THE IMPORTANCE OF SEASON IN HOKKU

Here I have strung together some information on season in hokku, as well as a bit on the role of Yin and Yang:

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku,

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of Yang into Yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (Yang) to inactivity (Yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast – of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests a season — meaning what evokes its essential nature.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not manifest that essential nature are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it begins to change into its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations.  That is why I have been posting recently about the traditional calendar and the flexible “hokku” calendar.

In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter.  Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.

It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves.  One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century.  We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.

Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live .  Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both.  And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults.  That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time.  The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.

In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons.  One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).

The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them.  But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku.  So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates.  This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku.  It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.

That is why in modern hokku, the old system of season words has been dropped.  It was, after all, only a means of linking hokku to the seasons, and when another and more convenient means is used, it is no longer necessary.  In modern hokku that new method is marking each verse with the season in which it is written.

The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season.  But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete.  To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just some kind of haiku or other brief verse — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.

As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.

Some topics are self-evident.  In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons.  That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.

Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:

The Season – the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”

The Sky and Elements – for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”

Gods and Buddhas – Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.

Fields and Mountains – withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.

Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school.  Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn.  And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Birds and Beasts – such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc.  And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.

Trees and Flowers – Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums,  withering flowers in the garden and other such things.

Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.

It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku.  To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction.  Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.

David

WORKING WITH PATTERNS

In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Or

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.

David

FALLING WILLOW LEAVES

People seem to prefer reading this site, so I am shelving the alternate Hokku Inn site for now, and will move the postings from that site here, so they will still be accessible.  Here is the first of those:

In spite of his unfortunate change of terminology, Shiki often wrote very passable hokku.  Here is one of his best:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

This verse is interesting because it uses two settings and two actions, like two different focuses of a lens.  We see what is happening in the overall “far” environment.  We begin at a distance with

Falling willow leaves.

Then we move in closer and see

At the door of the empty house,

And what we see there is in the closest focus:

A dog asleep.

We could even reverse the English translation to fit that “big to small” format:

Falling willow leaves;
At the door of the empty house,
A dog asleep.

The Japanese original actually begins with line two (of the last example), then moves to line three, and ends with line one.  So we can see there are different ways of presenting the elements of a verse.

Those different ways are:

1.  Big to small — moving from the wider to the narrower view.

2.  Small to big — moving from the narrower to the wider view.

3.  Mixed, such as is used by Shiki in the Japanese original, when he begins with the second-closest view (at the door of the empty house), moves to the closest (the dog asleep) then moves out for the widest view (falling willow leaves).

Each of these gives us a different effect.

This hokku is an expanded form of the “standard” setting-subject-action hokku:

The setting is:  Falling willow leaves
The subject is:  A dog
The action is:  Asleep at the door of the empty house

“At the door of the empty house” functions essentially as a second setting, an expansion of the standard form.

Moving on to why this hokku “works,” we can say that it reflects the poverty and the growing Yin of autumn.  We see the poverty not only in the empty, abandoned house but also in the dog sleeping at its door, where there is no one to care for him.  The sleep of the dog is in keeping with the weakening of the vital energies in autumn, and this feeling is only made stronger by the falling leaves of the willow, which show us the same weakening of energy.

Though Shiki does not say so, one feels that the time is afternoon, when the declining sun gives a warm, drowsy color to the atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the sleeping dog and the languid falling of the yellow leaves of the willow.

Those of you who have been with me for some time will quickly recognize the principle of internal reflection in all of this.  Internal reflection is the putting together of elements in a hokku that are similar in nature or feeling, so that they subtly “reflect” one another within the poem.  The weak falling of the willow leaves, the sleep of the dog, the emptiness and silence of the abandoned house — all are in keeping with the increasing Yin and decreasing Yang of autumn.

David

HOKKU IS NOT “WRITING POETRY”

I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.

David

A BIT ABOUT MOONS

I recently posted information about the hokku calendar.  If nothing else from it sticks in your mind, remember these two things:

1.  Autumn /fall and winter are the two yin seasons; spring and summer are the two yang seasons.  In the yang seasons, yang is growing and will gain predominance over yin.  In the yin seasons, yin is growing and will gain predominance over yang.

