THE WRITER

Who is this old fellow? Well, he is the one writing what you have been reading here. He has been discussing Eastern and Western verse and related subjects (and sometimes not so related) online for many years. He began teaching the writing of brief verse based on the best aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku online in 1996. He looked much younger then.

The calligraphy was written for him many years ago by an elderly Korean Buddhist nun. It says “Buddha Mind.” We could also say “Buddha Heart.” What is the mind of a Buddha? With what mind do we write hokku? These are questions for a lifetime.

SEEN IN A NEW WAY

I often mention that to improve your writing of hokku — and it applies equally to daoku — objective hokku — write about things seen in a new way, from a different perspective.  That can turn something ordinary into something interesting.

Here is an example:

On the tree,
All the leaves fluttering;
A summer breeze.

It is an honest hokku; it reflects what really happens, and it is an experience of the senses.  The problem is that it is a very ordinary way of looking at the event.  And if we write about things as they very ordinarily appear, it means our verses are likely to lack interest and depth and freshness.

Look, however, at what happens when we approach the same subject from a different perspective — when we see it in a new way:

On the ground,
All the leaf shadows fluttering;
A summer breeze.

Notice that we have done nothing to change the ordinariness of the things contained in the daoku.  There is nothing unusual about leaves, or their fluttering, or a summer breeze.  What has changed is our perspective, in moving our focus from the leaves on the tree to their shadows on the ground.

When we do this, we suddenly feel a sense of deeper significance — and that is because we are experiencing a common event in a new way.  It gives us a sense of freshness and depth that we do not find in the first example. It awakens our inner sense of surprise, and we suddenly realize, as Blyth said, that the experience tells us something we have known, but did not know that we knew. It is a kind of “little enlightenment.”

WHAT IT’S LIKE

June is Gay Pride month in the United States.  In view of that, here is a link to a very brief video that came out a few years ago.  Whether you are male or female or identify somewhere in between, and whatever gender or genders may attract you, perhaps it will bring back memories of what it is like to have a “crush” on someone in youth.

WHAT IS “THINKING” IN HOKKU?

In writing daoku — objective hokku — we avoid having “thinking” in our verses. But what exactly is “thinking”?

It is using the mind instead of what is before you in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. It is adding something that is not there in what you see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. Anything beyond that is “thinking.”

We may use modern haiku as an example.

When a beginner reads first objective hokku, then examples of modern haiku, there are strong differences that may be overlooked at first glance. The major difference is generally that writers of haiku feel they have to somehow insert “poetry” into a verse — otherwise they feel they are not poets, and writers of haiku like to think of themselves as poets.

That “poetry” often takes the form of added “thinking” by the writer — commentary or interpretation.  But in objective hokku — which we call daoku — there is no added commentary or interpretation.  And in hokku we do not call ourselves “poets” — we are just people who write hokku.

I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright in using examples, so I will slightly alter one modern haiku I saw recently, while keeping the general content (the original was by Laryalee Fraser):

between heaven
and the turning earth
a falling leaf.

Now most people would not recognize the difference between that and an objective hokku.  Of course there are the obvious differences in format; hokku would capitalize the beginning of each line, and there would be an internal and an ending punctuation mark.  Also, hokku would have a seasonal heading in parentheses.  But aside from those, where is the difference in content?

It is here:

… and the turning earth

That is added “thinking.”  Why?  Because the spin of the earth on its axis is scientific knowledge.  Someone standing and seeing a leaf fall does not actually see the earth turning, spinning, rotating on its axis.  Nor do they feel it turning.  This is something added to what is seen from the intellect of the writer.  It was not actually part of the sensory experience.  It is adding”thinking.”

Now this may seem like a small matter to those unfamiliar with hokku, but really it is the gap that sets heaven and earth apart between the writing of objective hokku and the “writing poetry” attitude of modern haiku.  It is the opening that lets in all kinds of intellectualization and the attempt to make “poetry,” rather than simply to express an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Now there is nothing wrong with intellectualization if what one wishes to write is modern haiku — in fact it seems more and more obligatory in that varied community.  But to write objective hokku — daoku — requires the writer to give up intellectualization and personal imagination and commentary — to give up “thinking” — and to present only what is in the experience itself.

