Even the crows
As a writer of hokku, Buson had his flaws. He was sometimes too consciously literary, at others too obviously painterly (he was, after all, an artist). That is why numbers of his verses fail to quite make it as good hokku. Nonetheless, there are some that are very good and in keeping with the poverty and selflessness and simplicity and impermanence characteristic of hokku at its best. Here is one:
The narrow path
Not quite buried;
Where I am it would be very much up to date, because the leaves are falling heavily now in the cooling air. In old Japan it would have been a winter verse, but according to the hokku calendar it is the beginning of winter now. Autumn ended with Halloween.
Old hokku had a sometimes not very accurate distinction between verses about colored leaves, which were autumn verses, and those about fallen leaves, which were winter verses. Here in the West we go by what is happening where we are. So for us, both verses about colored leaves and fallen leaves may come under the autumn heading or the winter heading. We are not so rigid as old hokku sometimes tended to become, and we pay close attention to what is actually happening in Nature in a given season. That helps to keep us from falling into the artificiality that began to afflict old hokku over time. It helps to keep our verse fresh and new.
This hokku, like many, requires a leap of intuition from the reader. In good hokku such leaps are easy if one keeps in mind that there is always some relationship between the shorter and longer parts of a hokku (short and long are separated by the “cutting” punctuation). In this verse we know that what is meant by the first part is that the narrow path is nearly but not yet entirely buried in fallen leaves; that is clear from the second part. Some hokku require greater leaps of intuition, but if that leap becomes too great, a hokku fails. Hokku should always be clear and quickly intuited. For one schooled in the principles of hokku aesthetics, that is one mark distinguishing good hokku from bad.
I have always had the feeling, when autumn has arrived, that it is time to begin reading Tolkien’s works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. And that in spite of the fact that the first book in the series, The Hobbit, begins its adventure “one fine morning, just before May.”
Then I realized that it is the “journey” aspect of the story that connects it to autumn, which in hokku is a time of journeys and migrations. The birds begin flying southward overhead, as cold weather arrives. In the old days, Native Americans would be coming out of the high mountains to avoid the harshness of winter there, going down to winter in the lowlands. In the winter, the high mountains of Europe were considered the abode of spirits, which is the origin of the Germanic custom of the Perchtenlauf, when the mountain spirits come down into the villages and show themselves to the people. I will talk more about that when winter comes.
We see the connection between autumn and travel in verses such as Issa’s
The autumn evening;
A traveling man
Mending his clothes.
The original says “a traveling man’s sewing” (harishigoto) but that is too vague for English. What we see is a poor man on a journey, pausing at an inn in the evening, taking advantage of the time off his feet to mend his worn clothes.
This is a very good verse because it combines the sense of migration that is a part of autumn with the sense of the passage of time, which we feel in his worn clothes that need mending. The passage of time — aging — is very much a part of the feeling of autumn. In addition, the hokku exhibits the sense of poverty that has always been such a significant part of hokku. And there is also that hokku sense of loneliness of — “aloneness” — in the verse; the man has no one to mend his clothes for him, so he does it himself.
Of course spring too is a time for journeys, but they have a different feeling than those of autumn. Spring is a returning, a growing. Autumn is a leaving, a diminishing. That is why it leads us gradually into the silence and inwardness and hibernation of winter.
By the old hokku calendar, autumn is already past. By the new calendar, it is coming gradually to an end. I hope that all of you may find a secure place as autumn ends where you are, and the chill silence of winter begins.