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