As autumn deepens, the days grow ever shorter, the nights longer.
Our bodies, if not constrained by trying to follow “clock time,” gradually adjust to this, but nonetheless sometimes we find ourselves waking in the night, unable to go back to sleep.
In that time of dark stillness, any sensory event makes a much stronger impression than usual, like a pebble falling into a well.
Gochiku wrote a hokku expressing this silence of the mind into which a sensory experience falls, and one can hardly do better than the translation of R. H. Blyth:
The long night;
The sound of water
Says what I think.
Gochiku does not mean that the sound of water dripping, flowing, or falling (he does not specify which) in the night is in keeping with thoughts, with images running through his mind. He means instead that the sound of water expresses the silence of his mind, an empty darkness in which that sound becomes magnified by the absence of both active thinking and other sensory input — again, like a pebble falling into a deep dark well, creating only a resonant splash and waves moving outward in a circle and being reflected inward again.
Everyone experiences a hokku differently, depending on our individual stores of memories and impressions. While this hokku retains its essential meaning no matter whether one hears a slow dripping of water, like that of rain dripping from a roof, or the gurgling of a nearby stream, or that of a very small waterfall, I like to hear the slow dripping of water. It is a sound that comes into consciousness, disappears, then appears again, a kind of ticking of the world clock in which we feel what is always happening, things arising and passing away, the constant movement from this moment to the next, a repeating birth and death.
We should not, however, think of this sound of water in the night as a symbol or metaphor of anything. It expresses itself, but in it we feel the nature of all existence.
In form, this is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action:
The long night; (setting)
The sound of water (subject)
Says what I think. (action)
One can write countless hokku using this setting/subject/action model. Just remember that the setting is the place, condition or circumstance in which something happens. The subject is the main “actor” in the verse (a noun), and the action is precisely that, something moving or changing, generally characterized by a verb.
One can simplify this in terms of a play:
The setting is the stage, which can show us day, night, rain, a time of year, etc. etc.;
The subject is the actor on that stage, what the “play” is about;
The action is what the actor does, what happens on stage.
That is, of course, a simplified way of approaching the subject, but it may be helpful to those who wish to learn to write real hokku.
For those who like to see originals, here it is transliterated and with a literal translation, in “western” three line form:
Nagaki yo ya
Omou koto iu
Mizu no oto
Long night ya
Thought thing says
Water ‘s sound