SPRING SNOW

A spring hokku by Charai:

Plum blossoms —
Even though the snow is falling,
Still blooming.

Ume no hana   yuki ga furite mo   saki ni keri
Plum  ‘s  flowers  snow ga falling too  blooming at keri

 

David

THE PENGUIN BOOK OF HAIKU

Two years ago (2018), Penguin Classics came out with an anthology titled The Penguin Book of Haiku.  One might have thought it would include all kinds of undiscovered treasures of old hokku, but that turned out not be be true.  Instead, the best part of the book was its rather iconoclastic introduction, which dispassionately cuts away many of the fantasies associated with the history of the hokku — out of which “haiku” had its beginnings near the end of the 19th century.

The author — Adam L. Kern — has many sensible things to say about what he calls haiku, for example:

“Accordingly, Bashō, the first of the Four Grandmasters of Haiku, the poetic genius who single-handedly elevated boneheaded wordplay to bona fide art form called haiku, the undisputed patron saint of haiku, never, strictly speaking, wrote a single haiku in his life.  How could he have, when the haiku dates only to circa 1894, two centuries after the man’s death in 1694?”

Now as readers here know, I have been saying for decades that Bashō did not call what he wrote “haiku.”

Somewhat confusingly, however, though in the text Kern makes clear that the old hokku and the later haiku are not the same thing, he goes on to oddly distinguish them in the text by anachronistically italicizing the earlier verse form as haiku, leaving the later category initiated by Shiki un-italicized as haiku.  He differentiates them like this:

Haiku:

“… derives from an eclectic variety of collaboratively authored witty linked-verse practices that flourished primarily during Japan’s premodern Edo period (1600-1868) and into the modern Meiji (1868-1912).”

Haiku:

” … Indeed the haiku, far from being traditional, existing long ago and continuing to the present day in the same unadulterated form, is traditionalist, claiming the authority of tradition though actually brought into existence in the mid 1890s.  This is hardly ancient by Western standards, let alone Japanese.”

As for the connection with Zen, he writes:

“Haiku is assuredly not Zen poetry.  And contrary to popular belief, Bashō was no Zen master.  That he shaved his head and donned priestly garb was equivalent, during his lifetime, to wearing a beret to signify one’s status as an artiste.”

Well, that is both true and not true.  While one certainly cannot legitimately say that all writers of the hokku (and certainly not the later haiku) were Zen Buddhists, one can legitimately say that the best of old hokku were permeated by the Zen aesthetic that also strongly influenced the other Japanese arts, among them tea, calligraphy, painting, and Noh.  And of course Japanese culture in general was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in some form — and Zen is Mahayana (the “Northern” category of Buddhism in contrast to the “Southern” or Theravada).

In short, aside from terminology, there is much in the book’s introduction to recommend for those interested in the history of hokku and of the origins of the later haiku.  The problem arises when one goes beyond the introduction into the book itself, which turns out to be a surprisingly (and disappointingly) varied collection of many kinds of brief verse, all of which the author has chosen to throw together under the wide umbrella classification “haiku.”

Now to be fair, the author gives an advance warning of this in the introduction:

“And so two caveats.  First, readers of this volume expecting the haiku, or even merely a premodern equivalent, might be in for a shock.  Given the silly, satirical, scatological and sensual content of many verses, traditionalists in particular may well be scandalized, fearing that a Trojan horse has been smuggled into the Holy Citadel of Haiku.”

This is a legitimate caution to readers that what they are about to encounter is not going to be what they expect.  Instead, one finds a small number of  hokku of quality scattered amid a much larger collection that abundantly includes what the author describes as “‘dirty sexy’ haiku.” — indeed, a mixture of forms, including linked verses, senryu, etc — all dumped into the same laundry bag.  While one cannot claim not to have been forewarned in the introduction, by the time one gets to page XXVI, where this revelation is made, it is already too late — the reader will already own the book, unless — as I did — it is borrowed from a library.

Then there is the matter of translation.  Leaving the question of the author’s choices regarding omission of capitalization and often punctuation, the verses of diverse kinds vary in translation from the quite literal to the sometimes confusingly interpretive.

An example from Buson:

bursting open
disgorging its rainbow:
peony dynamo!

The problem is in the last line.  Buson died in 1784.  “Dynamo,” whether used of a machine or figuratively of a human, is an English term that came into use in the 1880s for the former, the 1890s for the latter.  It is anachronistic and inappropriate here, in spite of Kern’s interpretive intent.  He should have been satisfied with simply

Bursting open,
Disgorging a rainbow —
The peony.

Almost a literary crime is Kern’s translation of Hashin’s winter hokku as:

heaven and earth:
neither exists apart from
Snow fluttering down.

While the original says simply,
Ten mo chi mo   nashi tada yuki no furishikiri
Sky too earth too are-not  only snow ‘s ceaselessly-falling

Literally,

No sky nor earth —
Only snow
Endlessly falling.

Another example — Buson’s

a line of geese!
and upon the mountain crest
the moon as impress.

As a translation it is aesthetically disappointing.  To the author’s credit, however, is the explanation he gives in the verse commentaries that follow the anthology, which in the case of this verse is quite good:

“An imaginative visual double take [mitate] of an ostensibly observed natural scene as though it were an inkwash landscape painting with some kind of inscribed haiku, perhaps, replete with the artist’s round seal (insu), emphasized by an extra syllabet.  Buson has charmingly taken to its logical extreme the classic poetic trope likening a column of wild geese to a vertical line of calligraphy, as with the following waka by Tsumori no Kunimoto (c.1023-1102): ‘how they resemble / the lines of a letter / written in light greys — / those geese returning homeward / through darkening skies ….'”

Readers are likely to be mystified by the bizarre arrangement of the verses, which mixes the four seasons in a manner the author thought, it appears, indicative of the “collaborative flow” of old linked verse.  It was a serious error that completely neglects the significance of the season and is not at all helpful.

In summation, my view is that paradoxically, the best parts of The Penguin Book of Haiku are first, the introduction, and second, the commentary following the verse collection.  The anthology itself, lying in the bulk of remaining pages, is extremely trying for readers, as one searches among the multitude of trivial and pornographic entries for quality verses rising above that low level.  Consequently, the book is likely to be of interest primarily to those who want an overview of all the various kinds of brief verse (briefer than waka) written in old Japan, from the pornographic and erotic, the satirical and the humorous, to the fewer hokku of quality included in this multifarious and — I think for most readers — disappointing and regrettable mixture.  While one may understand the author’s purpose in using such a collection to puncture romanticized notions about old Japanese verse, that does not lessen the unsatisfying and inconvenient nature of the anthology.

On leafing through it, I could not help being reminded what an excellent job of selection R. H. Blyth did in his four Haiku volumes and two History of Haiku volumes — which together still offer the reader the finest anthology of the best of old hokku available to date — though these books have paradoxically now been out of print for several years.

 

David

SOMETIMES IT’S DAOKU, SOMETIMES IT’S NOT

In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku.  In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content.  Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.

Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:

宿の春   何もなきこそ   何もあれ
Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso   nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is

Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:

My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.

Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.

Blyth translates it as:

In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!

This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse.  It shows us the “thinking” of the writer.  There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing.  It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.

That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”

We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:

燭の火を   燭にうつすや   春の夕
Shoku no hi wo    shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo  candle at copy ya   spring ‘s evening

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other.  It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.”  It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words.  In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.

Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.”  That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.

 

David

 

David

AT EVERY DOOR

In daoku we do not often use the hokku of Issa as models because he tended to subjectivity in his verses, while daoku prefer objectivity.  Occasionally, however, we find a hokku by him that can be used, for example this one:

(Spring)

門々の  下駄の泥より   春立ちぬ
Kado kado no   geta no doro yori    haru tachinu
Gate -gate ‘s     geta  ‘s   mud from  spring risen-has

We may put this into English as:

At every gate,
Spring has begun
With the mud on the geta.

Geta (下駄) are the wooden “platform” sandals worn in traditional Japan.

Now obviously this hokku is too specific to old Japanese culture to use as a daoku model, but we can do so if we make it more “Western,” like this:

At every door,
Spring begins
With the mud on the shoes.

In that verse we see the beginning of spring in the mud on the shoes people have left outside their doors.  The mud is a sign of the arrival of spring, because it appears when the snow and frost of winter have receded.

Again, this is a hokku of growing yang (warmth) and diminishing yin (cold) seen in the wet mud on the shoes.  The season of spring is growing yang as yin diminishes.

David

BEGINNING DAOKU THROUGH HOKKU

As a reader here perceptively remarked, “All daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”  Today we will begin a look — via old hokku — at just what daoku is.  Because it originated in Japanese hokku of a certain kind, we can easily use relevant old hokku translated into the English-language daoku form as daoku examples.

First — like hokku in general — each daoku is set in the context of one of the four seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words to put a verse in its context, but the system became very complicated and unwieldy over time, requiring years to master.  In daoku we simply head each verse with the season in which it is written.  Daoku are never written out of season.  One does not write a spring verse in autumn, or a winter verse in summer.  The season heading is placed in parentheses above the daoku, like this:

(Spring)

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

Now it may seem redundant to have the heading (Spring) above a verse that has the word “spring” in it, but it saves a lot of confusion when a group of hokku of the same season are grouped together, because many daoku will not have the season mentioned in the verse.  When presenting several daoku of the same season together, the season heading is placed only above the first verse in the sequence.

Let’s examine the form:

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

Each line begins with a capital letter.

The daoku is in two parts, a shorter part and a longer part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.  In the case of this verse, the separating mark is the semicolon at the end of the first line.  The comma at the end of the second line is there to guide the reader easily through the verse.

The verse also ends with an appropriate punctuation mark — in this case, a period.

The invariable punctuation marks in a daoku are the separating mark and the ending mark, though of course the kind of punctuation marks used may vary.

Daoku is written in three brief lines.  Usually they total only between about seven to thirteen words. The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.  The daoku above contains only ten words, which falls easily within the normal range.

There are several characteristics of daoku.  Prominent among them are these:

Poverty
Simplicity
Selflessness
Transience

Poverty in daoku is the opposite of materialism.  It means being satisfied with little instead of much, both in writing and in life.  It is a kind of minimalism.  It avoids the grand and flamboyant. We find povery not only in the aesthetics of hokku, but also in its minimal use of words, while retaining normal grammar.

Simplicity means that daoku deal with ordinary things in ordinary words.  The difference is that daoku is at its best when dealing with ordinary things seen in a new or different way.

Selflessness means that in daoku, it is the verse — or rather what it conveys — that is important, not the writer.  The writer in daoku should be invisible, so that the reader may become the experiencer.  We say the writer gets out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That is why use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” is kept to a minimum in daoku, and avoided when it is not awkward to do so.  Writers of daoku do not think of themselves as “poets” writing “poetry.”  Instead, the writer of daoku becomes a clear mirror reflecting Nature, just as a still pond clearly reflects the moon.

Transience — which we may also call impermanence — means that daoku as a whole have an underlying sense of the constant change in Nature — that things do not last, but are in a continual state of transformation.  Dawn appears only to become noon, then night; frost appears only to melt and disappear.  Leaves grow only to mature and wither.

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

I like to use this verse at the beginning of spring (according to the old hokku calendar, which is also the daoku calendar) because it so clearly expresses the time when the cold (yin) of winter lingers, but the warmth (yang) of spring is growing.  We see the former in the frost on the leaves, and the latter in the young leaves themselves.  Further, growing warmth and light (yang) are reflected in the dawn.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring. Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day. So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring. Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness. But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the “diminishing yin” seen in the temporary morning frost on the leaf of the barley. This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature. Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

曙や   麦の葉末の   春の霜

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no    haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

In the original by Onitsura, the word translated here as “barley” — mugi (in kanji, むぎ in hiragana) can also mean wheat, oats, etc. — it is a general term for grain crops.

