Another daoku from this afternoon:
Beside the road,
California poppies blowing
In the wind of spring.
WRITING THROUGH THE SEASONS
Another daoku from this afternoon:
Beside the road,
California poppies blowing
In the wind of spring.
Here is a daoku that happened this morning — so a spring verse:
A morning walk;
The scent of lilacs.
Some eleven years ago I mentioned here this spring hokku by Chora:
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.
It is very appropriate for the ending of the season of spring blossoming trees such as the cherry.
Notice that even though Chora gives us the setting of the poem — stillness — he nonetheless mentions sound. That is because if is only in such stillness that the faint sound of the falling petals can be heard, which emphasizes the stillness even more. And of course what acute hearing one must have — something that often disappears as we age.
From the point of view of contemporary hokku, this is a daoku — a hokku that just presents a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. A daoku is a hokku without any added commentary or interpretation or intellectualization by the writer. In such a verse the writer is like a mirror reflecting the experience to the reader, so that the reader may have it too. To do that, the writer must get out of the way, and just let Nature speak. That makes daoku a very egoless kind of hokku, which gives it a very pure and direct feeling.
This is also a verse using the common and very helpful setting/subject/action form, which is useful not only for beginners in writing hokku in English, but also for experienced writers.
Subject: The sound of petals
Action: Falling through the trees
A spring daoku hokku by Kodō (my loose translation):
The spring wind:
Cloud shadows moving
Across the field of barley.
We could also write it like this:
The spring wind;
Cloud shadows move
Across the field of barley.
It is very reminiscent of Kyoroku’s
A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows passing
Over the green fields.
A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows pass
Over the green fields.
Over the past years of discussing hokku here, I paid much attention to the Japanese context of a verse — often giving the original in Japanese. Having done that for a great many hokku over time, from now on I want to focus more on using the old hokku as examples of how to write new hokku in English.
That means I will pay less attention to giving very literal transliterations and translations, and more to just using the old hokku as they would be written in English — which often means a loose translation, and maybe at times even putting an old verse into a specifically Western context.
Of course there will be no change in the basic aesthetics of the hokku as I teach it — the form remains the same, as does the subject matter: Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.
I hope this approach will encourage new writers of hokku in English. Most of the principles given here are also easily adaptable to many other languages, for those who write in German or Dutch or French or Russian or Welsh or Spanish or Italian or whatever your first language may be.
Onitsura wrote a rather odd hokku that is more a philosophical reflection than a sensory experience, so we cannot call it a good hokku — but it is simply a statement of fact:
And then we look at the cherry blossoms —
And then they fall.
It is an expression of transience — but as a hokku it is too “thoughty” and covers too long a period of time. What we want when we write hokku today is more the daoku — the hokku giving us a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, without the thinking — the intellectualization — or the commentary of the writer.
Here is an example of a spring hokku you will find attributed online to Buson that demonstrates all that a hokku — in my view — should not be:
It spits out cherry blossoms;
That is the kind of cleverness that destroys good hokku. It is written entirely from the imagination — just a surreal fantasy. The mountain is not treated as a mountain, but is personified as something that swallows and spits.
You may also find the verse in reverse form on the Internet, like this:
Swallowing cherry blossoms,
It spits out clouds;
Which is original? It really does not matter, because either way is still bad as hokku.
The point of course, is that the white of clouds above Mount Yoshino are likened to the white cherry blossoms blooming on the mountain. But the way it is done — the mountain sucking in one and spitting out the other — turns it into a vulgar joke.
The better treatment of two similar subjects is demonstrated by Kyoroku in this summer hokku, which in English we can classify as a daoku — a verse without the thinking, imagination, or commentary of the writer added:
Above white cloth
Spread out in the sun —
That way we have the direct sensory experience of the white cloth and the white clouds as they are — and not smeared with the imagination of the writer. And we feel the breeze in the billowing of the sheets.
If we were to write a similar verse in English, it could be something like this as a summer daoku (but we are not in summer yet):
Above white sheets
Billowing on the clothesline —
I think many young people today do not know that something has been lost in the transition from the old outdoors clothesline to the indoor dryer.
