HOKKU IS NOT FOR EVERYONE (BECAUSE EVERYONE IS NOT FOR HOKKU)

It often seems to those who practice other kinds of brief verse that hokku is unnecessarily laden down with lots of rules, while they can write however they like about anything they like.

Hokku does have its principles and standards, but there is a reason for them.  The “rules” of hokku are just the manifestation of the aesthetics that underlie and give rise to hokku.  It is difficult to learn the aesthetics without seeing a visual manifestation, just as one cannot see the wind unless it happens to be blowing the branches of a tree or the grasses in a field.  If one studies the motion of things blown by the wind, one learns the nature of the wind.

It is the same with hokku.  The rules are a description of the manifestation of the aesthetics of hokku, and by learning them, one begins gradually to learn also the underlying aesthetics.  That is why, in learning ink painting, a student will copy examples given by the teacher, will make strokes of the brush in accordance with those of examples.  Gradually the student will learn techniques and and aesthetics, and as he or she matures, more and more these will just come naturally.

Our approach is that one must first learn the basic principles and standards thoroughly and then as they become part of one’s being, one will naturally come to understand more and more the aesthetics behind them.  That is how one knows when the rules can be made secondary to the aesthetics that gave rise to them.

Those who write Westernized forms of verse may say, “Well, why not just omit the rules, and start out with the student free to go beyond them?”

The reason is that in order to go beyond the rules — while still maintaining the same underlying aesthetics — one must first thoroughly know the rules — and that means not just theoretical knowledge read from a book or Internet site; it means understanding how they are applied in practice, in this case when actually writing hokku.

There are many other kinds of brief verse, superficially similar to hokku, in which people write according to their personal whims and wishes, with no underlying aesthetic at all.  Except for the very rare appearance of a natural-born genius, this is a path that generally leads nowhere, and it accounts for the volumes of virtually worthless brief verse that such people have produced and continue to produce.  It is like a child trying to bake a cake without knowing the ingredients or techniques for making a cake.  The result will be something, but it will bear very little resemblance to a real cake.

There is a further benefit to the “rules” of hokku.  They require humility.  Many times in the past, new students have come to me saying they wanted to learn hokku, yet the first time something they wrote was criticized or corrected, their attitude was, “You can’t tell ME how to write!”  And actually, they were quite right.  I could not tell them how to write, because they refused to listen.  And so they never learned.  In order for the cup to be filled, it must first be emptied.  If someone comes to hokku already thinking they know what it is and how it should be written, they are wasting their time and mine.

Some people say, “Why should we have to capitalize the first letter of each line of a hokku?  Isn’t that just old-fashioned”?

One of the first lessons we learn in hokku is not to pay any attention to what is fashionable.   Instead we go for what is both practical and in keeping with the aesthetics of hokku, and capitalizing the first letter of each line is both a reflection of traditional practice in English, as well as a simple way to avoid the confusion between the first line beginning with a capital letter and another line that may on occasion begin with a capital letter because the word it helps to form is a proper noun.

Further, in our way of hokku, uniformity of format makes for a sense of community.  Those who want to quibble about such things should not attempt hokku, but should instead pick some other kind of verse in which they can do as they wish.

The standards of hokku, then, are the reflection of the aesthetics that underlie it, the same aesthetics shared with the other contemplative arts.  They are a means to understanding, not the understanding itself.  But it is only by walking on the road to a destination that one will finally reach the destination.  And it is only by learning the principles and standards of hokku that one will achieve a unity with its foundational aesthetics.

David

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THIS AUTUMN: BEGINNING AT THE BEGINNING

My teaching method is simple, but not at all new.  It is the same method used by Onitsura in the 17th century, and it is traditional in the teaching of hokku.  I present the student with good hokku models, which I draw from the best of the old writers, and I translate and present them in English-language hokku form.

Students who carefully study the models and use them as patterns for their own verse will quickly learn, as long as they are careful to keep in mind the inherent aesthetics of hokku.

Hokku are traditionally written and read in season, and so I generally use verses appropriate to the season in which I am teaching.  Occasionally I will use an out-of season verse to explain or illustrate a particular point, but that is only for learning purposes.

We are now at the ending of summer and the beginning of autumn, so I will be using many autumn hokku as models, showing how they are constructed and the aesthetic principles that underlie them.  Just how much a student will learn from this depends on how much he (or she) is willing to put into close attention to both the patterns and aesthetics of hokku.  And of course one cannot write hokku without regularly connecting with Nature, whether in the countryside or in a city park or a backyard garden.

