THE GIFT OUTRIGHT

Today we will look at a poem about becoming American, seen primarily from the viewpoint of a descendant of immigrants from the United Kingdom. It was written by Robert Frost, the poet who always comes off as a simple if thoughtful New England farmer, though he was well educated and even was at times a teacher. In this poem we are looking at becoming American from Frost’s “New England” perspective.

Let’s look at it in parts.

THE GIFT OUTRIGHT

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

He is talking about America — more specifically about the land that was first colonized by England and later became the United States.


“The land was ours before we were the land’s.” He speaks collectively of Americans from the beginnings of European — primarily British — immigration. They came to this land and took possession of it — owned it — before they really became a part of it. What does he mean by that? Let’s read further:

She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
 
The first permanent settlement in North America was established by English colonists in 1607.  That was more than a hundred years before the stirrings of revolution in 1765.

She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

The land was “ours” — speaking collectively of Americans and their early immigrant ancestors from England — yet those who settled in America, in the colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia, were not yet “Americans” but were still psychologically English colonials. They possessed the land in this New World, but still were not really a part of the land they now owned, not yet possessed by the land itself. They were still held by the notion that they were “English” — though they no longer lived in the British Isles, but rather on American soil.

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
 
There was something missing in the American character of the first immigrant colonists until they realized, after generations of living on American soil, that they were not really English any more — they found it was themselves they had been keeping from America — the land they lived on.  And once they realized that notion — the notion that they were no longer English but had become the land’s — had become Americans — with that their concept of themselves changed completely.  In their minds they were no longer subjects of a foreign power and king, but were Americans who could choose and create their own destiny.
 
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
 
Still new to the idea of being “Americans” no longer under a foreign power, they now gave themselves “outright”  — gave themselves completely to being Americans — and the gift they gave themselves was certified by a deed of gift — a metaphorical document — that included “many deeds of war — primarily the acts of those who fought in the Revolutionary War that made America independent.
 
The land to which the newly-realized Americans gave themselves  was “vaguely realizing westward” — gradually becoming known through the first signs of the westward expansion of the newly independent country from the original eastern colonies that had now become states — a westward trend that would eventually reach the Pacific Ocean.  Frost himself was born in San Francisco on the California coast, though he later settled in New Hampshire.
 
That land was still “unstoried” — without having yet made its own history,  “artless” — simple and free from artificiality, and “unenhanced” — primitive and not yet raised to what it could become.  And so, Frost seems to say, that is how it still is.
 
There is some truth to the poem — the idea that a place changes those who live in it.  Yet as presented in this poem, we must keep in mind that it is also a limited view, with its focus on English colonists of Anglo-saxon ancestry.  It took immigrants from many countries to make America.  But that too is a narrow view.  What about the numerous tribes of Native Americans who were a part of the land many thousands of years before English colonials arrived?  We could say they were more a part of the land than masses of Americans today, who have separated themselves from the land and from Nature.  Yet they are completely absent from Frost’s poem, which seems to have the perspective of many elementary school history books in the 1950s, which focused so heavily on the English roots of America that children of German, Irish, French, Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant ancestors might have thought they too were of English ancestry.
 
Nonetheless, though seen from a limited point of view, Frost makes a very good point about the difference between simply occupying or owning land and becoming a real part of that land in spirit.
 
Just a final caution:  do not mistake “the gift outright” as being the land as a gift to the immigrants; the gift outright was really the giving of the immigrants and immigrant descendants of themselves to the land psychologically — becoming thus Americans not only by place of residence but in spirit.
 
David
 
Here is the poem to read again as a whole:
 
The Gift Outright
 
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years 
Before we were her people. She was ours 
In Massachusetts, in Virginia, 
But we were England’s, still colonials, 
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, 
Possessed by what we now no more possessed. 
Something we were withholding made us weak 
Until we found out that it was ourselves 
We were withholding from our land of living, 
And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright 
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war) 
To the land vaguely realizing westward, 
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, 
Such as she was, such as she will become.

THE SPIRITUAL ORIGINS OF HOKKU

Today in my “Blyth Made Easy” summary, we will look again at his volume Eastern Culture — specifically beginning with Section 1: The Spiritual Origins of Hokku” Remember that for reasons previously given, when Blyth writes “haiku” I will generally use the more historically accurate “hokku.”

In this section, Blyth introduces the reader to “the historical development of the Zen state of mind in the creation of hokku by Bashō and his followers.” He tracks this development “from its origins in pre-buddhistic thought in India, through Chinese culture, into the Japanese world-view and the poetic expression of it” — how that is expressed in Japanese verse — particularly in hokku.

Blyth traces the spiritual origins of hokku through several converging lines of influence:

HOKKU

Blyth then takes us back to the beginnings of “what ultimately became the simple directness and instantaneous perception of hokku” in pre-buddhistic Indian thought. We may think of it as Upanishadic thought — found in the ancient Upanishads of India. Blyth gives several examples, but all can be summarized in the Parable of Svetaketu and the Nyagrodha Tree:

The Story of Svetaketu

When Svetaketu was twelve years old, he was sent to a teacher with whom he studied until he was twenty-four. After learning all the Vedas, he returned home full of conceit in the belief that he was consummately well-educated, and very censorious.
His father said to him, “Svetaketu, my child, you are so full of your learning and so censorious, have you asked for that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived and know what cannot be known?”
“What is that knowledge, sir?” asked Svetaketu.
His father replied, “As by knowing one lump of clay all that is made of clay is known – so, my child, is that knowledge, knowing which we know all.”
“But surely these venerable teachers of mine are ignorant of this knowledge; for if they possessed it they would have imparted it to me. Do you, sir, therefore, give me that knowledge?”

“So be it,” said the father… And he said, “Bring me a fruit of the nyagrodha tree.”
“Here it is, sir.”
“Break it.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see there?”
“Some seeds, sir, exceedingly small.”
“Break one of these.”
“It is broken, sir.”
“What do you see there?”
“Nothing at all.”
The father said, “My son, that subtle essence which you do not perceive there – in that very essence stands the being of the huge nyagrodha tree. In that which is the subtle essence of all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you Svetaketu are That.”

“Pray, sir”, said the son, “tell me more.”
“Be it so, my child”, the father replied; and he said, “Place this salt in water, and come to me tomorrow morning.”
The son did as he was told.
Next morning the father said, “Bring me the salt you put in the water.”
The son looked for it, but could not find it, for the salt, of course, had dissolved.
The father said, “Taste some of the water from the surface of the vessel. How is it?”
“Salty.”
“Taste some from the middle. How is it?”
“Salty.”
“Taste some from the bottom. How is it?”
“Salty.”
The father said, “Throw the water away and then come back to me again.”
The son did so; but the salt was not lost, for the salt existed forever.
Then the father said, “Here likewise in this body of yours, my son, you do not perceive the True; but there, in fact, it is. In that which is the subtle essence, all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you, Svetaketu, are That.”

Hokku, Blyth adds, are the “You are That”; “when a man becomes a bamboo grove swaying in the windy rain, a cicada crying itself and its life away,” then he is That. And in this all genders are included.

One concept that came into the life and thought of the Japanese through Indian ➛ Chinese ➛ Japanese Buddhism was that life is sorrow and suffering. He adds “there is more than a tinge of this in Bashō and Issa; but Buson and Shiki, in their objectivity, feel the meaningfulness of things more deeply than their evanescence.”

“In Buddhism, ignorance is the great evil of the world, rather than moral wickedness. The great problem of practical, everyday life is thus to see things properly, not to valuate them in some hard and fast moral scale of virtue and vice, use and uselessness, but to take them without sentimental or intellectual prejudice.”

The Japanese, in their animistic ancient polytheism, had many gods, but they were not thought to be far from humans in location or status. Further, there was no definite separation between humans and non-humans, but as in the Buddhist notion of rebirth, there were higher realms and beings and lower realms and beings, and humans were placed in between them — in the middle. The result of this was a certain sympathy with beings both above and below that of humans, which manifests itself in hokku as a feeling of kinship with birds, beasts, insects, etc.

Blyth says the Mahayana Buddhist teaching that things are both the same and simultaneously different “sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does.” That explains why Buddhist experience and Japanese verse were so deeply connected. And though Buddhism “is in a sense pantheistic,” the All which is One is not thought of as a person, but as something that is neither personal nor impersonal. All things — even stones and rivers — have the Buddha Nature, meaning they are the same Self as everything else, humans included. That “lays a foundation for a spiritual and practical democracy” that Christianity by its perceived gulf between humans and other things could never provide.

In the next posting on this topic, I will discuss Blyth’s presentation of Zen.

I again want to note that Angelico Press now offers reprints of Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku set:

https://angelicopress.org/r-h-blyth-author-bio%5D

David

EASTERN CULTURE: THE PREFACE

Some time ago I gave a little preface to what I said would be “a rather lengthy look at old hokku and how it relates to modern hokku and its subcategory daoku.”

Now that the major works of R. H. Blyth on the topic — long out of print — are now easily available online, we can begin that more thorough and rather systematic look at the topic. [Update: I found that reprints of Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku set are now available through Angelico Press: https://angelicopress.org/r-h-blyth-author-bio%5D As I advised, everyone interested in hokku should read Blyth’s books. Not just the verses translated and anthologized in them, but also his very important commentaries. Without them someone with no background in hokku will easily fall into the trap that caught the majority of the modern haiku community: looking at the outward form without understanding the aesthetics behind hokku.

Blyth’s works will be the basis for our deeper look at hokku.

I will repeat that Blyth used the anachronistic “haiku” term in his works for what was really hokku for the most part, because in his day that newer term had begun to replace the more accurate “hokku.” As you know, I continue to use the original term employed by Bashō and Onitsura and Taigi and Buson and Issa and all the rest up to the time of Shiki and even somewhat beyond, because it was only in the first quarter of the 20th century that the word “hokku” began to fall into disuse. So when you see “haiku” in Blyth, just mentally convert it to “hokku.” That is valid even for the late works of Shiki, because though Shiki called his verses haiku, most were for all practical purposes just hokku under another name. Therefore, when Blyth writes “haiku,” I will use “hokku.”

