OTHER PEOPLE’S AUTUMN

I often say here that Japanese hokku sometimes tends to a vagueness not found in English-language hokku.  Some verses can be so unclear as to leave their meaning perpetually in doubt.  Those are just bad hokku, in spite of the excuses made for them.

There are, however, hokku in which vagueness is present but not harmful.  Such a verse was written by Sōkyū:

The smoke I raise —
Other people’s 
Autumn evening.

Sōkyū does not tell us why he is doing something that raises smoke into the air.  As Blyth suggests, “The smoke may be that of burning fallen leaves, or the fire he makes for his own evening meal…”

The point is that everything is interrelated.  The smoke rising from the chimney of your neighbor’s cabin on the opposite hill becomes an integral part of your autumn evening when you see it or smell it.  The same with the smoke from your own stove or fireplace or pile of smouldering leaves — it becomes other people’s autumn.

Thoreau once finished an overwrought poem [his real poetry was his life, not his verse] with these words:

Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the gods to pardon this clear flame.

Sōkyū was more straightforward, seeing no pardon as necessary for the smoke that was his neighbor’s autumn evening as well as his own.

There is a harmony in autumn between the season and smoke, because autumn is the season of gradual destruction — the falling of the leaves, the withering of the grasses.

We could also translate the first line of this verse as Blyth does:

“The smoke I make….”

David

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