Look at this old verse by Shōhaku — in contemporary hokku form:

Silence;
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.

There is nothing added by the intellect.  There is only the silence, the chestnut leaf, the clear water, and the “action” — the sinking of the leaf.  There is only the sensory experience, with no “thinking,” no “added poetry.”
In objective hokku — daoku – the verse itself is not poetry; it is the seed of poetry, and the poetry bursts into existence in the mind when the verse is read.

To put it briefly and succinctly, in modern haiku there are “poets” writing “poetry.”  In contemporary objective hokku the writer’s goal is to get out of the way so that Nature may speak — to become a clear mirror reflecting nature, adding nothing to the experience.  The key to writing successful daoku, then, is to take the essence of an experience — to condense it in words as a plant is condensed in a seed — and then to offer that seed so the reader may experience it anew.

To avoid “thinking” in hokku, then, is to avoid adding anything from the mind that is not in the experience itself.

Well, sticklers may say, isn’t identifying the sinking leaf in Shōhaku’s verse as a chestnut leaf “thinking” too? The writer uses the mind to identify it as specifically a chestnut leaf, doesn’t he?

We do not consider that “thinking,” because even though it is acquired knowledge, it is something the writer automatically knows. He sees that it is a chestnut leaf. It is what is before him. What we consider “thinking” in hokku is the addition of something from the mind to what is actually before us in the experience. If we do not see, hear, taste, touch or smell it, it is not in the experience.

Now in hokku as we practice it, there is an apparent exception to that obvious “senses only” guideline — and it is emotion. A writer may have an experience, and part of that experience is the emotion it arouses. But the important difference here between what we do in hokku and what is generally done in modern haiku is that the writer of hokku treats the emotion objectively, as Kaen does in this verse:

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

In such a case, the emotion is just as much present as the rain and the fallen leaves, but it is inside the writer, not present outside him. Yet still there is something here that comes from the mind of the writer instead of what is before him and his senses. Emotion like this is not quite “thinking,” in the ordinary sense, and it is still objective enough to fit within the kind of hokku we write. A verse with just a hint of thinking, as in this one, we call a shinku, to distinguish it from the completely objective daoku.

Now what do we learn from all this?

We learn to be careful to put into our hokku only what is seen, tasted, touched, smelled, or heard in an experience, not our thoughts about the experience, not anything we know that is not present in the experience. In doing so, we avoid adding “thinking” and maintain the objectivity necessary to daoku — contemporary objective hokku.

We learn also that we may use an emotion in hokku, but it should be done objectively if at all — and in the minimal way characteristic of shinku. That permits us to write verses such as this one by Buson, without falling into the excessive added “thinking” that is so often characteristic of modern haiku.

What joy!
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.

GIVE THON THON’S DUE

In my previous posting, I discussed the lack of a practical, non-binary gender pronoun in English, bemoaning the unfortunate attempt to use “they”/”their”/”them” for a person who does not identify specifically as male or female — which just causes confusion, because those pronouns traditionally refer to plural subjects in English.

I was again hit by the need for a workable gender-neutral pronoun system yesterday, when I began reading a new nonfiction book in which the writer completely reversed the standard practice of using “he”/”him”/”his” (intended to refer to both genders) — instead, everything was “she”/”her”/”hers.” Where we would usually find “What matters is how he looks, what he achieves, and what he has,” the writer instead used “What matters is how she looks, what she achieves, and what she has.” But actually the author intended it for both males and females. And of course to a male, this is unsettling to say the least, because we males generally do not want to classified as “she.” But it also reveals the one-sided, masculine-dominant nature of the old “he”/”him”/”his” usage that is so predominant in English, and if the switch to a “she”/”her”/”hers” use in a book referring to both genders makes a male uncomfortable, one can only imagine how unpleasant it has been for females to endure the “he”/”him”/”his” standard in books all these long years.

Little did I know that someone (Charles Crozat Converse) had already come up with a gender-neutral pronoun system for English in the 19th century that actually made its way into a couple of dictionaries in 1897 and 1934 — “thon”/”thons.” So the sentence example I used above would read, “What matters is how thon looks, what thon achieves, and what thon has.” And the subject of the sentence can be either male, female, or not specifically-gender-identified — in other words, a fully gender-neutral pronoun system that causes no confusion at all, once one knows its meaning.