Here again is the link to digital versions of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku series and his two-volume History of Haiku series. Note that it can all be downloaded there for easy reading on desktops, iPads, etc. A reader has pointed out that there are some pages occasionally omitted in the digital versions:

I will assume that all regular readers here who are interested in hokku will begin reading Blyth/s four-volume Haiku set with the first volume, titled Eastern Culture. Those with no background in Eastern thought may find Blyth at times a bit difficult to grasp. For that reason I want to provide an informal commentary on Blyth’s writings, a “Blyth made simple.” It can be used as an accompaniment as you read — or re-read — Blyth. And of course readers may always ask questions. So now begins my commentary on:

EASTERN CULTURE

PREFACE

Blyth begins by telling us that there are two tendencies in the history of the human spirit: first, to move one’s focus away from life in the world to the abstractions of philosophy or emphasis on a presumed afterlife in a heaven realm. The other is to move one’s focus toward this natural world: to living in the everyday surroundings of the changing seasons, of trees and streams and gardens and the quirks of other humans.

The Japanese, because of geography and national character, were those who put the emphasis on life in this world and focused on Nature about them rather than on mental imaginings. Of course there are always exceptions, but Blyth tells us that is the general focus of traditional Japanese culture.

Blyth felt this Japanese focus on reality rather than mental imaginings began in China, with Enō (Chinese Hui-neng: c. 638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism. When Ch’an was transmitted to Japan, it came to be known as Zen. Blyth tends to use Japanese pronunciation of Chinese names in his writing.

Blyth tells us quite correctly that the Chinese, perhaps due to the vastness of China’s geography, “have always had a strong tendency in poetry and philosophy toward the vast and vague, the general and sententious [somewhat affected moralizing].”

We see that in Confucianism, which taught that in society everyone has a position with responsibilities to those above and below that position — a place for everyone and everyone in his place. The Japanese, Blyth feels, reversed this tendency when they adopted Chinese culture, and one important result of that reversal was the return from philosophical abstractions to the real world in hokku and its emphasis on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. In place of the vast distances often found in Chinese poetry, Japanese verse tended to concentrate on what was close at hand, often even on very small things.

He writes: “Hokku have a simplicity that is deceptive both with regard to their depth of content and to their origins, and it is the aim of this and succeeding volumes to show that hokku require our purest and most profound spiritual appreciation, for they represent a whole world, the Eastern World, of religious and poetic experience.”

Please do not think hokku are limited by their Eastern origins. What is profound in hokku is universal.

And now we come to something that is commonly either misunderstood, misinterpreted, or completely rejected by the modern haiku community. Blyth writes:

“Hokku are to be understood from the Zen point of view.” And he defines that point of view: “… that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.” The deepest spiritual teachings of both East and West are that the individual self is illusory, and that the deeper and true Self (with a capital letter) is not personal, but links everyone and everything in one unity. So when we look at falling leaves, we are not separate from them; they fall within our mind, not out there in some separate world.

That is the primary meaning of Zen as Blyth uses it. The secondary meaning is “…a body of experience and practice begun by Daruma [Bodhidharma] (who came to China 520 A.D.) as the practical application to living of Mahayana [Northern School of Buddhism] doctrines, and continued to the present day in Zen temples and Zen books of instruction.” In other words, organizational Zen — Zen as a sect of Chinese or Japanese Buddhism.

Similarly, the term “hokku” is to be used in two senses: “in the plural, meaning the poems themselves” [though I don’t encourage people to think of hokku as poetry]; and “in the singular, signifying the poetical attitude of mind of the hokku poets, their way of life, their “religion.”

But very importantly, Blyth adds that though hokku are to be understood from the point of view that we and all things are not separate but identical, even while retaining our apparent individuality, hokku should be appreciated for themselves — not as “poetry,” not as “Zen” — but as an expression of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Hokku, he says, “…belong to a tradition of looking at things, a way of living, a certain tenderness and smallness of mind that avoids the magnificient, the infinite, and the eternal.”

He also points out the potential faults of hokku: “a tendency toward weakness and sentiment.” We see that often in ineffective hokku and in the Western tendency toward writing about what is “cute” or overly sentimental. We should avoid both in composing new hokku.

Hokku also “avoid lyricism and mind-colouring both instinctively and consciously.” That is very important. In hokku we do not try to be “poetic,” with fancy words or phrases. Everything is kept very simple. And we avoid “mind-coloring,” which Blyth writes in the British spelling. “Mind-coloring” is not depicting things as they are, but rather putting our own thoughts and interpretations and often emotions on them. We find it frequently in Western poetry. But in hokku we avoid adding our own thoughts to hokku, preferring instead to let things be what they are, as they are. “In hokku the intellectual element is absent….” In modern hokku we simply call that “no thinking.” Do not add your own thoughts and abstractions when writing hokku. Just present an experience as it is.

Byth adds that he has given his many explanations of individual hokku to save the reader all the years necessary to fully absorb Eastern culture as it applies to hokku. The Japanese (at least those of Blyth’s day) generally already had that cultural background, but for Westerners new to hokku, considerable explanation is often necessary to understanding hokku aesthetics.

Hokku is “not only poetry, that is, a representation in words of the real world; it is a way of life, a mode of living all day long.” That is why Blyth sometimes refers to hokku as a “religion” in quotes. It is a spiritual way of living in the world.

Hokku record moments of particular significance. When a hokku experience happens, the writer feels that peculiar significance in it. Blyth tells us that writers of hokku excel all others in recognizing this unspoken significance in the most unlikely places and times. Hokku is a kind of “little enlightenment” in which we “see into the life of things.” It tells us things we know, but do not know that we know. Hokku enable us to “grasp the inexpressible meaning of some quite ordinary thing or fact hitherto entirely overlooked. Hokku is the understanding of a thing “by a realization of our own original and essential unity with it.” “The thing perceives itself in us.” When we present an experience of Nature as it is, without adding our own thoughts or opinions, we allow Nature to speak through us. Because of this unity, “one flower is the spring; a falling leaf is the whole of autumn….”

Returning to the topic of “Zen,” Blyth says that historically speaking, “hokku is the flower of all the pre-Buddhist religious speculation, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese and Japanese Zen, Taoism and Confucianism.” He gives a quote from the Upanishads:

“That from whence these things are born, that by which when born, they live, that into which at their death they re-enter, try to know that. That is Brahman.” By “Brahman” is meant your True Self.

The Upanishads had a strong influence on American Transcendentalism and its best-known representative Henry David Thoreau.

And a quote from Tōju Nakae (1608-1648):

“Heaven and earth and all things exist in my mind — there is no difference between life and death, being and non-being — the real nature of man’s mind is delight.”

Hokku, unlike waka [the courtly Japanese 5/7/5/7/7 verse form] does not aim at beauty; instead it aims at that unspoken significance revealed in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. And when that is achieved, “some special kind of beauty is found hovering near.”

“The essential simplicity of hokku and Zen must never be forgotten. The sun shines, snow falls, mountains rise and valleys sink, night deepens and pales into day, but it is only very seldom that we attend to such things.” In hokku, however we always attend to such things. “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of these things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Hokku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Finally in his preface, Blyth informs us that “Japanese readers will all have slightly different translations and meanings to give most of these verses. That is both the power and the weakness of hokku.” I would add that in writing English-language hokku we avoid that weakness, which comes from the vague wording of some Japanese hokku. It leaves one “not quite sure of the meaning of the writer.” Blyth goes on to see a virtue in this in that the vagueness requires the “poetic” cooperation of the reader to put meaning into the hokku. In my view, Blyth is here making a virtue of necessity. In English there is no need for such vagueness, and indeed it weakens hokku, as Blyth recognized. Aside from that, what is important to remember from this is that the same hokku may be translated in different ways. Some like to translate very literally, some more loosely, and some “translators” fail to understand the original hokku at all, giving a rendering far from the original intent. That only emphasizes the importance of clarity when we write new hokku in English.

So that, in my view, is the essence of Blyth’s preface to the first volume of his four-part Haiku series. It is a summary of the most important points. Again, I hope all of you will read and ponder Blyth’s full preface via the digital versions, or printed versions if you happen to have access to them. And feel free to ask questions.

David

WINTER BEGINS

Before dawn;
Winter begins
In a downpour of rain.

Yes, the Wheel of the Year has turned. Yesterday was Halloween — Samhain — the beginning of winter by the old hokku calendar.

Winter is the most austere season, a season of extremes and contrasts warmth and cold, light and dark, sound and silence. In the day it corresponds to evening and night; in human life it corresponds to old age and death.

Issa wrote this winter hokku:

身に添や前の主の寒さ迄
Mi ni sou ya mae no aruji no samusa made
Body in add ya before ‘s owner ‘s cold up-to

We may loosely translate it as:

Feeling it all —
Right up to the cold
Of the former owner.

If you have ever lived on little money in a cheap apartment or room on a cold winter night, you will understand that. You feel in your body the poverty of the previous owner and all that went with it — even the deep cold.

By the way, though I teach and advocate hokku and not modern haiku, there is a useful resource for writers of hokku now available on the Haiku Foundation site: digital versions of the major works of R. H. Blyth, which have now long been out of print. Blyth’s works remain to this day the best resource for those wanting to understand the spirit of old hokku. Blyth, as you know, used the term “haiku” — current in his day for what was really hokku. Nonetheless his explanation of the aesthetics and his interpretations of old hokku remain the most useful resource a student of modern hokku could have, so I encourage everyone who has not had the opportunity to read his four-volume Haiku set and his two-volume History of Haiku set to do so.

But two big cautions:
First, do not just read the verse translations in Blyth without carefully reading and pondering his extensive explanations. That error is what led to the departure of the modern haiku community from the spirit and aesthetics of old hokku, which most writers of modern haiku have either never understood or simply have rejected.

Second, Blyth’s purpose in writing was to reveal both the aesthetics and significance of the old Japanese hokku to those in the West. He did not initially anticipate a Western interest in writing them in English and other European languages, so he did not teach the mechanics and techniques of how to write hokku in English — and of course that is something dealt with here on my site. So if you combine the aesthetic principles learned from Blyth with the practical methods of writing hokku in English presented here on the Hokku site over the years, you will have a very good grounding in the principles and practice of modern hokku, as well as an understanding of the important differences between subjectivity and objectivity in writing.

