CONTEMPLATIVE HOKKU IN WINTER

Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

David

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