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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MORE THAN JUST A PICTURE: ADDING INTEREST TO HOKKU

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:

Seta Bridge;

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:

Seta Bridge;
Many people
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:

(Winter)

So many people
Running across in the rain —
Seta Bridge.

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
Crossing over
Seta Bridge.

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.

HiroshigeSeta

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.

David

AS THOUGH A HUNDRED YEARS OLD: BASHO’S FALLEN LEAVES

There is a hokku attributed to Bashō that is brief in Japanese but requires considerably more words in English to make sense. You can see why if I translate it literally:

Hyakunen no keshiki wo niwa no ochiba kana
Hundred-years ‘s scene wo garden ‘s fallen-leaves kana

Given that wo is a grammatical particle and kana is just a filler word indicating at best a pause for reflection, the actual content of the verse comes down to this:

hundred-year’s scene garden’s fallen leaves

How do we translate such a verse into English? Perhaps

A scene
A hundred years old:
The garden in fallen leaves.

Or one could do it like this, translating the meaning rather than being very literal:

It looks to be
A hundred years old —
The garden of fallen leaves.

Or perhaps, varying that slightly,

It looks as though
A hundred years old —
The garden of fallen leaves.

Blyth, as usual, does a superb job of conveying the meaning, though his translation adds a word (“temple”) not in the original:

A hundred years old it looks,
This temple garden,
With its fallen leaves.

The significance of the verse conveys the feeling of early winter after the leaves have nearly all fallen. You will recall, if you read regularly here, that aesthetically and in terms of Yin and Yang, winter corresponds to very old age and death. We feel in it a sense of time and age, and that is what Bashō is saying — that the garden with its near-bare branches and ground covered with dry leaves gives the feeling of something very old, of something in which a sense of life and energy seem long to have departed.

It is a feeling akin to that in the poem L’infinito (The Infinite) of Giacomo Leopardi, when he says,

…e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni…

“And I recall the eternal, and the dead seasons…”

David

CRIES OF WILD GEESE: A HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF WINTER

A foggy morning;
From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

This is the time of year when I am often pleasantly surprised, when out walking in the morning, by the cries of migrating flocks of geese and ducks passing high overhead. It is also a time of frequent fog.

I often wonder how many out there are learning or practicing hokku. I know that still, comparatively speaking, few people even know what it is.

As I often repeat, hokku are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Unlike modern haiku, the hokku accepts certain boundaries. It does not include violence or sex or romance or other such things that disturb the mind, because hokku is a “contemplative” kind of verse. It also avoids emphasis on the writer, and tends to use the words “I” “me” and “my” seldom. When talking about one’s self, it is treated in the same objective way one would talk about a tree, a stone, or a fox.

Hokku at times has a subtle humor, but never the “milk spurting out the nose” kind of intentionally funny poetry such as limericks.

Underlying all of the practice of hokku, all its verses, is a sense of transience, of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. Impermanence is the character of everything in the universe, from the life of a mayfly to that of stars. Being set in the seasons, hokku has an inherent sense of time and its movements, and that is why we pay attention to the Hokku Calendar, which approximates very closely the old agricultural calendar of the British Isles and elsewhere.

Hokku also keeps us aware, in this impermanence, of the interplay of the two cosmic forces, Yin and Yang, and how they manifest in the changing seasons.

Now we have entered the last phase in the declining of Yang energies from their height in summer. We are moving into the increasing Yin of winter.

All hokku have a longer part and a shorter part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. The longer part may come first or second, whatever works best.

A hokku in English begins each line with a capital letter, and ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

In today’s hokku the short part comes at the beginning:

A foggy morning;

Then follows the longer part:

From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

Notice that even though the two parts of the hokku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, there may be more than one punctuation mark in the body of the verse. Only one of them, however, functions as the separating mark or “cut” between the longer and shorter parts of the verse.

Hokku is not difficult to write. It does, however, require one to follow certain aesthetic guidelines, such as those already mentioned. Once one gets the spirit of these, then hokku becomes quite easy.

It is a very important verse form for these times in which there are so many threats to Nature and to world climate, and in which people are increasingly alienated from Nature and from the cycle of the seasons. It takes us away from materialism and back to the basic and important things in life.

David

WINTER BEGINS: THE SEASON

Winter begins;
The hilltop trees
Vanish in fog.

Yes, according to the Hokku calendar and the old European agricultural calendar, now that we have passed Halloween, winter has begun. It certainly seems like it where I am, because the skies are dim and grey, clouds are low, and now and then a cold rain falls.

Winter, in the Hokku Year, is the time when one turns inward, a time for introspection. That is so because in Nature, winter is the time when people were (and still are, to some extent) often secluded because of bad weather, cold and snow.

It is a time when contrasts become very obvious — the warmth of an indoor fire when frost laces the windowpanes with icy ferns, a warm cup of something on a cold morning, stars shining in the long, dark nights.

Winter becomes the bleakest time in the year, spare and austere, and so it is the time when small comforts are most highly appreciated — good food and helpful friends and warm blankets.

In the daily cycle, winter corresponds to the middle of the night;
In human life, winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the time when we see the plants advanced in withering or standing dead and dry in the frosty fields. It is the time when the sap of life has fallen in the trees, when life and energy have left leaves and branches and return to the root.

So that is winter, a time of turning inward, of returning to the root. In writing hokku, it is a good time to notice opposites, warmth versus cold, light versus darkness, sounds versus silence, motion versus stillness, because such things are very much in keeping with the nature of the season. It is also a good time to write about solitude.

Winter brings the further lowering of the arc of the sun across the sky, a continued weakening of the Yang energies in Nature until they reach their lowest point. And then in midwinter a spark of Yang appears, the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, the arc of the sun slowly ascends again, and the cycle begins anew.

David