NO DIVIDED ATTENTION

I have to confess that years of involvement with hokku have made me very leery of metaphor and simile in verse.  You will recall that metaphor is saying that one thing is another — for example when people say “We are just two ships passing in the night.”  Simile means that one thing is like another  (just think of the word “similar”), for example, “He stands like a rock.”

In hokku we do not use metaphor or simile, because doing so divides our attention.  So in hokku we let things be what they are.  The moon is the moon, not a “silent messenger of the night,” or whatever one might dream up.

And as I said, the effect of this, over time, is that we become more sensitive to the use of metaphor and simile in other kinds of verse, finding it in general a distraction and a detraction.  More and more, we just want a writer to let things be as they are.

There was an interesting fellow named William Sharp who wrote verses in the latter half of the 19th century.  Sometimes his language was a little too archaic and anachronistically Elizabethan, but many of his verses showed real promise.  All too often, however, they are spoiled by simile, as in the first few lines of The Wind at Fidenae:

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind bloweth.
Down o’er the slopes,
Where the olives whiten
As though the feet
Of the wind were snow-clad:
Out o’er the plain
Where a paradise of wild blooms waveth,
And where, in the sunswept
Leagues of azure,
A thousand larks are
As a thousand founts
‘Mid the perfect joy of
The depth of heaven.

“Bloweth?”  “Waveth”?”  No one really talked like that in the latter half of the 19th century, but all too often such archaicisms were looked on as “poetic” language.

And then there are lines like

“As though the feet of the wind
Were snow-clad.”

One could get away with that if one happened to be an ancient Greek or Roman, when the forces of Nature were simultanously phenomena and gods or goddesses — like “Rosy-fingered Dawn.”  But it did not really work in the 19th century, nor does it work today.

The wind does not have snow-clad feet, nor, in spite of Carl Sandburg, does fog come on little cat feet.  Do you see how the moment one adds these, the mind becomes divided between the real thing — between the wind and snow-clad feet, between fog and the feet of a cat?  The mind can only work with one image at a time, so simile and metaphor force us to split our attention, which detracts from the thing itself.

So when I read Sharp, I find myself wanting to rewrite him, to take out the Elizabethan language and the similes, perhaps ending with something like

Fresh from the Sabines
The Beautiful Hills,
The wind blows.
Down o’er the slopes
Where the olives whiten,
Out to the plain
Where the wild blooms wave;

You get the idea.

In hokku we do not divide the attention with metaphor and simile.  Instead we combine elements into a unity.  Often there is a setting — the wider environment in which something happens.  Within that setting there is the subject of the verse, and that subject acts or is acted upon.  In this combining of elements there is no division of the attention, no detracting from any of the elements.  Each is simply what it is, and in that is the simplicity and the effectiveness of hokku.

 

David

 

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