COLD AND SNOW AND SOCIAL INJUSTICE

If you have been following this site, you know that hokku as I teach it is heavily based on Yin and Yang, the two fundamental opposing yet harmonious forces of the universe.  In the Wheel of the Year,  Spring is when Yang begins to grow; it becomes more and more dominant until it reaches the middle of summer, and then Yin begins to grow within it and the Yang forces weaken through autumn and into winter, which is the most Yin season.  Yin is cold, silence, passivity, absence of life, solitude, stillness.

As students of hokku know, one of its chief characteristics is poverty.  Winter is the season of poverty.  The leaves have fallen from the trees, the plants have withered, the birds have flown south, and cold increases.  It is the time when one is most likely to experience hardship and want.

It is not suprising, then, that winter has always been associated with death.  When the Yang energies of life depart, there is Yin — death.  So from its traditional beginning at the time of the old festival of Samhain — at Halloween — traditional folklore has associated winter with the dead.  That is why, in the Alps, at this time Frau Perchta — Mother Hulda — “Mother Nature” — comes down out of the mountains with the spirits of animals and of the dead to visit the villages.  Of course now it is all represented with masks and costumes, and traditions are mixed — but nonetheless this is Mother Hulda, whose name itself relates to the realm of the dead.  Mother Hulda, if you remember the old fairy tale, creates snow by shaking out her feather bed.  These old traditions and images are ways in which we give form to the meaning of Winter.

And of course, winter is a time of contrasts.  We celebrate the Winter Solstice — Yule — Christmas — as a time of contrasts.  Just when Winter seems to have won, and the days are at their shortest, on the Solstice the winter sun is “reborn” as our ancestors saw it — the spark of Yang that slowly grows as the days again grow longer, and that eventually brings the spring.  So in midwinter we celebrate with feasting and gifts “to drive the cold winter away.”  All of these things feed into our hokku.  In winter our subject matter is either the harmony of similar things — cold, silence, death, etc. — or the harmony of contrasting things:  fire amid the cold, food amid want, light amid darkness.  It is in winter that we are most conscious of the fundamental importance of a source of heat, of blankets, of warm food and clothing.  It makes us very aware of the basics of life, less focused on the “peripherals.”  It is as though all the superficialities of life are stripped away, and we are able to see what lies beneath.

Shiki — who wrote some good hokku near the turn of the 20th century, though he did not identify them as hokkku — wrote this:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold of night.

That is a clear example of how Yin and Yang are used in hokku.  Light is Yang, darkness is Yin.  So Shiki is showing us how Yang gives way to Yin, and in the Yin darkness and silence that follows, we become aware of the very Yin cold of night.  This is a very lonely and chilly hokku, very much in keeping with winter.  What is Yang (light) departs, and we are left with Yin — cold and darkness, silence and inactivity

Shiki wrote another verse which I will change here to make it more emphatic (and thus better, in my view):

The cold;
No insect flies
To the light. 

We could leave it that way, but it would be even better if we put the part of hokku that I like to call the “realization” at the end, like this:

No insect
Flies to the light;
The cold!

That way the impact of the verse grows, because we realize at the end that no insects are seen around the light because it is so bitterly cold — so cold that even the small point of Yang light is seen in the wider context of the chill of the night.

Yaha wrote a very effective winter hokku:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here again, the “realization” comes at the end.  It is the middle of the night.  The writer lies in bed, unable to sleep.  He hears two people talking as they pass by outside, and as their voices (Yang) fade in the night (growing Yin), he feels the bitter cold (Yin) even more severely.

One of the best verses ever written of snow is this, by Hashin:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow 
Endlessly falling. 

The snow falls so thickly that sky and earth become the same whiteness, and that is all that can be seen no matter where one looks, a snowfall that is visually endless, a white, cold world of downward movement (Yin) and the faint rustle of snowflake on snowflake.