I waste little time on discussion of the Japanese language in which old hokku were originally written, because we do not write in Japanese and hokku can be written quite well in any language.  The translations I use are generally my own.  And I emphasize that in writing hokku, one should forget about their Japanese background, because when writing hokku in America, our hokku should be thoroughly American; in Wales thoroughly Welsh; in Scotland thoroughly Scottish; in Switzerland thoroughly Swiss; and the rest applies to all the other countries of the world, no matter what their language or climatic region.

In the coming weeks, as already mentioned, we shall be studying the patterns and aesthetics of old Autumn hokku.  So it will be a chance for those who really want to learn hokku to do so in a systematic and gradual way.  I suggest that you read back through the previous articles as preparation for that.

Those who are long-time readers here will notice that some time ago I removed the earlier archives.  That is because I want to start afresh this autumn, so that those who wish to begin at the beginning may easily do so.

Occasionally I will include an article that may not seem directly related to hokku, but you will find that it is in some way, even if it is only through the bridge of Nature or of spirituality or of common aesthetics.  That is in order to help us broaden our understanding of hokku and its place in the world.

David

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF HOKKU

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

 

David

DIRECT EXPERIENCE AND CREATIVE SELECTION

In hokku as I teach it, we may write both from direct experience and from creative selection.

What is meant by direct experience?  It is a hokku written from viewing an actual event, with everything in it faithful to that experience, whether the hokku is written on the spot or hours or days or weeks later.

This principle goes back to a very old practice common in Chinese painting — that one entered and contemplated Nature, mountains and rivers, rocks and streams, trees and birds — and if one did this with sufficient awareness and perception, one would absorb the characteristics of such things, so that when one returned home to paint, one would paint a scene that, while not a photographic representation of Nature, nonetheless faithfully expressed the spirit of what was seen.

In life we accumulate a great many direct experiences of Nature.  We see spring rains and autumn rains, trees in bud and trees withered, wild geese arriving and leaving.  We see fog and snow, lightning and windstorms, twilights and dawns.  All of these experiences, if noticed with sufficient awareness, are stored away in the memory as a kind of library or vocabulary of sensory experience of Nature.

When writing a hokku, then, we have these options:

1.  One may write a verse faithfully from an immediate experience, a hokku of a single, actual event.  I did this with my verse:

Summer’s end;
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap.

Every part of that hokku is faithful to an event I experienced.

2.  One may write a verse from a mixture of direct experience and creative selection, meaning that while part of the verse reflects an actual “immediate” event, another part may be selected from the mental vocabulary of past sensory experience.

For example, one may have seen:

Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

But that requires a setting.  Perhaps the “real” setting is that you saw the shadows passing on the grass.  But you think the verse would be more expressive with a different setting, so you might make it:

The paper screen;
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

The actual old Japanese hokku from which I have made this example was:

On the white wall,
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

So one has the freedom to use creative selection in composing, based on one’s own personal vocabulary of things and events.  The key is to make it “real,” by which is meant keeping it in harmony with Nature.  And to do that, one must have direct experience of Nature.

3.  One may write a hokku entirely from creative selection, meaning the verse is not a reflection of a particular actual event, but rather a combination of elements from different past events, yet united and harmonious.

A good example of this is Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse:

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

Now Bashō did not write this verse from direct experience, according to old accounts.  He had the last two lines, and was looking for a setting, so the story goes.  He tried many possibilities; someone suggested beginning it with the yamabuki, the yellow shrub Kerria japonica, often translated, rather confusingly, as “mountain rose” in the West.

 

But in a sudden inspiration, Bashō spoke “Furu ike ya,” — “The old pond”; and according to the possibly apocryphal story, everyone was thunderstruck.

Whatever the truth of the story, we know that Bashō would have experienced many frogs jumping into water in his life, and would have seen many old ponds.  He just did not happen to see this precise event when he composed the verse.  Instead it was composed from his mental vocabulary of past sensory events.  It was thus written from experience, but not from immediate experience.  This is an important point.

Some old hokku never happened.  Buson, for example, wrote a verse about stepping on his dead wife’s comb; but his wife was not dead!  He did it merely for effect.

One could write like that, but there is a great danger of artificiality.  The more we draw from our own imagination instead of from actual experience — whether immediate or from our mental vocabulary of past experiences — the less likely our hokku are to seem real and in keeping with Nature.  Too many of Buson’s hokku thus seem artificial and contrived for effect.

That is why I discourage students from writing strictly from the imagination.  In today’s world we are more and more separated from Nature, and because of that, our verses — if not directly connected by immediate experience or by creative selection from genuine past experience — tend to be rootless and “phony.”  And so we must keep in mind the old advice that when writing about pines, one goes to learn from the pine — meaning that if you want to express Nature faithfully, you must go and learn from Nature, absorbing it until you can express it naturally and without artificiality.

