THE SOUND OF BRANCHES; the Simplicity of Hokku

There is a hokku by Buson, translated thus by R. H. Blyth:

Snow-break also
Can be heard,
This dark night.

I think many reading the verse without his explanation would fail to understand it, and that is always a problem.  A hokku should be able to stand on its own — to be effective — without a commentary.  If we modify it slightly, I think it will be more accessible:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

Now everyone should be able to get it — to experience it — without any added explanation.

But look how the revised version does what a hokku should do:  It is a manifestation of the season, winter.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  And it does it all very simply, presenting the experience only in sound (the branches breaking under the weight of the snow) and sight (the dark night), and of course the third element that we all feel without it even being mentioned, which is the deep cold of winter.

This is how hokku — the best hokku — differ from what we ordinarily think of as poetry.  Hokku is primarily an experience of the senses, not an intellectual experience.

Notice that the verse — as hokku should be — is divided into two parts, one long, one short.  And the two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  I often mention one type of hokku called the standard hokku, which consists of a setting, a subject and an action.  But keep in mind that these are not always strictly separated in a verse.

Let’s look at it again:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

The setting in a hokku is the wider environment in which something occurs.  Here the setting is “the dark night.”  The subject is “the sound of branches,” and the action is “breaking with snow.”  But note that the sound is not really separable from the action — “the sound of branches breaking with snow.”

Some people accustomed to Western poetry might find it difficult to understand how these three lines can be poetry too.  The answer is that the poetry of hokku is in the experience, not in the words, and if the reader experiences being in a dark night in which the sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow is heard, then that reader is experiencing the poetry of hokku, which is something quite different than the English-language poetry to which we are accustomed.

Hokku says only what is necessary, and stops before saying too much.  That is why it is so brief, and why two of its chief characteristics are poverty and simplicity.  By poverty we mean that it is reduced to its bare minimum of elements, just as a life of poverty reduces one to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.  When the elements are few, we have a greater appreciation for each one; its meaning, its significance, is magnified for us.

Simplicity means that a hokku uses few words and ordinary words, and does not try to impress the reader with verbal pyrotechnics.  Hokku should be as simple as a drink of warm tea from a stoneware mug.

Notice also the contrasts we feel in reading these few words.  We have the darkness of night and the mention of snow, which we know to be white; so there is an inherent contrast.  And we have the background of silence against which the breaking of branches is heard.  There is a sudden and loud crack out in the night, the sound of a branch falling with its load of snow, and then all returns to silence and darkness.

That is why this hokku is very effective, why it “works” as I always say.




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