I have long felt uncomfortable using the “he”/his”/”him” standard in my own writing, because I know a considerable percentage of my readers are female. I usually end up using the lengthy “he/she” combination to acknowledge both, but have never been particularly happy with it due to the length, and of course in speech it would be even more unwieldy. I would be quite happy to use “thon” — and thus to give thon thon’s due — but of course how many would know its gender-neutral meaning now?

WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD …

I was enjoying reading some light fiction this afternoon. Enjoying it, that is, until I came to a section in which a non-binary character was introduced.

A non-binary character or person is one who does not identify as specifically male or female, or may alternate between gender identities.

The problem here is pronouns. English, traditionally, divides humans into “he” or “she,” “him” or “her.” As society has become more aware and accepting of people who do not fit comfortably into a single category, there has been a movement to introduce new pronouns — to add them to the traditional he, she, him, her, his, and hers.

Well, I have no problem with that. There are languages that traditionally use a single pronoun for male and female and whatever might lie between, such as the u of Persian, which, in romantic poetry, enabled a male to speak of love with another male without specifying gender — so one might also interpret it as a male in love with a female, and the reverse. And Chinese traditionally has ta, which similarly is gender neutral, and whether it refers to a male or female is made clear by context.

Now personally, I find separate male and female pronouns very useful — but a gender-neutral pronoun could also be useful in many situations — and not just in referring to those with a non-binary self identification.

So why was I made so unhappy in the middle of my light reading when a non-binary character appeared on the page? Well, again, it is a matter of pronouns. When I read that a person is wearing a “white faux-fur hat that’s almost like a crown on top of their head,” my intellect instinctively rebels. And it does so because of the use of a plural pronoun for a singular person. — “on top of their head.” The book goes on to describe “giving them a kiss on the cheek” — but the person given the kiss is singular, not plural — not a them. Them, in English, is a plural pronoun.

The narrative continues by describing a character’s admiration for the brooch (unfortunately incorrectly spelled as “broach,” but that is another matter) worn by the non-binary person. And the person wearing the brooch “moves their fingers over the pin.” Well, no — the person does not. If “their” fingers are moving over the pin, common sense requires more than one person moving “their fingers over the pin.”

My objection to the use of “they,” “them” and “their” for a non-binary person is simply that it is a very impractical, awkward and ill-considered solution to the question of how a non-binary person should be respectfully addressed. And it is impractical simply because of the confusion created by using clearly plural pronouns (“them” / “their”) to refer to a singular person. To be really blunt, such a very poor solution is no genuine solution at all. There is no need to twist clear English into obscure English simply to satisfy a need that can easily be otherwise satisfied with introduction of non-confusing, gender-neutral singular pronouns.

Now again, I have no problem at all with adding such new gender-neutral personal and possessive pronouns to the English language for use with non-binary people who might prefer such a usage. But those pronouns should not be plural when a singular pronoun is required. They may be simply neutral — somewhat like “it” and “its” — but of course no one wishes to be or should be addressed as “it,” — so the need is simply for new pronouns added to the language that are respectful and non-gender specific — like Persian u and Chinese ta — and certainly not a confusing use of the standard plural English pronouns “they” and “them” and “theirs” for a singular subject.

Against the common sense solution, I have read an argument that using a plural pronoun for the singular is an old usage in English:

This isn’t new – the saying ‘Everybody loves their own mother’ has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.

That, of course, is a misunderstanding of the usage. When someone says (as they still may) “Everybody loves their own mother,” Everybody — in spite of its singular appearance — is understood in a plural sense as meaning “all people.” That is why the plural pronoun is often used in such cases, and why there is no confusion in understanding what is meant. But to commonly refer to a single person as “they,” and to use such convoluted sentences as “John kissed them on the cheek” when only one person is being kissed, is simply self-indulgent, ill-considered and willful distortion of clarity in the English language. There is no reason for using a very bad and impractical solution when a good and clear solution is so easily at hand.