HALLOWEEN

Well, tonight being HALLOWEEN — Samhain — the ancient beginning of winter, I have my pumpkin carved, lit, and ready to ward off any evil spirits or wicked witches that may be abroad tonight:

jackolantern

Somehow its face reminds me of Calcifer, the fire demon in Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderful fantasy story, Howl’s Moving Castle.  If you have not yet gotten to know Calcifer, Howl, and the enduring Sophie, you have missed out on a great deal of fun.  Perhaps you know it as the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.  The film is very good, but the story is not quite the same, nor with the captivating detail one finds in the book — though both are pleasing in their own ways.

Now we enter the season when the Yin energies become dominant, the season of cold and of long, dark nights — the season when we become very aware of the importance of things we ordinarily do not notice, such as a warm blanket or a hot cup of fragrant tea.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYONE!

 

David

 

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EXPRESSING AUTUMN: TWO HOKKU BY CHARLES TUSKEY

Today I would like to share two verses by the long-time writer of hokku, Charles Tuskey.  They are very expressive of autumn:

All day,
It is twilight;
Autumn rain.

  

The wild geese;
Sounding far off, they come —
Sounding far off, they go.

wildgeeseflying_1

These two very effective examples remind us clearly of the fundamental definition of the aesthetics of the hokku — that it is a verse form expressing Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  And they remind us that hokku at its best is a sensory experience.

I am very pleased that Chuck permitted me to post these verses.  They show that hokku can be written today that are as good as those written in the distant past.   They also show that though the hokku aesthetic tradition is centuries old, it enables one to produce verses that are fresh and timeless.

David

MY “SCHOOL” OF HOKKU: MOUNTAIN WATER

shanshuiWhat do those Chinese characters mean?

Though I do not mention it often, some of you may know that I call my “school” of hokku writing (the kind of hokku I teach and advocate) the “Mountain Water” school.  And that is precisely what the two characters above mean.  The first means “mountain” and the second “water.”

Why did I choose this name in English?  I did so not only because I like it, but also because it is a way of recalling the very old heritage of the aesthetics embodied in the kind of hokku I teach, aesthetics which historically go back to old Japan and even to China centuries earlier.

The name “Mountain Water,” when seen in that long perspective, is very rich in meaning.

First, the combination of the two Chinese characters 山 水 (shān shuǐ) is the common term used for a landscape (as in landscape painting).  A landscape painting in China commonly is a painting of mountains (山) and water (水). 

qiuying

By extension, 水 also means “river / rivers.”  So when we think of a Chinese landscape painting, we generally think of mountains and streams, waterfalls, pools, lakes, or rivers.  A secondary meaning of 山 水 is quite literally “mountain water,” that is, water of the mountains, like a spring bubbling up out of rocks in the hills.  And that makes the meaning of my hokku school name even deeper, because mountain water is usually fresh, clear, and pure.  That is how hokku should be.  Though it is a centuries-old form of verse, hokku we write today should be fresh and clear, pure and simple.

But the meaning goes even deeper than that.  You may recall that I have said one could call the kind of hokku I teach and advocate “Yin Yang” hokku, because of the importance of the two basic elements of Yin and Yang in writing and reading it.  In a Chinese landscape, the mountains (山) rising into the sky exemplify the Yang element, and the waters (水) falling from the hills or lying in pools and streams are the Yin element.  So the name “Mountain Water School” also signifies the importance of Yin and Yang in the hokku tradition, and in hokku as I teach it.

The Japanese hokku was very strongly influenced by the old literature of China, particularly the poetry of the Tang Dynasty.  And though the hokku form developed in Japan, its aesthetics can be traced back many centuries in China. And do not forget that traditionally, hokku in Japan was written in a combination of borrowed Chinese characters and native Japanese phonetic symbols.  Take for example the famous “Old Pond” hokku of Bashô.  Of the 11 symbols  in which it is written, seven are Chinese, and only four are Japanese phonetic symbols.

You will recall that the verse is:

(Spring)

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The word for water here (水) is the same character used to write “Mountain Water.”  It is pronounced mizu in the case of Bashô’s verse, and in other cases sui, which pronunciation is also borrowed from Chinese.

