me as I translate, that when writing hokku, English generally gives us far more options for word choices and shades of meaning than the traditional Japanese “hokku” vocabulary. Is that just a limited perception or reality? It would be interesting to hear a learned Japanese view on this.
The news says that where I live — as of now — we have the worst air quality on the planet. That is due to the massive wildfires on the West Coast of the United States.
Whether literally or metaphorically, depending on place, our planet is on fire. The present devastating forest fires burning here in the Pacific Northwest are extraordinary — nothing I have ever seen in my lifetime. And we can look to the complete lack of government climate action as a heavy contributor to that.
I had hoped the heavy wildfire smoke blanketing my area of the city would be gone when I woke this morning, but it is as thick as ever outside, and visibility is very low — the smoke equivalent of a fog. I smell it indoors, but there is nothing I can do about it. By the time I get an air purifier delivered, the matter of smoke here will likely have resolved for the time being, as we are to have a weather change Sunday or Monday (it is now Friday) that may help to keep the smoke at bay.
I just read that the fire is creeping closer to the city suburbs, but I think it is still comparatively distant, and there is not thick forest all around the city as there is where the fires are burning now. So I suspect our major problem here will be the dense and harmful smoke. And of course there are many homeless people out in it.
As for now, it is just something we have to endure. Large numbers of people in the rural areas have already been burnt out or ordered to evacuate.
As someone said, if warnings such as these massive fires were to be compared to the canary in a coal mine, we would be knee-deep in dead canaries now. And we are only at the beginning of the coming world-wide climate and environmental troubles.
This is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of planetary survival. We absolutely must remove from office government leaders who will not seriously deal with climate change. And in the United States, we can begin in the upcoming election.
On reading this poem by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), one cannot help but be struck by the great contrast with the present American administration. It could have been written specifically for the dismal situation in which we now find ourselves in the United States. It reminds us of values and ideals many Americans seem to have forgotten or to have discarded in favor of base emotions, crass tribalism, and personal gain. For “God” we can easily substitute a plea to the national conscience, and to “men” we must of course add “women”:
GOD, GIVE US MEN
God, give us men! A time like this demands Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands; Men whom the lust of office does not kill; Men whom the spoils of office can not buy; Men who possess opinions and a will; Men who have honor; men who will not lie; Men who can stand before a demagogue And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking! Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog In public duty, and in private thinking; For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds, Their large professions and their little deeds, Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps, Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.
Read the daily news, and you will see endless examples of wrong ruling the land and justice sleeping. A great deal, not only for the United States but for the planet, is at stake in the upcoming election. One can only hope that those who voted in the disastrous administration we have had these last four years will come to their senses and return to the highest ideals held forth by the best and brightest souls this country has produced over the years. Then perhaps the country can begin to climb out of the dark slough into which it has fallen.
As I often say, some old Japanese hokku were needlessly vague — something we want to avoid when writing new hokku. There is, for example, this verse by Sora:
yomosugara akikaze kiku ya ura no yama
よ も すがら 秋 風 聞くや 裏 の 山
All night autumn wind hear ya behind ‘s mountain
As it is written in Japanese, one would read it as:
All night long
Listening to the wind;
The mountain behind.
That, however, fails in English to adequately make the link between the wind and the mountain/mountains (remember that in Japanese there is no written plural)
I would prefer this understanding, in daoku form:
All night long, Listening to the wind On the mountains behind.
That way we we know that the writer is listening all the night to the wind blowing through the trees on the mountains behind where he is lodging.
Historically, Sora was apparently kept awake by an illness when he wrote this, but a hokku should not be linked firmly to its original circumstances if it is to become our experience as well — as a hokku should. There are many reasons for being awake all the night, with only the sound of the wind on the hills.
English is an interesting and useful language, but I am glad I grew up speaking it instead of having to learn it as a second language. That is because it is filled with countless idiomatic usages and traditional ways of saying things.
