LEARNING FROM THE AUTUMN MOON

When we think of the Fall — of Autumn — we think of colored leaves, falling leaves, and of the moon.  We look at the autumn moon for a few moments, and then we move on with our lives, unless we happen to be sitting with someone else, engaged in intermittent conversation, looking repeatedly at the bright moon.

When old hokku was written, there was a seasonal practice of looking at the moon — of moon viewing.  Bashō  wrote a hokku about it.

Clouds now-then people give-rest; moon viewing.

Now when I talk about hokku here, I do not want to do so as though I am brushing the dust off old fossils in a museum.  I discuss it only so that readers may learn how to write NEW and original hokku.  Otherwise there is little point in repeating this or that old hokku over and over.  So the literal version of this verse does us little good unless we can see how to put it into English.  We can be very literalistic, which is how one should be in emphasizing the original verse, like this:

Clouds now and then
Give people a rest;
Moon-viewing.

But my purpose here is to bring these old verses into today, as well as into the English language, so I would begin to play with it:

Passing clouds
Give us a rest;
Moon viewing. 

But I do not want to stop there, because long-time readers here will recall the old principle of hokku that one thing generally has more significance than many.  Here is what happens when we apply it to this verse:

A passing cloud
Gives us a rest;
Moon viewing.

It is a small change, but it makes a significant difference.  I hope you can feel that in the “revised” version.  If we say “passing clouds,” it widens the time expanse of the hokku.  In the first version, it covers the time of several clouds passing in front of the moon; in the second version, our focus is right on one cloud passing in front of the moon, right on what is happening now.

Not all hokku have this strong focus on the present, but those that do are often improved by it.  

Now you can easily see that the “single cloud” version is different from the original by Bashō, which covers a wider time expanse.  Some people may protest the revised version  because it is not exactly “what Bashō said.”  But that leads us to another principle of hokku — that it is a living thing, not a fossil in a museum.  

We are meant not only to enjoy old hokku, but to learn from them, so that hokku may remain a living practice.  And we can only do that by making them our own, or even by improving them.  Bashō was not infallible in his writing, and he wrote literally hundreds of verses that are not really memorable.  So we are perfectly free — particularly in teaching how to write hokku today — to change old hokku, whether to localize them (make them more American, or British, or Welsh, or whatever), or to improve them.  

In hokku as I teach it, we use the best of old hokku as models.  But as our practice develops, we must treat these models like clay that can be molded into new forms and into completely new verses.  As long as we keep to the principles and spirit of the old hokku, our new verses will be hokku as well.  We should not treat these old hokku like pieces of delicate porcelain that we are afraid to wash or carry for fear of “breaking” them.  

If you look in the archives here, you will find many old postings on hokku that tell you how to write it.  Generally in using the old verses, I have been rather literal, so that readers might see just how old hokku were constructed.  Now I am going to begin a new phase of instruction here, in which we learn to be more comfortable with our relation to the old verses.  I may often still tell you exactly how they were phrased in their old (Japanese) versions.  But in addition, I will put more emphasis on making them into hokku of today, so that they become even more useful to us in writing a hokku appropriate both to the English language and to our locale (which in my case is American), and to the modern world.

That does not mean I shall violate any of the basic principles of the old hokku — that would make a verse no longer hokku.  For example, being part of the modern world does not mean that our verses should reverse the old hokku omission of incompatible “technology,” because hokku today is still an important testimony to the vital importance of Nature and the natural environment that gives us life.  It simply means that we are learning to relax a bit in our hokku practice, to become more free in how we look at an event and depict it in our writing.  

That means, for example, that whereas old hokku generally had only a single internal break represented in English by internal punctuation, we are perfectly free to widen that punctuation and use it twice internally, if it makes a better verse.

Bashō wrote another “moon viewing” verse:

Bright moon; children lined-up temple verandah

The “bright moon” is a Japanese conventional term for the full moon of Autumn,   So Bashō is telling us:

The autumn moon;
Children lined-up
On the temple verandah. 

But we don’t have to leave it like that.  We can make it:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front porch.

 We can even change “front porch” to “front steps” if we wish:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the front steps.

Or, given that we mark every hokku with its season, and will know it is an autumn verse, we can make it:

The full moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.  

Or we can change “full moon” back to “Harvest Moon”:

The Harvest Moon;
Children sitting in a row
On the garage roof.

Or, recalling again the principle that one thing often has more significance than many, we can also create an alternate version:

The Harvest Moon;
A little boy sitting
On the garage roof. 

And of course we can make the little boy a little girl if we wish.  The possibilities for change are endless, and feeling free to make those changes is part of how we learn to write hokku.

And notice that in the last version, the reader is required to make a small, intuitive leap:  Harvest Moon + little boy sitting on garage roof = Little boy gazing at the Harvest Moon.  Such intuitive leaps should be very natural and easy for those schooled in hokku aesthetics.  They should be as simple as stepping from stone to stone when crossing a stream, and should not require any straining of the imagination.  That was not always the case with old hokku, and that is something modern hokku corrects.

So again, what this all means is that we should not treat the old hokku used as models here as inviolate objects; we should instead play with them, re-arrange them, use them as jumping-off points for our own exploration of the world and of hokku as we express the seasonal manifestions of Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

 

David 

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