In our way of hokku we have the principle that the writer must get the ego out of the way, must be a mirror reflecting Nature.  That applies whether the experience is immediate or creative selection.  Our purpose in writing is to restore the unity of humans and Nature, not to escape into the imagination.

Our course is directly the opposite — out of abstract fantasy and back to Nature as the true home of humans, our mother and father, our origin and our ending.

David

AUTUMN BEGINS

In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.

David

WHAT COLOR IS THE BACK OF A MORNING GLORY?

As mentioned in an earlier posting, traditionally morning glories in old hokku are flowers of the last part of summer and beginning of autumn.

Kyoroku has an interesting verse:

It shows
The backs of the morning glories —
The windy autumn.

The reverse side of morning glories, as anyone who has grown them will know, is pale and whitish.  When they are blown by the wind of autumn, we see that less obvious side that ordinarily does not draw our attention.

R. H. Blyth remarks correctly of this verse that “the whitish backs of the flowers are in accord with the autumn and its loneliness and poverty.”  I often speak of internal harmony in hokku, and that is precisely the internal harmony in this one.

Kyoroku does present it in a somewhat different way, however.  The common Japanese expression in hokku is aki no kaze — “the wind of autumn.”  Kyoroku uses instead, kaze no aki, literally “wind’s autumn,” or “windy autumn,” making a unity of the wind and the autumn, which become one thing, and because of the harmony with the rest of the verse, it also unifies the whole.

Notice again the “repeated subject” form that comes in so handy with hokku in English.  “It” and “windy autumn” both refer to the same thing.  That is why we call it “repeated subject.”

David

A LOOK BACKWARD: THE HOKKU OF SŌGI

Bashō — the best-known writer of hokku — tried to follow the overall aesthetic in his verse that he found in the other contemplative arts of tea, of ink painting, of waka, and of renga.  He mentioned a representative master of each, and that for renga — the linked verse that preceded the kind of hokku Bashō wrote — was Sōgi.

Sōgi (1421-1502) is worth remembering not just because Bashō found his work admirable.  He is also the person who formalized the connection between the hokku and the seasons.

We must remember that Bashō did not invent the hokku.  Instead he developed it in a different direction by mixing the traditionally “high” subjects of the slightly longer Japanese waka — such as the cries of wild geese — with “low” subjects such as a frog jumping into the water, where formerly in waka it was customary to have the crying of frogs.  In doing so, he expanded the range of hokku while keeping its overall aesthetic.

Knowing then, that Bashō did not create the hokku, let’s take a look at some of the older hokku of Sōgi, which in their subject matter are very akin to the more elegant and deliberately poetic waka.

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

Wild geese in the clouds,
Ducks crying in the gorge;
The mountain path.

This morning they cover
The rains that fell in the night —
Falling leaves.

It is not hard to discern a general pattern in many of Sōgi’s earlier kind of hokku.  He likes to  present two things or events, and then to unify them by a third, for example the setting moon and the swift tide both joined by the summer sea; then the wild geese in the clouds, and the crying ducks in the gorge, both united by Sōgi’s perspective of witnessing them from a path in the mountains — geese above him, ducks below.  And finally, what falls in the morning (leaves) covering what fell in the night (rain) — the falling leaves covering the puddles and traces of rain.

It is a rather elegant and simple way to write, and again, with its choice of subjects it is closer to waka.  What Bashō did was to lessen the elegance and to increase the commonness, to lessen the obvious poetry, and to make the poetry more in the experience of everyday things seen in a new way — telling us things we already knew, but did not know that we knew until we read the hokku:

In the morning dew,
Muddy and fresh —
The melon.

After the elegant hokku of Sōgi, written as part of renga (linked verse), came the development of a new kind of renga that mixed in wit and humor, and was thus called “haikai no renga” — “playful” linked verse.  But this approach gradually degenerated into clever attempts at word-play.  It was this kind of low-class hokku that Bashō first learned.  But as his sensibilities developed, Bashō realized that the hokku could take on depth and profundity if it took a middle way — not quite the elegance of Sōgi’s hokku, and no longer the cheap wit and low humor of writers such as Teitoku — but a mixture of the high subjects of Sōgi’s “waka-like” hokku with the ordinary subjects of haikai;  and that is how the hokku we practice today, which mixes the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, came to be.  Of course Bashō was not the only one to see the advantages of such a middle way — there was for example Onitsura as well — but Bashō, probably because he had students to carry on his name, is the best known today.

David