2.  Each season, for the purposes of hokku, is divided into a beginning, a midpoint, and an end, which in hokku we describe as, for example:

Autumn begins;
Autumn deepens;
Autumn departs.

Now as to why we pay so much attention to these things, it is simply because in hokku we wish to remain constantly connected to and in harmony with the season, because hokku is essentially about the season and how it manifests itself.

The full moon of autumn, which old hokku referred to by the epithet “the bright moon,” is what we call the Harvest Moon, which is technically the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox.

Using traditional names, here are the “moons” of August through December — the moons of declining Yang and increasing Yin.  Keep in mind that the “moon” name is not only the lunar month name, but also the name of the full moon in that month, which I have given here corresponding to our regular calendar months:

August:  The Green Corn Moon
September:  The Corn Moon
The Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which can occur in September or October.
October: The Falling Leaves Moon
November: The Frost Moon
December:  The Long Night Moon

August and September, the Green Corn Moon and the Corn Moon, have slightly different significance in Britain and America.  In Britain corn is grain; in America corn is maize.

Chora wrote:

From windy grasses
It rises —
Tonight’s moon.

We know that those will be withering or withered grasses, because that is in keeping with autumn — the time of withering.
David

HOKKU NO ES HAIKU, Y VICEVERSA

Thanks to the kindness and cleverness of a reader named Giovanni Jara, here is a Spanish translation of a couple of my postings on the important differences between hokku and modern haiku.  They recently appeared in a Spanish online magazine, which accounts for his introduction:

Hokku

Por David Coomler

[Buscando algún material interesante que traducir para HELA (www.hela17.blogspot.com), aparece el blog de David, quien de forma extensa expone y defiende que, en general, lo que hoy en día en inglés llaman haiku está tan alejado de lo que originalmente buscaban los primeros autores clásicos, que el rótulo para lo que hacían esos antiguos haijines debería ser otro: hokku; el nombre mismo de la primera estrofa del renga.

Si bien, este puede ser un tema de discusión un tanto ajeno (y confuso) para hispanohablantes nosotros que hace tan poco tiempo tratamos de entender el género japonés, tal vez sirva para meditar acerca de la verdadera esencia del haiku (y/o hokku): ese centro estético-espiritual que envolvemos con unas cuantas sílabas. “Eso” que buscaban los antiguos…

Agradezco al autor por permitir y sugerir algunos de sus artículos para ser traducidos, a modo de introducción a su manera de comprender el hokku y el haiku.

Traducido y/o adaptado por Giovanni Jara, en agosto de 2010]

Hokku no es haiku, y viceversa.

Muchos todavía se confunden por el descuidado e indiscriminado uso y mezcla de los términos hokku y haiku, tanto en el material impreso como en Internet. ¿Son lo mismo? ¿Son diferentes? Es importante saberlo, porque la supervivencia del hokku depende de entender exactamente lo que es, de manera que no lo confundamos con todas las estrofas similares en lo superficial, que se amparan bajo el término genérico haiku.

Sin entrar en una descripción detallada, podemos decir que hokku es un poema corto que alcanzó verdadera popularidad primeramente cerca del inicio del siglo 16. Sin embargo, para nuestros propósitos, el hokku tal como lo conocemos, comenzó con los escritos de dos personas: Onitsura (1661-1738), que no dejó estudiantes para continuar su trabajo; y Bashô (1644-1694), que sí tuvo seguidores, y por eso se hizo mucho más conocido. Desde la época de Onitsura y Bashô hasta justo antes de la época de Shiki (1867-1902), el tipo de estrofa era conocido como hokku.

El haiku, como se conoce hoy en día, no existió hasta que fue creado por Masaoka Shiki hacia el final del siglo 19.

Debería ser obvio, entonces, que alguien que hable de los “haiku” de Bashô, o los “haiku” de Buson, o Issa, o Gyôdai, o cualquiera de los otros primeros escritores de hokku, está hablando tanto inexacta como anacrónicamente. Ese es un simple hecho que cualquiera puede comprobar.

