“…ANNIHILATING ALL THAT’S MADE
TO A GREEN THOUGHT IN A GREEN SHADE.”
It is always disappointing to see how the creators of modern haiku trivialize, dismiss, or ignore the writings of the very person from whom they could have learned the most, were they not so self-willed and self-absorbed — R. H. Blyth.
Blyth talks of how “things” are of critical importance, telling the reader that “It is in virtue of its lack of something that a thing has value,” and he backs this up with a quote from the Zenrinkushu — the forest of Zen sayings:
“The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon.”
Blyth tells us in response, “If the tree were strong enough it would manifest nothing. If the wave were rigid, the moon’s nature could not be expressed in it.”
Blyth is telling us here not just the significance of things, but also the requirements for writing about them — for writing hokku. It is just the opposite of the modern haiku attitude. One must be empty of “self nature.”
To explain further, Blyth quotes the German “mystic” Meister Eckhart:
Sollt ihr also ein Sohn sein, so müsst ihr ablegen and von euch scheiden alles, was eine Besonderheit an euch ausmacht.
“If you would become a son, then you must put aside and separate from all that makes an individuality of you.”
In other words, Blyth is saying that the writer of hokku must “empty himself” of the desire to “express himself,” to “become a poet,” to “make a name for himself,” and it is only because of that emptiness — like the emptiness of a mirror undimmed by dust — that the writer can truly experience and express the “things” that are the primary matter of hokku.
This ability to discard self-will and the urge to be noticed is something the modern haiku community as a whole has never been willing to do nor even willing to consider as desirable or beneficial.
Blyth tells us, “In relation to every circumstance, we are to be like the servants at the Feast of Cana: Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”
That is virtually an impossibility for the greater portion of writers of modern haiku, because they are too busy trying to be clever or witty or aesthetic or “known” — trying to be “poets” writing “poetry.” But Blyth tells us to give all that up. Simply empty yourself, become a servant to Nature, and “Whatever he saith unto you, do it.”
The “he” here is not this or that teacher, but rather Nature. A writer of hokku does not say, “Now I am going to write a verse about my reaction to the war” or “I am going to compose a few lines on how I feel about my boyfriend/girlfriend leaving me.” Instead, a writer of hokku becomes empty of self-will and self-nature, open to the promptings of Nature expressed in thing-events, just as Blyth has said:
“The tree manifests the bodily power of the wind;
The wave exhibits the spiritual nature of the moon.”
Thus the writer of hokku manifests flowers blooming in spring, a hawk circling high in the blue sky of summer, a golden yellow leaf falling in autumn, the winter wind blowing in through cracks in the wall. He or she does this to the extent that he or she is empty of self-will, empty of self-nature, empty of what Eckhart called Besonderheit — individuality — what we in hokku call the “self.”
Blyth does not beat around the bush. He tells us quite plainly, “A poet sees things as they are in proportion as he is selfless.”
But that is precisely contrary to the attitude of modern haiku, which, like much of modern poetry, wants not to “put aside” the self, but rather to express it and make it more obvious. That is exactly why modern haiku denigrates Blyth even while generally misunderstanding him. Note that Blyth does not say a self-willed poet does not “see” things, but that he “does not see things as they are.” That is because he — or she — is too busy covering them over with “thinking,” with personal desires and wishes and intellectual abstractions and whittering commentary — the very kinds of things that constitute what most people think of as “poetry.”
The way of a hokku writer, however, is precisely that which Blyth describes:
“The flowers say ‘Bloom!’ and we bloom in them. The wind blows and we sway in the leaves.”
In our school of hokku we express the same by saying that the writer must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak. The mind of the writer should be like a quiet pond in which the moon may be reflected. This “mirror-mind” of the writer of hokku can exist only when one puts aside self-will and self-absorption. One must give up the obsession with the products of the “thinking” mind, and it is by doing so that one allows things to have their own inherent value — not as something added to them by the “poet,” as one might paint roses red — but as they are in themselves when the mind of the writer is emptied and still.
R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.” That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku. For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry. We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”
Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing. Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat. So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.
Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic. Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat. Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.
It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.
There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):
The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):
He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):
Sells her sweaty body;
There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):
In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):
The monkey gets sulky;
One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s
At ebb tide,
Of the unmoving ship.
How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:
At ebb tide,
Of the unmoving ship.