If any readers here have questions about the nature or techniques of daoku, please ask, now that spring is again beginning.  Unlike other forms of brief verse that have grown out of or been inspired by hokku, daoku has specific standards, principles, and aesthetics.  It is more challenging to learn, but also — for those who find it speaks to their condition, more rewarding.

 

David

AN END TO THE “HAIKU WARS”

Perhaps it has occurred to some of you that by introducing daoku as a Western form of brief verse in the aesthetic tradition of old objective hokku, we have eliminated a great deal of bother and needless controversy.

In presenting it as a verse form with its own fixed form and aesthetics, no room is left for the bickering and ongoing controversies that so marred the discussions of hokku and haiku from the mid 20th century onward.  One may argue about hokku and haiku and the appropriate terminology and aesthetics for these, but daoku — as a modern verse form in the tradition of old Japanese objective hokku — is what it is, and there is nothing to argue about.  What a sense of relief and peace!

If someone asks us what we write and practice, we can just reply, “Daoku, based on the aesthetic tradition of old Japanese objective hokku.”  If someone asks us if it is just like old hokku, we can say, “No — it is based on essence of the best of the old objective hokku aesthetics that developed out of the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, but being written in English, it has its own definite form and standards and aesthetics.”

Daoku remains so close to old Japanese objective hokku in its aesthetics that we can use many of those old hokku — translated into modern English daoku form — to teach it.  That enables us to honestly say that daoku continues the aesthetics of the best of that old tradition in our modern world.

Further, daoku takes us completely out of the ongoing “haiku wars” that began in print in the mid 20th century and continue on into our times on the Internet.  Because daoku has fixed form and aesthetic standards, there is no need to argue with others over the form and aesthetics of modern haiku or old hokku.  All may write whatever kinds of verse they prefer, whether some category of old hokku, or some variation of modern haiku — or, as we do — the now clearly defined modern verse form daoku.  No argument over terminology is needed any longer.

I will continue to use the term hokku to describe the old Japanese verse form, because that is not only its original name as used for centuries, but it is also the correct modern academic term.  When discussing modern haiku (which I may on occasion need to do), that terminology will refer to the variations of brief verse that were loosely inspired in the 20th century by the old hokku, continuing into the present.  When describing the kind of verse that gave rise to the aesthetics of daoku, I will likely refer to it as “old Japanese objective hokku.”  I may sometimes loosely refer to individual old Japanese objective hokku — when they fit daoku standards — as “daoku,” but only with the understanding that this is only a convenient aesthetic descriptor, not the original name.

It should gradually become clear through all of this that theoretically, one could read and write daoku with no reference to its roots in the old Japanese hokku at all.  No need to know anything of Japanese hokku and its history and aesthetics, as long as the definite aesthetic standards of daoku itself are maintained.  There is, however, no need to do that, and old objective Japanese hokku are very helpful in learning the aesthetics and spirit proper to daoku, when translated into the daoku form.

In my view, daoku is a very practical and appropriate way to continue the old objective hokku tradition in our modern world.  As the best of that old objective hokku tradition stripped to its essentials, it leaves aside the great weight of baggage that has accumulated around hokku and haiku over the centuries and more specifically in the West, from the mid 20th century onward.  It enables a fresh, new beginning, very appropriate to the coming of spring in just a few days from now.

If daoku speaks to your condition, it is there for you.  And if you prefer following another path, everyone is free to choose.  In any case, those who decide to learn and practice daoku can now happily say goodbye to the ongoing arguments and animosity of the “haiku wars.”

 

David

 

DAOKU IS THE SEED OF POETRY

Daoku — once one understands the form and aesthetics — is really very simple.

First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of daoku:  romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language daoku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the daoku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, daoku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience rather than ideas or opinions about them.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing and cleverness — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of daoku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the overall oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  That sense of unity is very important.  Everything in a daoku should be related, instead of just being a random assemblage of things.  Without that aesthetic, daoku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your daoku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Daoku is in the objective hokku aesthetic tradition.  Let’s look at an objective hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English daoku form:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer) and has that season as its heading.  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), a season heading is added in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern daoku are shared.  Not all old hokku contain the season name, and it is important in reading both them and modern daoku to know the season.  In modern daoku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.  The season of a daoku should always go with it when it is shared with others or published.

Though daoku may be used out of season when teaching, ordinarily a daoku should be written and read in its appropriate season, rather than in another.  That give us a greater sense of unity — of being in harmony with the season.

So you see, writing daoku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to it, because people are so accustomed to verses that either tell a story, or express what we think about something, or comment on things, or are all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good daoku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  objective hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is daoku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in daoku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.

We do not describe daoku as poetry, because the verse itself is not poetry.  With daoku, the poetry is the deep feeling the reader gets on reading it.  The daoku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.  So the poetry of daoku is not on the page; it is in the mind.

 

David

THE DAOKU FORM

Daoku in English has very definite standards and principles, and these extend even to the appearance of a verse on the page, specifically to lineation, capitalization, and punctuation.

An English-language daoku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts, a longer and a shorter.
The two parts of daoku are separated by appropriate punctuation.
The daoku ends with appropriate punctuation.

When shared, each daoku is given an appropriate seasonal heading, whether spring, summer, fall/autumn or winter.  This heading is commonly placed in parentheses.

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of  daoku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In daoku, everyone follows the same form.  That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth.  But equally important, it gives no occasion to  bickering over form.  It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in daoku.  We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Now regarding punctuation, its great virtue is that it guides the reader through the daoku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion.  It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a daoku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate daoku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause.  It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a daoku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The summer wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause, in cases such as

The summer wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The summer wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in daoku is never answered:

The summer wind?

The exclamation mark is seldom used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A summer wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause.  It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the summer wind,

A daoku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

In length, a daoku is usually between seven and thirteen words.  The important thing is to keep it brief, and without unnecessary padding.

This flexibility is very important to English language daoku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid.  The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in daoku we use just a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.

That is daoku form in a nutshell.

There is thus nothing peculiar about the appearance of daoku in English.  It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation.  And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a daoku visually, it is only the content that will make a real daoku.

David

DAOKU — THE KIND OF HOKKU I TEACH

As I have said before, when I began teaching hokku — using that term –on the Internet — most people did not even know what the word meant.  They were accustomed to the anachronistic term “haiku,” which they retroactively applied to the short verses of Onitsura, Bashō, and all the rest — even though that was not what those writers called them.

The reason I revived the term hokku for my use in teaching was not only that it was the original name of the verse form, but also it became quite obvious that it was very important to distinguish it from what modern haiku had become.  Though modern haiku was loosely inspired by the old hokku — largely as a misperception and misunderstanding of it — in general it no longer reflected (nor does it today) the aesthetic values of hokku.

Today, hokku and haiku are two often widely divergent verse forms.  My preference is for the hokku, while those who want a less challenging form may prefer modern haiku.

Now that we are about to enter spring — the time of new beginnings — it is also time for me to make yet another distinction.  As readers here know, I have always favored hokku that reflect the traditional aesthetics hokku developed due to its roots in Buddhism — specifically Zen, which had a deep effect on Japanese culture — and in Daoism.  Those origins gave hokku its specific character — its appreciation of Nature and the changing seasons, its sense of the transience of all things, as well as its selflessness and simplicity.

Old Japanese hokku did not always live up to those qualities.  Mixed in among what to me were the best hokku, there were also a great number of hokku that displayed varying degrees of subjectivity.  Subjectivity in hokku is adding the thoughts, opinions, comments, cleverness, intellection (“thinking”) and self of the writer.  While subjective hokku may be interesting — or even quite good — as poetry, they cannot go beyond that.  They leave an emphasis on the writer as “poet” and on what is written as “poetry.”

By contrast, in my view the unique contribution of the best of old hokku was its objectivity — presenting an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature directly, without “thinking” or cleverness or the writer getting in the way.  It does not convey an experience through ideas, but rather through sensory experience — seeing, tasting touching smelling, and hearing.

What all this comes down to is that we may divide old hokku (and even modern hokku, to some extent) into subjective and objective verses.  Subjective verses are more like what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, though of course considerably briefer.  Objective hokku, however, are often quite unlike the bulk of Western poetry, though fragments of objectivity may be found within it, here and there.

To me, objective hokku were the best the old hokku had to offer, and that is what I like to teach.  The term by itself, however, may be subject to some misunderstanding, because what is objective hokku to me — which of course includes Nature and the seasons as its foundation — may not be what others think of when hearing that term.

That is why — some time ago — I first introduced the word daoku for the kind of hokku I teach.  The word is a combination of the Chinese dao — meaning “way” — the way of Nature, the way of the universe — a way of being in harmony — and the Japanese term ku, meaning “verse,” though it was borrowed from China and originally meant “song.”  That gives us daoku — which we may think of as the verse of harmony with Nature.

Because it is a newly-coined term, it can be given a very specific meaning, and that meaning is basically what I have been teaching all along as hokku — more specifically objective hokku — and now very specifically as daoku.  I think the use of this term — when supplied with a more complete definition — will prevent much misunderstanding as to precisely what I am talking about when I discuss the aesthetics, principles, standards, techniques and practice of hokku — the kind of hokku I prefer and teach.

Consequently, in future postings here, you will read less about hokku (though of course the term will still be used when appropriate) and much more about daoku — the particular form of objective hokku that to me exemplifies the greatest contribution old hokku made to the world.  So when  you see me referring to this or that verse of an old Japanese hokku writer as daoku, you will know that I am referring to a particular kind of largely Nature, season, and sense-based hokku.  Yes, it is still hokku, but the use of the new terminology will enable me (and you as well, should you choose to adopt the term) to be very specific and clear as to precisely the kind of verse I teach, very clearly distinguishing it from all other kinds of objective hokku and hokku in general.

Expect more on the principles and practice of daoku as we enter spring (according to the old calendar) with Candlemas and the beginning of February.  For long-time readers here, it will look very familiar as what I have long taught as simply “hokku” but now finer distinctions will be possible, and should lead to greater clarity in understanding.

 

David

HOKKU IS NOT WRITING “POETRY”

A major difference between the kind of hokku I teach and the verses of modern haiku lies in a fundamental divergence in what one considers the verse form to be.  In modern haiku, verses written are considered “poetry,” and the writers “poets.”

Now this brings with it all kinds of cultural and literary baggage, because writing “poetry” puts the emphasis on the writer as well as on the cleverness of what is written.  That is a long-standing tradition in Western poetry, and it is precisely why — in my view — so many people never gain an understanding of hokku.  At its best, hokku is something quite different than “poetry.”  It is a momentary experience of the fundamental unity of humans and Nature.

If one is to experience that unity, then Nature must be allowed to speak through the writer — instead of the writer manipulating Nature in words — or even manipulating words while ignoring Nature entirely, which is often the case now with modern haiku.

If one regards hokku as poetry created by a poet, then an obstacle is put in place preventing a direct experience of Nature.  In writing hokku, ideally the writer should disappear, so that the reader may become one with the experience, with no poet or poetic cleverness getting between the reader and the experience.

To do that, a writer of hokku must — at least momentarily — become selfless; by doing so, all that remains is the experience, without poetic ornamentation, without cleverness:

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is pure experience.  In it, there is no overt poetry.  The poetry is in the experience — beyond the words.  When it is read, there is no “poet,” no “poetry” — just

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is the selflessness of hokku, with the writer disappearing so that Nature may speak.

 

David

 

AVOID “CLEVERNESS” IN HOKKU

Many people are confused about just what hokku is because historically, it has differing levels with different qualities.

Hokku originated as the first verse of a kind of communal poetry game, so it is not suprising that there are many old hokku on a low quality level.  There is for example, the verse of Moritake:

落花枝にかへると見れば胡蝶哉 守武

Rak-ka eda ni kaeru to mireba kochō kana

A fallen flower
Returning to the branch?
Looking — a butterfly!

