MARKS OF RAT TEETH

In a long-ago previous posting, I talked about Richard Wright, and how — like most people in the West in the 20th century — he did not quite understand hokku.

I wrote of him,

“The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics:

I used this verse by Wright as an example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

I said of it:

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials….”

As we can see, Wright’s verse reads as a sentence with no pause in it.  But in hokku, the pause is important; it lets the reader experience the first part of the hokku fully, before moving on to the second part.

Wright’s “rat” verse has in its subject matter the simplicity and directness of hokku, but he has cluttered it a bit by making it too general.

Instead of the general and plural “winter mornings”  — which covers a long span of time — hokku prefers the specific:

A winter morning;

That gives us the first line of a hokku, and it has the pause allowing the reader to take a moment to be in that winter morning and experience its cold and silence and austerity.  And then we continue.  But instead of the rather roundabout phrasing

The candle shows
Faint markings of the teeth of rats

— we can again simplify it to

Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

By doing so, we have changed Wright’s

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

to

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

That makes it a real hokku, set in the season of winter.

Wright’s “wordiness” was due to the preconception — common in the latter half of the 20th century — that a hokku (which was not the term generally used at the time) should consist of three lines arranged in a pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, making seventeen in all.  That preconception arose from a mistaken attempt to translate Japanese phonetic units into English syllables, which is not an accurate equation.  And in any case, English being so different grammatically from Japanese, it is not wise to simply try to transfer the characteristics of one language to the other.

But let me pause here to again praise Wright’s choice of subject, which fits hokku precisely.   When simplified and put into hokku form, his “rat” verse so obviously has the hokku spirit that it seems translated into English from a Japanese original written by a Japanese master of earlier centuries.

We live in such different times now than even the 1950s were, and many people today know candles only as something one sees on birthday cakes or as scented decorations for a home.  But only a few decades ago, candles were important to have when the electricity went out.  And a century earlier they were even more important as a source of pre-electric light.

That Wright mentions a candle could set the verse in the 1950s or it could set it  centuries earlier.  But that he uses it at all makes one think of a rather poor room in which there is a candle to provide light.  And waking on a winter morning to find marks of rat teeth on the candle tells us that this is a house where one is not likely to be surprised by finding a rat.  That again indicates a poorer dwelling.  It gives us the poverty of hokku.

Remember Blyth’s saying that to write hokku, one should either live in house with a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.  At least then we would not always be so cut off from Nature and its changes.

Further, finding marks of rat teeth on the candle means the rat was looking for food.  That makes us feel the harshness and severity of winter.  Candles in earlier years were often made of tallow — an animal product — and even after the introduction of paraffin, stearic acid — also an animal product — was generally added in candles.  So a rat would naturally be drawn to something that seemed a food source, which accounts for the tooth marks on the candle.  We feel in that the hunger of the rat, and the poverty of the house in which the candle stands on a cold winter morning.

Winter, as we know, is the season when we most feel the lack of food, so a rat gnawing a candle reflects the season — and such internal reflection is often used in hokku.

It is unfortunate that Wright did not have the guidance he needed to mature his hokku potential.  For many people that is still the case today.  The principles of hokku are still little known in the early 21st century, and in its place people substitute easy and “instant” forms of short verse that were loosely inspired by the hokku but are without its substance,  having little in common with hokku but brevity.  Generally in our time the hokku spirit has been lost, and people do not even know what they have missed.

3 thoughts on “MARKS OF RAT TEETH

  1. Ashley

    For myself, starting to write hokku late in life has made things more difficult so it is good to keep reminding myself of the words of the song “Tis the gift to be simple!”

  2. David C Brown

    I have been wandering through your site during the last few days with great interest and enjoyment. Nothing of my subsequent comments detracts from this!

    I do feel that your views on the use of the term “haiku” and particularly your objection to its use for early hokku is a lost cause because words are always changing their meanings and no attempt to halt this can succeed. Along with this I have the feeling that the first poet ever complained that the second poet had messed up his invention, used it for lower purposes, etc. and the second poet thought the same of the third. The poet grabs whatever comes his way and uses it, and if he is good all complaints will be forgotten.

    Nevertheless I realise that there is a style of poetry which you call “hokku” which is worth conserving, and I am thankful for your efforts and ready to learn from them.

    But I have a couple of comments on the 5/7/5 formation; this does seem to me integral in the original concept of hokku; it is the rule to which your masters conformed. I am not saying that it is something anyone has to adhere to; but if it is not adhered to the product is not in fact a hokku.

    Also, and accepting that the Japanese units are not the same as English syllables, the 5/7/5 formation seems to me a natural formation in English. I have several times picked it out from a piece of prose. So a 5/7/5 formation of syllables seems to me a useful unit of verse. But it’s not a haiku.
    Finally, how do this pair fall into your hokku tradition?

    Hungry black bird
    Clinging to a leafless branch:
    A red berry feast.

    A silvered leaf-layer;
    Silverpoint branches reach
    Over the river Cart.

    ________________________________

    REPLY:

    Whether a lost cause or not, it is very important to distinguish hokku from haiku, because hokku keeps the essence of the traditional aesthetic, while modern haiku — which arose from Western misunderstanding of the old hokku — generally does not.