Here is the link:

David

WHY “OCCASIONAL” HOKKU OFTEN FAIL

In past postings I have mentioned “occasional” hokku — verses written for a specific occasion.  You may recall that they have to work on two levels — one the literal meaning, and the other the “occasion” meaning.  A very common reason for some such verses was as a greeting to or thanks to a host.

I have often said that in addition to some quite good hokku, Bashō also wrote a great many rather mediocre hokku — in fact they form the bulk of his collected verses.  And sometimes those unsatisfactory verses are “occasional” hokku.

Let’s look at an example.

In the summer of 1685, Basho was staying with a fellow named Hayashi Tōyō.  On leaving he wrote this verse, which appears in his travel diary Nozarashi Kikō / 野ざらし紀行.   No-zarashi / 野ざらし signifies bones exposed in a field, and kikō / 紀行 means “traveler’s journal.”  We could translate it as “Journal of Field-bleached Bones.”  Not a lovely title, but there it is.

The hokku is:

牡丹蘂深く分け出づる蜂の名残り哉
Botan shibe fukaku wake izuru hachi no nagori kana
Peony pistil deep-in separate-go-out bee ‘s parting-sadness kana

The botan (牡丹) is the tree peony common to China and Japan, not the herbaceous peony better known in the West.  Shibe () refers to the pollen-bearing stamens and the pistil of the plant.  Fukaku (深く) means to be deep into something. Wake izuru (分け出づる) means to separate from and go out of something.  A hachi () is a bee.  No () is a genitive particle that we can translate as ‘s.  Nagori (名残り) is the sadness in parting.  And finally kana () is that particle often described as giving emphasis, but in reality it was often used in hokku just to pad out the required number of phonetic units.  Shiki often over-uses it like that.  Nonetheless we find it at the end of this unusually lengthy verse, which exceeds the standard 17 phonetic units.

Now let’s make something in English out of all that.

Sadly,
The bee leaves from deep in the stamens
of the peony.

That is the meaning, but it is often translated something like:

Reluctantly,
The bee emerges from the stamens
Of the peony.

Translated rather literally it comes out awkwardly long for a hokku.

It is not a very good hokku in any case, and the reason why is precisely its intended double duty.  Bashō is expressing his sadness on leaving Tōyō’s home and hospitality, so to make his point he has to artificially pretend that a bee sadly leaves the stamens of the peony when it is gathering pollen.  And artificiality and pretense are never good in hokku.  The problem is that he does not keep the two levels of the verse completely distinct, but projects his own feelings of sadness on parting from Tōyō onto the bee leaving the inside of the flower.  That is why good “occasional” hokku are rather difficult to write; each side of the meaning must be strong and clear in itself, without any admixture.

That was a summer hokku.  But there was another Tōyō in Bashō’s life.  He was a 14 year old boy named Kumenosuke, who inherited the Izumiya Inn with its relaxing hot spring waters at Yamanaka.  Bashō gave the boy the pseudonym Tōyō.  is another word for the peach (momo) and comes from the expression momo no yōyō, meaning the beauty of a young peach, a phrase derived from the Book of Songs (“Poetry Classic) of Confucius.  Bashō may have felt a certain attraction to Kumenosuke, as it was not unusual for Japanese men of the time to be attracted to handsome youths.  The “occasional” hokku Basho wrote for Tōyō was:

Momo no ki no sono ha shirasu-na aki no kaze

Peach’s tree ‘s its leaves do not scatter/strip Autumn’s wind.

Do not blow away
The leaves of the peach tree,
Autumn wind!

The literal meaning is entreating the autumn wind not to strip the peach tree of its leaves.  The other meaning is a wish that the youthful charm of Kumenosuke might not be taken away by the passage of time.  As you recall, autumn is the time of things aging and withering, and that is its underlying significance in hokku.

In any case, that too is not a good hokku, which is often the result of trying to write hokku that function well on two levels.  Even Bashō was not very good at it.

PARTING

Some old hokku were so telegraphic in brevity that a literal translation makes them near meaningless, such as this autumn verse by Bashō:

見送りのうしろや寂し秋の風

Miokuri no ushiro ya sabishi aki no kaze
Seeing-off ‘s back ya sadness autumn ‘s wind.

It was written for seeing off his student Okada Yasui (better known just as Yasui), who was a kimono fabric merchant from Nagoya.

If we think of waka (with 5/7/5/7/7 phonetic units) as the rather elegant verse form of the Japanese court and aristocracy, it is not too far off to think of hokku (5/7/5) in its original linked context as the verse of the rising merchant class of Edo Period Japan. Many merchants had money and leisure enough to learn the intricacies of linked verse from teachers such as Bashō, and teaching renga (linked verse beginning with a hokku) was how Bashō made his living. Remember that renga was originally a communal form of verse that often took a trite and humorous course, which accounts for why its popular form was known as haikai (comic/playful) no renga — “comical” linked verse. So knowing how to participate in a haikai no renga gathering gave both amusement and a certain feeling of social elevation to the businessmen of that time. Remember that merchants were only next up from the very bottom of the social scale in Edo Japan. Fortunately, hokku eventually outgrew that often shallow origin in haikai no renga, losing its superficiality and becoming more profound — at least hokku at its best.

But back to Bashō’s initially rather cryptic verse:

Miokuri no ushiro ya sabishi aki no kaze
Seeing-off ‘s back ya sadness autumn ‘s wind.

It is not possible to translate it literally as a successful verse in English. If we treat it as an actual event, we see Bashō seeing off his departing student Yasui. As Yasui turns and leaves, Bashō looks at Yasui’s back, and understanding the deeper meaning behind that leaving — impermanence — a feeling of sadness arises in Bashō. That feeling is only deepened by the autumn wind as the background of the parting.

So, given that autumn is the time of impermanence, one feels parting even more deeply because it is in harmony with the atmosphere of the season. All things have an end; people come and go, whether temporarily or permanently, and often we do not know which it is to be. I think most of us have experienced that sudden twinge of sadness on seeing someone we like leaving. There is something about their turning away, seeing their back receding in distance and time, that arouses that feeling in us.

So given all that, how might we render Bashō’s verse so that it makes sense in English and has a similar effect? I hope you all realize by now that there can often be several ways to translate the same Japanese hokku, some very literal, some more interpretive, and the interpretive — if done well — often makes for a more effective hokku in English.

As you depart,
Sadness on seeing your back;
The autumn wind.

It is not exactly what Bashō wrote, but it is the meaning behind it. Notice that the sense is not “I am sad” but rather “there is sadness,” seeing the sadness objectively, as one would look at a leaf or a stone.

There is a very long tradition of “parting” verses that can be traced from Japan back to China, particularly the Tang Dynasty poems that had become so famous among the literary folk in the Japan of Bashō’s day.

David

ALL AROUND

This hokku attributed to Bashō is not easily translated into English.  It uses a Japanese word for an emotion that we all feel at some time, but the English language has no precisely equivalent term.  So it is very easy to give the word too much emphasis in translation.

Traditionally it is said that Bashō wrote it recalling the death of a sister of one of his students, but here we will look at it very literally as a hokku of autumn, with no other association.

lasleav_1

Here it is:

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi aware sa hitotsu aki no kaze

East  west  aware sa one autumn’s wind.

Leaving the word in question and the particle following it untranslated,  a rather literal rendering would read:

East — west —
One aware;
The autumn wind.

The closest we can come in English is perhaps this, which is still inadequate:

East and West
A single sadness;
The autumn wind.

it is  a tranquil sadness however, the kind one feels when looking out on the falling leaves of autumn.  As you already know, in hokku autumn corresponds to the afternoon in the day, and to growing old in human life.  It is the time when things begin to wither and reveal their ultimate impermanence.

Because of that, this hokku might call to mind the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

That addresses a girl who feels a kind of sadness just at the sight of a grove of trees dropping their golden leaves in autumn.

In Bashō’s verse, whether one looks east or west, left or right, one sees only the impermanence revealed by autumn, and added to that is the slight chill of the autumn wind; and that awakes a slightly sad emotion in us.  Some like to use “pathos” to translate aware, but that seems to me a bit too strong and fancy for hokku.

Of course this would be the experience of someone surrounded by Nature in the form of trees and plants.  It would be difficult to feel this delicate sensation in a treeless city, though it might be aroused by other factors.

One could even give the verse a rather loose Buddhist rendering:

East and west
The same transience;
The autumn wind.

Put that way, we need not use an “emotion” word at all, because it is the experience of transience that arouses the emotion of aware — that delicate aesthetic emotion that borders on sadness without becoming too “emotional.”

And we could be even more inclusive in making it an autumn hokku:

(Autumn)

All around
Is only transience;
The autumn wind.

David

THE OLD WAY OF WRITING HOKKU

As mentioned previously, I will now begin a rather lengthy look at old hokku and how it relates to modern hokku and its subcategory daoku.

A frequent question from readers is, “Why do you use capitalization and punctuation in hokku when Japanese hokku had neither?” The question shows a misunderstanding of the differences between Japanese and English. To know why that is one needs to have a basic knowledge of the Japanese writing system and how it compares with the English system.