This is just a clever twist on an old comment by the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) teacher Baoji Xiujing, that became a Japanese folk saying:

Rakka eda ni kaerazu, hakyou futatabi terasazu
The fallen blossom doesn’t return to the branch; a broken mirror will not illuminate again.

And Sōkan wrote:

Tsuki ni e wo sashitaraba yoki uchiwa kana

If to the moon
A handle were attached —
What a good fan!

Now we may think this sort of “cleverness” in hokku went out with Bashō, but that did not at all happen.  In fact in the 1700s, Buson wrote this autumn verse:

Ichi gyō    no kari hayama ni   tsuki wo insu
One line   ‘s    wild-geese  foothills at  moon
wo seal

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

Ichi gyō/ichigyō(一 )– “one line” calls to mind the vertically-written, single-line sayings — ichigyō mono –particularly Zen sayings — that were often painted on wall scrolls.

Though superior as poetry, Buson’s “line of wild geese” verse is very much like Sōkan’s verse.  Where Sōkan added a handle to the moon and made an uchiwa (a kind of roundish fan), Buson has turned a line of wild geese flying in the sky into a line of calligraphy, and has turned the moon above the foothills into a painter’s round signature seal to complete the scroll.  Both have used “cleverness” of imagination to make something in Nature into something made by humans.

Now one may find such verses interesting as a form of poetry because of their “cleverness,” but cleverness is not really a part of the best hokku.  In good hokku, geese are geese, not a line of calligraphy; the moon is the moon, not a fan or a seal on a painting.  In good hokku Nature is allowed to be what it is, undistorted by the cleverness of the writer.

Gakoku wrote (my loose translation) this spring verse:

Kasumi yori tokidoki amaru hokake-bune

Out of the mist
From time to time —
A sail appears.

In that, the mist is mist, the boat sail that appears now and then above the mist is a sail.  Each is what it is, nothing is made into or imagined to be or symbolizes something else.  Hokku at its best should not exhibit human cleverness, but rather should be a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature.

 

David

 

THE FOUNDATIONS OF HOKKU

In only about eleven days, we shall be at Candlemas (February 1/2) — the traditional beginning of spring in the hokku calendar.  In the intervening days, I would like to review the aesthetic foundations of hokku.

It has been common to say that hokku came out of Zen, but people often do not understand what that means.  Historically, Zen is a form of Buddhism that grew out of the encounter in China of Buddhism with Daoism.  It tends to asceticism and simplicity of life, along with a sense of the intimate relationship between humans and Nature — in fact humans are a part of Nature — and so in a sense are Nature — not separate.

But what does Zen in hokku mean?  R. H. Blyth put it very simply and well:

…it is 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.

So if you want a definition of Zen in hokku, that is it.  We are all a part of Nature — of the universe — and yet we are not separate from it.  We are ourselves, and yet we are the universe.

A great deal of misunderstanding arose in the West in the 20th century through the confusing of hokku with poetry.  By “poetry” here is meant the standards and perspectives of literary poetry as it developed in the West — and for us English speakers, it means specifically the cultural viewpoint as to what is and is not “poetry.”  The problem here was that when hokku came West as “Japanese poetry,” people assumed that it was just a shorter and simpler but exotic-looking version of English-language poetry.  They interpreted it in terms of what they already knew, instead of looking at it with fresh eyes and seeing how really different from Western poetry it is.  Some of the early translators of hokku even rendered it in rhyme, which is quite alien to hokku, but again reflects the Western errors in perceiving it in terms of one aspect of Western poetry.

Because the interest in hokku — though presented under the anachronistic name “haiku” — really grew in the latter half of the 20th century, many applied to it characteristics of experimental 20th century poetry such as that of E. E. Cummings, which led to Westerners writing what they now called “haiku” with minimal or no punctuation or capitalization, and often a lack of common grammar.

Now you know why I do not refer to the verse form hokku as poetry.  It is not at all what we in the West have been conditioned to think of as poetry, and the sooner that is learned, the sooner one can progress in understanding it.

One of the common characteristics of traditional Western poetry is lyricism, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the beautiful expression of personal thoughts and feelings in writing or music.”  Hokku avoids lyricism.

Hokku also avoids mind-coloring — the imposition of our personal interpretations and imagining and commentary — again something common in Western poetry.

Hand in hand with mind-coloring is intellectualism — using “thinking” in place of sensory perception — saying what one thinks or reasons about a thing or event instead of just letting it be what it is.  That too is common in Western poetry, but is avoided in hokku.  In hokku we do not interpret Nature or go off on flights of fancy about it.  We just present it as it is.

Symbolism and metaphor and simile are also very common in Western poetry, but are absent in the best of hokku.  That again is part of letting things be what they are, without interpreting or manipulating them for “poetic” ends.

The poetry in hokku is not in the form or the words, but rather is found, as Blyth wrote, in “a representation in words of the real world,”  of Nature as it is, and humans as a part of that, not separate.

Hokku takes us out of the constant chatter of our thinking minds into the real world of things — of rain falling on cedars, of water rushing around stones in a stream, of blossoms opening and blossoms falling, and the harsh cry of a crow.

Hokku records moments in time  — experiences of Nature and the seasons — that are felt to have a particular significance, and it is presenting those in all their simplicity and directness that characterizes hokku and makes it different from all other kinds of verse.  The poetry of hokku is in each individual moment of significance, and not in the outward form of the verse on the page or in its words.  The words are only a finger pointing to the poetic experience — the unspoken significance — beyond them.

See how very different this winter hokku is from Western poetry:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

In it, we feel the winter and the cold and the silence of night broken by the bursting jug.  It gives us a particular poetic feeling of the moment and the season and our place as a part of it.  We hear it and feel it — simple sensory perception, without analysis or any of the frills of elaboration or commentary.  It puts us in a particular state of mind that is not separate from the cold or the bursting water jug.  We become the event — the experience.  That is the great virtue of hokku, and what gives it its power and particular worth and distinction among literary forms.

Hokku does not aim for beauty, but rather for that feeling of significance, that sense of the unity of things.  There is a beauty in hokku, but it is not conventional — and it is a kind of humble beauty that is sensed behind and with the unspoken significance of a hokku experience.  As Blyth wrote, “The real nature of each thing, and more so, of all things, is a poetical one.”

Originally, and often due to the nature of the language, Japanese hokku were sometimes rather vague, giving rise to different interpretations of the same verse.  It could happen that one had to guess at what the writer meant, and guesses differed.  This was one of the faults of old hokku in my view, because it did not enable the reader to have a clear and strong experience of the hokku event.  In English-language hokku this is no longer such a problem, because English enables one to be more definite in writing.  Nonetheless, each person will experience a hokku in a slightly different way, because we all have a different personal memory of things and experiences.  When, for example, we read

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

— we will each see a different pond, a different frog, hear a different plop — but the essence remains the same.  In hokku, one old pond is all old ponds, one frog is all frogs, one “plop!” is all “plops.”

In my view, it is very unfortunate that hokku was so misunderstood and misinterpreted when it was introduced to the West.  Those misperceptions gave rise to the modern “haiku” movement, but hokku itself was very nearly completely lost in the process.  It was so far abandoned that until very recently, many people had no idea that the verses of Bashō, Taigi, Onitsura and all the rest were originally called hokku, not “haiku.”  In fact, when I began telling people on the Internet that many years ago, they simply did not believe me.  Now the term hokku is making a comeback, but is still greatly misunderstood and underestimated.  For many years now, I have been trying to remedy this by returning to the basic traditions of the old hokku, presenting its aesthetic essence — based on the best of the old tradition — but in English language form.

I often begin by telling people that hokku and “haiku” are not the same.  Since the term “haiku” began to be retroactively applied to the hokku — something that was a gradual development in Japan around the beginning of the 20th century — it has only been the cause of great confusion and misunderstanding as hokku and “haiku” have diverged ever more widely over the decades.  Today, in their principles and aesthetics — hokku and “haiku” really have become in general two very different things.  Hokku is still based on the essence of the aesthetic traditions of the old hokku, its foundation in Nature and humans as a part of Nature, within the context of the seasons.  “Haiku” by contrast has become whatever one wishes to be, with its standards left up to the individual writers.  That has made it very popular, because with no common standards, it is very easy to write a verse and call it “haiku.”

Hokku, however, is more challenging.  It requires not only a knowledge of its English-language form and techniques, but also an understanding and appreciation of its fundamental aesthetics, which are often very different than those in the modern “haiku” community.  Unlike “haiku,” hokku is not and should not be simply a hobby or pastime — it should be a way of life.

From my perspective, if you want instant gratification, write “haiku.”  But if you want something deeper and more spiritual, then it is likely hokku will, as the Quakers put it, “speak to your condition.”

 

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPLITTING MELONS

An old verse — not really a hokku in spirit, but more just an admonition — by Bashō is sometimes cited by modern haiku enthusiasts.  They generally understand it to mean that one should not write using the same aesthetics as old Japanese hokku — but must be rebellious and iconoclastic and avant-garde in writing verses — forgetting about Nature as subject matter, forgetting about a connection with the season, forgetting about what is appropriate and what is not for a hokku to be a hokku.

Well, in my view that is not at all what Bashō meant.

The circumstances of this verse were that a young merchant of medicines  — in short a businessman — had come from Ōsaka to request admission to Bashō’s school of hokku.   One of the characteristics of Japan in Bashō’s day was the rise of the merchant class, and their desire to “get some culture” by learning how to write haikai — the linked verse form in which the hokku was the opening verse.

In accepting him, Bashō gave him this admonitory verse, which as you can see has none of the characteristics of good hokku.  It was to serve a different purpose — the advice of a teacher to a new student:

Here it is in transliterated Japanese:

ware ni niru na
futatsu ni ware shi
makuwauri

Very literally, it says:

Me resemble not;
Two into cut
Korean melon

The Korean or Chinese or “Oriental” melon (Cucumis melo) is a kind of muskmelon with light greenish flesh, very watery and not nearly as sweet as the muskmelons common in the United States.  But is not the kind of melon that is important here, just the fact that when cut in half, the two sides look just the same, like twins.

Now what Bashō meant by this — in my view — was certainly not that one should stop using the standard hokku form, or that one should disconnect hokku from Nature and the seasons.  We can see that historically he never advocated that, which is why these were common characteristics of hokku even into the time of Masaoka Shiki around the beginning of the 20th century.  Instead, Bāsho meant that one should not slavishly copy his writing “style,” or even imitate his particular life — because his new student was a “city businessman” and Bashō was an itinerant teacher of haikai, dependent on income from his students and well-wishers for his livelihood.  If one were to just be an imitation of Bashō, it would be difficult to write verses that were fresh and new.  And keep in mind that Bashō is talking here about the whole practice of writing linked verse — not just about the independent hokku.

In fact just what Bashō advised against in this verse actually happened over the years.  People began to regurgitate and copy and repeat the same kinds of linked verse and hokku over and over again, without fresh inspiration.  They became somewhat like those in our time who learn some simplistic landscape painting techniques on television, and then go on to paint new imaginary landscapes in the same simplistic manner, remaining in their houses and never actually going out into Nature to learn from it.  That repetitive imitation led to a severe decline in quality of hokku that became very evident in the 19th century, a decline that was a major factor in Shiki’s attempt to renew hokku (and simultaneously eliminate haikai) — though as we can see, his re-packaging of hokku as “haiku” and his addition of some unwise notions led ultimately to its further destruction.

In any case, Bashō was not telling his new student to wildly go off on his own course by drastically changing hokku (what, then, would have been the purpose of studying under Bashō?), but rather he was telling him not to just imitate the style and phrasing of his teacher — but to let his own style develop naturally, through living his own life and absorbing his own inspiration — something that could not happen through imitation only.

