MIXING HOKKU AND HAIKU

People sometimes ask me about learning hokku simultaneously with practicing haiku.  All I can say about it is that from my experience, it is a bad idea.  The reason is that in general, hokku and haiku (as it generally exists today) have very different aesthetic approaches.  The former has specific standards and principles and aesthetics.  But the latter — haiku — has very loose and variable standards, so wide in fact that anyone can write almost anything in brief verse and call it haiku.  So those learning haiku almost invariably taint and spoil their learning of hokku with incompatible notions picked up from haiku.

The second reason I advise against trying to mix hokku and haiku is that learning hokku takes time and application.  If one is dividing one’s attention between two very different kinds of verse, one of them is going to be given less attention, and because of the ease of writing haiku, it generally turns out to be hokku that loses.

When I taught formal monthly classes in the past, I always told beginning students that they must agree to give up reading and writing haiku during their initial period of study.  Of course not all were willing, and even some who expressed willingness did not follow through.  The result was that neither group of half-hearted students ever properly learned hokku.

Today, now that I am teaching more informally via my web site, I no longer take responsibility for those who try to mix hokku and haiku in spite of my advising against it.  I just tell them that the best way to learn hokku is to give up haiku completely during about the first year of learning.  After that, one can do what one wishes.  But if people persist in wanting to try to learn hokku while practicing haiku, then I just tell them honestly that the result is their responsibility, not mine.

In spite of my constantly saying that hokku and haiku are today essentially two very different things, I still have people — even some claiming to have studied briefly with me in the past — saying that what they write as haiku is the same as what I teach as hokku.  Of course it is not, but they do not know that, because they did not stay long enough with hokku to learn the deeper aspects of it.  They just learned a few of the tricks of form and technique — things used as a beginning bridge into hokku from haiku — and went off to get their verses published on haiku sites.

So that is my view of the matter.  Those who really want to learn hokku will give up haiku while they are learning its principles and aesthetics.  Those who do not will likely pick up some tips useful to apply to haiku, but chances of their ever properly learning hokku are very slim.

Of course once one has a good understanding of the nature and aesthetics of hokku — something not achieved in a day or a week or a month or even several months — one can then read and write whatever kind of brief verse one wishes.  But without that good and fundamental understanding, one cannot claim to have learned hokku.

David

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HARMONY OF SIMILARITY, HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE

Yesterday I discussed the importance of season in hokku — how hokku is the poetry of the seasons, and how the subjects we choose for our verses should reflect the character of the season in which we are writing in some way.

This is a very new concept for many people, who are accustomed to writing about any subject in any season of the year, in other forms of brief or long verse.  That is not the way of hokku.

Readers here know that I use the word harmony again and again.  It is very important that our verses should be in harmony with the season, and that the elements used with a hokku should be in harmony with one another.

The typical example for this is Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku — an autumn verse:

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

The last word in that setting is obviously appropriate to the season, because it mentions autumn.

Now think about what we discussed yesterday concerning the character of autumn, and how it manifests.  Autumn is the season of declining Yang and growing Yin, a season of the vital energies waning, of things withering. In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening.  That is completely in keeping with the full setting of Bashō’s hokku:

The autumn evening.

The setting, as we see, comes in the third line.  The first and second lines give us the subject and action:

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;

If we rephrase that as “A crow has perched on the withered branch,” it makes it easier to see that “A crow” is the subject, and the action is “has perched on a withered branch.”

So all three elements give us setting, subject, and action — a “standard” hokku.

Having seen that the setting is quite appropriate to autumn, what about the rest?

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

In the first line we have a withered branch.  That is obviously in keeping with the character of autumn, the time of things withering.

In the second line, we have a crow.  Of course the crow is black, and that is in keeping with the growing darkness of the evening.  So again we have harmony.

In the last line, as already mentioned, we not only have the evening, which is in keeping with autumn as the late afternoon or evening of the year, but also autumn itself is mentioned.