What does this have to do with hokku? It relates to how we use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) — particularly in first lines.
Look at these examples of possible first lines:
An English speaker automatically feels that the following require “the”:
The autumn moon;
The evening star;
The hot stone;
However these can be either with or without “the”:
Trying to come up with a fixed rule to fit all possibilities would be devilishly difficult, because it is often just a matter of traditional usage and common speech — in short, what sounds right to one brought up speaking English. For those learning the language, it is a constant effort to determine what is normal in each particular case.
This is often an initial difficulty for those coming to hokku from long exposure to modern haiku, which tends to frequently avoid the use of articles, thinking that there is a virtue in making a verse as grammatically minimal as possible.
That mistaken notion is partly derived from seeing literal translations of Japanese hokku; Japanese does not have articles or plurals. But English is quite unlike Japanese, and to try to mix English words and Japanese grammar just comes out as odd. This trend toward excessive minimalism in modern haiku is also partly the influence of the experimentalism in English-language poetry of the first half of the 20th century, which sometimes found even eliminating punctuation desirable.
Of course if we carried this idea of minimalization by elimination of articles to its logical conclusion, we would be writing hokku, such as the verse I posted yesterday, in a form like this:
Instead of like this:
The autumn moon;
On the floor —
The shadow of the pine.
In short, we would be writing in pidgin English. And of course many in modern haiku would even eliminate the capitalization and punctuation. But in contemporary hokku, we do not go for the peculiar. We use ordinary English in ordinary ways.
When people come to hokku from modern haiku, they are often so accustomed to the partial (or even complete at times) elimination of articles and punctuation that seeing a hokku written in normal English seems initially peculiar to them, because they have been mistakenly conditioned to think that writing a verse requires some kind of special, abbreviated language. But in hokku, we just write of ordinary things in ordinary English.
It is true that in hokku we keep to the principles of poverty and simplicity — that is, eliminating all that is unnecessary so as to make a stronger verse. That does not, however, extend to the deliberate distortion of common English usage to fit a preconceived and mistaken notion that by doing so, a verse is somehow made better.
Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.
The autumn moon; Across the floor — The shadow of the pine.
Literally, in Japanese it is:
Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage 名 月 や 畳 の 上 に 松 の 影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow
The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon. Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.
We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:
The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.
It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.
We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:
A pine shadow
Across the floor.
As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku. If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.
Here is a hokku by Chora that requires a rather interpretive translation to make sense in English.
Autumn begins; In the flowing clouds The wind is seen.
The flow of clouds in the sky reveals the wind — the first sign of the wind of autumn that will become more and more obvious as the season progresses. It is the wind that carries the clouds across the sky.
In the Japanese original, it is like this:
Clouds flowing —
The wind is seen.
If one reads that before the interpretive translation however, English speakers are likely to fail to see the connection between the clouds and the wind, which is why an interpretive translation makes the relationship clear — and thus is better.
Aki tatsu ya kumo wa nagarete kaze miyuru 秋 たつ や 雲 は ながれて 風 見 ゆる
Autumn begins ya cloud wa flow wind is-seen
Remember that a hokku should be simple and clear; one should not have to puzzle it out. Its effect on the reader should be immediate. Vagueness was sometimes found in old Japanese hokku, but it was a flaw rather than a virtue, and should not be emulated when composing in English.
On the white wall, Shadows of dragonflies Flitting by.
白 壁に 蜻 蛉 過ぐる 日 影 かな Shira-kabe ni tombō suguru hikage kana White wall on dragonfly pass shadow kana
The shadows of the dragonflies and their translucent wings on the white wall in the autumn sun are fleeting, and their impermanence is in keeping with the sense of autumn as a time when impermanence is much in evidence.
This hokku is a study in grey and white — the whiteness of the wall, and the faint grey shadows of the dragonflies — so it is very simple, but also effective.