Now it is often normal both in writing and in the arts of painting, architecture, pottery, music etc. that a student will begin by imitating the style of an admired teacher, but one can generally easily see when someone is merely being imitative.  However, as one grows in ability and understanding, one will naturally begin to exhibit what one has learned, by assimilating it and expressing it through one’s own nature and inspiration.  That was what Bashō was aiming for.

There is, by the way, an odd translation of Basho’s admonitory verse that is spread all over the Internet lately:  it is by Robert Hass, presented this way:

Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.

But what Bashō actually said was more like this (and yes, it is just a teaching maxim and has no value as a hokku):

Don’t resemble me;
A melon cut
Into two halves.

Well, as you can see from the literal translation given earlier, the Hass version is not a translation so much as an interpretation.  Bashō says nothing about being “as boring” as the two halves of a melon.  Instead he just implies by saying “Don’t resemble me,” and adding “A melon cut into two halves,” that as a student learns, his writing and that of the teacher should not be just the same — which of course is the only way a student can really progress beyond the stage of imitation.

So in short, what Bashō was telling his student was this:  As you learn, don’t try to be just the same as me in your writing or in your life.  I will be me.  You be you.

 

David

 

AND MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP

Bringing the hokku back from near oblivion is a long and unsteady process.  It was nearly lost completely in the 20th century.  Part of that is due to historical confusion, and part is due to the misguided efforts of enthusiasts of the Western “haiku” movement, which experienced a surge of growth in the 1960s.

I have seen it all, and have watched the distinct changes in the attitude of the “haiku” movement toward hokku over the years.

First, there was refusal to even admit the existence of hokku.  When I began telling people online, about 1996 — that Bashō and the rest did not call the independent brief verses they wrote “haiku,” but rather hokku, they simply did not believe me.  They thought I was making it up.

A contributing factor to that ignorance was the persistent efforts of members of the Haiku Society of America to have the word “hokku” declared obsolete in dictionaries, etc.  Their premise was that under their authority, everything was now “haiku,” even the centuries of hokku written before the term “haiku” began to be popularized in Japan about the first half of the 20th century.  Such anachronistic historical revisionism did the recognition and survival of the hokku no good.

The next step took a long time.  It is only in the last few years that people in the modern “haiku” movement began to take an interest in reviving linked verse, which was practiced in old Japan under the name haikai.  But that revival created a problem for them.  Suddenly the would-be revivalists were faced with the historical fact that the opening verse of a linked verse series — the beginning verse — was always called the hokku.  So the modern haiku movement began using that term again, after decades of having abandoned it.  But there was a catch.  They began to say that yes, there really was such a thing as hokku, but it was only the first verse of a series of linked verses.

Now that, of course, is historically completely inaccurate; hokku were often written as independent verses even in the time of Bashō (mid-17th century), who also taught the use of hokku in linked verse.

Now the modern “haiku” movement is entering yet another stage.  Some prominent individuals in the modern “haiku” movement are beginning to admit that, well yes, all the independent hokku written before Shiki were in fact called hokku, not “haiku.”  And even more striking, they are also beginning to admit that, yes, there is a distinct difference between the old hokku and what is written as “haiku” today.

Now as long-time readers of my site know, I have been saying this for literally decades, but up to now have been a voice crying in the wilderness.

So now we are entering a new period in which some advocates of modern “haiku” (though certainly not all of them yet) are finally willing to admit not only that all the independent verses written by Bashō and others before the revisionism of Shiki around the turn of the 20th century were hokku, not “haiku,” but also that there are distinct differences between those hokku and what is written as modern “haiku” today.

Now that is a major step forward, but nonetheless, this knowledge still has not filtered down to the masses of the “haiku” movement — so it will take some time to spread — if indeed it does spread.  And I must say, it should not have taken all these many years for the simple facts — which I have been stating all through that period of confusion in the “haiku” movement — to be accepted.

There is still, however, a major problem.  Aside from the time it will take for this reversal in view to filter throughout the modern “haiku” community (and one hopes it will), there is still a serious ignorance — even among those “haiku” advocates recognizing and admitting the existence of the differences between hokku and modern “haiku” — of the characteristics of the genuine hokku.  In other words, having accepted that hokku and modern “haiku” are two different things, those in the modern “haiku” community who have made the mental change still have no real and practical understanding of the aesthetics and techniques that make hokku what it is.

The result is that some in the modern “haiku” community are willing to admit and accept hokku as a separate category, but they think all that distinguishes it from “haiku” is that it is “about nature,” and they attribute that to the fact that hokku flourished in pre-industrial Japan — largely before the rise of modern technology there in the 19th century under Western influence.

Now to describe the difference between hokku and “haiku” as simply that the former is “about nature” while the latter need not be, has so far led — in the modern “haiku” community — only to further misunderstanding of what the hokku really is.  The result is that lots of newly-written verses being called “hokku” are really nothing but modern “haiku” with a dash of “nature” thrown in.

The problem in short is that the modern “haiku” community still has no understanding of the aesthetics of the hokku, and in attempting to write what they now call hokku, they are in the position of the blind being led by the blind.  Those who are instructing them do not themselves know how to write hokku.  For an example of this, read the discussions and pseudo-“hokku” on this modern haiku site page:

https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php?topic=10402.0

The reason, of course, is that when the modern “haiku” movement gained speed in the mid-20th century, it set off on its erratic course without ever having understood what the inherent aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku were.  Instead, as I repeatedly say, those in the movement misperceived and misinterpreted the hokku — which they called “haiku” — in terms of what they knew of Western poetry and Western poets.

That was a drastic and destructive error, because the aesthetics of the Japanese hokku at its best are quite unlike the aesthetics of the bulk of Western poetry in English and other European languages.

The result is that after all these years, aside from myself, I still do not know of anyone who teaches hokku in English according to the traditional aesthetics.  That is very unfortunate and entirely unnecessary.  It is certainly not to be taken as a boast, but rather as a sad recognition of how the aesthetic tradition of hokku has been largely ignored and nearly lost in the English-speaking world, due to the rise of modern “haiku” and its obscuring influence.  That there should be only one teacher of traditional hokku aesthetics where there should be many teachers indicates how very far hokku yet has to go in becoming an established tradition in the West.

In saying that I am the only teacher of hokku according to traditional aesthetics that I know of at present,  I must add the proviso that hokku as I teach it carries on the essence of the best of the old hokku, relying on the spirit, not just the letter.  It preserves the essential hokku aesthetics and leaves aside those traits that were merely cultural or linguistic baggage, or not in keeping with the best of the hokku spirit, and so not appropriate or helpful for hokku written today in an English-language context.

Hokku, then, still has a very long way to go before it recovers from the many long years of neglect and obscurity that it has experienced in the West.  Whether it will in fact survive depends on how many are able to recognize its virtues and depth in a world that is now teetering on the edge of environmental disaster.

 

David

WHITE COLDNESS

Here is a winter hokku I just experienced:

Peeling a daikon —
How cold it is
In my hand!

The thick whiteness and density of the daikon only seem to enhance the chill.

When I was a young boy, I had never seen a daikon.  It only began to appear in the markets in my region much later.  Even today, grocery checkers will sometimes ask me, “What is it?” when I put a long daikon on the counter to buy.  So Americans are still not entirely familiar with it.

It is, however, a very old staple of the Japanese diet, and was even made into rather tasty pickled form that is not easy to find in American markets.  In Asian medicine it is considered to be good for the lungs, and so is a common ingredient in foods for the winter “colds and flu” season — a good thing to add to soups and stews — which is exactly what I was preparing when this hokku happened.

If one has not seen a daikon (or better yet, held and tasted one), this verse will not be fully experienced.  That is why one’s personal memory of things is so important to how hokku works.

 

David

THE ABANDONED BOAT

R. H. Blyth translated a winter verse by Shiki this way:

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

Only eight words.  There is almost not enough for a hokku here — but just enough, because of the feeling of loneliness created by the sharp sound and sight of the hail bouncing in many angles and directions off the sloping sides of the derelict boat.  It is one of Shiki’s better verses.

It reminds me of a handwritten verse I once saw many years ago — so long that I only remember the concept, which I would put into hokku like this, as an autumn verse:

In the abandoned boat,
A single red leaf
Is floating.

But that, of course that has a different feeling, and is for another season.

 

David

AT YEAR’S END

Now that we are about to enter the year 2020 (yikes! — is it that late?), it is probably a good time to talk about why the peculiar fellow who runs this blog site keeps talking about “hokku,” when most people are talking about something called “haiku” (if they are talking about either at all).

Well, as those of you who have been readers here a long time know, in my mind hokku (the name of the verse form for centuries) and “haiku” (the name some Japanese people began giving to hokku around the turn of the 20th century) –have developed over time into two very different things.

We can clearly see the difference if we look at some very blunt statements made in a little essay by Haruo Shirane, a scholar and an advocate of modern haiku.  You will find the whole text here, if you wish to read it:

http://www.haikupoet.com/definitions/beyond_the_haiku_moment.html

Shirane writes:

Topics such as subways, commuter driving, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc., while falling outside of the traditional notion of nature, in fact provide some of the richest sources for modern haiku, as much recent English-language haiku has revealed, and should be considered part of nature in the broadest sense.

From the hokku perspective, I find this appalling.  It expresses essentially the same controversial view that arose after the founding of the Haiku Society of America in the 1960s, and it caused a sharp controversy then between Harold Henderson — who wrote one of the first significant English-language books on what was then called “haiku” — and another member of the society.  Henderson held the traditional position that Nature is Nature, and the other person held that anything and everything is Nature — whether a stainless steel elevator or a fighter jet.  Henderson could not and did not agree.

In my view, that anyone could or would hold such a view of Nature as Henderson’s opponent is just a symptom of how alienated the contemporary world has become from Nature.  We live in the era of creeping concrete, when shopping malls and vast housing developments are flooding over what once were meadows, fields, and forests.  We also live in a time when a great extinction of natural life — birds, beasts, insects, and creatures of all kinds — is well under way — all due to the human devaluation of Nature — or perhaps I should say, the valuation of Nature only in terms of corporate dollars.  If matters do not change, then even the extinction of human life on this planet is a possibility, given how disrupted the world climate has become — and it is only getting worse in the absence of serious efforts to slow and reverse it.

Shirane goes on to say:

However, if haiku is to rise to the level of serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have impact on other non-haiku poets, then it must have a complexity that gives it depth and that allows it to both focus on and rise above the specific moment or time. Basho, Buson and other masters achieved this through various forms of textual density, including metaphor, allegory, symbolism and allusion, as well as through the constant search for new topics. For North American poets, for whom the seasonal word cannot function in the fashion that it did for these Japanese masters, this becomes a more pressing issue, with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan.”

Well, that is modern haiku for you. This is what it has become.  By contrast, writers of hokku would not worry at all about whether it is “serious poetry, literature that is widely respected and admired, that is taught and studied, commentated on, that can have an impact on other non-haiku poets….”  To me that seems a very academic and if I may use the term, “unspiritual” view, and not at all in the natural spirit of hokku.  A writer of hokku would not be bothered with all that, but instead would be concerned only with writing verses that are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of a particular season, and expressed simply and directly so that the reader might share the sensory, non-intellectual experience of the writer, to the greatest extent that is possible through the medium of ordinary words.

As I have written in the past, to me the fundamental essence of old Japanese hokku was revealed in the writings of R. H. Blyth, though he too used the then-current Japanese term “haiku” in writing of it.  But “haiku” today is not even what it was in Blyth’s day (the mid-1900s), and so to call the verse form “haiku” now is simply to confuse and mislead readers.  That is why I long ago returned to using the original name for the verse form — hokku — to distinguish it from the modern haiku that was developed out of it.  “Haiku,” by contrast with hokku — as we see in Shirane’s description — has departed from Nature, and has set its sights instead on being “literature,” and “with the need to explore not only metaphorical and symbolic possibilities but new areas – such as history, urban life, social ills, death and war, cyberspace, [etc.]….”