So now you know the origin of the name for the kind of hokku I teach — the “Mountain Water” school of hokku.

As an aside, if you are familiar with Japanese ink painting (which was borrowed from the Chinese), you may have heard it called suiboku.  Here is that term as written:

The first character, as you now know, is 水, “water” ( with the sui pronunciation in Japanese); the second character, 墨, pronounced boku in Japanese, is the Chinese character meaning “black ink.”  So a suiboku-ga is literally a ” water-black ink” painting.  And anyone who has ever practiced that art or watched it, knows that is precisely what it is — a painting done in ink made by grinding a black ink stick in water on an inkstone.

David

CHORA’S RISING MOON

brooklynmuseumutagawahiroshige

A hokku by Chora:

(Autumn)

A windstorm;
Rising from the grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

We could also present it like this:

Rising
From the windblown grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

Notice what a strong sensory impression is made by this hokku:  we feel the strong wind, hear the loud rustling of the dark grasses in wild movement,  and rising very slowly out of them is the silent moon of autumn.  This interplay between the blowing grasses and the moon exemplifies the hokku technique called “harmony of contrast.”  It is the placing of two contrasting elements together in a verse that when joined, paradoxically give us as sense of unity and harmony.  On the one hand we have darkness and violent movement and sound, and on the other stillness and brightness.

Here is the original in transliteration:

Arashi fuku kusa no naka yori kyō no tsuki
Tempest blows  grass  ‘s midst out-of today  ‘s moon

And now a question to regular readers here.  I would like to know how many of you actually write hokku in English — not haiku, but the kind of hokku I present here.  From time to time I think about reviving a kind of online interactive hokku class.  Of course one could learn hokku from all the information I give on this site, but often people need interaction with a teacher and correction of errors to write it successfully.  So if you are learning to write hokku as I present it here, send me a message and let me know.  To do that, just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the end of this posting.  I will keep all messages responding to this  question private.

 

David

SAFFLOWER DEW

In traditional hokku, dew was a subject for autumn.  The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote:

(Autumn)

Spilt,
It is only water;
Safflower dew.

It looks one way when on the colorful safflower blossom with its “cosmetic” reputation, but when it spills from it, it goes back to being simply water.

I have noticed that a number of Internet sites seem confused about this verse — or rather about the flower involved.  When Blyth translated it, he did so as “rouge-flower,” and indeed that is technically correct.  In Japan the safflower has been used for centuries to make a red cosmetic.  But the word “rouge” has misled various people into thinking that it must be dew on a deep-red blossom, and that is not the case.  The safflower, in its natural state, is actually more yellow than red, though one may see ruddy hints near the base of the petals.  Through a special process, its 1% of red coloring is concentrated and made usable.

Because we in the West know the plant more through its use in cooking oil, we are likely to let that color the impression the verse makes on us, whereas in Japan the beni flower — benibana or beni no hana — has centuries of association with red dye and cosmetics valued by the upper classes.

Chiyo-ni’s verse is reminiscent of a verse from another season by Aon:

(Summer)

When night ends,
It becomes an insect —
The  firefly.

The essence of these verses is change.  In one circumstance the dew and the firely are one thing, but in another circumstance they are another, neither being better nor worse than the other.

Blyth emphasizes that from a “Zen” perspective, that is how to understand them.  One could read them as:

When it is spilled,
It becomes just plain water;
The dew on the safflower.

And

When night ends,
It becomes just an insect —
The firefly.

But the correct perspective — Blyth tells us — is to see things equally, whether the dew is on the safflower or off, whether the firefly is glowing by night or dull by day.

Was that the perspective of Chiyo-ni and Aon?  Perhaps not.

Here’s Chiyo-ni’s verse in transliteration:

koborete wa   tada no mizu nari   beni no tsuyu
Spilled wa ordinary’s water becomes safflower ‘s dew

And Aon’s:

Yo ga akete mushi ni naritaru hotaru kana
Night ga brightens insect to becomes firefly kana

 

David