This daoku (objective hokku) is a good example of the “setting/subject/action” form because they are so clearly separated here:
Setting: On the white wall
Subject: Shadows of dragonflies
Action: Flitting by
The S/S/A form is a very good one for beginners in hokku because it enables them to arrange the significant elements of a hokku experience easily, and countless hokku can be written using it. Because it is simple does not mean, however, that it is only for beginners. It is a good tool for writers of hokku at any stage, from beginner to very advanced.
For those of you who may come to hokku from other short verse traditions such as modern haiku, be sure to note the definite characteristics of the daoku form:
It consists of three lines.
The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts to the verse, one long and one short.
The two parts are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.
The daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.
Remember that unlike modern haiku, contemporary hokku in English has not only a definite form, but also definite aesthetic principles that the student of hokku must gradually learn and absorb. Also unlike much of modern haiku, hokku keeps the strong connection with the seasons found in old hokku, so every verse has a seasonal heading in parentheses, as you see above.
Also, it is very important to remember that unlike much of modern haiku, contemporary hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.
If you are unfamiliar with the term daoku, it simply means an objective hokku — one without any opinions or comments of the writer added, or as we commonly say, “no thinking.” Daoku form means the standard form we use in writing contemporary hokku — the form shown above.
I have discussed today’s verse before (in 2017), but it is worth mentioning again in a little more detail. It was written by Kyoshi, whose prolific verses on the whole tend to be rather bland, and who wrote in and beyond the time of Shiki. He even took over as editor of the magazine — Hototogisu — that Shiki had formerly edited. That means we are in the “haiku” period, even though like Shiki, Kyoshi kept season words and a more conservative kind of verse that was sometimes indistinguishable from hokku — which is why I am discussing a verse by him today as daoku (objective hokku) in English. Here it is:
Falling On the dust on the stones — Autumn rain.
Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame 石 の 上 の 埃 に 降るや 秋 の 雨 Stone ‘s on ‘s dust at falling ya autumn ‘s rain
I think of this as one of those transitional verses written at the time when one season has begun merging into another, in this case summer has transitioned into autumn. We still feel the lingering heat and dryness of summer in the dust on the stones, but the rain is the rain of autumn, and its drops spatter the dust on the stones into mud. It is a very objective verse, and quite good because it not only lets us feel the seasonal change clearly, but it also has a strong appeal to the senses in its mixture of dryness (Yang) and wetness (Yin). So we see it is a verse with harmony of contrast.
You may recall that harmony of contrast is a technique used in hokku through combining things felt to be opposite or contrary in a way that reveals an underlying harmony, as in this combination of dust and rain, dryness and wetness, that nonetheless create a very satisfying combination.
We could translate the verse very closely to Kyoshi, like this:
On the dust On the stones it falls — Autumn rain.
There is something a bit awkward about that, however, as we often find when we try to translate more literally. So we could translate a bit more loosely, while still keeping the meaning:
Spattering The dust on the stones — Autumn rain.
You may recall that I once made a slight variation on Kyoshi’s verse in this daoku:
Autumn begins; Rain spatters the dust On the stones.
R. H. Blyth spoke of the poet “dissolved in the object,” by which he meant the same as we say in hokku: that the writer must get out of the way so that Nature may speak. That selflessness is the objectivity of daoku. Today’s verse, therefore, well qualifies as daoku– objective hokku.
As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku. Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.
So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.
When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:
“Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.
Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.”
Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:
“To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)
Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.
Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?
Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street. It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons. It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day. We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not). It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.
On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’ We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why. Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.
Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.
Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door. We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.
That poverty also extends to the verse we write. Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse. It uses simple words in simple ways. It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject. Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons. That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.
That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks. Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost. Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:
Among the stones In the stone seller’s yard — Blooming chrysanthemums.
菊 の 花 咲く や 石屋 の 石 の 間 Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among
We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year. Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature. In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see. The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).
In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight. In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age. It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter. In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.
Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life. We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.
The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku. Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles. I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them. If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.
Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation. In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry. That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today. Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku. The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.