In short, modern haiku seeks to become poetry like any other modern poetry, only with a bit more brevity.  That means for those who practice it as such — as I foresaw long ago — the death of the important aesthetics of the old hokku at its best.

Now by writing this, I am not saying that one should not write verses about the urban world, about subways and airports and computers and modern technology.  People are free to write about what they will.  All I ask is that these verses not be confused with the old pre-20th century hokku or with hokku as it is written today.

Now admittedly, it is more difficult to write Nature-based hokku in an urban environment.  But that should only be an encouragement for urbanites to seek a closer relationship with Nature, to search it out, whether in parks or gardens or visits to the countryside or seashore or mountains, or even in closely observing such things as a seedling sprouting through a crack in the sidewalk.  We are all creatures of Nature, and the more divorced we are from it, the more unnatural we become.

When Shirane says, “Haiku need not and should not be confined to a narrow definition of nature poetry, particularly since the ground rules are completely different from those in Japan” — he is giving a very accurate picture of modern Western haiku as opposed to hokku.  But in hokku, the “ground rules” are not completely different from what they were in Japan. Instead, hokku keeps the spirit rather than only the letter of old hokku.

It is true that writers of hokku no longer use specific “season words,” but those are replaced quite well by seasonal categorization in hokku.  Every verse falls under the heading of either Spring, Summer, Fall/Autumn, or Winter.  And it is true that hokku in English does not limit itself to 17 phonetic units as was the standard (not always followed) in old Japan, but that is because grammatically the languages are quite different, and just keeping to brevity serves the purpose well while maintaining the spirit of the old verse.  It is also true that unlike some old hokku, hokku today does not use one thing to mean another, nor does it favor historical or literary allusions, but that is quite in keeping with the essence of the best old hokku.  A Japanese today would not find the aesthetics of contemporary hokku out of keeping with the best of what was written two or more centuries ago in Japan.

I have been advocating the revival of the old hokku aesthetics for well over two decades now, but it takes a particular kind of person to appreciate and to write hokku.  In contrast to Shirane, I do not even like to use the term “poetry” in describing hokku, because at its best, it is so completely unlike what most people consider to be poetry in the West.  In fact it was the confusion of the aesthetics of the hokku with those of Western poetry (particularly English-language poetry) that led to the misunderstandings and misperceptions of the hokku that gave rise to the modern English-language “haiku” movement in the 1960s — and as we see from Shirane, the situation has only worsened since then.  From the point of view of hokku and its aesthetics, modern haiku is a degeneration of that which originally inspired it.

Now I know I have a number of regular readers here who nonetheless write modern haiku, and that is fine, as long as they do not confuse what they write with hokku.  All I ask of them is that if they are writing haiku, using the loose standards of haiku, then call it haiku — and if writing hokku, using the definite aesthetics of hokku, then call it hokku (but be sure that is what you are writing!).  Writing hokku is, in my view, much more challenging than writing haiku, and requires quite a different spirit and attitude toward life and Nature.  Please do not mix the two terms, because  — I repeat — they now generally refer to two very different things.

If anyone has any questions about all this, I would be happy to answer them.

 

David

 

DEEPENING

Here is a loose translation of an old winter hokku by Issa:

Deepening
The loneliness —
Frost on the window.

There is something about the cold and clear austerity of winter that makes us feel our solitude even more deeply.

 

David

NIGHT, COLD, AND AGE

Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.

 

The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

 

One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

AN ICY NIGHT

I have discussed this winter hokku by Bashō previously, but I would like to go over it again because it is such a strong verse.  It can be translated in a number of similar ways.  Here is one:

A water jar breaks;
Awakened from sleep
On an icy night.

Or we could be more loose and direct, and say:

Jolted awake;
A water jar broke
In the icy night.

Either  way, the point of the verse is the cracking of the water jug broken by the water expanding in it as it froze.  And the sudden splitting of the jug in the darkness is so loud that it woke the writer — making him one with the splitting jug, its sound, and the icy night.  Everything is unified.  It gives the reader a very strong sensory perception, which often makes for good hokku.

It is a very wintery hokku and expresses the season well, and in fact is one of those hokku actually given a title (yes, sometimes it was done).  Bashō called it in Chinese characters 寒 夜, meaning “Cold Night.”

David

 

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

Today’s poem is one often encountered by high school English students in the United States, though it may be less frequently seen in other English-speaking countries.

It is by the poet, novelist and teacher Roy Helton (1886-1977), who was born in Washington, D.C., but resided mainly in Pennsylvania.

In spite of his urban upbringing and residence, he also spent much time in the Appalachian regions of South Carolina and Kentucky — places settled in early days by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Education Manual (EM 131) — put out by the United States Armed Forces Institute — says of him in its Volume 1, which deals with “Modern American and British Poetry”:

Roy (Addison) Helton was born at Washington, D. C., in 1886 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908.  He studied art — and found he was color-blind.  He spent two years at inventions — and found he had no business sense.  After a few more experiments he became a schoolmaster in West Philadelphia and at the Penn Charter School in Germantown …

…Helton became intimately connected with primitive backgrounds, spending a great part of his time in the mountains of South Carolina and Kentucky.

Of today’s poem, it says:

Old Christmas Morning” is a Kentucky Mountain dialogue in which Helton has introduced an element rare in modern verse.  Told with the directness of an old ballad, this drama of the night twelve days after the universally celebrated Christmas unfolds a ghost story in which the surprise is heightened by the skillful suspensions.

Appropriately, Helton wrote the poem in Kentucky dialect.  Though it may be over-explaining for some readers,  I will nonetheless thoroughly define the dialect words for those who may know English only as their second language.

Before we begin, you should know that due to use of a different calendar, Christmas used to be celebrated in early British colonial America on January 6th.  In 1752 the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Britain and its colonies — including America — which meant that the date of Christmas shifted earlier to December 25th.  In spite of the change, many people kept the memory of the original date of celebration as “Old Christmas,” as opposed to the new December 25th celebration.  Given the conservative nature of the hill people of the southeastern United States, it is not surprising that the memory of the old date was retained, along with some of its traditional beliefs and superstitions.  Some considered “Old Christmas” the true Christmas, and even continued to celebrate on the old date as late as the 20th century.

The poem is a dialogue between two  hill women in the Appalachian mountains of the state of Kentucky.  As usual, I will take it stanza by stanza.  We begin when one woman finds another at her door in the dark hours early on the morning of “Old Christmas” — January 6th.

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

“Where are you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

The housewife asks the other woman where she is coming from so early in the snow.  And she asks her “what’s them pretties you got in your hand…?

In Kentucky mountain dialect, a “pretty” or “purty” is a word with several meanings, but in general it is something that is pretty, like flowers, or little ornamental objects or decorations, etc.  In the form “play-pretty,” it means a child’s toy.  Here I like to think that in spite of the winter snow, Lomey Carter is carrying something that looks like flowers.

She also asks Lomey, “…where you aiming to go?”  — meaning “Where are you intending to go?”

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

She invites the woman at her door to step inside the house, using the term of endearment “Honey.”  She politely and apologetically adds that, though it is Old Christmas morning, she does not have much to offer her guest to eat in hospitality — perhaps a little of something sweet and some corn bread, and a little ham and such things.

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

In spite of her simple food offerings, she urges Lomey to come inside the house.  She adds that “Sally Anne Barton” — meaning herself — is hungering after Lomey’s face.  By that she means she has missed seeing her face and having her company and conversation.  Sally asks her to wait a moment while she lights a candle, because it is still very early and the house is dark inside.  And as she attempts to light the candle, she tells her guest, “Set down!  There’s your old place.”  By “set down” she means “sit down.”  And in saying “There’s your old place,” she lets the reader know that these two women used to be close friends, so close that Lomey had her own accustomed place to sit in when she came visiting at Sally’s house.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally asks Lomey where she has been so airly/early in the morning.  Lomey replies that she has been to the graveyard, up by the trace/footpath in the salt lick meadows.  A salt lick is a place where mineral salts are found in the ground or near a spring.  They were important because animals — both wild and domestic — need salt, and will seek out a salt lick — so called because there the animals lick up the salt.  Many salt licks exist in Kentucky, and there is even a town called Salt Lick.  So Lomey is speaking of meadows where a salt lick is found.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

Sally tells Lomey that “Taulbe ain’t to home this morning“, or in standard English, “Taulbe is not at home this morning.”  Taulbe — pronouncedTall-bee and usually spelled Taulbee — is a surname found in Kentucky and elsewhere in the Appalachians, but it can also be used  — like here — as a first name.

Sally adds that she is having trouble trying to “scratch up a light,” that is,  trying to get a match to light so that she may light the candle with it.  She explains that the dampness in the air gets into the heads of the matches, which makes them hard to ignite by scratching them on a rough surface.  So not being able to light a candle, she says, “I’ll blow up the embers bright.”  She will blow on the hot coals remaining in the fireplace, to get a little light from them to illuminate the dark room.

Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

Lomey tells Sally she need not bother trying to blow up the embers, because Lomey will not be stopping/staying.  She adds that she still has a long way to go.  We shall see the significance of this “long way to go” later.

Sally asks, “You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter, up on the graveyard hill?”  By that she is really asking, “Did you see anything at the graveyard up on the hill?”

What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.

Lomey replies by asking, “What should I see there?”, and Sally tells her that “sperits do walk last night.”  She is repeating the belief that on the night before Old Christmas, ghosts and spirits walk about.

Lomey replies that “there were/was an elder bush a-blooming while the moon still give/gave some light.”  Traditionally the elder is considered a bush with supernatural qualities, and for it to bloom on Old Christmas in the midst of winter cold, is a supernatural event — heightened here by its being seen in moonlight.  That flowers might bloom at midnight on Old Christmas was a traditional folk belief.  And we may consider that these blooms relate to the “pretties” Lomey carries.

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:

Sally agrees that such an unusual thing can happen at the time of Old Christmas, and she also repeats the folk belief that at midnight, the critters /creatures in the barn will kneel in the straw, which originally was believed to happen in honor the birth of Jesus.  Sally asks Lomey if she noticed anything else in the graveyard, and Lomey replies that she saw one more thing:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?”
He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

This stanza tells us that Lomey’s man — her husband — had earlier been murdered by Sally’s husband Taulbe.  Now we know why Sally told her earlier in the poem that Taulbe was not at home:  it would be safe for Lomey to come in while he was away.  Lomey says that she saw her husband — meaning the ghost of her husband — in the graveyard, with his head still bleeding from the bullet wound Taulbe had given him.

Sally asks what the ghost said, and Lomey replies, “He stooped and kissed me,” but does not answer Sally’s question, so Sally repeats it.  Lomey then answers:

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

Lomey tells Salley that the ghost said, “Lord Jesus forguv/forgave your Taulbe,” but he also said “another word” — something else, very softly, when he kissed her.  And that was the last thing she heard him say.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally repeats what she told Lomey earlier — that Taulbe ain’t/is not to/at home this morning.  Lomey responds by saying she knows that, because she kilt/killed him coming down through the meadow where Taulbe kilt/killed her man/husband.  She explains:

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun

And kilt him as he come past.

Lomey met Taulbe on the meadow trace/footpath when the moon were/was fainting fast, that is, close to fading or setting.  She had the rifle of her dead husband, and she shot and killed Taulbe as he passed by her.

Sally responds, and Lomey answers:

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

Sally says she heard two shots, not one.  Lomey explains the second shot:  “‘Twas/it was his”.  Taulbe shot Lomey before he died.  Here we may assume that Lomey’s ghost husband’s last and soft “word” to her was essentially that though Jesus may have forgiven Taulbe, Lomey’s husband did not, and wanted him dead.  And finally Lomey reveals to Sally that she too is a ghost, and that Sally will find both Lomey’s body and that of Taulbe lying together dead when daybreak brings light to the scene.

