Tomorrow — August 1st — marks the end of summer and beginning of autumn by the old hokku calendar.   It is the ancient celebration Harvest Home — the beginning of the harvest season.  To some, it is known by its Gaelic name Lughnasadh/Lunasa — pronounced LOO-nuh-suh.

As some of you know, I often repost an article to mark that time when I sense the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn. It is a time when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into autumn, then winter.

It happens at different times in different places. I never know ahead of time on what day it will come, but already I felt again that weakness in the air, and this morning a kind of vast stillness, a pause of the atmosphere in breathless silence.   The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall is beginning.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite. And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year. The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August. Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave. And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of hokku. We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event. And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in hokku. In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a daoku (objective hokku) I wrote some years ago:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, and feel it, can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood? Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku. It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, that everything changes, that nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing. It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins. Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows. It is not necessary to tell that to the children.

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer moves toward an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.



A hokku by Banko:

Suzushisa yo ushi no o wo furu kawa no naka
Cool          (!)  cow   ‘s  tail wo  wag river ‘s in


How cool!
The cows in the river
Swishing their tails.

It is unfortunate that in our modern and increasingly urbanized society, fewer and fewer will see such rural scenes.





Where I live, we are now entering the hottest part of the summer.  In these times the two great contrasts are heat and coolness, and each gives meaning to the other.

In old hokku, the moon at night was always seen as a cool contrast to the heat of sun in the day.  But coolness may also be expressed by sound, and when we have sound added to sight, that enhances the cool sensation, as we see in this old hokku by Fuseki:

Tsuki suzushi   uma arai iru  kawa no oto
moon cool        horse wash-is  river ‘s sound

We may loosely translate it in daoku form as:


Cool moonlight;
The sound of horses
Bathing in the river.

It is very objective and clear, giving us only the essence of the scene/event, without any comment or opinion — any “thinking” — added by the writer; and that is the definition of daoku — objective hokku.




Today’s poem — by American poet Elinor Wylie (1885-1928) — is one I find simultaneously both interesting on a sensory level and very troubling.  I think you will see why.  It depicts the heat of August through the image of a man of African ancestry wheeling a barrowful of (presumably) “Black-eyed Susan” flowers — also called Gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) –down the hot August street.

In the imagery of this poem, Wylie creates very obviously what Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls — in her essay titled “Racialized Cultural Work” (Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act: University of Illinois Press, 2000) — a “black-white binary” — in short, a presentation of presumed opposites.  There can be great danger in this when applied to humans of different appearance.

Here is Wylie’s poem, which, following its imagery, we shall take in two parts:


Why should this Negro insolently stride
Down the red noonday on such noiseless feet?
Piled in his barrow, tawnier than wheat,
Lie heaps of smouldering daisies, sombre-eyed,
Their copper petals shriveled up with pride,
Hot with a superfluity of heat,
Like a great brazier borne along the street
By captive leopards, black and burning pied.

Wylie expresses displeasure with the heat through her image of the dark man pushing the “smouldering” barrow of flowers — both symbolizing the intensity of  August — down a street in the noonday sun.  She begins, “Why should this Negro insolently stride ….”

Now that phrasing raises clanging alarm bells in my head immediately, because it recalls the standard deprecating racist term used in the past to describe American men (and women) of African ancestry who behaved with self-confident assurance: “uppity.”  Not only that, but old news articles from racist times and locales in America actually had headlines using the very phrase “insolent negro.” Her use of that racist phrase is only magnified by her description of the daisies as “shriveled up with pride.”

So Wylie uses the imagery of the dark-skinned man silently wheeling the barrow full of tawny (orange-brown) daisies down the street to signify the oppressive heat of summer — a heat smouldering and excessive.  Then she takes the image to a greater level of fantasy by comparing the barrow of “smouldering” coppery-petaled flowers to a brazier (a metal container of burning coals) carried along the street by captive leopards that are two-colored (pied) — both black and “burning” (the black spots over the lighter orange-brown of a leopard’s fur, like the gold-brown of Gloriosa daisies).

Having shown us the August heat through this imagery, Wylie expresses her dismay that there is no ready alternative to it:

Are there no water-lilies, smooth as cream,
With long stems dripping crystal? Are there none
Like those white lilies, luminous and cool,
Plucked from some hemlock-darkened northern stream
By fair-haired swimmers, diving where the sun
Scarce warms the surface of the deepest pool?

She asks, in the presence of the “heat” imagery, is there not something cool and refreshing — no water lilies with long stems dripping crystal drops of water — no lilies like those picked in some northern stream shadowed by hemlock trees, white lilies that are luminous and cool?  And to add to the contrast, she sees these lilies as “Plucked — by fair-haired [blond] swimmers” who dive into water where the sun hardly warms even “the surface of the deepest pool.”

Now it is not hard to see that this is a black-white, hot-cool contrast, or as Rachel Blau DuPlessis put it, “a black-white binary.”  The hazard in this is depicting the “black” side as “insolent” oppressive heat, and the “white” side as cool and refreshing — with the danger that a reader may expand these images into opposite racist stereotypes of society in general.

Now if this poem had not been written under the racist overtones of its time, we could simply take the imagery for what it is — a contrast of bothersome heat and refreshing coolness — without expanding those images into harmful and greatly misleading racial stereotypes.  As such, the imagery would be interesting.  But it is very difficult to read this poem simply as such, without the taint of the racist past of the United States interfering with the colorful and effective imagery.  It is very hard to get past that first line without wincing, as we look back on all the devastating troubles that thoughtless use of words has caused Americans of African descent.





Fourth of July Parade: Alfred Cornelius Howland, 1884; High Museum of Art

Well, if you are up for it, today we will look at — or rather listen to — not a poem, but a unique musical composition by a unique American composer — Charles Ives.

Ives was an insurance man, but music was his love.  He was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut.  His father George had been a bandmaster — in fact the youngest — in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Son Charles began composing music at 13, and by the age of 14 he was the youngest paid church organist in the state.  Ives went on to study music at Yale.  But after that, he became a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company.  One might think that would end his musical career, but instead — gradually free of the musical “establishment” of the time — Charles went on to compose whatever he liked, however he liked — which accounts for his exception place in American musical history.  Ives took a partner, formed his own insurance company, and composed prolifically on his own time.  He died in 1954.

His work The Fourth of July was the third of four parts of his larger composition A Symphony: New England Holidays.

Prepare yourself.  Ives’ Fourth of July, in his own words, represents

” … a boy’s ‘4th—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquences by ‘grown-ups’—no program in his yard! But he knows what he’s celebrating—better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it’s like—if everybody doesn’t—Cannon on the Green, Village Band on Main Street, fire crackers, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, Church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam-chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White, and Blue runaway horse,—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the Church-steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town-Hall on fire.”

It is the musical equivalent of a dream-like memory of the past.  In it there are bits and snatches of once very well known but now mostly forgotten patriotic songs of 19th-century America, such as:  “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and even a few notes of “Reveille.”

Ives wrote of it:

“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it. And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things etc., and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played—although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades.”

It begins slowly –like the day itself — and grows into a noisy, loud mixture as the day progresses.  You may like it, you may hate it — but it well expresses the cacophony of the Fourth of July as it once was, through the sensory experiences of a boy — transformed into a remarkably nostalgic musical composition.  Though it sounds very modern, it is really echoes from an ever more distant past.