Old hokku were of course written in Japanese. Japanese was not written with an alphabet like our Roman alphabet. Instead it had (and has) a syllabary — a group of characters that are mostly the equivalent of English syllables. That used in hokku is called hiragana (平仮名 ). We can think of it as meaning “common writing” or “simple writing.” It is common or simple to distinguish it from the other generally more complex characters used in writing old hokku, which were borrowed from Chinese but given Japanese pronunciation. That more complex and extensive writing system is called kanji (漢字), meaning “Han Characters,” and “Han” here means Chinese. So odd as it may seem, Japanese hokku were written using two combined writing systems: Japanese syllabic characters and Chinese characters. As an example, here is Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku in Japanese:

古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音

Out of that, these characters are kanji (Chinese characters):

古池蛙飛水音

The rest are hiragana:

やびこむの

Now why did Japanese combine the two systems? Chinese characters were inadequate for representing the grammatical nature of Japanese, so they were combined with hiragana to do so. But why did Japan not simply abandon the complex kanji for the simpler hiragana? Because kanji were considered “scholarly” and aesthetic. Several thousand Chinese characters were in use in old Japan, which meant it was a complicated system that required much time to learn. Hiragana, by contrast, was quick and easy to learn, and over time it became associated with the writing of women. The verses of aristocratic women of the Heian Period (794-1185) were written in flowing hiragana, as were novels such as the 11th century Tale of Genji, by the woman Murasaki Shikibu. Another advantage of using kanji was that they could represent more than one syllable, unlike the individual hiragana characters. For example, the first two kanji in Bashō’s hokku are in Japanese pronunciation:

Furu = old
Ike = pond

The third has three syllables:

= Kawazu

Let’s look at the whole verse again, this time with transliteration. The parts in bold type are written in kanji, and the rest in hiragana:

古池蛙飛びこむ
Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

Literally, it means:

old pond ya frog jumps-in water ‘s sound

Ya () is a word that has no real meaning; it is used to indicate a kind of pause in thought, or to draw attention to something. In hokku it gives the reader a meditative pause before going on to the rest of the verse.

We could translate the hokku rather literally like this:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog
Jumping in the water.

Generally, though, we loosen the translation a bit, like this:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

That brings up the issue of how to translate Japanese hokku, which use a writing system and grammar quite different from that of English. One can be very literal and just translate word for word, as I did in the first extremely literal translation. That is something useful for those who want to know the precise meaning of a hokku. A literal translation, however, is generally not adequate as a verse in English, so we add the niceties of English grammar and punctuation, and sometimes we may make the translation a bit more clear than the Japanese original, as Blyth often did.

There is something else that must be noted about old hokku. I have written Bashō’s verse horizontally above, but in Japanese, old hokku were generally written vertically, like the rest of Japanese literature. So instead of appearing horizontally, it would be like this:

Let’s look at Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse again:

古池や蛙飛びこむ水の音
furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

As you can see, because it is using a writing system completely different than that of English, it has no punctuation and no capitalization. Those are characteristics of English, but not of Japanese. So now you understand why we use capitalization and punctuation in English hokku, though neither were used or even possible in Japanese hokku. Old Japanese literature did not have punctuation. When Japan was later exposed to literature in European languages, the benefits of punctuation began to be noted, and so punctuation began to appear in Japanese writing in the 19th century, though it was not officially adopted in teaching the writing of modern Japanese until 1946. Even then it was not used precisely as in English. Of course due to the nature of the Japanese writing system, capitalization is still not possible, because Japanese has no distinction possible of upper and lower case letters as we have in English.

Here, from the Dr. Moku page, is the Japanese hiragana syllabary with equivalencies in Roman letters:

ΗΕΑΤ

From horizon to horizon,
A cloudless sky;
The heat!

We are having another heat wave where I live.  The summers are not the pleasant, mild times they used to be — due to climate change, of course.  The planet is in critical condition.  Greed and foolishness have brought us to this state.  I don’t see that anything meaningful is being done to change the catastrophic course humanity has set itself upon, and some are already predicting food and water shortages and the possible end of civilization as we know it, not to mention the dying out of countless species of life on this planet.

And yet the seasons change.  In a few days we will be at August 1st — Harvest Home, or Lammas to use its very old name.  It marks the beginning of autumn.  That does not mean the end of summer heat of course, but the Wheel of the Year continues to turn and the days are becoming ever shorter and the nights longer.

Recently we have been exploring daoku here — objective hokku, based on the best aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku.  In the coming weeks I would like to take some time to review the old Japanese hokku, detailing how it relates to modern hokku and daoku, and how it differs.

It is particularly important in this time of environmental and climate crisis that we remember we are a part of Nature — not apart from it, and what hurts Nature hurts us.  Many people have lost touch with the natural world, and that is not at all a healthy thing.  Hokku and daoku, with their focus on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, helps to restore a sane perspective.  We live in a time when that is sorely needed.

As we look at old Japanese hokku, we will see how its aesthetics are carried on in modern hokku and daoku, and we will also review the basic principles and underlying philosophy — or better one might say spirituality — of writing hokku.  If all goes as planned, this review should be rather extensive.  We will look again at the various kinds of hokku, and what makes a good hokku.  This information is essential for those who wish to write hokku or daoku today in the English language.  The same principles may be applied to other languages as well.

David

CROWS AND BLOSSOMS

A summer hokku:

Sunrise;
From near and far,
The sound of crows talking.

KAWANABEKYŌSAI-CROW ON BRANCH

Yes, crows talk.  They talk in Crow — which can be rather raucous.

And another for summer:

Summer heat;
Suddenly the Poet’s Jasmine
Has blossomed.

Poet’s Jasmine is the common name for Jasminum officinale, which fortunately will grow here in the Pacific Northwest.  My vine was covered with its blossoms this morning; they just appeared overnight.

Jasminum_officinale_-_Bot._Mag._31,_1787

David

MOUNTAIN AND SEA

A summer verse by Issa:

The summer mountain;
With every step
Seeing more of the sea.

We can understand this in two ways:

First, someone climbing the mountain summer will see a wider expanse of the sea the higher they go.
Second, someone crossing the summer mountain will get different vistas of the sea the farther they go.

My own preference is for the first — seeing more of the sea with each step higher on the mountain.

David

A DROWSY MIDSUMMER HOKKU

Tomorrow is that ancient holiday the Summer Solstice, Midsummer’s Day.

After weeks of rain and showers, the sun is finally shining and the clouds have thinned where I live — just in time for tomorrow.

Here is a restful old summer hokku by Isshū, appropriate for the warmer weather:

While hearing
The sound of wind in the pines —
A mid-day nap.

Or to make it less literal:

While listening
To the wind in the pines —
A mid-day nap.

I too feel I could fall asleep listening to that gentle sound.  It is not a new feeling.  Here is a very old Chinese painting by Li Tang (1050-1130) titled Wind in the Pines Amid Myriad Valleys:

Li_Tang_-_Wind_in_Pines_Among_a_Myriad_Valleys
(National Palace Museum, Taiwan)

David

IN SPRING A YOUNG MAN’S FANCY ….

A reader asked me to discuss “March” — The tenth poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s classic anthology A Shropshire Lad. March is now past, but better late than never. So here it is, discussed stanza by stanza.

MARCH

The sun at noon to higher air,
Unharnessing the silver Pair
That late before his chariot swam,
Rides on the gold wool of the Ram.

That might at first seem cryptic, but Housman is referring to the signs of the zodiac that mark the change of the seasons. Housman was a teacher of the Latin and Greek classics, so well familiar with mythology. The sun is of course the sun god Apollo, who rides his solar chariot drawn by four horses across the sky each day. “Unharnessing the silver Pair” means that the chariot of the sun is moving chronologically out of the sign Pisces (two silver fish). The sun moves through the constellation Pisces from February 19th to March 20th. Then it enters the sign of the Ram, Aries, from March 21 to April 19th. The Spring Equinox (Vernal Equinox) — that time when the length of day and night is equal — happens yearly on either March 19th, 20th, or 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. So Housman is setting this poem at that time of change — the Spring Equinox, when the sun moves from the silver Fish sign Pisces to the golden-wooled Ram sign Aries. Now in one calendrical system, the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of spring. So to make all this short, the first stanza is telling us that in March, Nature has moved from winter to spring.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things,
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.

Stormcock is a common English name for the bird called mistle thrush. It is called “stormcock” because it even sings in windy, rainy weather. And March in the British Isles is often windy and rainy. That it sings “braver notes” means that it sings more boldly and confidently with the coming of spring. And with the spring singing of the stormcock, “the rusted wheel of things” is started, meaning all the workings of Nature that were stilled in winter now become active with the spring. This is seen in the leaping of “brutes” — that is, animals — in the fields and in pens, a sign of the increasing activity of spring. This is much in keeping with the notion of Yin and Yang, with Yin being the stillness of winter that begins in the fall, and Yang the active element that increases in the spring. Think of the leaping of lambs in spring. The leaping and gamboling of animals showed that now that spring has come, “the world goes round again” — Nature has once more become active.

The boys are up the woods with day
To fetch the daffodils away,
And home at noonday from the hills
They bring no dearth of daffodils.

The village lads go in the morning to the wooded hills to gather wild daffodils, that golden flower that commonly begins to bloom in March in Britain. At noon they come back bringing “no dearth” of the flowers, meaning they return with a great many daffodils.

Afield for palms the girls repair,
And sure enough the palms are there,
And each will find by hedge or pond
Her waving silver-tufted wand.

As the boys are out gathering daffodils, the girls are out to gather “palms.” That is a folk term for the branches of the willow with the grey, cat-fur soft catkins — “pussy willows.” They were called “palms” in British country lore because the grey branches of pussy willow were brought into churches on Palm Sunday to represent the palm branches used in the biblical story of the welcoming of Jesus into Jerusalem by crowds waving palm branches. And there being no palms in the English countryside, pussy willows were used for this spring celebration instead. So each girl, whether she found it by a hedgerow or by a pond, would come back with a grey pussy willow branch — another sign of spring in Britain.

In farm and field through all the shire
The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.

As Tennyson wrote in “Locksley Hall,” “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So the young in rural England, seeing spring come and the return of activity to farm and field and all through Shropshire — “behold the hearts desire.” This means not only that they see the return of the beauty of spring, but also that the boys look with desire on those with whom they have become enamored. And Housman finishes the poem by saying, “Ah, let not only mine be vain,” meaning “Don’t let me be the only person who desires the person I love, and not have that person love me in return.” Why? Because those who love should, we cannot help feeling, be loved in return, so that their love be not in vain.

That, then, is Housman’s “March.” It is in reality a simple spring poem reflecting the joy of the season, the awakening of love, and the desire to be loved by the object of one’s affections.

