I usually avoid presenting hokku here that are specifically Japanese in location, in favor of more general subject matter. But today I want to talk about a such a verse because it is helpful in learning how to bring interest into one’s hokku.
If I were to present a hokku about Oneonta Gorge or the Columbia palisades, it might mean something to people in my area, but it would mean little to people in other parts of the country or of the world, because they would not know the sites and so no clear corresponding image would arise in their minds. That is why I generally counsel that it is often best to avoid naming specific places in hokku; it is then easier for people in other regions to relate to a verse.
Jōsō wrote a hokku about the once-famous long bridge at Seta in Japan, or rather I should say that he wrote a hokku set at that bridge. His hokku is really about more, and that is what makes it interesting.
Suppose we just give the reader a subject, like this:
If the reader is familiar with that bridge (and most educated Japanese would have been), it would evoke an image in the mind, but it would do little more. So how does one make such a subject interesting?
Two ways to do this are:
1. See the subject in a “new” way, a way different from what is ordinary.
2. Add action.
Beginning with the second, what exactly is action in hokku? It is how we bring something to life and make it more interesting. Action is something moving or changing — even if it is changing slowly. Of course the more rapid the action, the more striking it tends to be.
In writing today’s hokku, Jōsō used three basic elements: Seta Bridge, rain, and people.
If we use only the first, we get just a rather static image of the bridge in the mind, as we have already seen.
If we use the first and second, that adds something, but not a lot:
are on it.
It is common for beginners to write hokku like that, not realizing that two such elements are not enough in themselves to create interest in the mind of the reader. So how did Jōsō do it? To the bridge and the people he added movement, in fact very strong movement, by adding rain and not just people, but scurrying people. Here is his verse:
So many people
Running across in the rain —
We have the bridge, we have the people, we have the rain, and we have the action of running. That makes it interesting because it now has life and movement.
The bridge at Seta was an unusually long wooden bridge across water. This was in the pre-auto days when traffic across it would have been mostly by foot. So this is the scene:
Being on the bridge, those crossing are openly exposed to the elements, and when a cold winter shower begins to pour down upon them, they dash and scurry all the way across the long bridge, hurrying to the get to the end and to some possible shelter.
Now let’s see what the verse would have been without the strong action added by the rain and the running:
So many people
That kind of verse, again, is dull. It has some action in the crossing people, but not enough to make it worthwhile. It is very ordinary, and does not enable us to see crossing the bridge in a new way. And it is also important to note that even though we know it is set in (early) winter, there is not a connection to the season in the verse that makes us really feel it. That connection is added by the rain, which at that time of year would have been cold and strong and unpleasant, thus the hurrying to get out of it in Jōsō’s original.
Remember that if a hokku merely shows us a common, everyday scene, it is likely to be uninteresting. How do we change that?
We have seen that one can add interest by using strong action, but also very important is the second way of adding interest mentioned earlier, and it is a basic principle: to make a subject interesting, we should show it in a new way, show it differently than we usually see and experience it. And that is what Jōsō has done with the subject of the long bridge at Seta.
That is, in fact, what the block print artist Hiroshige did with his visual rendering of that same bridge. Instead of depicting it on a pleasant spring or summer day, he rendered it in rain. His version, however, is a bit more placid than Jōsō’s verse, and though pleasant, it does not have quite the strong effect of the hokku, as you can see. That is partly because we do not find in it such an emphasis on scurrying crowds as we find in the hokku.
For those interested in the Japanese version, it is:
Ikutari ka shigure kakenuku seta no hashi
how-many people ? cold-rain running across Seta ‘s bridge
Shigure is the cold rain that falls in late autumn-winter; kakenuku means to run all the way across or to something.