Heat is yang. The ebbing of the tide is yin. Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin. In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin. In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin. That is the effect we get in this verse. The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.
One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”
Is hokku difficult? The simple answer is no.
The only difficulty in hokku comes from what we add to it from our own minds. Really, a hokku is just a meaningful experience of the senses expressed in the context of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.
One can, of course, find old Japanese hokku that were difficult, because old hokku had not lost its literary connections. So often an old hokku cannot be fully understood without knowing that it used a phrase from this or that Chinese poem, or an allusion to an historical or literary event. I have no interest in such hokku, because they are not hokku at its best. They are just another form of hokku as a game. To some it was a word game, to others a literary game —
“Guess the puzzle.”
What was worthwhile in old hokku was its expression of an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. And there is nothing difficult about that beyond the willingness to give up our “thinking” and attachment to the notion of “self” for a while, and to just go with actual experience.
Yes, one has to learn how to punctuate, one has to learn that a hokku has a “cut” between the shorter and longer parts, one has to learn how to create internal harmony in a hokku, but really these are easy things. It is Nature that does all the work — Nature that creates an experience we feel to be significant.
Some people like to give the impression that hokku is difficult and mysterious, but it is not that at all. The best hokku are straightforward and direct, like this summer verse by Taigi:
A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
That could have been written about most any place in America on a hot day.
Our modern hokku has none of the excessive characteristics that did sometimes make old hokku difficult, because modern hokku takes what was best in old hokku and sets that as the standard. We can cheerfully forget all the rest and leave it to scholars and academics, because it is just the chaff of the history of hokku.
I am going to take a short time off from posting here — just a few days, not long. If you read this site and enjoy it, I hope you will take the opportunity of this brief intermission to send me a note telling me so — or even if there is something you want to “get off your chest,” feel free to do that.
Also, I am very open to suggestions for topics. Are you having trouble with some aspect of hokku? Is there something you do not yet quite understand? Feel free to ask, and I will try to respond either directly or in a posting when I am back in a few days.
You can contact me by clicking on the “LEAVE A COMMENT” link at the bottom of this or any article I have posted. Your comment will not be seen by the other blog readers — only by me.
I want to thank those of you who do read this site regularly, and I am always glad to hear from old visitors and new.
The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.
This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.” A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”
Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”
Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:
The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.
This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action. The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.” Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.
This is a very “Yin” verse. The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.” The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.
You will recall that very old hokku often used two things joined by a third. Yayu wrote an interesting hokku that uses two things also, but provides the third that unites them in an interesting way:
The windbell is silent;
Of the clock.
It is a very hot summer day without a breath of wind. The windbell hangs unmoving and silent. The only sound in the heavy heat is the steady, regular, dry, metallic tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock of the clock (obviously pre-digital days). We feel the persistence of the summer heat in the ceaseless ticking that marks off the seconds and minutes and hours of the hot, oppressive day with the same weariness we feel in William Blake’s lines,
Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun….
In Yayu’s hokku, the third element that joins and harmonizes the silence of the windbell and the steady ticking of the clock is of course the heat!
Cools his chisel in it —
The clear water.
While working stone, the metal chisel of the stonemason becomes too hot to hold — from the heat of the day and from the friction of repeated blows — so he holds it in the clear, cool water to take away the heat.
This is a hokku of harmony of opposites — the heat of the summer day (this is a summer hokku) and the heat of the chisel from working the stone are placed against the coolness of the water — Yang (heat) against Yin (coolness and water) — and in this case, Yin overcomes Yang, which makes for a very refreshing verse.
Good hokku generally have strong sensation. By sensation we mean an experience of the senses — seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing.
Those of you with an inquisitive bent of mind may think, “Well, if hokku is all about sensation, why not just present a sensation and be done with it? Why not just say something like “heat” or “coolness” or “sticking my hand in icewater,” and have that as the entire verse?
The answer, of course, is that it does not make much of a verse. The reason is that sensation without context has little significance for us. There must be something that sets off the sensation, that acts as a foil. By “as a foil” I am using the old meaning of the word, in which the “shine” or color of a gemstone was enhanced by backing it with metal foil. A similar thing happens when we add context in hokku.
For example, here is a sensory experience of seeing:
A huge ant walks across the floor.
