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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