It is not hard to see, then, that in this verse everything is not only in harmony with autumn, but each element — withered branch, crow, evening, autumn — is in harmony with every other element.  Even the act of the crow perching on the branch, ceasing its active flying about, is in keeping with the weakening energies of autumn.

If you remember all that I say here about harmony with the season and internal harmony in a verse, it will make your learning go much easier.

When we talk about harmony, we must remember that it is of two primary kinds:

1.  The harmony of similarity.  That is what we see in Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku.  It is composed of things that are in some way alike.

2.  The harmony of difference.  This kind of harmony relates again to the principle of Yin and Yang.  Remember that we said that when Yin or Yang reaches its maximum, it changes into its opposite?  Yang, for example, grows until midday, at which time it begins declining — which means it has changed into growing Yin.  Winter, at its deepest (maximum Yin), gives way to a faint hint of warming, meaning it has changed into growing Yang.

Following this principle, things that seem to be opposites are actually in harmony with one another.  For example, a roaring fire in the stove on a freezing winter night is in harmony with winter; and stepping barefoot into a cool stream on the hottest day of summer is in harmony with the summer, even though coolness is a Yin characteristic, and we normally think of Yang heat as in harmony with summer.

So there is harmony of similarity and harmony of difference.  Both are very appropriate to hokku.

What we do want to avoid are verses that are not in harmony with the season, and elements within a verse that are not in harmony with one another.

When we look at the hokku of a given season, we can see that some verses manifest it more obviously, others in a less obvious way.  That gives us a suitable range of subject matter.  Again, what we want to avoid are verses that do not manifest the character of the season at all.

Compare the obviousness of Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku with this autumn verse by Kyoroku:

Even in the pot
Where potatoes are boiling —
The moonlit night.

Now from the perspective of English-language hokku, this verse would be marked when written as an Autumn verse.  So unless it is written by someone who does not understand hokku, we know that there are within it connections to autumn, even if not directly obvious to a beginner.  And if we hone our perceptions, we will begin to recognize them.  In a way it is like the hokku version of “Where’s Waldo?”  We learn to recognize where in verse an element manifests a relation to another element and to the season.

First, there is the setting (remember that the setting is generally the BIG element in the verse):

The moonlit night.

In autumn the moon seems particularly big and bright and round and near.  So there is harmony between the moon and the autumn.  There is also a harmony of difference between the light of the moon and the darkness of the night.

Then there is the rest of the verse:

Even in the pot
Where the potatoes are boiling —

The roundness of the pot is in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  The whiteness of the potatoes (which would be “Irish” potatoes in the West) is in keeping with the whiteness of moonlight.

What this verse shows us (for our purposes) is a pot of white potatoes boiling in the water on a moonlit night.  They are being cooked in a dim or shadowed place, so that the moonlight can be seen in the water in which the potatoes are boiling.  We need not worry in such a verse if the “boiling” seems to bear little relation to the season, because it is the overall effect that is important, though by stretching it a bit, we could even say that the bubbles in the boiling water are in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  But we must be careful about overdoing things.

Now one can see that this verse makes substantially more demands of the reader than Bashō’s “Withered Branch.”  But that is quite all right, because in hokku we should become more aware of things, of our environment, of Nature and how we relate to it as part of it.

It is important for beginners not to get worried by how complex this may be seem at first.  It is really quite simple and not complex at all, because when we hone our perceptions, events we experience that seem somehow significant to us and worthy of hokku will often seem so because they already contain elements that are in harmony with one another and with the season.  So in explaining the matter as I have here, we are putting the cart before the horse.  What often happens is first  the experience that affects us strongly, and then later we understand — from the principles of hokku — why it affects us strongly, why it seems so in keeping with the season.

David

THE SEASONAL KEY TO HOKKU

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “Spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not, are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it changes to its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress.  The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations.

David