Winter is at the door. In some places it has already come. So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.
Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces. Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness. In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang. Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum. And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite. So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline. Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.
Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night. Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin. Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon. This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.
Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night? It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.
We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways. In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period, and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither. We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day. And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.
Snows are already falling in the high country. Frost has come to many regions. The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.
Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent. That is a mistake. Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme. So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.
An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:
Akatsuki ya kujira no hoeru shimo no umi.
Dawn ya whale ‘s roaring frost ‘s sea.
In the frosty sea.
That is a rather literal version — but effective. In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say
In the frosty sea.
Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so. But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.
Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin. We find that in the words the frosty sea.
The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible. And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang. But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold. So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.
Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action. We could diagram it like this:
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)
You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea. Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.
Notice the selflessness of the verse. There is no human anywhere in sight. All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.
That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite. That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale. It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.
That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea. Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy. It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.
Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces. In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:
No ni yama ni ugoku mono nashi yuki no asa
Field at mountain at moving thing is-not snow ‘s morning
In fields and mountains
The snowy morning.
That is a very Yin verse. We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving. That is the stillness of winter. We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse. But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning. In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.
It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin. That is easy to see. When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket? In the Yin of winter. And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire? Again, in the cold of winter.
Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors. Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood? They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it. Winter has great significance when we live close to it. If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like. We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.
It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking. That is really a kind of Jungian statement. Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness. Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?
Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:
In the frosty sea.
That is the Moby-Dick of hokku. It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel. Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote? Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city? Of course not. How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?
I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic. But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons. Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.
Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us. The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.