WHY THIS, NOT THAT?

English is an interesting and useful language, but I am glad I grew up speaking it instead of having to learn it as a second language.  That is because it is filled with countless idiomatic usages and traditional ways of saying things.

What does this have to do with hokku?  It relates to how we use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) — particularly in first lines.

Look at these examples of possible first lines:

Autumn moon;

Cold rain;

Morning light;

Evening star;

Hot stone;

Cool water;

An English speaker automatically feels that the following require “the”:

The autumn moon;
The evening star;
The hot stone;

However these can be either with or without “the”:

Cold rain/The cold rain;
Morning light/The morning light;
Cool water/The cool water;

Trying to come up with a fixed rule to fit all possibilities would be devilishly difficult, because it is often just a matter of traditional usage and common speech — in short, what sounds right to one brought up speaking English.  For those learning the language, it is a constant effort to determine what is normal in each particular case.

This is often an initial difficulty for those coming to hokku from long exposure to modern haiku, which tends to frequently avoid the use of articles, thinking that there is a virtue in making a verse as grammatically minimal as possible.

That mistaken notion is partly derived from seeing literal translations of Japanese hokku; Japanese does not have articles or plurals.  But English is quite unlike Japanese, and to try to mix English words and Japanese grammar just comes out as odd.  This trend toward excessive minimalism in modern haiku is also partly the influence of the experimentalism in English-language poetry of the first half of the 20th century, which sometimes found even eliminating punctuation desirable.

Of course if we carried this idea of minimalization by elimination of articles to its logical conclusion, we would be writing hokku, such as the verse I posted yesterday, in a form like this:

Autumn moon;
On floor
Pine shadow.

Instead of like this:

The autumn moon;
On the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

In short, we would be writing in pidgin English.  And of course many in modern haiku would even eliminate the capitalization and punctuation.  But in contemporary hokku, we do not go for the peculiar.  We use ordinary English in ordinary ways.

When people come to hokku from modern haiku, they are often so accustomed to the partial (or even complete at times) elimination of articles and punctuation that seeing a hokku written in normal English seems initially peculiar to them, because they have been mistakenly conditioned to think that writing a verse requires some kind of special, abbreviated language.  But in hokku, we just write of ordinary things in ordinary English.

It is true that in hokku we keep to the principles of poverty and simplicity — that is, eliminating all that is unnecessary so as to make a stronger verse.  That does not, however, extend to the deliberate distortion of common English usage to fit a preconceived and mistaken notion that by doing so, a verse is somehow made better.

 

David

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