Well, by the Hokku Calendar we are in summer now. Coincidentally, someone just forwarded a question to me about a verse found in loose translation in the old Peter Pauper books that some may remember from the middle of the last century (if you were even alive in the last century). There it is mistakenly attributed to a “Gijoens.” But the name of the writer was actually Gijōen. And being a hokku about cicadas, it is of course a summer verse — though a bit farther into summer than we are now.
In the forwarded message, the person had asked for the original Japanese. Well, as you know, now I like to concentrate on hokku in English here most of the time, but given that the inquirer could not locate the original, perhaps others might be curious as well, so here it is:
Matsuyani wo hanare kanete ya semi no koe
Pine-pitch wo get-away-cannot ya cicada’s voice
松脂をはなれかねてや せみ の 聲
Here is my rendering:
Unable To escape the pine pitch; The cicada’s cry.
In the Japanese summer, the cries of cicadas can be very loud and noisy and persistent — a kind of constant background drone.
Though the blossoms On the cherry tree have gone — The young leaves!
It is not a very strong verse, but nonetheless we understand what he is getting at: while the universally-appreciated blossoms of the cherry have all fallen, after them come the fresh young leaves, and it takes someone with a rather developed aesthetic sense to appreciate those as well. That is a part of the hokku aesthetic — to appreciate the beauty of things that are not flamboyant, things that one may easily overlook.
We may say that after the beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom, the fresh green young leaves can hardly compare; but that is the point. In hokku we do not compare, but appreciate each part of Nature for what it is. In general, hokku favors the less obvious beauty, preferring the dandelion to the hothouse orchid.
I have added “though” to the original, because it makes its meaning more evident in English.
Charles Tuskey wrote and kindly shared the following hokku, after an old pattern used by Bashō. But Charles has made it completely new and fresh by giving it a different season and subject. Bashō wrote for winter, but Charles wrote for the season we are in — spring. Well, actually by the old Hokku Calendar, we just entered summer on May Day. So how you place yourself in a season depends not just on the calendar, but on your local climate as well. Where I am, a gentle rain has fallen and flowers are blooming, but higher in the mountains there is still snow on the ground.
Open the window, We’ll share something nice –– The sound of spring rain.
If you are curious about the old pattern used here, it was this verse by Bashō, in R. H. Blyth’s translation:
You light the fire; I’ll show you something nice, –– A great ball of snow.
I have to say that in this case, I much prefer the hokku by Charles Tuskey — but then I really like the spring and the sound of rain — and the delightful sentiment of sharing that simple but wonderful pleasure — the simplicity of spring rain, the simplicity of good hokku. The verse connects us immediately with Nature, which is what hokku is all about, with its subject matter being Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.
Well, we have again reached May Day — May 1st, Bealtaine, Beltane — the ancient beginning of summer by the old agricultural calendar and the Hokku Calendar.
There is an interesting poem by Edith Nesbit. You remember Edith Nesbit, don’t you? She is the lady who wrote those delightful novels for children — among them The Railway Children, and of course The Enchanted Castle. When I was a boy in grade school — elementary school — I came across an old copy of The Enchanted Castle in our tiny country school library. I thought I had found an undiscovered treasure, with the very unusual and absorbing story and the quaint illustrations.
But on to the poem. Perhaps you remember the earlier discussion here of Housman’s poem “Oh See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” about a clever girl who escapes seduction. Well, this poem has much the same theme, only this time seen from the female perspective — the very “liberated” female perspective — of Edith Nesbit. It is in the form of a dialogue between a young man whose thoughts have turned to love — well, most likely to sex, given the interests of young men — and the object of his affections — the girl.
Will you go a-maying, a-maying, a-maying, Come and be my Queen of May and pluck the may with me? The fields are full of daisy buds and new lambs playing, The bird is on the nest, dear, the blossom’s on the tree.’
The young fellow asks the girl if she will go out with him “a-maying” — ostensibly to celebrate May Day in one way or another — here he mentions only “plucking the may,” and of course from past discussions here, you will know that by “may” he means the white hawthorn blossoms, a symbol of May in Britain. But of course there is a subtext here, because to “go a-maying” also mean a romantic and often sexual encounter of young man and maid, out of the village and away from prying eyes.
‘If I go with you, if I go a-maying, To be your Queen and wear my crown this May-day bright, Hand in hand straying, it must be only playing, And playtime ends at sunset, and then good-night.
The girl responds with the sensible comment that if she goes a-maying — if she is his Queen and wears her crown, and goes out to celebrate with the young man — she wants him to know it is only for playing — and that playtime ends at sunset — so no rolling on the ground with him in the twilight or night — no sex. She intends to make no commitment. Often in villages a Queen of the May was chosen for May Day festivities, and that is what the girl means when she speaks of being his Queen.
The girl explains her reasons:
‘For I have heard of maidens who laughed and went a-maying, Went out queens and lost their crowns and came back slaves. I will be no young man’s slave, submitting and obeying, Bearing chains as those did, even to their graves.’
Well. She has very definite ideas, and has obviously heard the warnings about girls who were too free with young men, who lost their virginity (their “crown”) and ended up pregnant and in a forced marriage. Those were the days when brides were admonished to “love, honor, and obey,” and this girl has no intention of being seduced into pregnancy and marriage, and certainly no desire to spend the rest of her days “obeying” a male. ‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing, We will pluck the little flowers, enough for you and me; And when the day dies, end our one day’s playing, Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’
So that is the agreed outcome. If they are to go a-maying together, they can have their fun for the day — some delightful kisses perhaps, but nothing that turns into the smouldering desire that leads to sex. And when the day has ended, each can give a kiss, and take a kiss from the other — and then go home free. No bonds. No obligation. No pregnancy. No obeying.
As in Housman’s poem, this is a very clever girl who knows how to avoid trouble, and big trouble it was in those days to have an unwed pregnancy.
Of course behind all this is the ancient connection between spring and fertility and rites of sex among the young.