CHRYSANTHEMUMS AND PERSIMMONS

Several times a week, I pass a public stairwell with a big flower arrangement on the landing.  This week the arrangement consists mostly of white, pink-tipped roses and pinkish gladioli.  The arranger obviously does not share the aesthetic that tells us flower arrangements should be made with materials in season, and so every time I pass it, I get a little sensation of inappropriateness.

An autumn arrangment should be made with autumn flowers and plants — seed pods, colored leaves, withered grass, chrysanthemums — things appropriate to the season.

Bashō wrote:

The scent of chrysanthemums,
The ancient Buddha images
At Nara.

Well, it is 5-7-5 in Japanese, but it certainly does not come out like that in English, if translated at all literally.  The problem, of course, is that in Japanese, kiku is a short word of two English syllables, while “chrysanthemum” is twice that, and looks visually even longer.

We could say

Chrysanthemum scent —
And the ancient Buddha images
Of Nara.

That would help a bit,  but really what we need to do is take it all apart and put it back together again in English, perhaps like this:

At Nara,
The scent of chrysanthemums,
The Buddha images.

We have lost one thing — the word ancient — but anyone who knows anything about Nara will know that Nara is a very old city, and for a Japanese reader, that will supply the implication of “ancient.”

All of that means little to us, because we are not Japanese.  We want to write hokku in English.  So what we should remember from this is that a place can have implications of its own that add to a hokku, but of course the reader must know those implications.

Bashō is telling us — or rather allowing us to experience — that the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums at Nara is in keeping with the ancient feeling we get from the old city of Nara and its serene Buddha images in its temples.  Those who have been reading this site carefully will recognize that as an example of reflection in hokku, meaning that one element of the verse repeats the feeling or character of the season expressed by another element.  Knowing that, We know also that the chrysanthemums, the buddha images, the old city — all are in keeping with the character of autumn, which gives us a sense of age and time with which the peculiar scent of chrysanthemums is in harmony — and not only because of that austere scent, but also because chrysanthemums are a flower that blooms in the autumn.

We can think of this hokku by Bashō as a verse similar to a very old-fashioned form — the same kind of paradoxically pre-Bashō hokku that Sōgi wrote, in which two things in harmony with one another are joined by the addition of a third.  In this case the two things are:

1.  The scent of chrysanthemums
2.  The Buddha images

And joining them together is their location — the ancient city of Nara.

Readers have probably noticed that I do not use Issa much as a model for hokku.  The reason is that Issa’s hokku are often too psychological, because Issa — given his tragic childhood — was a rather scarred personality who saw the world in terms of what he had suffered.  Probably because what he writes is more “personal” and often seen as “cute,” he tends to be very popular today, but his hokku do not often make good models.  Sometimes they are even a bit like senryū, those verses that look like hokku but are really satires on human emotions and failings.

Issa wrote:

Taking a second look
At the chrysanthemums that lost;
The evening.

The day is ending, the chrysanthemum contest is over, and now this poor fellow looks at the chrysanthemums that formerly seemed so beautiful to him with different eyes.

It is not a very good hokku, but it is a good caution against the human tendency to be perpetually judging and comparing.  In hokku we should not compare things.  We should just let them be what they are.  But then I have just judged and compared, haven’t I?  Well, I have to, being a teacher of hokku.  But we should not compare things within a hokku when we write, as though a dandelion is somehow inferior to a rose (it is not).

Persimmons are very much in keeping with autumn.  They are that golden yellow, or gold-orange color that we feel is in harmony with the season, as is their “astringent” taste.  A persimmon tree covered with such fruits, with a few fallen on the ground, gives a very pleasant feeling of autumn.

Bashō wrote:

The old village;
Not a single house
Without a persimmon tree.

Some time — many long years earlier — one of the residents thought a persimmon tree would be nice to have.  Then a neighbor saw it in fruit, and thought he (or she) would like one as well.  And as the years passed, the urge for persimmons spread through the whole village, until not one house was left without the gold-orange persimmons to eat and to look at in autumn.  In the simple fact that all the houses have them, we feel how old the village is, how much time has passed.  And that, along with the autumn colors of the persimmons — is very much in keeping with the season of aging — autumn.

David

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FALLING LEAVES

In old hokku, falling and fallen leaves are generally a winter subject.  But where I live, as well as in many other parts of North America, they are generally more appropriate to deep autumn.

Ryōkan wrote:

The wind
Brings enough for a fire —
Fallen leaves.

Have you noticed that old hokku often put the main subject of a verse last?  That gives us a kind of “wondering” buildup to the answer:  The wind brings enough what for a fire?  Then the answer — fallen leaves.

Buson does the same thing in another hokku:

Blown from the west,
They pile up in the east —
Fallen leaves.

To remember this technique, we might call it the “What is it?” technique.  In the first first, we ask “What is it the wind brings enough of?”  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

In the second we ask, “What is it that blows from the east and piles up in the west?  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

If you remember that, it will help you when an experience fits that technique.

