ALMOST NOTHING HERE

Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

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MY GARDENING METHOD

(My garden this morning)

I grew up on 92 acres of partly-forested, partly-open land in the country.  I now live on a very small lot at the outer edge of — but still within — a city.

The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the entire front yard, which at that time consisted of summer-dried grass and weeds.  It is not a large piece of ground, in fact I think of it as rather postage stamp sized.

I quickly discovered that the “soil” was incredibly thin, and that it was completely filled with what appeared to be river rock in all gradations.  That is the aftermath of a flood at the end of the last Ice Age that left this part of the city filled with rocks washed down from places all the way between here and Montana.  So gardening on those flood remains is like gardening on a pile of rocks with a tiny bit of poor soil between them.  I could not put a shovel into the ground anywhere without hitting rocks.  In addition, what there was of soil was apparently strewn with construction rubble from the construction of the building in which I live.

My choice was either to dig the yard out to a depth of two or three feet, have the removed soil and rocks hauled away, and fill it all in with fine and expensive new soil — or to just work with what was there.  I was not prepared to do the former, so I decided to adapt my garden to the circumstances.

Having such rock and grit filled soil made it very porous, and in the hot days of summer, putting water on it was like pouring water through a sieve.  To me that meant I should definitely include drought-resistant plants.

I did not want to give up some of my favorite flowers, however, so I was willing to give them a bit more of occasional watering — but I did not want to fill my proposed new garden with delicate plants.  They had to be able to survive both heat and cold and a fluctuating level of moisture.

I also did not want the kind of garden that had only one or two or three varieties of flowers, with long waits between one and another blooming.  I wanted lots of variety, and I wanted at least something to be in bloom from early spring to late autumn.  That meant I had to choose flowers with different bloom times.

I also had to balance the reality of my very small space with my desire for a wide variety of plants.  On the positive side, doing so would give me many different kinds of flowers.  On the negative side, it meant that I would not have enough space to give each plant luxurious growing room.

My solution to all this was to use a gardening method I wryly call “Survival of the Fittest,” and because it had worked for me before in poor soil in a previous city residence, I was hopeful that it would work for me on my postage stamp rock pile.

The result of my method is a garden that looks like a cross between a traditional English Cottage Garden and a wildflower meadow.  There are no wide spaces between plants, so one gets the impression of something that is both wild and natural, and very floriferous.  The close planting also helps to keep the weeds down.

My garden is now always interesting because it is always changing — from day to day, month to month, and season to season, from spring to fall.  When some flowers have ended their blooming time, others are beginning theirs.

To do this — to have things always in bloom — I visited plant nurseries many times during the growing season, because what they have in stock tends to change depending on the time of year.  If one is careful to obtain plants that have different blooming times and to mix them together, the end result is just what I wanted — a garden with something always in bloom.

I soon discovered that my little garden had another result.  People passing by would stop to tell me how much they enjoyed my garden.  And not only people.  A space that was formerly bleak and bare of life became filled with bumblebees and honeybees, ladybugs and other kinds of insects.  And hummingbirds became daily visitors as well.  I just watched one making his rounds of my plants this morning — and a lady passing by in a car stopped and shouted, “Your garden is amazing!”

Well, I am sure to some people who like strict order and things in rigid rows it is not amazing, because it has a “wild” look to it — and that I quite enjoy.  It is the “wildflower meadow” side of it.  I like to mix in simple and wild flowers like California poppies and Bachelor’s Buttons with more elaborate plants such as bearded iris and lilies.  Each adds its own color and form and texture.

At the very end of the season, when the frost has come and plants have withered, I cut the dead stalks in pieces that I let fall in the garden, to decay and provide much-needed organic matter to gradually improve the terrible soil.  And I try not to to overwater, so that plants will send their roots deep and make use of what moisture they can find.  Water in this city is expensive, not free for the taking as it was when I was a boy living on country land with a spring bubbling out of the ground.

So that is my simple gardening method.  I enjoy the comments of people passing by, and the opportunity to meet and chat with them, and it is gratifying to watch the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds.  Sitting on my little porch with a book in my hands, I can look up at my little garden from time to time and feel a part of Nature again, even living in a city.

Having such a garden and observing its continual changes is like having a natural clock that tells the time of season by the comings and goings of different kinds of blossoms.  It reminds me by its transformations that all things are transient, so we humans must appreciate and enjoy them while they are here — whether flowers or people.

 

VESAKHA

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 18th — is the full moon in May this year.  There is a traditional annual Buddhist commemoration of the full moon in May called Vesākha in Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist scriptures — or often simply Vesak today.  It is often a two-day celebration — the day of the full moon and the following day.

Vesakha commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and entry into Nirvana at death of the Buddha Gautama.

In Buddhist writings and art, the full moon — or simply a circle like it — is often a symbol of enlightenment.

Traditionally, the full moon of May is called the “Flower Moon,” because of all the flowers blooming in May.  But tomorrow’s moon is unusual.  It will be a “blue” Flower Moon — in this case the third of four full moons in spring.  That is even more rare than an ordinary blue moon, which is the second of two full moons in a month.  So please enjoy this “Blue Flower Moon.”

David

STARS LIKE GRAINS OF SAND…

At the time of writing this, you are one of approximately between seven and eight billion people on this relatively small planet.