 

So that’s it.  This poem is a ghost story based on one of the bitter grudges that sometimes turned into family feuds and killing in the Appalachian mountains.  It is very reminiscent of the Child Ballads, old songs of England and Scotland that were sometimes also passed down in the folk musical traditions of the Appalachian immigrants from those regions.  They are called the Child Ballads because they were collected in the latter half of the 19th century by Francis James Child.  They often dealt with love and death and murder.  In this similarity we see how cleverly Roy Helton formed his poem, and his use of a regional dialect — also found in the Child Ballads — adds to the effect, making the poem seem older than it is.

Now you will recall that early in the poem, Lomey Carter says she won’t be stopping, because she still has a long way to go.  That refers to an old belief that on death the soul must make its long journey into the afterlife.  There is a similar view in the old English poem in Yorkshire dialect titled “Lyke Wake Dirge.”

In explaining this poem, I mentioned a town in Kentucky named Salt Lick, and it is perhaps an interesting side note that according to local belief, the Polksville Cemetery at Salt Lick is one of the most haunted in the state.

For ease of reading, here is the whole poem at one go:

“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

“Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.‘”

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?”
One thing more I saw:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?” “He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

MARKS OF RAT TEETH

In a long-ago previous posting, I talked about Richard Wright, and how — like most people in the West in the 20th century — he did not quite understand hokku.

I wrote of him,

“The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics:

I used this verse by Wright as an example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

I said of it:

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials….”

As we can see, Wright’s verse reads as a sentence with no pause in it.  But in hokku, the pause is important; it lets the reader experience the first part of the hokku fully, before moving on to the second part.

Wright’s “rat” verse has in its subject matter the simplicity and directness of hokku, but he has cluttered it a bit by making it too general.

Instead of the general and plural “winter mornings”  — which covers a long span of time — hokku prefers the specific:

A winter morning;

That gives us the first line of a hokku, and it has the pause allowing the reader to take a moment to be in that winter morning and experience its cold and silence and austerity.  And then we continue.  But instead of the rather roundabout phrasing

The candle shows
Faint markings of the teeth of rats

— we can again simplify it to

Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

By doing so, we have changed Wright’s

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

to

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

That makes it a real hokku, set in the season of winter.

Wright’s “wordiness” was due to the preconception — common in the latter half of the 20th century — that a hokku (which was not the term generally used at the time) should consist of three lines arranged in a pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, making seventeen in all.  That preconception arose from a mistaken attempt to translate Japanese phonetic units into English syllables, which is not an accurate equation.  And in any case, English being so different grammatically from Japanese, it is not wise to simply try to transfer the characteristics of one language to the other.

But let me pause here to again praise Wright’s choice of subject, which fits hokku precisely.   When simplified and put into hokku form, his “rat” verse so obviously has the hokku spirit that it seems translated into English from a Japanese original written by a Japanese master of earlier centuries.

We live in such different times now than even the 1950s were, and many people today know candles only as something one sees on birthday cakes or as scented decorations for a home.  But only a few decades ago, candles were important to have when the electricity went out.  And a century earlier they were even more important as a source of pre-electric light.

That Wright mentions a candle could set the verse in the 1950s or it could set it  centuries earlier.  But that he uses it at all makes one think of a rather poor room in which there is a candle to provide light.  And waking on a winter morning to find marks of rat teeth on the candle tells us that this is a house where one is not likely to be surprised by finding a rat.  That again indicates a poorer dwelling.  It gives us the poverty of hokku.

Remember Blyth’s saying that to write hokku, one should either live in house with a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.  At least then we would not always be so cut off from Nature and its changes.

Further, finding marks of rat teeth on the candle means the rat was looking for food.  That makes us feel the harshness and severity of winter.  Candles in earlier years were often made of tallow — an animal product — and even after the introduction of paraffin, stearic acid — also an animal product — was generally added in candles.  So a rat would naturally be drawn to something that seemed a food source, which accounts for the tooth marks on the candle.  We feel in that the hunger of the rat, and the poverty of the house in which the candle stands on a cold winter morning.

Winter, as we know, is the season when we most feel the lack of food, so a rat gnawing a candle reflects the season — and such internal reflection is often used in hokku.

It is unfortunate that Wright did not have the guidance he needed to mature his hokku potential.  For many people that is still the case today.  The principles of hokku are still little known in the early 21st century, and in its place people substitute easy and “instant” forms of short verse that were loosely inspired by the hokku but are without its substance,  having little in common with hokku but brevity.  Generally in our time the hokku spirit has been lost, and people do not even know what they have missed.

MUNCHING YOUR WAY TO HOKKU

Here is a winter hokku by Kyūkoku.  I have altered Blyth’s translation of the last line, but have kept his rendering of the first two lines, which one could hardly better:

Crunch, Crunch —
The horse munching straw;
A snowy evening.

That is hardly something one would find in English poetry, but English poetry is not hokku, and approaches things from a very different perspective.

In hokku, we look for an event to happen in our minds when we read a verse — and not in the “thinking” part of our minds, but rather in the sensing.  That is why I so often emphasize sensation in hokku — the experiencing of things through tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, or smelling.

In Kyūkoku’s hokku, we are first given the loud crunching sounds of a horse munching straw.  They are made all the more effective by Blyth’s use of the words “crunch” — “crunch” — “munching” — which make us actually hear the horse chewing (and see how much more effective “crunch” and “munching” are than “chewing” here).  That accounts for why this verse is actually better in English than in Japanese.

Kyūkoku began with the sounds, then moved to the horse itself, and then opened up the wider setting — a snowy evening.  There is also the striking contrast between the loudness of the horse and the softness of the snowy evening.

By placing the horse crunching straw against the snowy evening, he has not only given us the season, but he has also introduced the sensations of cold and silence.  That gives a sense of stillness, in which the munching of the horse becomes even more magnified.  So in this hokku we have sound and sight, and in the cold we have the sense of touch.  All in all, this is a very simple hokku with lots of sensation.

Someone who sees this verse and recognizes its merits is likely to be able to understand the reasons for the aesthetics of hokku and appreciate them.  If all one sees is a chewing horse and some snow, then the outlook is not promising.

 

 

 

David

THE FROSTY NIGHT

A loosely translated winter hokku by Yasui:

In the whiteness
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

 

It calls to mind two other winter hokku we have already seen; this one by Chiyo-ni —

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

And this by Bashō:

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

 

 

David

SNOW FALLING

Here is a winter verse by Rimei, which I re-translated from an old book of Japanese hokku printed by the Oxford University Press in 1911:

Snow falling
On the pines where they sleep —
The crows.

 

 

 

 

David

WINTER NIGHT

Here is a rather loose rendering of a verse by the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Bai Juyi:

NIGHT SNOW

Awakened by the chill of quilt and pillow,
I find the window has turned bright.
Late in the night I know the snow is deep
As now and then I hear the bamboos break.

CUTTING THE CRAPSEY

It is easy to see the influence of Japanese short verse on the American Imagist poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) in her poem

November Night

Listen . . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.
But we can also see where — from the perspective of hokku — she went astray.  Her chief error was in saying too much.
The first word — “Listen” — is superfluous.  In hokku we do not tell someone to listen.  We just present a sound, and they hear it, as in this Winter hokku by Ryūshi:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

Hokku would also remove the third line:

“Like steps of passing ghosts”
The simile — saying one thing is “like” another — is not used in good hokku.  Each thing is allowed to be what it is, without comparing it or likening it to something else.  Have you ever noticed how often in English-language prose and poetry we are told that something is “like” something else?  It is almost an addiction of many writers.  A good practice for composers of hokku is to learn to describe a thing or action without saying it is “like” something else.
So, having removed those unnecessary elements from the verse, we are left with:
With faint dry sound,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.
From the perspective of hokku that is already a great improvement, but it needs a bit more work.  Here is only one option for turning her verse into a hokku:
From frozen trees,
The faint, dry sound
Of falling leaves.
In that version, there is a kind of accidental benefit in the repetition of the breathy “f” sounds:

from;
frozen;
faint;
falling;

It happens because in that repeated f-f-f-f we hear the “faint dry sound” of the leaves falling.  The effect created by such repetition of sounds is often used to advantage in hokku, though it often “just happens” instead of one straining to achieve it.
If we want to lessen it a bit and get a slightly different effect, we could write the hokku as follows:

In frozen trees,
The faint, dry sound
Of falling leaves.

According to the old calendar, it would be a “Winter” verse, given that November is after the cross-quarter marker Halloween/Samhain.

Though they seem very simple, the principles applied here in the transformation of this poem by Adelaide Crapsy into a hokku — if kept in mind — will do much to improve the compositional ability of those who wish to write hokku in English.
David

BARE RUIN’D CHOIRS

Wild geese cry
Above the frosty roofs;
Autumn’s end.

Yes, according to the old calendar, autumn is ending.  It ends with Halloween, the present day incarnation of the ancient holiday Samhain that marked the point at which the time of darkness and cold increases — the beginning of winter.

There is an interesting sonnet (#73) by Shakespeare that, in spite of its antiquated language, reveals the same universal correspondences we find in hokku.  I will give each stanza in the original, followed by a paraphrase.

But first, I want to talk about about the poet and the person to whom the poem is addressed.  Contrary to some interpretations, I do not read this poem as a love poem addressed by an old man to a young woman.  It just does not fit.  And in spite of all the publicity given youth-age Hollywood “for profit” marriages, romantically the young — let’s face it — love the young, not the old.  And as the old Victorian song goes,

‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age.

That is why when I read this poem, I think of an old man addressing someone only a little younger than himself, such as might be said in an old married couple who have shared their mellowed love for many years beyond the time of burning, sensual romance.  I think it will make more sense to you as well if read that way.  So let’s give it a try.

The poet begins with an analogy:  he, in his old age, is like the season of late autumn:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

You can see in me that I am like that time of year
When yellow leaves — or few of them or none of them —
Hang on branches that shake in the cold [wind] —
Like bare ruined choirs where just a little time ago the sweet birds sang.

The poet is saying that his listener can see he is in the late autumn of life, when only a few altered traces — or maybe even none — of his youth remain.  He feels his aged appearance is like the cold bare branches of trees from which the leaves that made them attractive have nearly or all fallen.

Shakespeare uses a very effective and poetic metaphor  here:

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

He is using “choirs” here in its architectural sense, so he does not mean choirs of singers here, but rather choirs as those parts of old English churches that were furnished with wooden stalls in which the members of the choir sat.  Here is a modern image of such stalls in an architectural choir:

(Photo: http://www.heatheronhertravels.com/)

Knowing now that meaning of “choirs” here, you can picture the

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang

as the cold tree branches bereft of leaves, where earlier in the season the birds still sang sweetly.

Now he makes second analogy:  his life is like the twilight, the end of day:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me, the poet says,  you see the twilight of a day that will fade in the West after sunset, its light taken away by black night — a thing akin to Death, and like Death, the night will cover everything with rest.

Then he uses a third analogy:  his life is like a weak fire that will soon go out:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In me, he says, you see the glow of a fire that barely remains on the ashes it created when it was stronger — the death-bed-like ashes upon which it will extinguish itself, consumed by the same energy that previously made it burn brightly.  The same energy of life that made me strong and attractive in youth will now in old age burn the last of what remains of my life.

As Lord Byron wrote,

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,

And the poet finishes it all by saying,

You see all of these signs of aging and death approaching, and they only make your love for me stronger, because they tell you that soon I shall die and you must say goodbye to all our years together, because I shall be no more.

We often find in hokku the equivalency between autumn and human aging, just as we find the equivalency between twilight and age.  The difference, however, is that in Western poetry for the most part — as here in Shakespeare — these equivalencies are openly expressed.  In hokku, however, twilight and autumn are not symbols of aging, or analogies or similes of aging — they are merely things that happen in Nature.  Yet seeing them happen, they evoke in us the equivalencies, even though they are not openly expressed.  Instead, we say that age is “reflected” in twilight and autumn, meaning the equivalency is much more subtle — unspoken in hokku, but expressed openly and clearly in English poetry.

