The autumn sun;
The chill when it goes
Behind a tree.

The sunlight of the shortening autumn days is so weak that in a shadow, the air is cold.  In that, we feel the weakening of the Yang active energy and the growing of the cold, inactive Yin energy of the waning year.



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Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.



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Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

We feel here the transition from the heat and dryness of summer ( seen in the dust on the stones) to the cool damp of autumn (the rain beginning to fall, turning the dust to mud).

It is a new hokku made from the same image used by the sometimes too wordy late 19th-mid 20th century Japanese writer Kyoshi.

Here is his original:

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
Stone on ‘s dust on falling ya autumn’s rain.

One could translate it as:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.



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An autumn hokku by Taigi:

Autumn begins;
The evening shower has become
A night of rain.

We feel the change of the season in the change from a temporary shower to prolonged rain.  We also feel the autumn reflected in the growing darkness of evening to night.

Hatsu-aki ya yūdachi nagabiku yoru no ame
Beginning autumn ya evening shower prolonged night’s rain



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My very long shadow
Walking in front.

Sometimes the simplest things seem meaningful, like the lengthened shadow we see stretching ahead from our feet when walking westward on a morning in the beginning of autumn.

As you know, in hokku we generally avoid the use of  “I,” “me,” and “my.”  The reason for this is that hokku takes the focus away from the ego.  Unlike much modern verse, it is not all about the “I” and its likes, dislikes, and whims.  But there is also an additional reason.  If hokku become too personal  — too particular — that is, too particularly focused on one person’s life — then it is difficult for others to relate to such a verse.  But if the hokku event is a more general human experience, then many people can relate to it — can have the sensory experience presented in the verse.

That is why this verse — even though it uses the word “my” — is still not an “ego problem.”  It is a verse people in general can relate to.  It is an ordinary experience, but that a hokku can be made of it just reminds us that hokku are often about things we already know, but don’t know that we know.  So the “my very long shadow” easily becomes the shadow of whoever reads the verse.  That means it is possible to use “I,” “me,” or “my” in hokku without an undue focus on the self.  Even though we generally avoid them, if we understand the reasons behind that avoidance, we are free to use them when appropriate.



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Today’s poem is by Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), one of the “Georgian” poets — so

called after the reign of King George V of England, who took the throne in 1910.  Five volumes — anthologies — of the Georgian poets were published from 1912-1922, and this poem from Gibson’s book Fires (1912) was included in Georgian Poetry: 1911-12.  It does not require a great deal of explanation, but is interesting for its combination of sensory impressions and narrative.  Gibson was criticized for his choice of lowly subjects — “common” poor and working class people — though, as Geraldine P. Dilla wrote in the Sewanee Review (January, 1922), “…Mr. Gibson portrays the wrongs of society without proposing remedies.


Stuck in a bottle on the window-sill,
In the cold gaslight burning gaily red
Against the luminous blue of London night,
These flowers are mine: while somewhere out of sight
In some black-throated alley’s stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.

Broken with lust and drink, blear-eyed and ill,
Her battered bonnet nodding on her head,
From a dark arch she clutched my sleeve and said:
‘I’ve sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite …
Son, buy six-pennorth; and ‘t will mean a bed.’

So blazing gaily red
Against the luminous deeps
Of starless London night,
They burn for my delight:
While somewhere, snug in bed,
A worn old woman sleeps.

And yet to-morrow will these blooms be dead
With all their lively beauty; and to-morrow
May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow
Of that old body with the nodding head.
The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,
She’ll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep;
Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.

The poet, while walking in London, was accosted by a bleary-eyed, sick looking, alcoholic old woman in a battered bonnet, who stepped out from the shadow of an arch and clutched his sleeve, desperate to sell him the bunch of geraniums she held out imploringly.  She tells him

“I’ve sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite …
Son, buy six-pennorth; and ‘t will mean a bed.”

She had not eaten that day because she had no money to buy food.  And if he were to buy six pennies worth, she would be able to pay for a bed, in some cheap flophouse, on which to rest that night.

So the poet buys the geraniums, places them in his window, and gazes at the blazing red flowers set against the darkness of the London night.  He is delighted by their color, but cannot separate the image from that of the poor old woman who sold them.  As he looks at them, he imagines how

In some black-throated alley’s stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.

It is the bed she bought for the night with the money he gave for the geraniums.

He thinks that beautiful and brilliant as the flowers are in the glare of the gaslight of his room, they will be dead the next day.  And again he sees in his mind the old woman, with her worn out, alcohol-damaged body, and thinks

May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow
Of that old body with the nodding head.

He imagines her,

“The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,
She’ll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep;
Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.”

Having muttered her last colorful swear-words, having drunk her last pint of beer, he sees her sinking into the sleep of death, like Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt died when she held a poisonous asp to her breast.  It is an interesting and incongruous simile.  And with that passing, the old woman will no longer have need to sell flowers to buy a temporary bed.

It would have been easy for this poem to cross the thin line into maudlin and saccharine sentiment, but it is saved by the objective manner of presentation.




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It may be due to the Celtic side of my ancestry, but I have always been quite taken by “otherworldly” music — music that sounds somehow related to the mythic unseen world of the ancient British Isles.  Sometimes the connection is in the words of a song, sometimes only in the feeling the music creates.

Today I would like to share with you two such “otherworldly” songs.

If you saw the television series Merlin (Episode one), then you have already heard one of them.  It is the remarkable “Witch’s Aria,” sung in the tale by Lady Helen of Mora — or rather by the witch that has stolen her outward form.  In that guise, she sings a spell of dangerous enchantment over King Uther — Arthur’s father — and his court.  Here is that segment:

And here is the performer Mary “Bewitch”(“x out” the ad).  The blowing wind in the trees makes it quite visually effective , as though one sees the power of the rising spell.

The other “otherworldly” song I wish to share is an old favorite of mine.  It is by that rather unique 1960s group called The Incredible String Band.  Titled “The Circle is Unbroken,” it always made me think of people gathering for the mystic journey to the “Isles of the Blessed” — Tir-nan-og — the Undying Lands — so of course it gives one not only a Celtic but a rather Tolkienian feeling:

I only recently found that the melody is borrowed from a sad Irish Gaelic song –“Eanach Dhúin” (Anach Cuin).  Here is a beautiful “low whistle” rendering:

Here is the origin story of the sad lament, and an Irish Gaelic rendering (subtitled):

I hope you find some pleasure in these strangely beautiful songs.



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