The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been. But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.
What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?
First, there is the form. As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably. Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. All of these are permissible in modern haiku.
In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized. A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two. It is divided into two segments: a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one. The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end. The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku). The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation. This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.
A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season. In hokku season is crucially important. Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season. Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season. That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons. Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku. In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:
That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.
Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature. In hokku, Nature is all important. The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.” Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.
Then there is the matter of topics. Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality. That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence. Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.
In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible. That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”). In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical. The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak. In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.” In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku. Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).
Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it. I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku. And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude. How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.
Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.
Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple. Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write. Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku. Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku. Many people have never heard of the hokku. When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.” And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.
That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.
Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference. Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires. Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal: to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.
For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.
Ivan M. Granger — founder and editor of the Poetry Chaikhana website — (https://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/ ) — has bravely sent me a book for review. I say “bravely,” because he knows I am very critical of the modern haiku movement, and the book received is definitely about haiku. And if I do not even spare nice old ladies who put into print bad renderings of Bashō , what am I likely to say about a new book advocating the writing of haiku — that mutated offshoot of the old hokku?
Well, let’s see. Off we go.
by Gabriel Rosenstock
Published by Poetry Chaikhana
The first thing one notes about this book is the author’s enthusiasm. Whatever one may conclude about his views, one cannot deny that Gabriel is sparklingly enthusiastic about his subject, which is evident in the book from beginning to end.
Next comes a surprise. Unlike the majority of the present pundits of the modern haiku community, which has done its best to completely separate haiku from its spiritual origins, Gabriel has no qualms about passionately advocating just the opposite: a very strong grounding of his brand of haiku in non-dogmatic spirituality. That is evident even in his use of the loaded word “Enlightenment” in the book’s title.
Well, as I have always said, no one ever became enlightened by writing hokku. I can safely say the same of haiku. But that one might get a “little” and lower-case enlightenment is something even stated by R. H. Blyth. It is not the upper-case “big” enlightenment of Buddhism — but it is a very momentary and transitory experience in which the writer or reader becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (that which is written about) disappears. That is why we can speak of hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment. So one cannot fault Gabriel for the connection, though it is very important not to confuse the “little” and “big” enlightenments. Bashō spent a lifetime teaching and writing haikai and hokku, yet he is said to have regretted at the end of his life that he had obsessively devoted so much time to that instead of seeking the “big” enlightenment through Buddhist meditation. So though writing verse may be an ancillary to a spiritual path (and it is important to note that it may also be a hindrance), it will not enlighten anyone in the “big” sense.
Given that, one may feel that Gabriel has oversold his case for his kind of haiku as a spiritual path, but at least he has remarkably and with fervor restored a connection between verse and spirituality that has long been discarded and scorned in much of the modern haiku community.
In avidly presenting his case, he quotes many different “spiritual” writers and teachers, but one wishes he had stopped before including excerpts from such dangerously destructive personalities as the Tibetan “guru” Chögyam Trungpa and “Osho” — the head of the cultic Rajneesh movement. Their presence in the book tends to detract from those more legitimate.
Aside from that, Gabriel’s book offers a sizable anthology of verses, including a number of “haiku format” versions of old Japanese hokku — unfortunately sometimes in inferior and even misleading translations, and of course presented anachronistically as “haiku” in keeping with the topic of the book .
Examples of such translations include this unwise rendering of Bashō:
ancient pond …
a frog jumps
into the sound of water
The translation of its second and third lines is not at all what the verse means in the original.
And this erratic version of Chiyo-ni:
where has he wandered off to?
In that verse — written about a son who died — the writer was not asking “where has he wandered off to?” but rather kyō wa doko made itta yara — “today what place has he reached, I wonder” — referring to the child’s journey in the afterlife.