Bashō  wrote a hokku of contrasts that R. H. Blyth deliberately overtranslates in order to show what Bashō meant.  His version is:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

While that translation is good for giving those unfamiliar with hokku the intent of the verse, those who are familiar with hokku will find the first line — How beautiful — bothersome and unnecessary, because it says too much.  It tells us what the experienced reader of hokku should intuit without it being said in words.  And that in fact is the way Bashō presented it in the original, like this:

Usually hateful,
The crow too …
The morning of snow.

That seems a bit cryptic, though it is very much what Bashō wrote.  We could rephrase it to make it flow more smoothly in English:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow …
This snowy morning. 

And of course what the experienced reader of hokku will automatically intuit from that is:

Though the crow is usually hateful, even he, on this this morning of snow … (is become a visually striking and pleasing thing to see).

The point of the whole verse is the very strong black-on-white contrast of the verse.  It is precisely the stark, white snow against which the black crow is seen that emphasizes the blackness and the form of the crow and makes him so visually striking (we call this “harmony of contrast”).  Quite a few postings back we saw a similar verse by Shiki:

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

Shiki’s verse has red on white.  Bashō’s hokku has black on white.    But Bashō’s hokku is a bit more complex with its “The usually hateful crow,”which adds a sense of transformation absent in the verse by Shiki.

By the way, notice the importance of punctuation in Shiki’s verse:

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

Note the comma after berry.  Presented like this, it means, “Here is a red berry; it has been spilled on the frost of the garden.”  That way our eye is first drawn to the bright red berry, and then we see its wider context — the white background that is the frost of the garden.

Issa tended to write very psychological hokku because of his troubled childhood and difficult life.  The problem with this is that we may experience the psychological effects more than just the sensory basics of the verse, as in this example:

The dogs
Obligingly move aside;
The snowy road.

There is a single, snow-covered pathway, and when the dogs coming along it encounter a person going in the opposite direction, they move aside to let him pass.  Blyth translates the verse as:

The dogs
Kindly get out of the way,
In the snowy road.

And Blyth also gives an analysis of the verse that goes right to its core:

Here is a whole world of feeling, of the lives of human beings who suffer [meaning “allow”] their poor relations [the dogs and other creatures] to dwell amongst them for profit, material and sentimental; and of dogs, who have enough intelligence to know who are [supposedly] the lords of creation.

I have always found it ultimately a troubling verse because of its overwhelming psychological effect, and one could easily allow it and similar examples to do what hokku should not do, which is to act as “protest”verses for this or that cause.  One thinks immediately of slavery, for example, in which one class of human beings is made to “get out of the way”for another.  Whether the cause for this “moving aside” is social status, lack of wealth, or race, or gender, or any other issue, it demonstrates an attitude that should not exist.  I am appalled, for example, that the caste system still exists in India — that the “Dalits”are still required to “get out of the way”for those of other castes.  It is shocking that this persists in the 21st century. One could go on and on, getting more upset about it, and that is not the result hokku should have.

It does not mean, of course, that a person who writes hokku should ignore social injustice; quite the contrary.  But it does mean that correcting social injustice is not the purpose of hokku, is not the job for which this particular tool was intended.  So remember to stay away from it in writing hokku, but in all other aspects of life oppose social injustice vigorously.

From this digression you may see how “psychological” hokku can turn us aside into things that really have nothing to do with hokku.  That is exactly why we avoid them.  It is not so much this hokku of Issa that gets us in trouble, though it is certainly the catalyst; it is rather the analogies that such a verse will arouse in the mind.  And Issa’s verse is often filled with “psychological”potential analogies, which is why I seldom use his hokku as models.

This is a very tricky point.  The advocates of modern haiku often say that one should be able to write about anything, even slavery or racial prejudice.  We in hokku, however, keep hokku separate from matters that disturb the mind, though we may certainly write about them in other ways.  This avoidance of matters of social injustice in hokku should never be interpreted as a lack of concern for social justice.  It is just that the writer of hokku knows there are other ways to deal with such matters than hokku, other tools that may be used.  But this one tool — hokku — has its own purpose, which is to show us Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, within the context of the seasons.  And it is reserved for that alone.

David

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