PLAYING WITH WATER

Continuing with hokku of very early spring, we find this by Issa:

Monzen ya     tsue de tsukurishi    yuki-ge-gawa
gate-front ya stick with made      snow-melt-river

Like many hokku, this is written in the original (transliterated here) by combining borrowed Chinese characters with Japanese phonetic signs (hiragana).  “Monzen” is two Chinese characters (mon and zen) meaning “gate front” (“front” here in the sense of “before,” “in front of”).  The rest is in hiragana with the exception of the last three characters, which again are Chinese, and mean “Snow” (yuki) “Melt” (ge) “River” (gawa/kawa).

All of that is probably far more than any of you wanted to know, but it is useful in pointing out that whereas in English hokku we have the visual distinction of upper and lower case letters, in Japanese there is the distinction of “Chinese” characters combined with hiragana phonetic symbols.

Long before, women writing in medieval Japan did so in hiragana, while men wrote in “Chinese” charcters — kanji — which required far more extensive education than was considered appropriate for females at the time (why do women always get the short end of the stick?).  This notion that kanji signified “educated” persisted — and it still exists in modern Japan, though today women write using both kanji and hiragana (as do men), and a third writing system is also mixed in for writing non-Japanese words — katakana.  The number of kanji in common use today has been greatly reduced.

Aside from adding that the early hiragana writing of women was often very beautiful and spidery, that gives you the basic background for understanding how hokku were written — sometimes in hiragana, but more often in a mixture of kanji and hiragana, as in this one by Issa.

Having gone through all of that, which really has nothing whatsoever to do with writing hokku in English, it is time to take a look at the meaning of Issa’s hokku, which is simply this:

The gate front;
With a stick I have made
Snow Melt River

This verse expresses childlike play and fantasy, presented in a pseudo-important way.  Issa is saying that just outside his gate, where the snow is melting in the early spring weather, he has traced a long line in the mud with a stick, thereby making a little stream of melt-water that he has given the pompous title “Snow Melt River.”

Now one may think this just a bit of playful nonsense, and in a way it is.  But on the other hand, one cannot help thinking of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, for whom such play was so significant that he used to spend long periods of time making streams and rivulets and other water works on the shores of Lake Zurich.  Perhaps Issa, who had such a scarring childhood, found it similarly therapeutic, and perhaps that helps to explain why he so often comes across as a big child compared to the more “serious” writers of hokku.

And there is the fact that water is a very potent symbol of the unconscious mind.

David

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