¿Por qué, entonces, tanta gente persiste en la terminología inexacta y anacrónica, pretendiendo que hokku y haiku son lo mismo? Hay dos simples razones. La primera está en los intereses de las organizaciones de haiku moderno, que han confundido haiku con hokku durante tanto tiempo en sus publicaciones, que sería vergonzoso hacer la corrección. Después de todo, ¡fueron los fundadores de la Haiku Society of America quienes intentaron hacer que el término “hokku” se declarara obsoleto!

La segunda razón es comercial. Escritores letrados que están mejor informados, a veces usan mal “haiku” al referirse a hokku simplemente porque ellos o sus editores, o ambos, quieren vender más copias, y es un sencillo hecho demográfico que más personas han oído hablar de “haiku” que de hokku.

El resultado es la perpetuación de una inexactitud que es conocida por todos al ser un error entre los estudiosos. No existe razón, por lo tanto, para no corregir el problema y usar la terminología precisa. Bashô no escribió haiku, ni ninguno de los otros escritores hasta el final del siglo 19, porque “haiku”, como se conoce hoy en día, simplemente no existió hasta entonces.

Shiki comenzó la confusión de términos casi trescientos años después de Bashô. Fuertemente influenciado por el pensamiento occidental en el arte y la literatura, decidió “reformar” el hokku, al separarlo de sus raíces espirituales y divorciarlo por completo de las estrofas encadenadas, en donde el hokku anteriormente se usaba como estrofa de apertura. Hasta ese momento, el hokku podía aparecer ya sea como estrofa independiente o como la primera de una secuencia de estrofas. Tras Shiki, su nuevo “haiku” —con un nombre elegido específicamente para enviar el hokku al olvido— sólo podía aparecer de forma independiente, porque él no consideraba que la estrofa eslabonada fuera legítima “literatura”.

Las reformas de Shiki dañaron al hokku, pero el resultado pudo no haber sido tan serio si no hubiera habido cada vez más escritores radicales persiguiéndolo, siguiendo su impaciente costumbre de innovación. Tanto en Japón como en Occidente, aparecieron escritores que continuamente remodelaron el nuevo “haiku” a formas que lo llevaron más y más lejos de las pautas y la estética del viejo hokku. Así, con el tiempo, hokku y haiku crecieron cada vez más separados.

Esta tendencia sólo se aceleró por los escritores occidentales, que desde el principio entendieron y percibieron erróneamente el hokku, combinándolo con sus propias nociones sobre la poesía y los poetas. Así que cuando a su vez comenzaron a escribir haiku, confusamente lo presentaron al público como “lo que escribió Bashô”, cuando, por supuesto, no tenía casi nada en común con el hokku de Bashô, salvo la brevedad.

Hoy, de hecho, la tradición del haiku moderno occidental, que virtualmente fue creado en la década de 1960, se ha vuelto tan variada que no es inexacto decir que el haiku hoy en día es todo lo que un escritor individual considere que sea. Si un escritor llama a su poema “haiku”, es haiku. No hay criterios universalmente aceptados que definan al haiku, por lo que en la actualidad, en el idioma inglés, no es más que un término global, un cajón de sastre, para poemas cortos de aproximadamente tres líneas. En realidad, un haiku moderno es a menudo simplemente una estrofa libre.

Esto se contrapone en gran medida con el hokku, que tiene principios muy definidos y patrones estéticos heredados —incluso en inglés y en otros idiomas— de la antigua tradición del hokku, gracias a lo cual puede seguir siendo llamado por el mismo término. El hokku moderno conserva en esencia la estética y los principios del antiguo hokku, mientras que el haiku moderno, es un nuevo tipo de poema con normas muy variables en función de los caprichos de cada escritor.

Esta situación ha resultado en una gran cantidad de ira no siempre bien reprimida, entre los escritores de haiku moderno. Los foros de haiku en la red tienen mala fama por los altercados y sañas. Hay muchas razones para ello. En un formato que permite a cada persona ser su propio árbitro de lo que es o no es “haiku”, es inevitable que haya innumerables desacuerdos y ásperas fricciones entre aquellos que sólo consideran su propia versión de “haiku” superior. Y, por supuesto, casi todos ellos están muy en contra del reavivamiento del antiguo hokku, que pensaban había sido silenciosamente enterrado y olvidado; porque (por alguna razón), encuentran que un poema con una legítima conexión al antiguo hokku, y con claras normas y principios y estética, (de alguna manera) amenaza a su sentido occidental del poeta como vanguardista, revolucionario, intelectual. El resto se lo dejaré a los psicólogos.

