HOKUSHI’S POND STARS

A winter verse by Hokushi:

Stars on the pond;
Again the patter
Of winter rain.

It is a chilly winter night. The rain has ceased, and one can see the silver stars reflected on the still dark surface of the pond. But suddenly there is the patter of rain again, and the stars on the water blur and fade as the rain increases.

Where is the writer in this? Of course rationally we know he had to be there to experience the event, but it is the great virtue of hokku that in such verses the writer disappears completely, replaced by the reader, who becomes the experiencer of the stars on the pond, the beginning patter of raindrops, the shaking and blurring of the pond stars.

Because of its lack of emphasis on “I” and “me,” hokku enables the reader to become the experience. One must make this adjustment to really enter into the spirit of hokku, to give up the obsession with “I saw,” “I heard,” “I felt.” That is why “selflessness” is an important part of hokku. Because of that, the writer must get out of the way, must disappear, and just let Nature speak.

In this de-emphasis on the writer, hokku is generally quite different than most Euro-American verse, which often focuses on “I,” “me,” and “my.” It does not mean hokku never uses these words, but they are used seldom, and when used are presented objectively, as one would discuss a leaf or a dog or the wind.

Here is the original transliterated and with a rather literal translation:

Ike no hoshi mata harahara to shigure kana
Pond ‘s stars again falls to winter-rain kana

You can see that the original does not use the sound word “patters,” but rather uses a word (harahara) that means to fall down in a sequence of drops, or of flakes in the case of snow.

We could translate:

Stars on the pond;
Again drops of rain
Begin to fall.

or

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

Why no “winter” in the second two options? Because each hokku in English comes with its seasonal classification, so from that we know that the rain is “winter” rain, without having to say so in the verse (though we can if we wish).

Remember that when sharing a verse, the seasonal classification goes with it, like this:

(Winter)

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

That enables a number of hokku to be easily classified by season when collecting or anthologizing them.

There are many possible variations in translating a hokku. My emphasis here, however, is on learning to write new hokku in English. So what we learn from this is that there are many, many different ways to arrange and present the elements of a hokku. When composing we can can move and change nouns and verbs and the order of things until we arrive at an arrangement that best conveys an experience. We should pay attention not only to meaning, but also to sound.

David

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