HOKUSHI’S CRACKED BELL: A SUMMER HOKKU

Even the “bong”
Of the cracked bell is hot;
The summer moon.

The functioning of this hokku by Hokushi lies in the use of the perceived similarity of the uncomfortable summer heat — so oppressive that it is felt even in the evening — and the oddly “off” bong of the large, cracked bell, a discordant sound that is also felt to be uncomfortable, and only adds to the discomfort of the evening. One bothers the skin, the other bothers the hearing, and so they are akin, with the sound of the bell manifesting audibly the discomfort felt in the evening heat.

In contrast to these, high above, serene and calm and flawless, floats the summer moon, perceived as cool and perfect but too distant to do more than represent a visual contrast to the dominance of the first two elements in the senses of touch and hearing. The first two elements of heat (touch) and sound (hearing) are disagreeable here, the moon is not, and in that simple fact lies the point of the poem.

Hokushi tells us how hot the evening is indirectly: ““Even the “bong” / Of the cracked bell is hot;

Of course one is just to feel this, and to explain it at length, as I have done, is like explaining a joke; inevitably something is lost. But I explain it nonetheless so that students may see how different hokku are constructed and how they work. And by learning that, students can then apply the same principles to the making of new hokku.

For readers who want the original Japanese (and I have one who always chides me if I don’t give it), literally the verse is:

Waregane no hibiki mo atsushi natsu no tsuki

cracked-bell ‘s sound too hot summer ‘s moon

David

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