Ergo, hoy en día la situación es la siguiente: Existe el hokku antiguo, practicado desde el tiempo de Onitsura y Bashô hasta la época de Shiki. Esta tradición del hokku hoy continúa entre algunos de nosotros que todavía lo practicamos como un poema corto, estacional, basado en lo espiritual, vinculado a la naturaleza; y como una forma de vida. Pero también existe la mucho más conocida y difundida nueva tradición del haiku, que comenzó hacia el final del siglo 19 en Japón, y que se puso en marcha en inglés en la década de 1960 hacia el oeste. El haiku moderno no requiere base espiritual, ni tampoco tiene necesariamente una conexión con la naturaleza o las estaciones. Tampoco tiene necesariamente nada que ver con el estilo de vida de uno, o cómo uno ve el universo y el lugar de los humanos en él.

Para frustración de muchos en las comunidades de haiku moderno a quienes les gusta pensar en su haiku como el formato de elite, el mayor impacto del haiku en el mundo moderno —entre el público en general—, ha sido como un nuevo y deliberadamente satírico poema de baja calidad. Eso explica la popularidad de variaciones tales como “Spam-ku” [correo no deseado-ku], “Honku” [bocinazo-ku] y “Redneck Haiku” [haiku del patán o bruto]. El haiku ha fallado en ganarse la aceptación en la corriente principal de la literatura inglesa, a pesar de la difundida experimentación de celebridades tales como Richard Wright y W. H. Auden. Más bien, hoy se le considera como “poesía de escuela primaria”, y eso ha contribuido en su transformación a poema satírico, dándole en gran medida el mismo lugar en la escritura occidental moderna, que el sarcástico senryû tuvo en Japón —que similarmente era tanto de baja calidad como humorístico—. Tal vez este sea el verdadero futuro del haiku en occidente.

No obstante, cualquiera sea la situación moderna, el hokku y el haiku son hoy dos formas poéticas diferentes que no se deben confundir en el uso académico ni en el uso popular. El Hokku y el haiku están relacionados históricamente —porque el hokku moderno es una continuación del hokku antiguo, y el haiku moderno evolucionó a partir del hokku antiguo—, pero aún así están separados y son distintos en la práctica y en la estética. Y con un movimiento en marcha al haiku moderno para finalmente descartar incluso el nombre de “haiku” —dejando simplemente una forma libre y corta de poesía que se le puede llamar como sea que el escritor desee llamarle—; el hokku más que nunca se aparta de todo eso hoy llamado “haiku”.

Ante esta situación, la existencia hoy en día tanto del viejo hokku basado en la naturaleza y las estaciones, y de la más nueva e innovadora tradición del haiku, depende del individuo; es ella o él quien elije el que prefiera, pero aún así es importante utilizar la terminología adecuada y precisa para cada uno —hokku para unos, y haiku para otros—.

En cuanto a mí, sigo la antigua tradición del hokku, porque me parece no sólo más profunda en comparación con la superficialidad de la mayoría de los haiku de hoy, sino también me parece mucho más satisfactoria en su pureza espiritual, su falta de egoísmo y su íntima conexión con la naturaleza y las estaciones.

Eso no impide que me divierta con estrofas como los “Redneck Haiku[haiku del patán o bruto] acerca de un tipo llamado Clyde, quien se presenta a las chicas golpeando ruidosamente en la puerta de su camioneta y aullando como un perro (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, de Mary K. Witte).

¿Qué importa el nombre que le demos?

Siguiendo el pensamiento de lo anterior, ¿qué importa si llamamos a la estrofa que escribimos hokku, o haiku, o incluso de otro modo, mientras sea una buena y apasionada estrofa?

