SEASON WORDS? BE THANKFUL FOR MODERN HOKKU!

To the large numbers of  Westerners who began to read old hokku (usually misnamed “haiku”) in one or another English translation in the middle of the 20th century, it all looked so simple and quick.  All one had to do was to write a fast little poem in three lines, most likely in 17 syllables.  Of course that was a complete misunderstanding of the hokku that led to the creation of modern haiku, which tended to jettison completely any seasonal connection.

Modern hokku, however, saw the essential connection between hokku and the seasons in the old tradition, and kept it by simplifying it to remove the needless complexity and frequent artificiality of the overgrown “season word” system.

Ryôta (1718-1787) wrote this early autumn hokku:

Ie-ie ni   asagao sakeru   hazuki kana
house-house at morning-glory blooms leaf-month kana

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The “month of leaves” was August.

There is a very similar verse by Buson (1716-1783)

Mura hyak-ko kiku naki kado mo mienu kana
Village hundred-houses chrysanthemum is-not gate also not-seen kana

A hundred-house village;
Not a gate to be seen
Without chrysanthemums.

The point of each verse is the popularity, in village life, of flowers that express and manifest the season.

In old hokku, both asagao (morning glory) and kiku (chrysanthemum) were words that indicated the season of autumn when used within a verse.  Today, of course, we follow the simplified hokku method of just categorizing each verse by season.  Otherwise we would be stuck, as modern Japanese “haiku” writers are (at least those who maintain a seasonal connection — most American haiku writers do not), with a list of some five thousand or more season words to deal with, not to mention seasonal attributions often far more artificial than the more natural connection of morning glories and chrysanthemums with autumn.

The result is that Ryôta’s hokku, if written today as a modern hokku, would appear like this:

Morning glory flower, species Ipomoea nil

(Autumn)

At every house
A morning glory blooms;

The month of leaves.

That way, no one writing hokku now needs to memorize long lists of season words or to go through the needless complexities that such a system creates for both reader and writer.

Of course, being Westerners, we would no longer say “month of leaves.”  Instead, we might come up with something like this:

(Autumn)

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

 

David

 

 

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