HAPPENINGS IN NATURE

There is a story — likely not even a true story, but one passed around nonetheless as a lot of fictional stories about Bashō are:

One day Zen master Butchō (1642-1716) is said to have questioned Bashō’s giving time to the writing of hokku, on the grounds that it was distracting from a serious practice of Zen. In reply, Bashō is said to have given an explanation of his hokku in keeping with Zen. He supposedly said, “Hokku is only what is now, before one’s eyes,” or as some render it, “Hokku is only what is happening at this place, at this time.”

Well, there is no solid evidence that Bashō ever seriously underwent Zen training. Though his writing is obviously influenced by Zen aesthetics — as was much of Japanese culture — from all appearances he was never more than a dabbler, even though he wore the robes of a monk.

What I want to write about today, though, is that whether the story of Bashō’s remark to Butchō be true or not, it was by no means an accurate description of the hokku of Basho’s day or later, nor even of many of the hokku Bashō himself wrote.

The reason is that often old hokku were not taken from direct actual experience. It was not uncommon for them to be composed entirely from the imagination. Though they likely often had fragments of actual experiences in them, they were nonetheless frequently “literary” compositions, not records of what had actually been seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted on a particular occasion. Buson was particularly notorious for this, making hokku entirely out of mental fantasy.

In daoku, however, we change that. We take the fantasy out of it, and make it the verse of actual — not imagined — experience. In that it differs from many old Japanese hokku.

Early spring;
House lights shining
Through the morning fog.

Because we write daoku from actual experience, it keeps us in touch with Nature. Nature constantly refreshes our writing with new experiences of the senses and the seasons. That is very important in a time when the human population of the planet is increasingly losing touch with Nature — when plants and animals are going extinct all over the world, and the climate is going awry due to human excesses, and land and forests are constantly giving way to more and more building and nature-destructive uses of all kinds.

Being aware of what is happening in Nature is essential to the writing of daoku. Keeping that awareness allows us to have “little enlightenments,” as Blyth would have called them — simple moments of insight into the natural world, experiences that speak of something deeper than the words:

(Spring)

Morning fog;
Every tree
Is a shade of grey.

David

…CAN SPRING BE FAR BEHIND?

Winter’s end;
The morning star fading
In the dawn sky.

Yes, according to the Hokku Calendar, which is also the ancient agricultural calendar, tomorrow is the first day of spring.  That does not mean the end of cold weather (depending on where you live), but it does mean that the Wheel of the Year has turned, and once again Imbolc / Candlemas has come around, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

So far it has been a surprisingly mild winter where I am — likely due to climate change.  Snowdrops — a sure sign of spring — have been blooming early in my garden since mid-January.   But it is always possible something unexpected may happen in February, as it did last year when it brought both snow and an ice storm, knocking out my electricity for a week.

Nonetheless, it is time to leave reading and writing Winter hokku and daoku (objective hokku) behind, and to move on to those of spring.

David

UNSEEING STARS

Someone suggested a discussion of this wintry poem by Robert Frost.  It is among those in A Boy’s Will, the first “professionally” published book of his poems, which appeared in England in 1913, and two years later in the United States.

We will take it stanza by stanza:

STARS

How countlessly they congregate
     O’er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
     When wintry winds do blow!—

The stars gather together in the sky over a landscape covered deep in snow that moves and piles in drifts and mounds as high as trees when the winter wind blows it about.

As if with keenness for our fate,
     Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
     Invisible at dawn,—

One can take this literally or metaphorically.  Literally it means the stars appear in the sky as if they are concerned about the fate of humans — those humans out walking beneath the stars, then going back their few hesitant and uncertain steps to home, where they sleep amid the wintry whiteness until the light of dawn reveals even the home so covered in blown drifts of snow that it is invisible.

Metaphorically it can be understood to mean the stars appear in the sky as though concerned about the fate of humans, who walk their hesitant and uncertain few steps through life until they rest in wintry death, with even their graves hidden in the snow, their lives ultimately entirely forgotten and obliterated.

Which did Frost intend?  I suspect the literal.

And then we come to the point of the poem:

And yet with neither love nor hate,
     Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes
     Without the gift of sight.

The stars, after all, have no concern for humans or their lives or fate.  Like the sightless, snow-white eyes of a statue carved in pure white marble  of the Roman goddess Minerva (the goddess of Wisdom), they are sightless and without emotion, empty of love or pity or hate.

The Universe, in other words, is emotionless, unfeeling, impartial and unconcerned about the brief lives of humans.

If one were to punctuate the second stanza slightly differently, it would suddenly take on clarity, but with quite a different meaning:

As if with keenness for our fate,
     Our faltering few steps; on
To white rest, and a place of rest
     Invisible at dawn,—

It would then mean the stars gather in the sky as if concerned for the fate of humans and their faltering few steps as they live and walk beneath the stars; and then the stars move on to their white rest above the snow as dawn comes and makes them invisible.

It is not one of Frost’s best poems.  It suffers partly because of the lack of clarity in the second stanza, and partly because Frost takes so many words to say simply that the Universe — symbolized by the stars — has no more concern for the fate of humans than do the sightless eyes of a marble statue.  Nonetheless, it does give us a wintry atmosphere and the chilly feeling of the icy, emotionless stars high in the sky above endless drifts of snow.

SNOW

It is snowing as I write this, so the cold weather has finally come.

One of my favorite winter verses, which works well in daoku (objective hokku) form, is this winter verse by Hashin:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Endlessly falling.

In a heavy snowstorm, there is no longer any visual distinction between the sky and the earth.  Everything is the same whiteness, and through that whiteness falls the white snow, seemingly without end.  It well expresses the feeling of winter.

As you can see, it can all be expressed in only eight words in English.  That is part of the poverty and simplicity of daoku.  By poverty we do not mean you have to be penniless, homeless, and on the streets.  We mean that you recognize life is not the accumulation of material things, and in writing daoku, it is not the use of lots of words.  It is reducing things to their minimum, using only what is necessary to express an experience without added commentary or frills or interpretation.  As is always said in daoku, “no thinking.”

So much of our lives is spent in the whirlwind of thoughts in our heads.  Thoughts are not us.  They are just things that happen, like leaves floating by in a stream.  So don’t get too attached to thoughts.  Spend more time in experience, without interpreting or judging it.  That will improve not only your hokku, but likely your life as well.

David

HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE!

Tomorrow — December 21 — is the Winter Solstice, Great Yule — a major natural holiday from ancient times сelebrating the winter rebirth of the sun. It is the day when the sun stops lowering its daily arc across the sky, followed by its gradual rising again through spring and summer. From tomorrow on, the nights grow shorter and the days longer.  It is the time when we celebrate the beginning of the return of light and warmth, the rising of the yang (active, warm, bright) energies.  More ancient than Christmas, it is a celebration of Nature and our place in the universe, and an important part of the hokku/daoku year.

There are many ways to observe the Winter Solstice, from the simple to elaborate feasting and colorful rituals. However you please, I hope you will all take some time to rejoice in this significant midwinter festival.

Here is an old verse by Seibi:

Slowly, slowly
The sun rises over the pines;
The Winter Solstice.

Glad Yule!

David

YOU COME TOO

 

Yesterday I talked about the appreciation of simple things in daoku (objective hokku).  Here is an example, a loose translation of a winter verse by Ransetsu:

This snowfall;
People waking up others
To see.

 

I have been fascinated by snow since I was a child, and each snowfall is always a special event.  Snow is not frequent in my part of the Pacific Northwest of the United States.  Some winters we may have none at all.  But when it happens, it still awakens some of the joy I felt in my childhood.  This old Japanese verse expresses the human desire to share an experience with someone else. It almost seems like a pleasure shared is a pleasure multiplied.

That human urge to share an experience is why people exchange daoku with others.  It is the same feeling expressed in this Robert Frost poem, “The Pasture”:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
 
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.
 
And that, of course, is the reason why I began this blog based around the reading and writing of hokku years ago:  to say to others, “You come too.”
 
 
David

THE ESSENTIAL FACTS OF LIFE

People who come to hokku and its sub-category daoku by way of modern haiku often do not quite grasp its aesthetic.  They are not used to a verse form that makes a virtue out of such simplicity and ordinariness.

Daoku has inherited from its spiritual ancestry the notion of selflessness, which means that daoku is not about the “I,” the ego.  It is not about romance, or sex, or all the materialism of the modern world.  it is about very basic things, and it approaches them not on the level of intellect — not through analyzing and interpreting and commentary.  It just presents us with sensory events.  As I always repeat, daoku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Here is a winter verse by Buson that illustrates well the aesthetic of daoku:

The sound
Of the dog rolling over against the door;
Winter confinement.

Who in the history of Western poetry would have thought to write such a verse?  Who would have thought there is “poetry” in the sound of a dog bumping against a door in the isolation of winter?

That is the amazing thing about daoku.  It deals with the most basic elements of existence in this fleeting world, and it does it in the most selfless way.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

That is what daoku does.  it faces the essential facts of life, and finds depth and beauty in them.  To do that, as this verse reveals, does not mean we have to go live in the woods.  We confront the essential facts of life every day.  The problem is that we are so wrapped up in our plans and likes and dislikes and hopes and imagination and fantasy — so much into the daily up and down weather of our illusory selves — that we are often not aware of the basic facts of life — like the sound of a dog turning over in its sleep against the door.

That sound is the life that passes us by because we do not pay attention.  We live too much in our minds instead of in the world around us.  Daoku brings that world back to us through the senses — sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing.  Those are the most basic facts of our life.  They happen before we analyze an event, before we think about it, before we add any interpretation to it.

Buson’s verse was written in the context of the old Japanese winter, when the isolating cold and snow meant that people were confined indoors for long periods of time.  No radio, no Internet, no television, no video games.  There is nothing like confinement to reduce life to its basics.

Daoku is like the words of the Bahiya Sutta:

In the seen there is only the seen;
In the heard there only the heard….

Daoku does not add our commentaries or interpretations to events.  It simply presents us with the bare sensory facts of the event.  And here that is being shut indoors during the cold of winter, and in the silence and stillness, hearing the sound of the dog rolling over against the door.

