ETSUJIN’S GREY HAIR: SUBTLETY IN HOKKU

It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow —
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow —
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it —
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid

David

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