SNOW AND SELFLESSNESS

In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku. Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana

David

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