Here is one of my very favorite hokku, by Gyōdai:

Falling leaves
Lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

Notice how this verse has a kind of parallelism reminiscent of old Chinese verse, and we can put the parts side by side like this for study:

Falling leaves lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

The first line has the subject fallen leaves and the action lie on one another.
The second line  has the subject rain and the action beats on rain.

In hokku we want to avoid perfect parallelism in all things, so in this one the third line — comprising the entire second part of the parallelism — is shorter than the first part.

Ryūshi wrote

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

That is the regular setting-subject-action hokku.

The setting is “stillness.”

The subject is “the sound of a bird.”

The action is “walking on fallen leaves.”

Many old hokku are about the sound of one thing or another.  You will recall that the best-known of all hokku — Bashō’s Old Pond verse (a spring hokku), has “the sound of water.”

I will end today with another good hokku by Taigi, very expressive of the autumn season and its changes:

Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
Fallen leaves.

At first the falling leaves are few, and easily removed.  But as autumn deepens they fall in ever greater numbers, until finally one just gives up and lets the season follow its course.

From this we learn that hokku is not simply a “moment in time,” but rather an expression of time and change.

And do not overlook that Taigi’s hokku also fits the “what is it?” technique:  What is that that we first sweep up, then do not sweep up?  Fallen leaves.

David

LEARNING FROM SCARECROWS

What is most important in hokku is understanding its aesthetics, which are generally quite different from those of English-language poetry.  One who understands the aesthetics and knows the basics of form and punctuation in hokku could actually do self-teaching merely from studying old hokku.

Unfortunately, when hokku first came West, English-speakers (and those of other European languages) did not see it afresh.  Instead, they looked at it and mistakenly saw what they already knew of Western poetry reflected in it.  So when they began to write, they were generally merely writing what they thought hokku was, not what it really was.  They looked at hokku and instead of seeing it for itself, they instead saw their own misconceptions reflected back at them.

To write hokku, one must therefore understand its aesthetics.  Anyone who does not may write all kinds of brief, three-line verses, but they will not be hokku.

If, as I said, one who understands hokku aesthetics can learn to write merely by reading old hokku, how is that done?  Here is an example:

Nyōfu wrote

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

We can see immediately that the pattern for this hokku is not that of the standard hokku, which is setting-subject-action.  Instead, in this verse a statement is made about the subject:

It is old from the day it is made.

And then, to indicate what the statement is about, the subject is added:

The scarecrow.

This kind of hokku is called a “statement” hokku, for the obvious reason that it is a statement made about something.  But it is not just any kind of remark.  The statement in the hokku must be something that is quite plainly true.  It is not merely an opinion or a commentary, but rather something that when said, the reader knows that is the way it is.  A statement hokku usually tells us something we already know, but do not know that we know until the little surprise that comes from reading it.  “Oh, yes, that is true!  I knew that, but never consciously thought about it.”

The writer looks at the scarecrow — face made of old cloth, body made of old clothes hanging on an old stake — and he realizes that a scarecrow is something that is never new; it is old from the day it is made.  And he shares that little illumination with the reader, who then experiences it for himself or herself on reading the hokku.

There is something else to be learned from this verse.  It uses a technique called “repeated subject,” which is very useful to know when writing hokku in European-origin languages.  Here is how it works.

“It” is the first subject, but when it is first used, we do not yet know what “it” is:

IT is old
From the day it is made —

Then comes the second, clear subject:

The scarecrow.

Because “it” and “the scarecrow” both refer to the same subject, we call this the “repeated subject” technique.  If you learn it, it will enable you to write countless hokku.

But now the aesthetics of the verse.

We are in autumn now in the Northern Hemisphere, and autumn is a time of aging and withering and dying in Nature.  The scarecrow, put together from old parts and stuffed with straw, reflects the character of the season.  Everything about it is old, withered, dry.  Scarecrows in autumn also make us think about the withering of the fields around them.  And because they look like people but are not — cannot move, cannot talk back — they also contribute to the lonely feeling of autumn.

Chasei wrote another scarecrow verse with a somewhat different feeling.  It does not translate precisely into English, so I will vary it slightly:

Out here,
There are more scarecrows
Than people.

Blyth translated the first line as

Where I live,

That is good too, though the original does not literally say “Where I live.”  It still conveys the intent, though not literally.

In any case, the verse tells us that the writer is in a lonely place, a rural, agricultural place.  In a way the scarecrows take the place of the missing people.

Notice that Chasei’s hokku is also a “statement hokku,” but it does not use or need the “repeated subject.”

Shōha wrote yet another “statement” hokku:

Near sunset,
Its shadow reaches the road —
The scarecrow.

Here again we use the “repeated subject” technique, though the form is slightly different in this verse than in the others.

