THE NARROW PATH: A HOKKU BY BUSON

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;
Fallen leaves.

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.

David

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