Importa muchísimo. Aparte de la simple cuestión de la exactitud histórica —que requiere el uso del término hokku—, está la cuestión de la definición exacta. Si en una clase de elaboración de pan, el profesor descubre que cada vez que dice “pan”, lo que sus alumnos realmente escuchan es “pizza”, entonces esa va a ser una clase muy desordenada. Descubrí esto por experiencia, cuando recién empezaba a enseñar hokku.

Cada vez que decía: “En el hokku se hace esto…”, lo que muchos de mis alumnos entendían era “En el haiku se hace esto…”, Traían todos su bagaje de lo que sabían del haiku al aprendizaje del hokku, y eso estuvo constantemente obstruyendo el proceso de aprendizaje. Para salir de este dilema, primero tenían que darse cuenta de que hokku y haiku NO es lo mismo, que el hokku tiene principios, patrones, y estética bien definidos, y que el haiku, por el contrario, es un término general para una gran cantidad de tipos de estrofas, con una amplia variedad de patrones y estética —tan amplia, de hecho, que un haiku se ha convertido en prácticamente todo lo que cualquier escritor decide llamar haiku—.

Lo importante en esto era comenzar a deshacer toda la confusión y ofuscación causada por las sociedades y libros de haiku, y por expertos auto-fabricados en la segunda mitad del siglo 20. El primer paso era muy básico —darse cuenta de que uno ha estado engañado—, que Bashô no escribió haiku, ni cualquiera de los otros implicados en el mismo tipo de estrofa, en los más de 200 años que precedieron la introducción del haiku al mundo por Masaoka Shiki, cerca del final del siglo 19.

Me asombró lo sorpresivo que era esto para los entusiastas del haiku, cuando por primera vez comencé a decirlo en público hace años. Al principio, simplemente no me creían, y se preguntaban: “¿Puede ser cierto? ¿Bashô realmente llamaba hokku a sus famosos poemas, y no haiku?” Así es como el público había sido engañado ampliamente por las “autoridades” del haiku escrito en la segunda mitad del siglo 20.

Si Bashô no escribió haiku, sino que claramente llamó hokku a lo que escribió —en el contexto más amplio del haikai—, entonces ¿por qué todos en la comunidad del haiku moderno pretendían que eran de alguna manera sucesores de Bashô, cuando no escribían el tipo de estrofa que él escribió, y ni siquiera lo llamaban por el mismo nombre? Todo se remonta a la confusión masiva impuesta al público en el siglo 20 por los escritores de las sociedades de haiku que decidieron simplemente ignorar el pasado y volver a rehacer el poema de acuerdo con sus propios preconceptos occidentales sobre poetas y poesía.

Pero teniendo en cuenta todo eso, ¿qué pasa con la idea de que no importa como sea llamado un poema, mientras sea un buen y apasionado poema?

Lo que sea una buena estrofa depende de lo que la estrofa esté destinada a ser. Un buen jingle comercial no es probablemente un buen soneto. Un buen soneto no es probablemente una buena cuarteta. Una buena cuarteta no va a ser un buen hokku. Esto es simple lógica, de la misma manera sabemos que una buena pizza no es a la vez un buen pastel. SÍ importa cómo se llama a las cosas, lo cual es por qué el lenguaje es útil y no simplemente confuso.

¿Y qué pasa con la pasión al escribir poemas? Bueno, un hombre es capaz de escribir apasionadamente sobre su caniche recién esquilado: Pupsi; pero el escribir simplemente con pasión no significa escribir bien, o incluso de forma interesante. Edward D. Wood Jr. trabajó con notable pasión en la filmación de películas, pero es recordado por algunas de las peores películas jamás creadas involuntariamente —películas que de tan malas son muy divertidas—. No me sorprende que muchos en la comunidad del haiku moderno, quienes se quejan que el hokku limita su derecho inherente como poetas a expresarse con pasión de la manera que lo deseen, con frecuencia salen a escribir poemas muy malos, bajo cualquier definición.

Y en cualquier caso, el hokku NO es limitante. Si se quiere escribir algo que no se ajusta a las normas y estética del hokku, uno es libre de escribir en cualquier formato de estrofa que se desee, al igual que si se quiere añadir ajo y salsa de tomate y mozzarella a una receta de harina, no se le puede llamar “torta”, pero sin duda se le puede llamar pizza.

