HOKKU TO MAKE YOU COLD

An old winter hokku by Sōgi, who lived long before Bashō:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping
Of duck wings.

We can easily see its form.  It is:

Setting:  In the freezing night.
Subject: duck wings
Action:  the ceaseless flapping of

In other words, we have what is common to many hokku — a setting, a subject, and an action — a movement, something moving or changing.

Bashō wrote:

Shigururu ya   ta no arakabu no   kuromu hodo
Winter rain ya field ‘s stubble ‘s blacken up-to

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

We can see that the pattern of this is different.  “Winter rain” is both the setting and the subject.  First the writer presents it to us, so we can see and feel it, and then he expands on it it with a further qualification — “enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.”  It is a different approach, not the normal “standard” hokku with setting, subject and action, but it is very effective nonetheless.

In all of these hokku we see again that a hokku is essentially two parts presented (in English) in three lines.  In Sogi’s verse the two parts are:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping of duck wings.

In Bashō’s verse the two parts are:

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.

In both of these the shorter part functions as the setting, something very common in hokku.

Bashō’s verses were sometimes good, more often not so memorable.  We must remember that only a fraction of his hokku are really worthwhile.  He wrote another winter verse:

Fuyu no hi ya   bajō ni kōru    kagebōshi
Winter ‘s day ya horse on freezes  shadow

The winter day;
A shadow freezing
On the horse’s back.

We get what he was after, but it does not quite work.  What he really meant was that HE was freezing on the horse’s back, and when he transfers that sensory experience to a visual shadow, he is pulling us in two different directions, which does not work well in hokku.

We have to remember that Bashō was not any kind of Superman of hokku, he was just a writer who sometimes succeeded, sometimes not.  What Bashō did do was to live what he wrote about.

Kikaku, whose hokku are usually suspect, did write a rather good winter verse:

Kono kido ya   jō no sasarete   fuyu no tsuki
This brush-gate ya lock’s fixed   winter ‘s moon.

This brushwood gate,
Locked up tight;
The winter moon.

We feel the motionlessness, the stillness, the un-move-able-ness of the cold of winter, and the white light of the moon only adds to the chill.  Blyth translated the second line as “Is bolted and barred,” which not only emphasizes the effect but is also euphonic.

And last, for today, a verse by Tantan:

Hatsuyuki ya   nami no todakanu   iwa no ue
First-snow ya wave ‘s reach-not     rock ‘s on

We have to rearrange the elements to make it come out right in English:

On a rock
The waves cannot reach —
The first snow.

It is not a high rock, but just enough above the rough water so that the waves cannot wash away the first snow that has fallen upon the blackish mass of stone.

After reading these hokku, you will probably feel like putting on a sweater or heating a nice warm cup of herbal tea!  But I hope you will also pay attention to how each of these verses manages (or fails, in one case) to let Nature speak.

 

David

 

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