And the natural response would be, “OK, so what?” That is because the ant crossing the floor has no context. But when we add a meaningful context, then something interesting happens:
A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
By Shirō’s just adding the context of the sensation of heat, the huge ant walking across the floor suddenly becomes meaningful, significant. We cannot really say what its significance is, we just feel it to be significant. One clue is that the “hugeness” of the ant is like the “hugeness” of the heat — so in a way this is a hokku of perceived harmony of similar things. But I mention that only to help those who are new to hokku. Really it is best just to feel the unspoken connection, and that leaves us with the feeling of a significance that cannot be put into words.
Hokku are not intended to be “pretty,” just interesting and significant, so we come across some earthy ones such as:
In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!
Well, that has sensation, but it does not have enough context to “set it off.” That missing context was added by Masafusa as:
In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!
By simply adding the heat, the awful smell is “set off” and intensified, and when that happens, the sense of awful heat is also intensified. So we see here again a hokku of harmony of similarity, in this case of “strong” things — the strong stink of the urine, the strong heat of the very hot, still summer day.
Now why am I telling you these things? For one reason only — to help you to understand the aesthetics and techniques of the hokku, so that you may write new hokku and keep the old tradition alive.
It is typical of the misunderstanding that has dogged the steps of hokku in the West that when it first began to appear there, it was sometimes referred to as “epigrams,” when it is not epigrammatical at all.
What is an epigram? Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us in rhyme:
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
In the West there are comical as well as serious epigrams, and they go back to ancient times. One finds them in the Greek Anthology, that venerable collection of classical verse. Here are some renditions:
First, the satirical:
The sculptor carved Menodotis with love.
It is — how very odd it is —
A noble, speaking likeness. But not of
And Matthew Prior had a much later one:
Sir, I admit your general rule
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
And then, leaving satire aside, there is the stunningly noble ancient Greek epigram written on the tomb of the hero Leonidas, over whose remains a carved stone lion was placed:
I am a lion. Stranger pause
As you pass lightly by;
I guard the tomb of one who was
More lion-like than I.
But today I want to talk about the satirical, because when it comes to the definition of an epigram, paradoxically, the “evil twin” of hokku — senryu — fits the description precisely; it is very small and brief, “its body brevity, and wit its soul.”
Afraid of his wife
The husband is afraid not to make money, because his wife will nag him mercilessly.
In spite of its superficial resemblance to hokku, that is obviously a senryu, not a hokku. It has no relation to Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and it has no season. Instead, its whole focus is on revealing the quirks of human nature. And that is what senryu are about.
To the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.
The teacher does not want the students to see that he too finds the lesson boring.
Senryu shows us what people don’t want us to know, showing what humans are really like behind the “image.”
Here is a modified and “updated” rendering of an old one that seems at first more hokku-like:
The plastic flowers
On the table are dusty;
An out-of-the-way motel.
The isolated motel gets few guests, so the “management” does not pay much attention to appearances.
What makes this senryū rather than hokku? It is the look into human nature that it gives us. And of course we would not be using plastic flowers in hokku.
Older than he,
The wife applies her face cream
She is worried that her husband will lose interest and perhaps look elsewhere for romance.
And having raised, with that last verse, the issue of the ravages of time, I shall complete the circle by returning again to an ancient Greek epigram, of which the first three lines are sufficient:
Now that I grow old, alas,
And the light of youth must pass,
Venus, take my looking glass.
Now that she is losing her looks, she no longer wants to look in a mirror.
In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku. We can think of it this way:
An objective hokku is a thing-event.
A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.
Through the window of the stone lantern —
There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.
However at another time Shiki wrote:
The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.
The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle. So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves. But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination. What he really hears is just the sound of waves. But he did not let that be enough. He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.
Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku? It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.
Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.” When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.
Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective. In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.
We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent. He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be. He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation. Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:
A cool wind;
The sky is filled
With the sound of pines.
In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer. There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.
Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku. In the Bahiya Sutta we read,
“In the seen, there should be only the seen. In the heard, there should be only the heard.”
So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.
We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku. Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.” Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.
I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle. Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.
It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however. We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.
“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.
Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.
“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”
Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.
“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”
Did it cry itself
A cicada shell.
“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”
But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added. But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:
The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.” But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor. That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center. In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak. We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.
By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:
In field and mountain,
The snowy morning.
Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:
Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:
This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:
The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.
But sometimes he is subjective, as in:
I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.
The “floating world” is the “worldly” life. “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing. It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.
In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity. “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry. But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate. It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”