En resumen, la mayoría de las quejas que se oyen de los entusiastas del haiku moderno sobre el hokku son simplemente absurdas, que reflejan una falta de lógica básica, una ausencia de pensamiento claro. Llamar al hokku por su verdadero nombre, es históricamente exacto y preciso por definición. Llamarlo “haiku” es históricamente inexacto, engañoso, confuso y anacrónico. La mejor elección es obvia.

Una vez que se dejan de lado tales protestas poco meditadas, se es libre de explorar todo lo que es el hokku, en lugar de deambular en un laberinto de confusión causado por la mezcla de todo lo que no es. Así que este asunto básico de la terminología —llamar las cosas por su nombre— es, como Confucio señaló, de vital importancia. Para escribir hokku debemos conocer todo lo que pertenece al hokku, sin mezclarlo con todo lo que pertenece a otros tipos de poesía, como el haiku. Entonces uno puede dar los primeros pasos para aprender a escribir en la tradición de Bashô, Gyôdai, Taigi, y todos los otros escritores de hokku desde el siglo 17 hasta el final del 19 —y de los escritores de hokku moderno que siguen la tradición hoy en día—.

————————————————————————

David Coomler [Oregon, EE.UU.], desde hace mucho es autor y profesor de hokku. Fue el primero que comenzó a enseñar de forma activa el hokku en Internet, muchos años atrás. Él hace especial hincapié en distinguir el hokku —el antiguo y el nuevo— de su vástago, el haiku moderno. También de especial importancia en su enseñanza es el enfoque a la naturaleza, y el lugar de los seres humanos dentro y como parte de ella, lo que considera muy significativo en el actual período de crisis ambiental. Él mantiene la tradicional conexión del hokku con el cambio de estaciones, aunque con una actualización y simplificación más adecuada al hokku escrito fuera de Japón, en otros idiomas aparte del japonés. Coomler subraya la importancia de la escritura en el contexto del medio natural en que se vive, y que el hokku, en cualquier país e idioma que sea escrito, debería ser una planta nativa creciendo en un suelo nativo.

Su sitio web en inglés es: https://hokku.wordpress.com/

 

 

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY

Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

SPRING:
Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

SUMMER 
begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

AUTUMN/FALL
For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

WINTER:
Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.

David

IT’S ABOUT TIME: THE HOKKU YEAR

The seasons are very important to hokku.  But when we look a bit closer, we find we have both formal and natural calendars:

The old traditional European calendar — now a formal calendar — was divided into four seasons, each with a festival at its beginning, its middle, and its end.  The end point also marks the beginning of the next season.  I give it here using traditional English and Irish names.  The notation “The first week” indicates that the day on which it begins had some variation in old usage.

Spring:

Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  1st week of February.
Midpoint:  Spring Equinox, March 20/21.
End:  the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh).  1st week of May.

Summer:

Begins with May Day (Bealtaine).  1st week of May.
Midpoint:  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End:  The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1.  1st week of August.

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.
Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
End: the evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.
Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.
End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

We can simplify the traditional calendar for the purposes of hokku:

Spring:

Spring begins:  Around February 1st.
Spring deepens:  Around March 20/21.
Spring ends Around May 1st.

Summer begins:  Around May 1st.
Summer deepens:  Around June 20/21.
Summer ends:  Around August 1st.

Autumn / Fall begins:  Around August 1st.
Autumn / Fall deepens:  Around September 21/22.
Autumn / Fall ends:  Around November 1st.

Winter begins:  Around November 1st.
Winter deepens:  Around December 21 /22.
Winter ends:  Around February 1st.

Now you may be thinking that makes no sense.  Spring, where you are, may begin in May!  The preceding calendars are “formal” — the first astronomical and the second meteorological.   But in hokku, with its lack of artificiality, we may be flexible and informal.  The seasons are not the same in all places.  Winter comes earlier in mountain regions than in lowlands, and spring comes later.