The sun is very low in the western sky.  The angle of its light stretches out the shadow of the scarecrow until it touches the road at the edge of the field — a stretched-out scarecrow shadow.  There is something slightly creepy and Halloweenish about this, and we could talk about just why that is, but if we talk too much about it, it spoils the atmosphere of a hokku.  It is better just to experience it than to over-explain it.  So I will just tell you to picture the setting sun and the growing, lengthening shadow of the scarecrow just before the sun disappears and the darkness of night grows as well.  And of course the setting of the sun is the active, bright “yang” energy waning into the receptive, dark “yin” energy, which reflects what is happening in autumn as the yang energy of summer wanes and dissipates gradually into the cold, dark yin energy of winter.  Remember this reflection of the character of one thing in another, because it is very important in hokku.

Returning to the “repeated subject” technique, do not think that the “repeated subject” word must always be “it.”  We can see that from a very simple verse by Sazanami:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Here the repeated subject takes the form of  “they” and “the sparrows.”

In the autumn fields, a little flock of sparrows lights on one scarecrow momentarily, twittering and chirping, then they rise into the air and fly off to another scarecrow momentarily, then on to another more distant….

Again, anyone who understands the aesthetics of hokku can learn to write it by reading all kinds of old hokku such as those given here.  But to do so takes patience and a sincere desire to learn without imposing one’s own preconceptions on the verses.

David

WINDBLOWN BANANAS

Once a student has a good foundation in the principles and practice of hokku, he or she is then free to explore and develop.  And in doing this, one learns to take what is helpful from the old teachers such as Bashō, but not to follow them slavishly.  If one thinks everything Bashō wrote is good hokku, then one does not understand hokku.

Bashō wrote this autumn verse:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite — “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

But to get to the point, as an English-language hokku it is too long.  One would have difficulty using it as a model.  But it does contain some strong sensations, and one could make hokku from it, for example:

(Autumn)

A windy night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

We do not need the word “autumn” within the verse, because all hokku are classified by season when written.  We could make it

The long night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or

A long night;
The sound of rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or we could try

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

Each changes the sensation and the feeling a bit, and that is exactly the way one composes hokku.  We do not want to say too much (Bashō says a bit too much in his overly-long verse), but we also do not want to say too little.

Notice that we have to choose, we have to be selective.  In Bashō’s original, there is the banana plant, the storm, the basin, the rain, the listening, and the night.  That is really too much for a hokku in English.   So we learn from the poverty of hokku not to use too many things.  But if we are careful, we can combine elements effectively in a small space, as in the last example above:

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

It has autumn, the wind, the night, the rain, the dripping, and the basin.

Do not misunderstand and think that I am writing about how to translate Bashō’s verse.  No, I am writing about how to write hokku in English — the process of composition, which is of necessity different in some respects from that in Japanese.

In Japanese, for example, one can say Bashō — which means a kind of hardy banana plant — but in English one cannot simply translate Bashō nowaki shite
as “the windblown banana,” because the reader will see a long yellow fruit instead of the torn, broad green leaves of a large banana plant.  One has to take into account the length and the shortness of this or that word in English when composing, in selecting how many elements one may use in a single verse, and in deciding how to combine them for strong effect.

And yes, for those of you who do not already know it, Bashō took for his pen name the Bashō — the hardy banana plant.

David

¿HOKKU EN ESPAÑOL?

Parece que algunos habladores de Español leen mi sitio.  ¡Bienvenidos!

Si Uds. tienen preguntas o comentarios, hagan «clic» en “Leave a Comment” al fin del artículo, y así pueden mandarme un mensaje.

No puedo prometir que voy a responder en puro Español, pero voy a tratar de responder, y espero que Uds. pueden entenderme.

David

WHY I LINK HOKKU AND MEDITATIVE PRACTICE

Readers of the previous posting about Zen and hokku, on reading my emphasis on some kind of meditative spiritual practice, may justifiably think, “Well, hokku may have an historical connection with Zen aesthetics, but why does this fellow recommend some kind of spiritual practice for those who want to write hokku when no one else — not even Bashō — suggested that to those wanting to learn it?”

There are two reasons:

First, old hokku was written in a culture that had absorbed the aesthetics inherited from Daoism and Buddhism to such an extent that it was understood without the need for words.  Westerners for the most part lack this “unconscious” foundation for hokku, and because of this it must be developed in some other way, and no way is quite as good as returning to the source, which is meditative spiritual practice.

Second, Westerners (and now most Easterners as well) live in today’s very materialistic, superficially rational culture, and desperately need a counterbalance to that in order to understand the spiritual principles underlying hokku.  A meditative spiritual practice can help.

We should never forget the anecdote told of Bashō — that he became so obsessed with hokku within the practice of haikai that he neglected spiritual practice, and when the time of his death neared, he greatly regretted that his obsession had kept him from spending more time on spiritual training.  We should never let hokku have that effect on us.  Spiritual training should be the priority, and hokku only secondary.  As I always say, it is more important to live hokku than to write it.  But of course to write it with great depth of understanding, one has to first live it.

David

ZEN AND HOKKU

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku.  And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began.   That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David