TOUCHING THE MOON

As you could tell from the previous posting, we have entered the time of summer hokku.  There is an interesting verse written by the Buddhist nun Chiyo-ni:

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This verse gives us a good lesson in how to read hokku.  As we know already, hokku deal with sensory experiences, not with surrealism.  So when Chiyo-ni tells us that the fishing line touches the moon, we use the “intuitive leap” that is often necessary in hokku to tell us that the moon is a reflection in the water.  There is the moon in the evening sky and the moon in the water, but in this hokku we are focused on the moon in the water.

moonreflection

Chiyo-ni’s verse mixes the “real” world — the world of fishing lines — with the illusory world — the moon that is only a reflection, and where the line touches the moon the two worlds meet.  It is that odd feeling of the intermingling of reality and illusion that helps give the poem its effect. It is something like the old tale of the Daoist Chuang-tsu’s awakening from dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  It raises the whole issue of what is reality and what is illusion, but of course the hokku does not go that far.  It merely gives us the “seed” experience that turns to poetry in the mind.

 

David

For those who like to see the Japanese original transliterated:

Tsurizao no ito ni sawaru ya natsu no tsuki

Fishing-pole’s line at touching ya summer ‘s moon

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HOKKU MADE SIMPLE: SEEDS OF POETRY

The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated.  It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku.  All of that can be a bit confusing at first.

The difference, essentially, is this:  modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less.  If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku.  It may be about any subject.

That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards.  It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.

Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations.  First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku:  Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer).  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared.  Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season.  In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.

So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.  R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows.  The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku.  The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.

 

David

 

For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:

Yūdachi ni  hitori soto miru  onna kana

Shower at alone outside looking woman kana 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELECTED SILENCE: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

Today we shall “translate” another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oddly but interestingly-worded poems into easily-understandable English. It is his very overtly religious poem,

THE HABIT OF PERFECTION

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

The title requires some explanation. “Habit” here does not mean a repeated behavior like a “smoking habit”; it means “habit” as in a religious garment like that worn by a Roman Catholic monk or nun. So this poem is about metaphorically “putting on the garment of perfection.”

An “elected” silence is a chosen silence, a silence not forced on someone, but chosen by them. Hopkins addresses that chosen silence as if it were a person, saying “Chosen silence, sing to me.” He asks Silence to “beat upon my whorled ear,” meaning to let him hear not sounds, but silence. By “whorled,” which he accents to be pronounced as “WHOR-led,” he is simply describing the curved shape we see in everyone’s ears.

He asks this personified Silence to “Pipe me to pastures still.” He is speaking of silence as though it were actually sound, asking it to Pipe him to quiet “fields.” “Pipe” here means to play a blown musical instrument, like the flute the Pied Piper of Hameln used in the old story to lead children into a mountain, or like the bagpipes a scottish piper plays to formally lead people into a dinner or ceremony. So Hopkins calls on Silence to lead him into quiet and restful peace, to be the soundless “music that I care to hear,” the sound of silence.

Now Hopkins begins to talk to his own body:

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

By “shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb,” he means, “Lips, do not form words, do not speak, be beautifully silent (dumb). And he says it is the closing of the mouth, its silence, that makes it truly eloquent. Truly beautiful speech, he thinks, is silence. This shutting of the lips he calls a curfew. A curfew is a signal sent to people that they must be off the streets and indoors. To hopkins it means leaving the outer world of the senses and going inside one’s self. This curfew of silence is sent “from there where all surrenders come,” which is the willingness of the person to give himself over, in Hopkins’ view, to the impulses sent from God.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

To be shelled (again, Hopkins wants us to pronounce it in two syllables as “SHEL-led” here means to be covered. It is likening the eyelids to two shells that cover the eyes when closed. That is why he says that closing the eyes will cover them “with double dark,” meaning not only the darkness behind each of the two eyelids, but the darkness in both eyes.

This “ruck and reel” — the outer crowd of things and movement that the eyes ordinarily — “remark” (notice) and pay attention to, “coils keeps and teases” simple sight. It captures it, like a vine coiling about a plant, it keeps (holds) it, it teases (distracts) it. Hopkins simply means that to enter silence one should shut the eyes to the events and movements of the outer world, because they hold back and confuse true sight, the simple “primary” sight that is the inner vision of the divine not seen by physical eyes.