Put very simply, today’s poem by the homosexual poet and Catholic priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is a word painting of a small waterfall on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, in Scotland. He visited it in autumn of 1881, on a somewhat dark and gloomy day.
The poem is in the usual rather difficult Hopkinsese — his peculiar poetic language that mixes archaic and regional and made-up words — which can be both pleasing and, at times, mystifying. With Hopkins one sometimes has the feeling of reading a foreign language. But fear not; all shall be explained here. Keep in mind that some Hopkins terminology is open to differences of opinion. I shall discuss the poem stanza by stanza.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
First let’s discuss vocabulary:
“Darksome” means simply dark.
A “burn” is a stream. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), it appears in later English as “bourne,” but has largely fallen out of use except in the Scots language, which is why Hopkins uses it here for a stream in Scotland.
“Rollrock highroad” is Hopkins’ way of describing high, rocky course of the stream, with its tumbled boulders. A highroad is a main road — and it is used here to describe the stream out of which the waterfall plunges. And “rollrock” makes us feel the tumbled rocky nature of the stream and the basin into which it falls — so the “rollrock highroad” here is the high rocky stream from which the waterfall plunges down among tumbled boulders.
“Coop” is an old term for a basket. This describes the rocky depressions in the course of the stream.
“Comb” indicates the rocks through which the water flows, like hair through a comb, or like fleece being combed. “Comb” also is an old word for a valley or large depression, but Hopkins likely intends the first meaning here.
“Fleece” is the wooly hair of a sheep or goat. Hopkins uses it here to describe the white foam on the water.
“Flutes” is a verb here, from the noun “flute” in the sense of a channel or groove, as in an architectural column. It describes the water dividing into narrow strands as it becomes a waterfall, plunging down among the rocks of the lower stream.
Now that we know all that, what Hopkins is saying is simply this:
The dark stream, brown as the back of a horse, comes roaring down among tumbled boulders. Flowing through depressions (“coop”) and divided by rocks in its path (“comb”), the fleece-like foamy water finally “flutes” — that is, divides into strands as it falls over the rocks and into the plunge basin, and flows on down to where, lower, the water finally empties into the lake — that is, into Loch Lomond.
Now why would the water be so brown? Well, first we must keep in mind that this is autumn, in which the Loch Lomond area gets roughly 17 to 20 days of rain per month, which tends to muddy the streams. But also it is an area of peat bogs, which can turn water a brown color. There is something similar in my state — Root Beer Falls on the Williamson River in Klamath County, Oregon. I saw it once, and the water really is brown as root beer, from the tinge the Williamson River picks up from the Klamath Marsh.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Hopkins begins by describing the foam on the water as a “windpuff bonnet.” I believe this is often misunderstood. One commentator, for example, opines that Hopkins mean the foam was like a bonnet puffed up by the wind. But actually Hopkins, in his typical fashion, meant something even more odd here. A “windpuff” is a kind of bubble-like swelling that sometimes appears on the fetlock of horses. The fetlock is that last wide part near the bottom of the leg, after which it narrows and joins the hoof. So Hopkins is likening the foam on the water to a bonnet (a “covering” that is, like a bonnet covers the head) of windpuffs — of bubble swellings.
“Fawn-froth” describes the brown and white coloring of the foam — the “froth” on the water.
“Twindles” is a Hopkins-made word that seems to combine “twirls” and the old word “windle,” meaning “to turn round and round” — describing the whirlpool swirling of the brownish-white foam on the water.
“Pitchblack” refers to the blackness of a pitch made by distilling, a process that makes it very black or dark brown and sticky; it is not the natural amber-colored pitch one sees on the bark of coniferous trees.
“Fell” means evil or cruel, but it also means a high and barren mountainous region — so “fell-frowning” means both to frown in an evil manner and gloomy as the barren hills — like the rocks that brood over the falls.