    As for the 5/7/5 form, even in old Japanese hokku that was not always strictly followed. Trying to follow it in English by approximating Japanese phonetic units with English syllables generally leads to overpadding and unnecessary words. It also gives people the mistaken impression that anything in 5/7/5 syllables is a hokku, while that is not at all true. The form is only the shell holding the all-important substance — which is the aesthetic sensibility of the hokku. That is why in English-language hokku, we keep the brevity of the shell while not allowing the number of syllables to obstruct the all-important aesthetics. Without those aesthetics — whatever name one gives it — a verse is not a hokku.

    In English-language hokku we do not need a strict syllabic form, because we keep to the aesthetic behind the form — which emphasizes brevity and simplicity, and the two go together. But as you will find as you read more postings on hokku here, there is much more to it than simply brevity and simplicity. The aesthetic foundations of hokku go far beyond — and in my view, much deeper — than those generally found in modern haiku.

    As for the two verses you appended, neither fits the aesthetics of hokku, though they would likely be acceptable to those who practice modern haiku, which has largely abandoned the aesthetics of the hokku.

    I am pleased you are finding something of interest in the site.

    David

  3. David C Brown

    Thanks. The important bit is to get to the positive of the hokku aesthetic. Could you help me with this? Please bear with the following comments on my first attempt and give some guidance.

    Walking along a track in winter I saw a branch with no leaves but with many berries, and a blackbird (or crow – I can’t remember) clinging on and eating the berries. This seems to me an appropriate hokku subject, particularly because it was (a) an observation from nature.
    The things observed were (b) ordinary, but – maybe just to me – (c) looked at in a new way. There was an underlying thought, (d) that even in the winter nature was providing for a creature.

    In writing I drew attention to the season (e) in using ‘leafless’, this being compatible with low ying in the bird being both hungry and black. There is a suggestion of (f) poverty in ‘leafless’ and ‘hungry’ too.

    There are two parts to the observation, a (g) subject, the bird, and an activity (h), clinging’ in a longer two-line part(i); then a pause (j); and then the (k) object in the short part. The two parts have both harmony (l) – both relating to one branch – and (m) contrast in black/red and hungry/feast.

    The formation uses (n) 2/3/2 of important thoughts if we treat ‘black bird’ and ‘red berry’ each as one ‘noun’. (The fact that for syllables it is actually 4/7/5 is an accident that I only noticed after posting.)

    I did wonder about ‘alighting on’ rather than ‘clinging too’ but feel that would reduce the bird’s ‘poverty’

    I haven’t asked for this to be private as I think a lesson to me might help someone else!
    ————————————————

    REPLY:

    Try to avoid overthinking a verse when you are first beginning hokku. Keep things simple:

    You wrote of your original experience:

    Walking along a track in winter I saw a branch with no leaves but with many berries, and a blackbird (or crow – I can’t remember) clinging on and eating the berries.

    You have put the elements together, but unfortunately you have also added some comments/interpretations (and also omitted a definite/indefinite article):

    Hungry black bird
    Clinging to a leafless branch:
    A red berry feast.

    First you added “hungry.” If he is eating the berries, then we can see he is hungry, without being told. But instead of an action of eating, you instead interpreted what is happening as “a red berry feast.” Hokku favors actions rather than interpretations.

    First, decide on whether it was a crow or a blackbird, then use one of those to make the verse specific, which enables a reader to better experience what is happening.

    A crow picks red berries
    From a leafless branch;

    We do not really need “clinging.”

    Now if it is just an ordinary morning, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this. Much in hokku depends on circumstances and how the elements are assembled. As you can see, given the basic information, we are lacking a third line.

    You may remember that one frequent form for hokku is setting/subject/action, though not necessarily in that order. In the two lines describing the essential experience, we are missing a setting. Because there is nothing particularly significant in those two lines, the setting must be something that gives them significance.

    Now you already have poverty expressed in “a leafless branch.” So ask what enhances that, or perhaps reflects that. Well, there are many options, for example.

    One can use a setting to emphasize the poverty of the scene:

    Bitter cold;
    A crow pecks red berries
    From a leafless branch.

    One can use the principle of contrast, in this case the whiteness of frost and the red of the berries

    Morning frost;
    A crow plucks red berries
    From a leafless branch.

    Or one can use the wider landscape and one tiny element, like this:

    A red berry
    Dropped by the crow;
    The snowy morning.

    In other words, there has to be an interplay among the elements of the hokku. There has to be something that makes it feel significant, and not just an experience of a bird eating red berries from a leafless branch.

    One could, however, use just the basic experience if it were enhanced slightly by emphasizing the action through using a stronger verb than just “eating”:

    Pulling red berries
    From a leafless branch —
    The crow.

    That requires only twelve syllables.

    It is very important, however, that the reader knows the seasonal setting, which we categorize like this:

    (Winter)

    Pulling red berries
    From a leafless branch —
    The crow.

    By doing so, we give a hokku its seasonal context and preserve the function that in old Japanese hokku was served by the “season word.”

    Keep in mind that however you choose to arrange the elements — and whether you want to use a setting that provides a wider background (example: ; The snowy morning) or whether you wish to keep the focus on a small area (red berries/leafless branch/crow), you must have a pause between the two parts of the hokku — indicated by an appropriate punctuation mark. And keep in mind also that an action — something that adds movement to a verse — can help to make it more interesting, instead of just a still “photograph.”

    There are a great many options when making a hokku from an experience, so the first step is to select the essential elements from that experience — one could say to isolate them — and then one assembles them in the two-part hokku form, with an appropriate pause between them. And again, it is very important that there should be a relationship among the elements, rather than just placing random elements together.

    David

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.