Now as we can see from the format of these two examples, Gabriel offers no firm guidance as to form and punctuation, but seemingly accepts the wide variations of practice found in modern haiku — leaving the novice to decide whether to capitalize and when or even if to punctuate. He does advise “you might prefer to avoid using capital letters, except, perhaps, for the first word” But he gives no reason for such a preference.
The book includes many verses by recent and contemporary writers of haiku, giving the reader a good idea of tendencies in the haiku community, though generally excluding the more far-out and experimental examples one finds in the more arbitrary writers of today.
Here and there, Gabriel gives some genuinely good advice, such as “Avoid the use of “I” and “me,” and “mine” as much as possible.” But it is frequently offset by less helpful suggestions such as “Discarding punctuation can sometimes lead to an engaging ambiguity.” That is a view quite contrary to the contemporary hokku dictum that an ambiguous verse is a weak and generally failed verse, but in his favor he could easily have pointed to the ambiguity of many old Japanese hokku, in support of a tendency toward occasional vagueness in writing.
He further advises the beginning writer: “Read the haiku classics [by which he means hokku] over and over again, and read the best of the moderns, such as Santōka.” The problem here is that he neglects to mention the importance of the quality of translation of the old verses one is looking to for help. There are many bad translations of old verses out there, and several are used in Gabriel’s book, providing bad examples for the learner. Further, the gap between the form and aesthetics of traditional Japanese hokku and more exploratory and individualistic writers like Santōka is so wide that it is likely to result in much confusion in new writers about just what a verse should be and how it should look — a confusion that is already endemic in modern haiku.
Now it should be obvious that in reviewing Haiku Enlightenment, I am seeing it from the perspective of a long involvement with — and preference for — the hokku; and the paths of hokku and modern haiku frequently diverge. In choosing whether to write hokku or haiku, some new writers may prefer the wider and more indefinite boundaries offered by Gabriel’s spiritually-oriented haiku approach, which extends even, at times, to verses that depart greatly from the hokku practice of omitting that which “disturbs the mind.”
It could be said that Gabriel’s book continues the fundamental mistake made by writers on the subject of Japanese hokku and haiku in the 20th century — the error of offering beginners too little guidance regarding form and content and aesthetics, leaving it up to the student to decide those very important matters. But on the other hand, he is writing in the modern haiku tradition that developed as a consequence of that lack of early guidance — and so it is not surprising he favors a more all-encompassing approach that leaves much (too much from the hokku perspective) up to the novice writer.
It is perhaps not surprising that Gabriel has a decided preference for the verses of Issa — verses with which the Western reader can easily identify, though they are also very popular among ordinary Japanese readers. While that is partly a matter of taste, I think it also indicative of a lack of familiarity with the deeper aspects of the old aesthetics of Japanese hokku, which are largely absent in the book, and which were never really transmitted when the hokku came West and was re-interpreted there as what became modern haiku.
What can be said of the book is that its restoration of spirituality to haiku, and its strongly and frequently repeated advice that the composer of haiku should “disappear” — both of which are important to hokku as well — offer would-be writers of modern haiku a decided improvement over what is generally proffered to new learners by the more anarchic and self-absorbed trends so common today in the modern haiku community.
Tomorrow — August 1st — marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn by the old hokku calendar. It is the ancient celebration Harvest Home — the beginning of the harvest season. To some, it is known by its Gaelic name Lughnasadh/Lunasa — pronounced LOO-nuh-suh.
As some of you know, I often repost an article to mark that time when I sense the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter.
It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day it will come, but already I felt again that weakness in the air, and this morning a kind of vast stillness, a pause of the atmosphere in breathless silence. The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall is beginning.
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 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 daoku (objective hokku) I wrote some years ago:
The tall tree Cut up in a heap; Summer’s end.
When you read it, see it, and 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, that everything changes, that 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 moves toward 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.
Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer. In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.
In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day. But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:
Tsuki suzushi uma arai iru kawa no oto
moon cool horse wash-is river ‘s sound
We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:
Cool moonlight; The sound of horses Bathing in the river.
It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.