WIDENING CIRCLES

Many people overthink hokku.  Once one understands the aesthetics, it becomes quite simple.

Here is a summer hokku:

A summer shower;
All over the river —
Widening circles.

It has no hidden message.  It expresses the season in a natural event, without any commentary or interpretation, and without any “self” of a writer appearing.  A shower has begun, and everywhere on the surface of the water are the widening circles caused by each raindrop as it touches the surface.

It is a simple experience of the senses, not of the intellect.

If we use our old “setting/subject/action” pattern, we can look at it this way:

Setting:  A summer shower
Subject:  Circles
Action: Widening all over the river

Now you can see that these elements are not arranged precisely in order in the hokku, but they are there nonetheless.   The setting/subject/action pattern is just a helpful tool in composing, not a rigid group of boxes into which each element must be forced in a strict order.

All one needs to write hokku is to realize that it is not a conventional “poem.”   It is an experience of the senses that is felt to be meaningful, involving Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, and devoid of ego and added commentary.  Hokku uses ordinary words and ordinary things, but in these we should feel a sense of significance that is beyond explanation.

Of course hokku has its own aesthetic of simplicity and selflessness, and always in the background we feel that universal characteristic of existence — impermanence, the transience of things.  In this hokku we see it in the circles that appear, widen, and vanish on the surface of the river.

 

David

 

AUTUMN MOUNTAINS

Here is my loose rendering of a hokku by Issa:

The autumn mountains;
On one after another
Evening falls.

That offers a good example of how the common pattern — setting/subject/action — varies.

In this verse, the setting is the autumn mountains.
The subject is evening.
The action is … falls on one after another.  But of course it is not written that way.  Instead “on one after another” is the second line, and the verb “falls” comes right after the subject “evening” in the third line.

So the setting, subject, and action do not have to be in a rigidly divided sequence.  Hokku is not that restrictive.  And of course the setting/subject/action pattern is just a tool — an aid to writing hokku — but it is a very good and useful tool.

 

David

 

THE TOP OF THE FERRIS WHEEL

August is one of the hot months where I live  — hotter now than it used to be.  Nonetheless, according to the old agricultural calendar, August 1 — variously called Harvest Home, Lammas, or Lughnasa — marks the beginning of Autumn.  This was the time — in the old days — when grain was harvested, and the village celebrations of the harvest — the bringing in of the grain — were called Harvest Home.

To me, one of the symbols of this hot time of year is the tiger lily, which used to have the scientific name Lilium tigrinum, but now that is often replaced by Lilium lancifolium.  It is blooming here and there in my garden.

One of the most pleasant things about the tiger lily — aside from its attractiveness — is that one can easily multiply it by collecting and planting the little black bulbils — miniature bulbs — that grow in the leaf axils.  It takes a couple of years for them to mature into blooming-size plants, but if one does this, more and more flowering tiger lilies will be seen blooming in the garden at this season.

Tiger lilies were said to have been brought to Britain from Canton — in the south of China — in 1804, and was noted in America some twenty years later.  So it has been here a long time, and is considered one of the “old-fashioned” garden flowers.  There were native lilies some call tiger lilies growing in the United States before the Asian kind was introduced — like the Lilium columbianum I knew as a boy, but they are not quite the same, and do not produce the bulbils.

Hot as it may be compared to the rest of the year, August nonetheless gives one a feeling of something waning — of impermanence — and that is logical, because the days are growing ever shorter.  Morning comes later, and night earlier, and that will only increase as the season progresses.  I always like — as Harvest Home comes — to repeat that in her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

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 well expresses the feeling of the beginning of August.

For those who live in the temperate Northern Hemisphere and write hokku, now is the time to begin changing from the “summer” classification to the “autumn” classification.

 

David

 

HIGH CRIMES, MISDEMEANORS, AND THE COMING CLIMATE DISASTER

In the Dutch movie De vierde man (The Fourth Man) is the memorable line, “When you are warned, you must listen.”

Today’s news:  record high temperatures in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  108 degree temperatures in Paris, France.  Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon basin has reached more than three football fields per minute of forest destroyed, getting closer to the point at which the forests of the basin can no longer recover, with major environmental consequences.

There is now more carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — in the world’s atmosphere than there has been for the past 3 million years. And it is said that every day the heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs.

That is only a hint of the seriousness of the problem facing us.  There have been so many warning signs of disaster to come — so many canaries in the coal mine — that as one person put it, we are already up to our knees in dead canaries.  And it is only going to get worse.

As Greta Thunberg says, “We are right now in the beginning of a climate and ecological crisis, and we need to call it what it is:  an emergency.

If humans continue to do nothing significant about it — and world governments continue either to ignore it or pay the problem only lip service, or even create laws or regulations that make the problem even worse — then we can kiss the planet as we know it — and likely the human race itself — goodbye.

As for this country — the United States — there is the Impeachment Power that says the President may be impeached and removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  What could be worse than not only refusing to do anything about climate change, but even taking actions that will only make it worse and speed it up — and we know the consequences will be suffering, death, and misery for huge numbers of people, not only in this country but around the world.  What crime could be higher?  And why is no one in authority saying this?

PERCEPTION AND THE CONCEPTUAL “SELF”

A summer hokku by Shōhaku:

The quiet;
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.

That is a good example of the simplicity and purity of hokku.

When we read it, we feel the silence.  And in that silence, we observe a chestnut leaf sinking down through the clear water.

Now to many people, I suppose, this must seem quite a pointless verse.  “What does it mean?” they ask.  The answer is that it does not mean anything.  It is just the perception of the quietness, and in that quietness, of the leaf sinking in the water.

We could analyze it according to Yin and Yang:  quiet is yin, sinking is yin, and water is yin.  So it is a very “yin” verse.  But we need not do that, because we already intuitively feel these relationships without the need of labeling or speaking them.

But beyond all this, the hokku is a “word recording” of an experience that takes place in the mind when we read it.  In that experience there is an observer, but no thought.  There is no analysis or judging of the experience — there is only being and experiencing it.

I often emphasize the importance of selflessness in hokku — the absence of any emphasis on “I,” “me,” and “my.”  This is in great contrast to much modern poetry, even brief poetry, which often places the “I” at center stage.

In hokku, however, the more the “I” disappears, the more we get to the essence of  what to me is the deeper significance of hokku.  In Shōhaku’s verse, there is no “I” at all — nothing that has a form and a name.  There is only perception.

In so much of modern life, the “I” with its whims and wants is all important.  In hokku, however, it is just the opposite.  But how to go behind this superficial “I” to something deeper?   One has to realize the difference between perception and thinking.  Our consciousness is like the clear sky.  Thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky.  Sensory experience — such as seeing and hearing — does not require thought.  It just happens.  Then thought intervenes and begins to try to interpret or comment or judge and compare.  But if we get that far, we have gone beyond the stage of the hokku experience, which is perception without the added thinking.

 

David

AMAZING BACH

I just found this performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the young Gert van Hoef this morning.  It still amazes me that any human can do this.  And apparently the organist was only 19 at the time this was recorded.  It is fascinating to watch his fingers, and his feet on the pedalboard — and the helpers pulling the stops.  I wonder if Bach had any idea his music would still be played some two and a half centuries after his death.

 

David

BLACK MATES

(Summer)

Down the bright road,
A crow and his shadow
Flying together.

I saw that a couple of days ago.  A crow swooped down not far from me, and as it flew very low over the sunny road, I was struck by the black shadow just below the crow and the black crow just above the shadow, both flying close in unison.

This is, I think, a good example of what I always say hokku should be:  ordinary things, but seen in a new way or from a different perspective.

 

David

“LOST” MELODIES

I just came across a very useful site, and thought some of you mind like to know about it as well.

It began when I listened to an unidentified waltz melody played yesterday.  I had heard it before somewhere.  It sounded vaguely Italian, or possibly like something one might hear in the score of a Provencal movie based on a work by Marcel Pagnol.  I had no idea  — not knowing the title — how to find what the melody might be.

So here was what turned out to be the easy solution.  I discovered this site:

http://bestclassicaltunes.com/DictionaryPiano.aspx

It has an on screen piano keyboard, and all I had to do was to use it to play the first few notes of the melody I had heard.  And the first thing that came up was this:

When I clicked on the title in green just above the musical notes, it brought up this:

I clicked on the “Play MP# using player below” link on the right, and it began playing exactly the melody I had heard — and I was very surprised to find it was a waltz by Dmitri Shostakovich.  Here it is on youtube.com:

Encouraged by that initial success, I then used the keyboard to see if I could find a musical phrase that was used as the beginning theme of a radio classical music program I often listened to as a boy — but I never knew what those opening notes were from, though I later suspected Tchaikovsky.   I even once searched through all of his symphonies and could not find it.  But using this site’s virtual keyboard, here’s what came up:

I again clicked on the “Play MP3,” and heard the very beginning theme I had wondered about for years, but could never quite locate.  Here it is on youtube.com:

It is always a feeling of relief to have such little puzzles quickly solved, so I found http://bestclassicaltunes.com/DictionaryPiano.aspx
a very helpful site.

 

David

ALMOST NOTHING HERE

Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

MY GARDENING METHOD

(My garden this morning)

I grew up on 92 acres of partly-forested, partly-open land in the country.  I now live on a very small lot at the outer edge of — but still within — a city.

The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the entire front yard, which at that time consisted of summer-dried grass and weeds.  It is not a large piece of ground, in fact I think of it as rather postage stamp sized.

I quickly discovered that the “soil” was incredibly thin, and that it was completely filled with what appeared to be river rock in all gradations.  That is the aftermath of a flood at the end of the last Ice Age that left this part of the city filled with rocks washed down from places all the way between here and Montana.  So gardening on those flood remains is like gardening on a pile of rocks with a tiny bit of poor soil between them.  I could not put a shovel into the ground anywhere without hitting rocks.  In addition, what there was of soil was apparently strewn with construction rubble from the construction of the building in which I live.

My choice was either to dig the yard out to a depth of two or three feet, have the removed soil and rocks hauled away, and fill it all in with fine and expensive new soil — or to just work with what was there.  I was not prepared to do the former, so I decided to adapt my garden to the circumstances.

Having such rock and grit filled soil made it very porous, and in the hot days of summer, putting water on it was like pouring water through a sieve.  To me that meant I should definitely include drought-resistant plants.

I did not want to give up some of my favorite flowers, however, so I was willing to give them a bit more of occasional watering — but I did not want to fill my proposed new garden with delicate plants.  They had to be able to survive both heat and cold and a fluctuating level of moisture.

I also did not want the kind of garden that had only one or two or three varieties of flowers, with long waits between one and another blooming.  I wanted lots of variety, and I wanted at least something to be in bloom from early spring to late autumn.  That meant I had to choose flowers with different bloom times.

I also had to balance the reality of my very small space with my desire for a wide variety of plants.  On the positive side, doing so would give me many different kinds of flowers.  On the negative side, it meant that I would not have enough space to give each plant luxurious growing room.

My solution to all this was to use a gardening method I wryly call “Survival of the Fittest,” and because it had worked for me before in poor soil in a previous city residence, I was hopeful that it would work for me on my postage stamp rock pile.

The result of my method is a garden that looks like a cross between a traditional English Cottage Garden and a wildflower meadow.  There are no wide spaces between plants, so one gets the impression of something that is both wild and natural, and very floriferous.  The close planting also helps to keep the weeds down.

My garden is now always interesting because it is always changing — from day to day, month to month, and season to season, from spring to fall.  When some flowers have ended their blooming time, others are beginning theirs.