The so-called “meteorological calendar” recognizes, for example, that though the time of maximum sunlight comes at Midsummer, nonetheless its effects are not felt until some four weeks later.  That shifts the seasons, loosely speaking, by about a month.  We then have a calendar like this:

Spring:
Begins:  March
Midpoint: April
Ends:  May

Summer:
Begins:  June

Midpoint:  July
Ends:  August

Autumn / Fall:
Begins:  September
Midpoint:  October
Ends:  November

Winter:

Begins:  December
Midpoint:  January
Ends:  February

Given these different approaches to the seasons, which is the writer of hokku to follow?

The answer is simple.  Use the traditional formal calendar for times and seasons and celebrations, and with that, use a “natural” and flexible calendar that  reflects the seasonal changes of Nature where you are.  We all know that spring does not really begin punctually on February 1st or March 1st or at the Spring Equinox in the natural world.  If you first see sprouts and buds poking through the earth some time in February, that is when your spring begins.  If it happens in March, that is when your spring begins.  Go with the natural climate and weather where you are, which may be very different from the natural calendar of other people living in other regions.  Some very warm parts of the world may have only two main seasons, a dry season and a rainy season.  One is their “summer,” the other their “winter.”

I live in a temperate and moderate climate much like that of the British Isles, so it is no problem for me to follow the old traditional calendar, with Spring beginning with its first signs in February — though in some years, February can be a very cold month.

The traditional calendar provides a pleasant way to maintain a connection with our ancestors and their seasonal times and celebrations, but we should pay close attention to the “natural” calendar where we live as well.   So we can celebrate the important old “Quarter Days” — the Winter Solstice (Great Yule), the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day), the Autumn Equinox — and we can also celebrate the old “Cross-Quarter Days” — Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and Samhain (marked by Halloween the night before).  But in addition, we always keep a close eye on what is actually happening in Nature, and on when it is happening.  That is our real guide to the seasons in hokku.

So here, without attached dates, is the “natural” calendar of hokku, which you apply to each year and region a bit differently.  But the order remains the same:

SPRING:
Spring begins
Spring deepens
Spring departs

SUMMER:
Summer begins
Summer deepens
Summer departs

AUTUMN / FALL:
Autumn begins
Autumn deepens
Autumn departs

WINTER:
Winter begins
Winter deepens
Winter departs

See how very simple it is?  When you see the signs of spring beginning in Nature, that is when it begins for your hokku.  When you see it advancing, that is when spring deepens in your hokku.  And when you begin to see the changes that signify its ending and the transition to another season near, that is when spring is departing in your hokku.  Just apply this principle to each season.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year.  You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm.  Yin is passive, Yang active.  Yin recedes, Yang advances.  Yin is wet, Yang is dry.  Yin is still, Yang moving.  Yin is silence, Yang is sound.  Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin.  At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite.  Yang first begins to grow within it.  So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite.  Yin begins to grow within it.  So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter.  Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer.  Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another.  As Yang increases, Yin declines.  When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines.  This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year.  We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring:  Growing Yang
Summer:  Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

All of this has profound significance in hokku.  Hokku is the verse of the seasons, so whatever the apparent subject of a verse, the real subject is the season in which the verse is written.

That means every hokku should manifest and express the qualities of the season.  That is why in spring we may talk about budding flowers, in summer about the heat, in autumn about falling leaves, and in winter about snow.  These are just some very obvious examples of seasonal manifestations.  The seasons actually manifest themselves in hokku in a multitude of ways, which is why the possibilities for hokku are endless.

David

THE NATURE OF HOKKU

R. H. Blyth gives a good summary of the characteristics — the nature — of hokku.  In that summary we find:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

4.  Lack of elegance.

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

7.  “Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

9.  Human warmth.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

I hope those who read here will think about these and how they apply to the hokku we have discussed thus far, or to those read elsewhere.  Perhaps in the future — or if people have questions — I will expand on these characteristics.

David

A TIME OF GHOSTS — UPDATE

Here is a sample page from the beginning of my new book, A TIME OF GHOSTS, which deals with the remarkable life of a long-time friend of mine who was trained in both traditional Chinese medicine and in Western medicine.

One sees from the very first page that it was not an ordinary life. Born to a very wealthy family of aristocratic Manchu ancestry in China before the rise of Communism, his life was radically changed by the turmoil that enveloped the entire country.

