YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT ‘TIL ITS GONE: SHIKI’S FIREWORKS

I have talked previously about how conservative in many ways the supposed “revolutionary” Masaoka Shiki really was. He was not a particularly happy or even likable person, and his “reform” of hokku consisted largely of divorcing it from any possibility of being used in linked verse, in giving his reformed version a new name (“haiku”) and in largely divorcing the hokku from its spiritual roots, at least in theory, as well as contributing toward the forgetting of its underlying principles.

In practice, however, Shiki continued to write hokku while just calling them “haiku.” He kept the traditional brevity and the traditional connection with the seasons. He even often kept — perhaps unconsciously — some of the same principles of construction used by earlier writers of hokku.

In the past couple of postings I have talked about the principle of contrast in hokku. Shiki obviously picked this up and used it occasionally in his own verses, though again, perhaps not consciously.

A very good example is the following verse, which in Japan would be an autumn hokku; fireworks are a subject for autumn there. In the United States, however, fireworks are largely a midsummer topic because of the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and its traditional celebration with parades and evening fireworks. That does not mean one cannot write hokku with fireworks about other seasons, but they are particularly appropriate to “The Glorious Fourth.”

Here is the verse:

Everyone has gone;
The darkness
After the fireworks.

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone firework ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

It is not difficult to see that this uses the same principle of contrast discussed earlier. It shows us the nature of a thing by contrasting it with another. In this poem we have two things absent: 1. The people, who have all gone home from the fireworks display; 2. The fireworks, which have have ended.

In the first we have the contrast between the crowds of people who came to watch and the absence of those crowds. That gives us a very solitary and lonely feeling.

In the second we have the contrast between the bright, colorful explosions and bangs of the fireworks and the complete darkness and utter silence after. That only makes the darkness seem all the deeper.

This is a very old principle. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-zi (pronounced LA-o dzuh) wrote:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Therefore:
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

(Tao Teh Ching; Lin Yutang translation)

In other words, contrasts give significance. We know what cold is after we have become accustomed to warmth; we know what kindness really is only because we have experienced cruelty; the same could be said of countless other contrasting things in the universe.

So in hokku, something that is NOT there can be just as significant, perhaps even more at times, than something that IS there. That is why in Shiki’s verse, we feel the aloneness very deeply after all the people have gone, and we feel the darkness and silence all the more because of the contrast with the previous colorful explosions of “flower-fire.” as the Japanese call fireworks.

This is something everyone knows, but people tend to forget the most obvious things. Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the words

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone…

It reminds me of the great American trilogy novel The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter. In the beginning, the female main character feels the deep forests and ancient trees of early frontier Ohio to be threatening and gloomy. But later on, when the forests are cleared and towns of streets and houses and shops are built, and she is far along in years, she begins to sense what had been lost with the cutting of the trees.

David

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