Recently I had a pleasant dinner with a long-time friend. As we sat, we looked through an exhibit catalog of student work, the work being paintings in the Chinese manner.
There were two styles — the spontaneous, which was largely black and white or with sometimes minimal added color, and the elaborate, which often utilized very striking and brilliant colors. We discussed which were good, which were not so good, and why.
It was obvious that we had to use different criteria for the different styles. In the spontaneous style, one looks for strength and fluidity and movement in brush strokes. But in the elaborate style, one must be more careful, because the eye is automatically drawn by the bright colors, and line becomes more formal. A slight error, and the painting degenerates into stiffness and garishness. In such paintings, one not only looks for the absence of flatness in color, but one also looks for “life” in the eye of a parrot, in the turn of head and lift of leg of a rooster.
In a way, the two styles of painting are somewhat like Western poetry compared to hokku. Just as in the elaborate style the eye can be misled by the brilliance of color, in poetry one can be led astray by clever phrasing and the flash of unusual wording. But one must look beyond and through these, at the “eye” of the poem, to see if it contains the glint of life, or if its elements are merely assembled and stuck on, like cut-out photos pasted into a collage.
In hokku, however, we are looking at the bare bones, like the rocks of a stony mountain, or the rush of a mountain rivulet. It is all in the elements and in the movement, all in the immediate experience, and if a hokku fails in that, it fails as miserably as a painting with crudity and awkwardness of line.