I have been writing about hokku for so many years that I now find myself repeating the same verses — the very best verses — and leaving the rather dull ones alone.
Some people mistakenly think that all of the old “classic” Japanese hokku must be wonderful, but that is simply not true. Even in reading old anthologies one notices that some verses stand out and are very pleasing and effective while others are just “there” and do not do much if anything for the reader.
That is the case, too, with our own English “classic” anthology, the finest, the volumes of R. H. Blyth. Even though Blyth chose the best of the old hokku to translate into English, there are among his selected verses some that are far better than the rest; so much better, in fact, that it does not matter if all the rest are ignored.
One very good verse by Taigi shows us the nature of autumn very well. It is obvious on reading it that the old myth about hokku always being about a single moment’s experience is false. Some hokku cover a substantial length of time, and that is the case with this verse, in which we see the progress of autumn, or as the old hokku phrase has it, the deepening of autumn:
Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
The falling leaves.
The best hokku show us the character of a season through what it manifests, in this case the falling leaves of autumn. When the leaves first begin to fall, we go out with our rake or broom and we begin sweeping them up. We do this day after day, but each day more leaves fall. Finally there comes a time when we go out and realize that so many leaves are falling, so many are blowing into the yard or garden from all around, that it is pointless to continue sweeping. We feel that we are overwhelmed with autumn, and let the leaves fall and lie where they are.
In just eleven words this hokku shows us the great change of autumn, the increasing of the yin force as autumn ages and deepens toward winter.
We see the increasing of the yin force also in this verse by Ryōkan, originally considered a winter verse, but appropriate to late autumn here:
And lie as they fall.
One has to know that this is a verse of (as we treat it here) the autumn, because then we will see the garden plants as dry, lifeless stalks, brown and discolored by the rain of the season. Eventually they just fall, and lie just as they fall. That is the nature of things in autumn.
The original says kusa — a term that encompasses both grasses and other plants. It is usually translated as “grasses,” and we could do that in our verse here if we wish. But our gardens are not the same as those in Japan, and in the Fall here, they become gradually overgrown with weeds, and then the weeds die, leaving their stalks to age and fall.
We could also change the verse in any way we wish, for example, in a home flower garden:
Dead lily stalks;
and lie as they fall.
Or we can move it to the fields:
And lie just as they fall.
That shows us the neglect of things as they die and decay in autumn.
Do not be surprised that I change and “play around” with old hokku. They are not museum pieces that must sit forever untouched behind protective shields. Instead they become a part of our own hokku practice, teaching us various aspects of writing and helping us to deepen our own practice of hokku.
That is why when we read old hokku, we must take them out of a Japanese context and make them thoroughly American or Welsh or Australian or Austrian or whatever our cultural environment happens to be. There is nothing so likely to kill hokku as a living verse form than to keep it in a “Japanese” cultural context, unless one happens to be writing fresh hokku in Japan. If we are writing it elsewhere — in the United States, for example — we must make it meaningful for where we are. And we must use it in whatever way works best to help us create new hokku appropriate to our season and place.