Now he moves on to addressing the inside of the mouth:

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

He tells the palate, which he calls the cage (hutch) of the desire (lust) for pleasant tastes, not to desire to be “rinsed with wine,” not to desire to drink wine. That is because, he imagines, the can (here it means a cup or cup-like container) must be so sweet, and the crust (bread) so fresh when one is abstaining from food in a religious fast. Hopkins is saying that abstaining from the physical pleasures of food and drink brings spiritual pleasures of “divine” food that are far sweeter and more fresh than material food. So we see that in this poem he speaks paradoxically of silence as the “true” sound, looking inward as the “true” sight, and fasting (abstaining from food) as the “true” food.

Now he turns to addressing the nose:

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

He tells the nostrils that waste their breath on the arousing and maintaining of pride (like someone with his “nose in the air”), that there is something far better for them if one turns inward — then what “relish” (great enjoyment) shall the censers (incense burners) send along the sides of the sanctuary (within the church) — what a spiritual fragrance one will breathe during the celebration of the mass.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street

And you unhouse and house the Lord.

By his elaborate “feel-of-primrose” hands, Hopkins is addressing simply the sense of touch in the hands that can feel a primrose plant; and he speaks of the same sense of touch in the feet that want the sensation of soft grass (“plushy sward”) beneath them.  “Want” here may also be understood as the lack (feet are denied) the feel of soft grass after one has become a monk.  One may read it with either or both meanings.  Instead of these sensory perceptions, Hopkins says the feet will “walk the golden street,” that is, they will walk in Heaven, and the hands will “unhouse and house the Lord.” In Roman Catholicism, the round and flat “host,” the bread used in the mass, is traditionally believed to become the body of Jesus when it is consecrated. It is kept in small cabinet (the “tabernacle”) with a door on it, and when the priest takes the bread out of the tabernacle or puts it back in, he is “unhousing” and “housing” the Lord, in the Catholic view.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

When someone becomes a Catholic monk, he takes a vow of poverty. So Hopkins pictures this becoming a monk as a marriage ceremony in which the monk marries poverty. And in that symbolic marriage celebration, Hopkins asks Poverty (St. Francis used to speak of her as “Lady Poverty”) to provide “lily-colored” clothes for her husband, clothes “not laboured-at nor spun.” So he means he wants to be clothed in spiritual clothing, not clothes that have been made from cloth spun and woven on a loom. This is actually a biblical reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:28, which in the Douai-Rheims version reads:

And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.

So what is this poem all about? It is about a person choosing a monastic and priestly life, turning away from the pleasures of the senses to the (in Hopkins’ view) superior pleasures of spiritual things, which are just the opposite: Instead of speech, there is silence; instead of pleasant sights, the is the inward “uncreated light” of God; instead of the taste of food and drink, there is the “taste” of not eating for religious reasons — of fasting; instead of the breath perpetuating arrogance, the nostrils will smell divine fragrance; instead of earthly objects pleasant to touch with the fingers or feet, there will be the streets of heaven (metaphorical and literal) and using the hands to place the “host” in the tabernacle; and finally, instead of material clothing, there is the “spiritual clothing” of the monk in poverty.

It is not a perfect poem.  Hopkins stretches things a bit too far at points, such as in his association of the nostrils and arrogance, and the odd preference of walking on golden streets (even if metaphorical) to walking on soft grass, but nonetheless he makes his point that in the religious life, the spiritual is to be preferred to the material.  It seems like the kind of poem a young person would write in a religious enthusiasm, and without the actual experience.  The Habit of Perfection was written in the middle of January, 1866, when the young Hopkins already had becoming a monk on his mind.  Hopkins was only 22 years old, and shortly after the middle of October of that same year, he officially converted to Catholicism.  In September of 1870 he entered the Jesuit order, and the unhappy reality of the rest of his life as a Jesuit did not live up to the youthful and  romanticized idealism of this early religious poem.

 

David