Do you remember the key to writing and understanding hokku?



There is a poem by John Keats titled La Belle Dame sans Merci — “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy.”  It is a romantic poem, but it is not the poem as a whole that I want to speak of now — only these lines:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

In fact we can omit the first two lines, because I want to concentrate on the last part:

The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

The significance of these lines in relation to hokku — in fact to contemplative Nature verse in general — is that they manifest the character of late autumn very well.

First, we can look at them in terms of Yin and Yang.  Autumn is a time of increasing Yin.  Yin means the passive element, the cold, the retiring, the weakening, the waning, the quiet.  We see that easily in these lines:

The sedge has withered from the lake…

That shows us how Autumn is the time when Yang energies are draining out of visible Nature, “returning to the root,” as the old saying goes.  It shows us the waning of the life forces.

And no birds sing…

The air is silent, quiet.  That shows us the absence of the Yang forces of life and energy.

We could take those two lines and make another little poem of them about late autumn:

The sky is chill,
The trees all bare;
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. 

Or we could make a hokku:

The sedge
Has withered from the lake;
No bird sings. 

The important thing is that we are manifesting the character of the season, of late autumn.  Both of our new verses do that, even though only the second is hokku.  To understand how that works, here is a brief review of the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, and, as I have said, in all contemplative Nature verse:

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.

Now let’s return to the original excerpt from La Belle Dame sans Merci, and we will see that even Keats had some understanding — intuitively — of the effects of Yin and Yang and the season:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 
Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

Well, of course we would not want the first line in Nature verse — it is from the Romantic school of poetry — but nonetheless we can see the effect of the whole in combination with the significant last two lines.

What can ail thee, knight-at-arms?”  That is in keeping with the declining Yang of the season.  It shows us that the knight is weakened, not in his full health and strength.

Alone and palely loitering…”  The paleness of the knight and his inactivity show us the draining of the Yang energies again — and his aloneness shows us the sense of solitude that is so much a part of autumn.

Of course Keats did not write hokku, and Nature verse was not his intent here either — but we can see that he had the intuition and the materials — just not the incentive.  He had other goals in this poem.

Nonetheless, this brief look at an excerpt from Keats can teach us a lot about how to write autumn hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season.


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