WINTER ISOLATION: THE HOKKU OF MONOTONY

snowypath

Fuyugomori.

It is a Japanese word, one of the fixed expressions used in old hokku to indicate the season. As most of you know (I hope), old Japanese hokku used “season words” to indicate the season in which a hokku was written and to be read. Of course now we just head each hokku with the appropriate season to do this, but old hokku was more complicated in that respect.

Fuyugomori is derived from two elements. The first is the borrowed Chinese character read here as fuyu (冬) –“winter.” The second comes from the verb komoru (籠る), combining a Chinese character with the Japanese phonetic element -ru (る); in its noun form it becomes komori (籠り), which in the combination changes its initial “k” sound to “g.” Together they mean to “shut one’s self up,” to “seclude one’s self,” in winter. It is the isolation that comes when outside there is too much cold rain or freezing weather or snow, and all one can do is to wait it out patiently — hour after hour, day after day — indoors. That is the way life used to be. As Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins wrote in his winter poem,

when pools are black and trees are bare,
’tis evil in the Wild to fare.

A term used in America for this kind of seclusion is “holing up.” One “holes up” on freezing winter days, trying one’s best to keep warm, as an animal hibernates in its burrow.

Being stuck indoors meant that the subject matter for hokku was very limited, only what was inside the dwelling or what outside was visible from it, so most “winter seclusion” verses reflect the monotony of the circumstances. That is why many “winter seclusion” hokku turn, of necessity, from outer things to the silent “innerscape” of the mind. We should note that in doing this, hokku keep the same kind of objectivity as in outward-turning hokku, the same kind of selflessness.

Buson, for example, wrote:

Winter seclusion;
In the innermost mind,
The hills of Yoshino.

Fuyugomori kokoro no oku no yoshinoyama

Even in hokku dealing with close-by outward things there is the same objective stillness, as in this hokku by Yaha;

The lamp flame,
Unmoving and round;
Winter seclusion.

Tomoshibi mo ugokade marushi fuyugomori

It is all too easy, as one can imagine, for “winter seclusion” hokku to turn trite and dull, but the best of them express the nature of both the long isolation indoors and through it of the season.

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa, changed to make it more immediate:

Winter seclusion;
Listening all night long
To mountain rain.

David

COMMENTS:

TranslationCraft writes:

One of my favorite books is Howard Rheingold’s “They Have a Word for It,” a lexicon of pithy foreign terms that express notions English speakers may experience but for which they lack precise words. I nominate “fuyugomori” for the revised version of his book, if and when it is ever updated.
Fuyugomori — what a precious word! Your explanation and hokku examples have brought home to me, perhaps more forcefully than ever before, how season-bound our experience of reading each hokku is. I could never sense the full weight of the fuyugomori hokku you offer if I were to read them in summer, just like I find it impossible to shop for winter clothing during pre-season discount sales. But reading them now, with your gentle guidance, in front of my double-paned window looking out over a snow-covered brook, resonates so deeply within that I can feel something physical shift inside, some kind of release or “ah-ha!” that lets me breathe a bit deeper.
I think I’m finally getting it….
As always, thank you for your generosity in sharing your insights with us.

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