It is not a symbol of anything.  It is not a metaphor for anything.  It has no meaning that we can speak, but nonetheless, we cannot help feeling a deep meaning in it.  And yet it is just the sound of a dog rolling over.

Daoku is noticing these simple, apparently meaningless, yet somehow profound events.  They are our lives.  If we miss them, we miss our lives, caught up as we are in the whirl of thoughts in our heads.  But ignore those thoughts, and suddenly the “dog sound” becomes full of unspoken significance.

Perhaps many of you can feel the sense of winter confinement because of the current worldwide pandemic.  My world has been reduced to about a two-mile radius.  There is home.  There are the visits to the nearby grocery stores.  There are visits to the library.  I spend almost all of my time entirely alone.  Being alone teaches you things, particularly about your “self.”

One of my greatest pleasures has become watching the birds visiting the feeders outside my kitchen window.  This morning there was a great event: the roofs were white with snow when I woke.  Now it is slowly melting in the morning rain.  Such things are the basics of life, and those basics are the subject matter of daoku.

Daoku is not about “me,” about the ego and its wants and aversions.  I often say that the basic aesthetics of daoku are poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.   In daoku we have the same attitude that Emily Dickinson expressed in her poem:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

There is great freedom in being nobody.

David

MUSIC FOR WINTER

In about three days, we will reach the Winter Solstice on December 21st.  It is the shortest day and longest night of the year.  In ancient thought, it was the time of the rebirth of the sun, because after that date, the days once more begin to grow longer and the daily arc of the sun moves higher and higher in the sky.

Bashō wrote:

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world,
The sound of the wind.

In that verse, everything is white with snow and frost — a one-color world.
Perhaps you will think of that hokku when you listen to this austere wintry music.

First, this time by the noted kotoist Kimio Eto:

And then there is Miyata’s “Winter NIght,” played on shakuhachi:

ENTERING WINTER

fallenleaves

Today marks the end of autumn and the beginning of winter according to the old calendar and the hokku/daoku calendar. It is the ancient holiday of Samhain, pronounced Sah-win. It is the traditional beginning of the most yin time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere — the beginning of the dark of the year, a time of turning inward and conserving our energy.

In hokku and daoku it is also the time of contrasts, when we become very aware of the opposites of light and dark, heat and cold, movement and stillness, sound and silence.

This verse by Taigi acts for us as a kind of transition verse as we cross from autumn to winter:

Sweeping them up,
And then not sweeping them up;
The fallen leaves.

When the colored leaves of autumn first begin to fall, we sweep them up. But as the season progresses and we enter winter, we are overwhelmed with them, and just accept the inevitable and let them fall and lie where they fall. And in that there is a sense of release and peace.

A very Happy Halloween/Samhain to you all.

David

A READER QUESTION: KINDLY SETTLE AN ISSUE

This morning I received a message from a reader asking why Jane Reichhold’s book Bashō: the Complete Haiku did not seem to have a verse attributed to Bashō found in the old Peter Pauper Press series book The Four Seasons: Japanese Haiku Second Series (1958), apparently translated by Peter Beilinson.  I thought perhaps my answer might be of interest to other readers of this site as well, so here it is in slightly modified form:

 
First, I would not recommend Reichhold’s book, because in my view the “translations” are often misleading at best, and more Reichhold than Bashō.  I read it once from the library when it came out, and did not think it worth adding to my own library.
 
However:
 
The version you gave from the Peter Pauper Press is:
 
Under my tree-roof
Slanting lines of April rain
Separate to drops.
 
I have modified the format.  Actually, the book gives it in four all-capitalized lines with no punctuation.
 
That appears to be a very loose and free interpretation of this not-so-good hokku by Bashō:
 
春雨の木下につたふ清水哉
 
Harusame no koshita ni tsutau shimizu kana
 
Spring-rain ’s tree-down at running clear water kana
 
In normal English:
 
Spring rain
Running down the tree —
Clear water.
 
The meaning is essentially this:
 
Spring rain;
It runs down the tree
As clear water.
 
I did find Reichhold’s version online, given as:
 
spring rain / trickling down a tree / clear water spring
 
I don’t know what page it is on in her book, because as I said, I never bought her book; just read through a copy from the library when it came out.
 
Now oddly enough, the Peter Pauper series’  loose interpretation of the verse — if slightly modified — actually makes a rather good hokku if we remove the words “my” and “roof”:
 
Under the tree,
Slanting lines of spring rain
Separate to drops.
 
It is a far cry from Bashō’s original hokku and has quite a different meaning, but in my opinion it is actually much better. 
 
David

 

THE SEMICOLON IN DAOKU

Aesthetically, there are several things that distinguish daoku from modern haiku, and one is punctuation.  While haiku often makes do with merely a hyphen or no punctuation at all, daoku makes full use of the benefits of various punctuation marks.  The two parts of daoku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, the daoku ends with a punctuation mark, and there may be additional punctuation within the verse.

The purpose of this is to guide the reader through the verse in a smooth and effective manner.

In 1494 the humanist book publisher in Venice — Aldus Manutius — created a new and very useful punctuation mark.  He wanted something between the brevity of a comma (,) and the stronger pause of the colon (:).  So he combined both into the semicolon (;).

The simplicity of this is striking.  Many people today are confused by the so-called rules of punctuation — all of which were devised later and sometimes disagree.  But the basic purpose and principle is quite simple, and easily seen in contemporary hokku and its sub-category, daoku.  The comma, the semicolon, the colon, and the period are all variations in length and feeling of pause.

The comma is a brief pause:

I stopped, and then I continued on.

The semicolon is a longer pause:

I stopped; and then I continued on.

The colon is an even longer and stronger pause:

I stopped: and then I continued on.

And the period is the strongest and longest pause:

I stopped.  And then I continued on.

It is just that simple.

In daoku the most frequently used punctuation mark is the semicolon.  Its purpose is to provide a meditative pause between the longer and shorter parts of the verse, as in this example by Gyodai:

(Autumn)

The autumn hills;
Here and there,
Smoke rising.

As presented here, we first encounter the autumn hills, and pause momentarily to see and experience them in our minds.  And then looking here and looking there, we see the little columns of smoke rising.

Again the purpose of punctuation is to guide the reader, and it has a strong effect on how the verse is experienced; so punctuation is very important in both contemporary hokku in general and daoku (objective hokku) in particular.

David

THE ORDER OF ELEMENTS IN DAOKU

We have just passed the Autumnal Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Now we move toward the dark of the year that becomes most pronounced in winter, as the days grow ever shorter and the nights longer.

Shiki wrote a very interesting verse that we can translate as a daoku in English.  Remember that a daoku is an objective hokku — a hokku without any commentary or ornamentation or “thinking” from the writer.  Here it is:

(Autumn)

A dog sleeping
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

It is a wonderful expression of autumn.  We feel the quietness of the season and the diminishing of Yang (active) energy in the sleep of the dog, in the emptiness of the vacant house, and in the falling of the yellow willow leaves.  There is a sense of peaceful drowsiness in it that is very much in keeping with the waning energy and golden light of autumn.

It is important to note that when we read a daoku, we experience it in our minds.  This daoku by Shiki is a very visual verse, so we see the dog and the house and the leaves in our minds.  But how we see them is determined by the arrangement of the elements in the verse.

In the version above, we first see the sleeping dog; then we see he is lying at the door of an empty house; and then we experience the wider context — the falling willow leaves.

If we change the arrangement, we experience the daoku somewhat differently, as you will see easily if you read these versions with a quiet and receptive mind:

At the door of an empty house
A dog is sleeping;
Falling willow leaves.

In that, we first see the door and the empty house.  Then we see the sleeping dog, and finally we note the falling willow leaves.

Falling willow leaves;
At the door of an empty house
A dog is sleeping.

Here we first see the wider context:  the falling willow leaves.  Then we see the door and the empty house, and finally the dog sleeping there.

As you can see, there are several ways to arrange the elements in a daoku, and how they are arranged determines how the reader will experience those elements sequentially — and there is a subtle difference of feeling in the difference of sequence.

We can also make other little changes, for example:

A dog asleep
At the door of the vacant house
Falling willow leaves.

“Vacant,” however, is not quite as good a choice here as “empty,” because empty is felt as a stronger word.

This autumn daoku has a very deep sense of poverty and transience, both of which are very important aesthetically.  By poverty here is meant the appreciation of the very simple and basic elements of life — something like what is now in the West known as “minimalism,” only far more profound than mere interior decoration. The daoku is a very minimal form of verse, which is why such things as choice of words and sequential arrangement of elements are very important.

David

THE RECEPTIVE MIND

A very loose rendering of a verse by Kitō put into daoku form:

(Autumn)

Midnight;
With dew-wet eyelashes,
Gazing at the moon.

Notice how the focus is taken off a “me” and placed only on the dew-wet eyelashes, the moon, and the night. When you read this, you should feel the drops of dew on your eyelashes too.  That is how hokku conveys an experience of the senses in simple words, from writer to reader.  The reader becomes the experiencer.  The words are just the “seeds of poetry” that burst into bloom in the mind of the reader.  That is why it is best not to think of daoku as poetry — but more as just an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  The poetry happens in the receptive mind, and it happens quickly.

EVEN CROWS GET HOT

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

It is about 103 degrees Fahrenheit here (39.4 Celsius), and I got a notice from my neighborhood library that some items I had requested were in.  So yes, I went out in the noonday sun to pick them up.  I walked the four miles there and back, and when I got home my shirt was dripping wet.  But at least I experienced a daoku on the way:

Lingering heat;
A crow stands motionless
In the shade of the cedar.

Yes, some of the characteristics of summer daoku apply to the beginning of autumn as well, when there can still be days of lingering strong heat.  You will recall that heat/sun is Yang, and shade is Yin — so there is harmony of contrast in this; and of course the black color of the crow is Yin as well.

David

DAOKU AND “TECHNOLOGY”

Daoku has deliberate limits on its subject matter, and one of those boundaries excludes what we loosely call “technology.”

As a result of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent great expansion in use of technology and consumption of fossil fuels, humans entered an Age of Illusion in which the misperception became common that Nature was little more than a vast repository of resources to be gathered and used however humans saw fit.  Humans saw themselves more and more as separate from — and in general superior to — Nature.

rnhasui.

