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.


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