Again the snow
Begins to fall.
One familiar with conventional Western poetry is likely to ask, “What does it mean?” That is a question inappropriate for hokku. Archibald MacLeish once wrote in his Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) that a poem “should not mean but be.” I doubt that MacLeish really understood that statement himself, but it applies to hokku, which does not mean, but only is, just as the darkening of day is, just as the falling snow is.
As I said in my previous posting, what is important in hokku is an experience; seeing the day darken, and with it seeing the snow once more beginning to fall. That is all. We need not look for anything we can put into words beyond that.
There is something in the verse, however, that is beyond words, and that is typical of hokku. In good hokku we always have the feeling that there is a deeper significance, but we cannot — and should not try — to say what that significance is. That feeling of an unexpressed significance is one of the characteristics of hokku. It is somewhat like the persistent feeling one gets that there is something he or she is forgetting to do that is important, but one simply cannot remember what it is; the feeling is just there and will not go away. Similarly, when we read this verse by Gyōdai, we sense a deeper significance that lies just beyond the ability of the intellect to express. As in Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by T’ao Ch’ien,
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail.
In conventional poetry, words can express everything, if only one uses enough of them. But hokku recognizes something that lies deeper than thought, deeper than intellection, something words cannot reach, and makes that an essential part of its unique approach to verse.