Daoku — and a life in keeping with daoku — reverses this trend.  One cannot write daoku without the realization that Nature gave birth to humans, and thus humans are a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the only realistic and healthy attitude.

It is also an antidote to the wrong thinking so prevalent in the world today — that the world was made for humans, that all of Nature “belongs” to humans to do with as they will.  And it is only by realizing how intimately connected with Nature we are that just possibly, humans might yet have a slim chance of averting the coming final environmental catastrophe brought on by decades of ignorance, arrogance, selfishness and greed.

So it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that daoku avoids technology and never abandons Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature as its inherent subject matter.  It is also a tiny counterbalance to the immensity of wrong thinking and wrong action that has brought us to the perilous condition of world climate today.  By avoiding putting “technology” in our verse, we have to pay greater attention to Nature and how we relate to it, and if anything might save humans from destroying themselves, it would be that realization of our inseparability from the same Nature that humans have so raped, battered and abused.  In harming Nature we harm ourselves.

It is worth mentioning that even Shiki, who ultimately caused much trouble by his somewhat short-sighted, revisionist creation of the new “haiku” as an offshoot of hokku near the end of the 19th century, did not go as far in abandoning Nature as many in the modern haiku community have done.

What we call “technology” in hokku, Shiki called “artifacts of civilization,” and he wrote that most of them are “unpoetic” and thus difficult to use in poetry.  He said that those who supposed that his admonition to “write about new things” meant to write verse about such things as “trains and railways” were mistaken, but that if one does write about them, “one has no choice but to mention something poetic as well.”  If a verse contains an element of technology, Shiki felt, one had to counterbalance it — “make it more attractive” as he put it, by including such other elements as violets blooming by the railroad tracks or poppies dropping their petals after a train had passed (see Dawn to the West, Donald Keene, 1984, pg. 51).

Shiki’s admonition, though it seems overtly based more on his ideas of what was “beautiful” in verse than on anything more profound, nonetheless resembles somewhat the principle in daoku that even though technology is generally avoided, if rarely some aspect of it not too inharmonious with hokku is included, the “technological” element should not predominate, but should always be secondary to Nature.

Daoku may be the ONLY objective verse form in existence today that strictly limits its subject matter to the intimate connection between Nature and humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  For that alone it should be valued in these times when so many have lost touch with Nature, and human life and civilization hang, as Jung said, by a thread.

THE TWO HARMONIES: SIMILARITY AND CONTRAST

In the previous posting I discussed the Daoku Wheel of the Year, the daoku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Daoku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every verse is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a daoku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of daoku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that — by accepted convention — indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period near the beginning of the 20th century, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with natural simplicity.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language daoku, we take away the complexity and return to simplicity by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every daoku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the daoku. And if a group of such verses are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning daoku while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth
In the day: dawn and morning
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age
In the day: mid-day, noon
In plant life: maturing, fruiting

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night
In plant life: death and dormancy.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in daoku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this verse by Bashō:

(Autumn)

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:

(Autumn)

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling. It lacks the obvious harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in daoku as well as harmony of similarity.  Now we come to a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

Again if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characteristics of Yin and Yang.

You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream (Yin) — on a hot day (Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is felt to be a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this verse (I translate a bit loosely here):

(Autumn)

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a verse using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

(Autumn)

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a verse by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

(Autumn)

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old verse by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

(Autumn)

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

(Autumn)

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

Long ago I wrote a somewhat similar verse:

(Autumn)

No moon;
Everywhere in the forest —
Deer eyes.

For those of you who do not know, on a dark night any light carried reflects off the eyes of deer, and all one sees are ghostly eyes in the darkness.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a daoku. You should always remember that a good verse is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a daoku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a daoku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All daoku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter daoku in summer or fall daoku in spring. And we ordinarily also read daoku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer daoku in winter or spring daoku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.  The exception to that is — as here — when we are studying daoku and its principles.  Then we may use examples out of season.

David

THE DAOKU WHEEL OF THE YEAR

If you want to write daoku you will need to know its aesthetics, the principles upon which its practice is based. The chief underlying principle is that everything in the universe is connected. Humans are not separate, but are a part of Nature. That is why we can say that hokku is about Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

If you look in the news of climate change, you will quickly see the disastrous consequences when humans ignore the basic fact that humans are a part of — not apart from — Nature.

Nature implies the seasons and their changes. That is why learning the Daoku Wheel of the Year (which also applies to hokku, given that daoku is a category of hokku)  is an important part of daoku aesthetics.

The Wheel of the Year is the “natural” calendar. Here is a simple image of the Daoku Wheel of the Year as found in English-language daoku. You will note that Midsummer’s Day is at the top, and the Winter Solstice is at the bottom. There is a very good reason for that, as you will see as we continue.

So here is the Daoku Wheel of the Year:

As you see, it has four main points, which beginning in the spring are:

1. The Spring Equinox (Vernal Equinox)
2. The Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day)
3. The Autumn Equinox (Autumnal Equinox)
4. The Winter Solstice (Yule)

Between these four main points come the “cross-quarter” days:

1. Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1, which begins the season of spring
2. May Day (Beltain/Bealtaine), May 1, which begins the season of summer
3. Lammas or Harvest Home (Lughnasa) August 1, which begins the season of autumn
4. Halloween (Samhain), October 31-November 1, which begins the season of winter

You will also note on the Daoku Wheel that in the spring, the Yang aspect of Nature is increasing. This increase really begins in midwinter, just after the Winter Solstice, but it begins to be noticeable near the time of Candlemas and after.

Yang increases until Midsummer’s Day, at which time it begins its decline, though its effects, like those of midwinter, are usually not noticed in Nature until about a month later.

As Yang declines in late summer, its opposite Yin gradually increases. So in autumn we have increasing Yin, and in spring we have decreasing Yin.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year. You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm. Yin is passive, Yang active. Yin recedes, Yang advances. Yin is wet, Yang is dry. Yin is still, Yang moving. Yin is silence, Yang is sound. Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin. At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite. Yang first begins to grow within it. So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite. Yin begins to grow within it. So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter. Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer. Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another. As Yang increases, Yin declines. When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines. This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year. We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

YIN AND YANG IN DAOKU

Yesterday I mentioned the importance of Yin and Yang in daoku.  They are so important that one cannot fully understand daoku without knowing of Yin and Yang.

Yin is pronounced like “tin.”  Yang is pronounced like “song.”

This posting condenses a lot of information that the student of daoku should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of daoku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

300px-yin_yang-1-svg

Yin and Yang are the two opposite yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in daoku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  Here are some characteristics of each:

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking/falling;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

Everything in the universe is — at any moment — in the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

This is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the important technique used in daoku called internal reflection.  Internal reflection in daoku means that the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in daoku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast/difference.  Both of these important aspects of daoku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to daoku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the technique of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus and activity of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how daoku works without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our daoku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period and morning in the season.

You can see from all that what a very excellent spring verse by Onitsura this is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to daoku — because not only was it essential to old Japanese hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

The teaching of Yin and Yang is a part of learning daoku.  In that it differs from all other kinds of short verse such as modern haiku.  Modern haiku has largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku, while daoku has kept the essence.  Perhaps one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the practice of daoku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to daoku than superficially meets the eye.  One must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how it works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once you know about and begin to understand the Yin-Yang principle, you will see it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of daoku.

The best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in daoku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your writing practice — but not in a forced or rigid way.

Keep in mind that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their endless interactions.

David

DAOKU AESTHETICS

A main area in which daoku differs from modern haiku is the matter of aesthetics.  There are no universally-accepted aesthetic principles in modern haiku.  Everything depends on individual whim.  Daoku, however, has very definite principles and aesthetics that are essential to developing as a daoku writer.

aupa

one may have a verse in the outward daoku form, with everything in it correct, and still not have a daoku.  That is because to be a real daoku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of daoku.

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere.  Do not think that every aspect of daoku aesthetics must be seen or included in every verse.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of daoku aesthetics as its “taste” or the “fragrance.”  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single daoku or a collection.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall daoku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of daoku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

(Summer)

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of daoku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The daoku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a verse does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Daoku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, daoku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A verse should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this verse the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in words.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I will talk about the importance of Yin and Yang in daoku soon. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in daoku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  It means the writer should not “stand out.”  Daoku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of daoku is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives daoku another characteristic, which is a quality that is almost loneliness, but not quite — something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of daoku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse:

(Spring)

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience is a sense of time passing.  That is why in daoku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience in daoku is also why every verse is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of daoku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of daoku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every verse, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of writing.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really daoku and not some other kind of short verse.

Daoku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in daoku aesthetics is the overall subject matter, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing.  Even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write daoku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.

David

IS DAOKU OLD OR NEW?

 

Autumn begins;
The evening shower
Has become a night of rain.

That verse — loosely translated here — was originally written in the 18th century by Taigi.  It expresses the transition from the season of summer to that of autumn.

Some may wonder if daoku is an old or a new verse form.  The answer is that it is both.

It is old in that it is based on the best aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku that began to be seriously practiced in the latter half of the 17th century. 

It is new in that it is commonly written in English, though of course it may be written in other contemporary languages as well. 

It is also new in that it uses capitalization (which did not exist in old Japanese) and punctuation (which takes the place of the old “cutting words” used in Japanese hokku).

Daoku is new in that it replaces the old “season words” that made learning hokku so complex with a simple seasonal heading for each shared verse in parentheses —  like this: (Autumn).

And it is new in that it is based on real experiences of the five senses.  Many old Japanese hokku were written from the imagination, though they appear to be real experiences.  When those old hokku are used as models for learning daoku, they are treated as real experiences.

Some may wonder how daoku differs from that other widely-known form of contemporary short verse, the haiku.

Daoku differs from contemporary haiku in that daoku has a definite form and definite subject matter, and keeps the old connection with the seasons.  It also differs from most haiku written today in that daoku capitalizes the first letter of each line and uses punctuation both within and at the end of each daoku, while haiku often omits both, or may use only a perfunctory hyphen.