(Image: NASA)

That planet is revolving around a medium sized star — our sun — that is almost 92.96 million miles away — so far that it takes the sun’s light about eight minutes and 20 seconds to reach us.

(Image: NASA)

That star — our sun — is is approximately 864,340 miles in diameter.  It is only one of some 100 to 150 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

(Image: goodfreephotos.com)

Other than the sun, the nearest star to earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.22 light years from earth.

(Image: SnappyGoat.com)

A light year is the distance light travels in one earth year — close to six trillion miles.That means traveling at the speed of light, it would take 4.22 years to go from earth to Proxima Centauri.

The Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years across.

The nearest neighbor galaxy is the cluster of stars and dust called the  Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, some 25,000 light years from our solar system.

(Image: http://www.messier-objects.com)

It is actually closer to us than the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, which is roughly 30,000 light years away from our solar system.

The nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way Galaxy is the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.2 million light years away.

(Image: NASA)

It is estimated that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in this universe — about as many as there are stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.  They extend so far away that the most distant visible galaxy at present — using present technology — is some 13.3 billion light years from earth.

It is called MACS0647-JD, and is the reddish blur in the white square superimposed over the image.

(Image: NASA)

It takes almost as long for its light to reach us as the period from now back to near the beginning of time/space — the so-called “Big Bang.”

It is estimated there are far more stars in the sky — both visible and so distant as to be invisible to the eye — than there are grains of sand on earth.  And yet approximately the same number of stars as the number of molecules found in ten drops of water.

 

 

 

HUMAN LIFE, HUMAN NATURE: HOUSMAN’S “MAY”

Here is another poem by Alfred Edward Housman.  I will discuss it part by part:

MAY

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

The speaker sees “the morning blink,” that is, the sun rising.  And now that the sun is up, he too must rise from his bed, wash his face, put on his clothes, and have breakfast.  And he must begin human daily life, which is “to look at things and talk and think and work.”  And, he adds, “God knows why” — meaning he has no idea why humans must do as they do, day after day.  He sees no point in it all.

Continuing this latter thought, he says:

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.

He is tired of the seemingly meaningless daily round of human existence.  After day after day after day of going through the cycle of washing and dressing, what does he have to show for it?  This is particularly the lot of people who work hard for a living, yet seem unable to get ahead, to derive any significant benefit from their round of labor beyond staying alive.  “What’s to show for all my pain?” he asks.  He feels he would be better just staying in bed and getting some rest, because in spite of the “ten thousand times” he has done his daily best, he must still continue with the same tiresome actions, over and over — “all’s to do again” — it never ends.  That has somewhat the same feeling as these line’s from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-eaters”:

Instead, it has more the feeling of  these lines from Tennysons “The Lotos-eaters”:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

Still, when he sees the beauty of morning, he is inspired:

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

How beautiful the morning beams of sunlight are, as they move across the fields and reflect from grass and leaf.  The skies “laugh out with glee,” that is, Nature as seen in the bright sun rising in the eastern sky — “up from the eastern sea” like a bird set free” — seems to make the morning and the prospect of the following day seem delightful — at least at first.

Today I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

The writer feels empowered by this sense of beauty and delight, and makes a resolution.  Today, he decides, he will be strong in his will.  He won’t give in to doing things he should not do, wasting time on them.  He will no more squander life, he says.  And all those days he has let pass without making good use of them — well, he will bring them back now by doing his utmost to keep this resolution for changing his life and his ways.

But…

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Now we have reached the end of the day that began so brightly, with so much hope and resolution in the writer.  His mood, however, has changed.  Day is ending.  He sees the sun setting into the west, “ensanguining the skies,” that is, turning them reddish, like the color of blood.  The sun and the day seem to sink heavily into the West, because that is now the emotional state he is in — and the light of day dies away.

So that day is gone, never to be recovered or seen or felt or heard again.  It is “past touch and sight and sound”; it is over, ended.  And, the writer concludes, “How hopeless under ground falls the remorseful day.”  From this we know that things did not go as planned.  The delight of morning faded away.  His resolution to do better, not to give in to what should not be done was not kept.  And all he is left with is this feeling of remorse, as the sun and the day with it sink “under ground” — that is, below the horizon.  But by saying “under ground,” he also gives us a sense of death and burial, as though all hope is lost.

It is not a cheerful poem.  It reminds me of those poor communities where the inhabitants must rise and toil in the same monotonous round of labor, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until death.  And many of them try to find a little relief in escapes such as alcohol, which only makes things worse.  Numbers of them must have made morning resolutions to give up such bad habits, but found the day ending only with shame and failure.

Though this poem is not specifically about addictions such as alcoholism, one may certainly apply it to such situations.  That is why I have the greatest respect for alcoholics and other addicts of one kind or another, who struggle each day with resolutions to end their habits, and even when they fail, they continue on with the struggle, and do not let despair overcome them.

Of course it may be applied to lesser difficulties as well, such as those people who have great plans of one kind or another, but let each day pass without beginning to put them into effect.  Many people settle for the monotonous daily round, letting each day end without making full use of the opportunities the morning has brought them.  Thought of that way, this poem by Housman acts as a cautionary warning.  Carpe diem — seize the day.  It will not come again.