So, given all that, here is what the stanza means:
A covering of bubbles like the swellings on the fetlocks of horses, dappled like the skin of a fawn, turns and twirls over the water of a pool so pitch black and gloomy-evil-looking that it swirls round and round like a kind of hopeless despair, finally “drowning” — that is, sucking the water down in the center, like water swirling down a drain.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
“Degged” is an old Northern English dialect word meaning “sprinkled”
“Groins” as used here is an architectural term, meaning here the curving of the rocks through which the water flows.
A “brae” is a bank or shore (of a stream) — the word is again Scots.
“Heathpacks” here are clumps of the heather — the heath plant — so common in Scotland.
“Flitches” is rather obscure here. Hopkins seems to be likening the fronds of ferns growing on the banks to thin slices — i. e. “fronds of fern.”
The “bead-bonny ash” is the rowan tree with its clusters of orange-red berries that look like beads, that is, the mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) not the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) tree found in Britain. “Bonny” is Scots for “beautiful.”
We can translate all that as:
The curved, rocky banks that the brook flows through are sprinkled and dappled with dew on wiry clumps of heather, fronds of ferns, and the beautiful berries of the mountain ash that hangs over the stream.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
There is nothing difficult in this last stanza. Hopkins simply states that the world would not be the same without the wetness and wildness of places like Inversnaid, with its rocky stream and waterfall. He pleads that such places should be left as they are, and ends with the hope “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
It is the same sentiment we find in his poem Binsey Poplars, which similarly pleas for leaving nature alone:
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
It is perhaps most clearly and succinctly stated, however, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, as expressed in his essay “Walking”:
“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World.“
A poem by English poet and Poet Laureate Robert Bridges (1844-1930) — quite a good-looking fellow in his younger years, as you can see.
SPRING GOETH ALL IN WHITE
Spring goeth all in white,
Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
O’er heaven the white clouds stray:
White butterflies in the air;
White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
Scatter their snow around.
Bridges tells us spring goes all in white. He actually uses “goeth” — the archaic form of “goes” — because he was still in the period when Elizabethan English in verse was considered poetic. He tells us that Spring (let’s capitalize it to personify it) is crowned with milk-white may — that is, with white Hawthorn blossoms.
He says the white clouds stray “in fleecy flocks of light,” likening the white clouds drifting across the sky to a flock of sheep with their white fleeces.
He adds to this the white butterflies fluttering through the air, the tiny white daisies scattered through the grass, and the cherry trees and the hoary (“white” here) pears both in flower that “scatter their snow around” — meaning scattering their white blossoms like snow. We have seen this likening of white cherry blossoms to snow before, in the discussion of A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” which ends with these lines:
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
In his “white on white on white…” description of spring, Bridges details six white things:
2. The white clouds floating in the sky, like a flock of straying sheep:
3. White butterflies fluttering in the air (Pieris species; the photo is of Pieris rapae):
4. White daisies that “prank” — that is, adorn or decorate in a showy way — the ground. He is referring to those tiny English daisies (Bellis perennis) that dot the grass in spring>
5. The blossoming cherry:
6. And the blossoming pear:
The poem is a beautiful study in the whites of spring, giving us a feeling of newness, freshness, purity and light.
A well-known poem by American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):
“HOPE” IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickinson, in this simple poem, compares hope to a bird perching in the inmost mind, like a songbird in its cage. And like a songbird, it continually sings its wordless tune — that is, hope is continually expressed wordlessly, from deep within the mind (“the soul”)
She says hope is sweetest in the gale — meaning it is when life is difficult, and our emotions turbulent as a windstorm, that hope is appreciated and valued by us all the more. And it would take a very terrible (“sore”) storm in life to hinder the hope that has given so many something to live for in times of great trouble.
Hope is heard in all kinds of circumstances. Dickinson is not being literal but rather metaphorical when she speaks of hearing it in the “chillest land” — that is, the coldest and most forbidding of circumstances, and on the “strangest sea” — those times when life seems so vast and trying and unfamiliar. And yet through all these trials, even to the farthest limits of human endurance — hope asks nothing of the person who hosts it, but sings on without reward or encouragement.
One of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose hope — that bright, singing spark that keeps us going no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how troubling the psychological challenges. It is at those times that we most need to listen carefully for the “thing with feathers” that sings its encouraging song deep within us.