Daoku also differs from much contemporary haiku in that it is an objective, selfless, contemplative form of verse — not a verse for “self-expression.”  Daoku allows Nature to speak through the writer, rather than the writer giving personal opinions about or reflections on Nature.

In practice, daoku can be treated as a completely modern form of short verse in English and other contemporary languages, though of course its roots go back directly to the best aesthetics of the old hokku.  Because of that, it is generally far closer to the old hokku than modern haiku, which has taken quite a different direction in most cases.  It is so close that old objective hokku may be used in translation as models for learning daoku.  In the transition from the old Japanese hokku to the English language, daoku removed a great deal of unnecessary cultural baggage, which makes it a more universal form of verse.

That frees daoku to be completely of the place and language in which it is written.

And by the way, “daoku” is both the singular and the plural.  So we can say, “This daoku is….” or “Those daoku are ….”

DAOKU BASICS

Autumn begins;
The slow drip of rain
From every leaf
.

Daoku are experiences of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Daoku expresses real experiences of one or more of the five senses. Not fantasy. Not imagination.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.

It has two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The shorter part may come at the beginning or the end.

The two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation that gives us a brief meditative pause before moving from the first part to the second. The punctuation mark used determines how the reader moves through the verse.

Each line begins with a capital letter.

Each daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Daoku, unlike many other kinds of verse, is not “self-expression.” Instead, it expresses Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

When the writer gets out of the way, Nature can speak.

Daoku is a very selfless kind of poetry. It avoids the words “I,” “me” and “my” unless they are necessary to the context.

Daoku uses simple words, and is about ordinary things.

Because it is Nature-based, daoku avoids modern technology; there are no daoku about cell phones or televisions, etc.

Every daoku is set in a particular season and is to be read in that season. The exception is for study and teaching purposes, when hokku of any season may be used.

Daoku differs from modern haiku in that it has definite subject matter and a definite form and aesthetic.

Daoku expresses experiences in which we feel an indefinable significance.

Daoku are not assemblages of random things, but have a sense of unity and harmony.

When shared or anthologized, each daoku is headed by its season in parentheses. That keeps the seasonal context with each verse.

The basics of daoku are easily and quickly described. The aesthetics of hokku take longer, and are absorbed through the reading and contemplating of many daoku, so that one may grasp the spirit behind them as one develops personally.



SUMMER ENDS — AUTUMN BEGINS

Today — August 1st — is the very old holiday of Lammas, also known as Harvest Home.

By the old agricultural calendar, which is also the Hokku Calendar and consequently the Daoku Calendar — given that daoku is the objective category of contemporary hokku — Harvest Home is the beginning of autumn.

Because daoku is the verse of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, autumn is very significant. It is the time of things aging and withering. After the abundance of spring and summer, autumn is the decline of growth in Nature — the weakening of the vital forces. In terms of Yang and Yin — the active and passive, warm and cool, bright and dark elements of Nature — autumn is declining Yang and growing Yin.

In the day, autumn corresponds to mid-afternoon to twilight;
In human life, autumn corresponds to the stage of life past middle age — the time of “growing old.” It is in general the early to late “senior citizen” years.

The chief characteristic of autumn is impermanence — seeing that things age and wither, whether in Nature or in human life. In autumn that becomes very obvious in the flowers going to seed and withering, in the falling of the leaves, in the growing shortness of the day and increasing darkness, and in the increasing cooling of the air.

Because we are a part of Nature, when we see all this, we feel our own impermanence. It is like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall.” He tells the girl Margaret, who is sad over the golden grove loosing its leaves,

It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Impermanence — the transiency of things — is built into Nature, and we, being a part of Nature, are also impermanent. We see our aging in the withering of the flowers, in the falling of the leaves.

In most of Western verse we would find this expressed in a very subjective way in poetry. Poets write about their thoughts and feelings concerning autumn and its significance. In daoku that is not done.

Daoku is the objective side of hokku. It simply presents an experience and lets the reader experience it too, without the writer adding any thoughts or commentary or interpretation. In doing so, we get the feeling directly, without the writer standing between the reader and the experience.

In teaching daoku, I generally use very old hokku as models. So when I use such a verse (translated, of course), for the sake of convenience I will just speak of the verse as a daoku — an objective hokku.

Here is how Kyoroku showed the change of season:

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet 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  daoku.  We express all of Nature at that moment 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 a daoku.  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 daoku, 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. Notice that in Kyoroku’s verse, there are no added thoughts, no comments, and no ego. We experience what Kyoroku experienced, though through our own mental store of images and sensory impressions.

Here is a daoku I wrote at summer’s end a few years ago:

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

As you read it, do 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 daoku. I recently mentioned this quote from Natalie Babbitt’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

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.”

That sense of impermanence — of transience –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, everything changes, 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 MèreMy 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 is coming to 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 daoku.

A number of new readers have joined this site recently, so in discussing daoku this autumn, I will begin at the beginning with such basics as form and content, and then we will proceed deeper into the aesthetics of daoku as a brief, objective verse form. For many long-time readers here it will be a review — but this time with the emphasis specifically on daoku. And of course there will be other topics in postings to come.

BEGINNING AUTUMN, BEGINNING DAOKU

Well, my morning glory vine has begun blooming, and that is always a sign that summer is ending, and we are about to enter the downturn of the Wheel of the Year into the beginning of Autumn.

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As long-time readers here know, every year at this time I like to post a quote from Natalie Babbitt’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

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.”

By the Hokku Calendar, August 1st is the beginning of Autumn.  It is the old festival of Lammas — “Harvest Home.”  It is the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  And as I have written before, that does not mean the hot weather is over; it just means the Wheel of the Year has turned, and now the Yang energy — the active, warm energy — will increasingly wane as Yin energy — the passive and cool energy — grows, though the effects will likely not be really noticeable for about a month.  Except, of course, to those like me, who notice the signs of change in the plants and in the air.

Yesterday I talked about impermanence. Autumn is a season in which impermanence is clearly seen. So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to 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 and so also of that particular category called daoku, that is, objective hokku.

As I have mentioned before, to me daoku is hokku at its purest. It is free of commentary and opinion, free of ego and self-importance. So this autumn, I want to shift the focus of my ongoing discussion of hokku to that of daoku as its deepest expression. It is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, expressed with a spirit of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

LIVING IN A HOUSE AFIRE

It has been a hot, dry summer where I live. In a normally temperate region, we reached 116 degrees a few weeks back. It was hot enough to wither the buds and flowers and burn the leaves on plants. It was the first time in my life that I experienced such intense heat. It was the hottest weather ever recorded in my state.

Unfortunately, odd and dangerous weather events — both short and long term — are happening all over the world now. The whole southwestern part of the United States is drying out and experiencing ever-increasing water shortages. Forest fires are growing in number and extent. Glaciers are melting at shockingly rapid rates. Sea level is rising.

When one reads the scientific statistics, it is inevitable to conclude that our days are the last chance to make changes — and severe changes are needed — to protect life on this planet — human life included. Some predict that civilization could collapse within 20 years.

In short, humanity is on a fast ride to the abyss — and taking all of Nature along on the insane gallop.

One would think people would be concerned enough about their children and grandchildren — about the future of humanity — to rise up and demand change, and be willing to go through what is necessary to save the future for the young and the coming generations. But many seem lost in wilful ignorance — asserting that what is obvious to the rational is some kind of hoax, or that Jesus will come and save them (he won’t). And meanwhile, the planet is metaphorically and in many places literally on fire.

Here is the little alcove in my house:

On the right side is a lamp I found in a thrift store (what used to be called a “second-hand” store). In the center is a Buddha image — a symbol of transcendent wisdom. And at far left is a thin slab of rock with two fossil fish on it — a reminder of impermanence.

I don’t think people are sufficiently aware of impermanence — and what a delicate balance keeps human and other life on this earth possible.

When I was a small child, my “Weekly Reader” school newspaper was already warning about the need for population control. Scientists have been predicting the dangers of pollution and climate change for many, many years. And yet one would think from human behavior that none of these cautions had ever been made.

It is like the old parable of the children playing in a house aflame. They are so wrapped up in their play that getting them to notice the deadly fire is very difficult.

Well, all the signs are obvious. Humanity is headed for catastrophe — environmental disaster, loss of species, food shortages, water shortages, disease, suffering, and death. And yet humanity continues to play with its toys as the flames begin to engulf the house.

For a writer and teacher of hokku, this is not at all the kind of thing I want to blog about. And I certainly do not think my few words are going to have any effect on the course of things. Nonetheless, anyone writing a verse form based on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature cannot but speak out against what is happening to the climate and the planet.

As far as I can tell, nothing sufficient is being done by the governments of the world to stop this impending disaster. So perhaps this will be the last generation to experience something of Nature as we have known it in the past. Everything is now quickly changing, taking us headlong into calamity far faster than even scientists had anticipated. Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Well, we are witnessing it all beginning to go. And with it will go countless lives, human and non-human. A human-caused Great Extinction. All the result of greed and ignorance.

Impermanence.

David

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?

So while I am not averse to gender-neutral pronouns and can see their benefits in certain cases, I find the use of “they/them” to describe a third person of uncertain or indeterminate gender highly inadequate and often very confusing. That is because in English usage, “they/them” are commonly used to indicate a plural — two or more persons. “They/their/them” may however have a single-person usage in cases where the subject is of uncertain gender, for example:

“Whoever picks the flowers from my garden should stop. They should know better.” In that case, the subject is unknown. It might be a male; it might be a female; it might even be more than one person and more than one gender. But the critical point here is that the person is either unknown or the speaker is using the plural pronoun in a general sense, or both.

If, on the other hand, the speaker knows the identity of the person who picks the flowers, the speaker will refer to the person by that name: “John picks my flowers and he should stop. He should know better.”

It is completely illogical, however, to say of a non-gendered person, “Evelyn should stop picking my flowers; they should know better.”

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.

BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

GIJŌEN’S CICADA

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.

Not a very cheerful hokku — but there it is.

David

CHERRY BLOSSOMS AND GREEN LEAVES

An early summer hokku by Dempuku:

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.

David