It impelled him to undertake an inner and outer journey in search of meaning and freedom.  He met many remarkable people along the way, both good and bad, some very spiritual, some very materialistic, and some not of this plane of existence at all.  This book was written so that they might not be entirely forgotten, as was the case with countless numbers during those troubled years.

I think you will find it to be without any of the dullness of the traditional biography, because it is as filled with excitement and adventure and suspense as a novel — but it is not fiction.  It is a remarkable story — a true story — and one with great meaning to anyone concerned with finding their way in a difficult world.

The book is presently in the process of being formatted as an ebook.  The printed version is not presently available, except perhaps for used copies you might find via online used book sellers.  I will post a notice when the ebook version is available.

David Coomler

FALLING LEAVES AND WILD GEESE

Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.

David

AUTUMN SCARECROWS

Autumn has begun.

Autumn is the declining of the life energies in Nature.  We see it in the withering of grasses and plants, in the yellowing and coloring and, eventually, the falling of the leaves.  In America our “native” name for the season is the Fall, and that is what it is — the fall of the leaves.  It is also the fall of the turning wheel of the year from the Yang height of summer to the deep Yin of winter.

In hokku it is very important that things reflect one another, that they are harmonious even in difference.  The declining of vital energy in the autumn is in keeping with late afternoon in the day.  In human life, it corresponds to the time when a person grows old, the “autumn of life,” as people say.  Autumn is a time of the calming of the energies of summer, a time when Nature prepares to go inward, to “return to the root” as we see in plants whose upper leaves wither as the energy to survive winter begins to concentrate in their roots.

Autumn is a time of change, of preparation for the harshness and stillness and poverty of winter.  Animals store their food or prepare for hibernation; birds, as the air cools, begin their great journeys southward across the skies.  Even humans like to find, when possible, a secure place to spend the coming winter.

Autumn, then, is the declining of Yang energy and the increasing of Yin, a movement toward the predominance of stillness and silence over activity and sound.  It manifests all through the season, for example in the cries of migrating wild geese high overhead that quickly pass and disappear in the distance, and in sudden storms that fade eventually to silence.

We see autumn, then, in things that are aging and things that are old; in fading leaves, in bleached boards, in withering plants, and old people with grey hair and slowing step.  We see it in the chilling of the air and the return of the rains, and of course in the decline of the path of the sun in the sky and the shortening of the day.

Scarecrows are a favorite subject for hokku in autumn because they manifest the character of the season so well — its aging, its frailty, its deepening poverty, its weakness:

Kyoroku wrote:

First,
The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm
.

That shows us the frailty and weakness that are in keeping with the season, in spite of the strength of the storm.  And of course we can say of the scarecrow — as Nyōfu does here,

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

That is what makes it such an expressive manifestation of the autumn — its poverty, its weakness, its inherent frailty.

The scarecrow, we must note, is not a metaphor for anything; it does not symbolize or represent anything.  But of course because of the principle of reflection, we cannot help feeling ourselves in the scarecrow, and in fact, feeling all of Nature at autumn in the scarecrow.  It is said that a single falling leaf is all of autumn, and the same may be said of a scarecrow, which we feel in this verse of Chōi:

The autumn wind
Goes right through its bones —
The scarecrow.

The scarecrow shows us the transience and impermanence inherent in Nature, inherent in all things.

Shōha gives us the harmony of two similar things in this verse:

The evening sun;
The shadow of the scarecrow
Reaches the road.

The scarecrow is old as the day is old, and the sun declines as the year declines into silence and darkness.

The scarecrow is the ultimate of humility and selflessness.  It is no respecter of persons.  It removes its hat before no one, and it is unmoved alike by beauty and ugliness, as Issa points out:

A full moon;
It stands there indifferent —
The scarecrow.

Of course there is a bit of animism in that, the tendency of people to see “life” in things that are not alive in the usual sense.  The birds of autumn, however, are not fooled, as Sazanami shows us:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

It reminds us of the words of Jesus in the New Testament in that most poetic of translations, the “King James” version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The scarecrow, however, is above such sermons, unimpressed by status and position and wealth, unmoved by glory or shame, just a manifestation of elements that come together temporarily to make a form, and then disperse again into nothingness.

Impermanence.

David