To do this — to have things always in bloom — I visited plant nurseries many times during the growing season, because what they have in stock tends to change depending on the time of year.  If one is careful to obtain plants that have different blooming times and to mix them together, the end result is just what I wanted — a garden with something always in bloom.

I soon discovered that my little garden had another result.  People passing by would stop to tell me how much they enjoyed my garden.  And not only people.  A space that was formerly bleak and bare of life became filled with bumblebees and honeybees, ladybugs and other kinds of insects.  And hummingbirds became daily visitors as well.  I just watched one making his rounds of my plants this morning — and a lady passing by in a car stopped and shouted, “Your garden is amazing!”

Well, I am sure to some people who like strict order and things in rigid rows it is not amazing, because it has a “wild” look to it — and that I quite enjoy.  It is the “wildflower meadow” side of it.  I like to mix in simple and wild flowers like California poppies and Bachelor’s Buttons with more elaborate plants such as bearded iris and lilies.  Each adds its own color and form and texture.

At the very end of the season, when the frost has come and plants have withered, I cut the dead stalks in pieces that I let fall in the garden, to decay and provide much-needed organic matter to gradually improve the terrible soil.  And I try not to to overwater, so that plants will send their roots deep and make use of what moisture they can find.  Water in this city is expensive, not free for the taking as it was when I was a boy living on country land with a spring bubbling out of the ground.

So that is my simple gardening method.  I enjoy the comments of people passing by, and the opportunity to meet and chat with them, and it is gratifying to watch the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds.  Sitting on my little porch with a book in my hands, I can look up at my little garden from time to time and feel a part of Nature again, even living in a city.

Having such a garden and observing its continual changes is like having a natural clock that tells the time of season by the comings and goings of different kinds of blossoms.  It reminds me by its transformations that all things are transient, so we humans must appreciate and enjoy them while they are here — whether flowers or people.

 

VESAKHA

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 18th — is the full moon in May this year.  There is a traditional annual Buddhist commemoration of the full moon in May called Vesākha in Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist scriptures — or often simply Vesak today.  It is often a two-day celebration — the day of the full moon and the following day.

Vesakha commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and entry into Nirvana at death of the Buddha Gautama.

In Buddhist writings and art, the full moon — or simply a circle like it — is often a symbol of enlightenment.

Traditionally, the full moon of May is called the “Flower Moon,” because of all the flowers blooming in May.  But tomorrow’s moon is unusual.  It will be a “blue” Flower Moon — in this case the third of four full moons in spring.  That is even more rare than an ordinary blue moon, which is the second of two full moons in a month.  So please enjoy this “Blue Flower Moon.”

David

STARS LIKE GRAINS OF SAND…

At the time of writing this, you are one of approximately between seven and eight billion people on this relatively small planet.

(Image: NASA)

That planet is revolving around a medium sized star — our sun — that is almost 92.96 million miles away — so far that it takes the sun’s light about eight minutes and 20 seconds to reach us.

(Image: NASA)

That star — our sun — is is approximately 864,340 miles in diameter.  It is only one of some 100 to 150 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

(Image: goodfreephotos.com)

Other than the sun, the nearest star to earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about 4.22 light years from earth.

(Image: SnappyGoat.com)

A light year is the distance light travels in one earth year — close to six trillion miles.That means traveling at the speed of light, it would take 4.22 years to go from earth to Proxima Centauri.

The Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years across.

The nearest neighbor galaxy is the cluster of stars and dust called the  Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, some 25,000 light years from our solar system.

(Image: http://www.messier-objects.com)

It is actually closer to us than the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, which is roughly 30,000 light years away from our solar system.

The nearest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way Galaxy is the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.2 million light years away.

(Image: NASA)

It is estimated that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in this universe — about as many as there are stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.  They extend so far away that the most distant visible galaxy at present — using present technology — is some 13.3 billion light years from earth.

It is called MACS0647-JD, and is the reddish blur in the white square superimposed over the image.

(Image: NASA)

It takes almost as long for its light to reach us as the period from now back to near the beginning of time/space — the so-called “Big Bang.”

It is estimated there are far more stars in the sky — both visible and so distant as to be invisible to the eye — than there are grains of sand on earth.  And yet approximately the same number of stars as the number of molecules found in ten drops of water.

 

 

 

HUMAN LIFE, HUMAN NATURE: HOUSMAN’S “MAY”

Here is another poem by Alfred Edward Housman.  I will discuss it part by part:

MAY

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

The speaker sees “the morning blink,” that is, the sun rising.  And now that the sun is up, he too must rise from his bed, wash his face, put on his clothes, and have breakfast.  And he must begin human daily life, which is “to look at things and talk and think and work.”  And, he adds, “God knows why” — meaning he has no idea why humans must do as they do, day after day.  He sees no point in it all.

Continuing this latter thought, he says:

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.

He is tired of the seemingly meaningless daily round of human existence.  After day after day after day of going through the cycle of washing and dressing, what does he have to show for it?  This is particularly the lot of people who work hard for a living, yet seem unable to get ahead, to derive any significant benefit from their round of labor beyond staying alive.  “What’s to show for all my pain?” he asks.  He feels he would be better just staying in bed and getting some rest, because in spite of the “ten thousand times” he has done his daily best, he must still continue with the same tiresome actions, over and over — “all’s to do again” — it never ends.  That has somewhat the same feeling as these line’s from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-eaters”:

Instead, it has more the feeling of  these lines from Tennysons “The Lotos-eaters”:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

Still, when he sees the beauty of morning, he is inspired:

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

How beautiful the morning beams of sunlight are, as they move across the fields and reflect from grass and leaf.  The skies “laugh out with glee,” that is, Nature as seen in the bright sun rising in the eastern sky — “up from the eastern sea” like a bird set free” — seems to make the morning and the prospect of the following day seem delightful — at least at first.

Today I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

The writer feels empowered by this sense of beauty and delight, and makes a resolution.  Today, he decides, he will be strong in his will.  He won’t give in to doing things he should not do, wasting time on them.  He will no more squander life, he says.  And all those days he has let pass without making good use of them — well, he will bring them back now by doing his utmost to keep this resolution for changing his life and his ways.

But…

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Now we have reached the end of the day that began so brightly, with so much hope and resolution in the writer.  His mood, however, has changed.  Day is ending.  He sees the sun setting into the west, “ensanguining the skies,” that is, turning them reddish, like the color of blood.  The sun and the day seem to sink heavily into the West, because that is now the emotional state he is in — and the light of day dies away.

So that day is gone, never to be recovered or seen or felt or heard again.  It is “past touch and sight and sound”; it is over, ended.  And, the writer concludes, “How hopeless under ground falls the remorseful day.”  From this we know that things did not go as planned.  The delight of morning faded away.  His resolution to do better, not to give in to what should not be done was not kept.  And all he is left with is this feeling of remorse, as the sun and the day with it sink “under ground” — that is, below the horizon.  But by saying “under ground,” he also gives us a sense of death and burial, as though all hope is lost.

It is not a cheerful poem.  It reminds me of those poor communities where the inhabitants must rise and toil in the same monotonous round of labor, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until death.  And many of them try to find a little relief in escapes such as alcohol, which only makes things worse.  Numbers of them must have made morning resolutions to give up such bad habits, but found the day ending only with shame and failure.

Though this poem is not specifically about addictions such as alcoholism, one may certainly apply it to such situations.  That is why I have the greatest respect for alcoholics and other addicts of one kind or another, who struggle each day with resolutions to end their habits, and even when they fail, they continue on with the struggle, and do not let despair overcome them.

Of course it may be applied to lesser difficulties as well, such as those people who have great plans of one kind or another, but let each day pass without beginning to put them into effect.  Many people settle for the monotonous daily round, letting each day end without making full use of the opportunities the morning has brought them.  Thought of that way, this poem by Housman acts as a cautionary warning.  Carpe diem — seize the day.  It will not come again.

BATTLES WITHOUT, BATTLES WITHIN

A reader requested that I discuss poem XXVIII [28] in Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad.  It is often known by its first line — “High the Vanes of Shrewsbury Gleam” — or by the title “The Welsh Marches.”

First, we need to understand the meaning of “Welsh Marches.”  In medieval geographic usage, a “march” was a border land —  a boundary land — between one region and another.  We find the term used in two forms, for example, in Tolkien.  You may recall that he speaks of the “East and West Marches,” and in regard to Rohan, he uses it in the form “mark,” writing of the East-mark and the West-mark

In the British Isles, the “Welsh Marches” is the name given the border region between England and Wales, and Shrewsbury was one of the most important cities in this border region.

There is much history in this, because as you perhaps know, the old inhabitants of the British Isles — the Britons — gradually lost control of England after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, and the last Briton stronghold in the West was what is known today as Wales, because the Britons and the Welsh are one and the same people.  The rest of England came under Anglo-Saxon control, and the language changed there from an old form of Welsh spoken by the Britons — which is a Celtic language — to Old English — the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancestor of the language in which I am writing this.

The Welsh Marches were thus from very early times a region of contention and division, with the Welsh on one side and the ever-pushing English on the other, and of course inevitably some mixing of the two.  And that mixing of the two is the subject of this poem, set in Shrewsbury.  We shall see this dichotomy — this being pulled in two directions psychologically — in Housman’s poem.  The speaker in the poem is a son of the Welsh Marches who feels this division within himself.

High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.

The “vanes” are weathervanes on the high steeples.  They gleam on the buildings built on the hill that rises on the North side of the “island” that is nearly enclosed by a wide loop of the Severn River — “Severn stream.”  Old Shrewsbury was built inside this loop of the river, so it was almost like an island, being nearly surrounded by the loop of the Severn.  The “steepled crest” was that hill — the highest place in Shrewsbury, upon which St. Alkmund’s Church with its high steeple was built.

There were bridges that crossed that loop of the Severn, both on the East side and the West.  They were named by where the roads across them led:  the bridge on the East was the “English Bridge.”  That on the West was the “Welsh Bridge.”

The flag of morn in conqueror’s state
Enters at the English gate:
The vanquished eve, as night prevails,
Bleeds upon the road to Wales.

Housman calls the dawn the “flag of morn,” and of course it comes to Shrewsbury from the East.  But the setting sun  is to the West — the side of Wales.  Housman makes quite clear that the “flag of morn” that comes “in conqueror’s state” — that is, as a conqueror — the rising, overcoming power — is that of the English, which like the morning sun, enters “at the English gate.”  And to the West, as darkness comes — “the vanquished eve[ning]” symbolizes the defeated Britons/Welsh, and Housman makes it quite visual in his statement that the vanquished eve [i.e. the Welsh] “bleeds upon the road to Wales” — the defeated Welsh retreating into their last western strongholds.

Ages since the vanquished bled
Round my mother’s marriage-bed;
There the ravens feasted far
About the open house of war:

Here he is referring to an ancient battle.  It has been ages, he says, since the vanquished Britons lay bleeding “around my mother’s marriage-bed.”  He tells how at that place the “ravens feasted far / About the open house of war.”  The ravens were feeding on the dead bodies of those slain in battle.  Of course by “mother” he is speaking of a long-ago ancestor.  But why does he picture his mother’s “marriage-bed” in the middle of this violent chaos?  We shall see as we read on.

When Severn down to Buildwas ran
Coloured with the death of man,
Couched upon her brother’s grave
That Saxon got me on the slave.

The writer tells us it was when the river Severn — “Coloured with the death of man” — that is, red with blood — ran down from Shrewsbury to the town of Buildwas some 12 1/2 miles to the southeast, that was when his mother — a Briton — was raped by a Saxon on the site where her dead brother lay, in the middle of the battle.  And now we know what the “marriage-bed” in the previous stanza was — a place of death and violence for his “slave” mother.

The next stanza takes us up to Housman’s present — centuries after the battle:

The sound of fight is silent long
That began the ancient wrong;
Long the voice of tears is still
That wept of old the endless ill.

The sounds of warfare in the Welsh Marches has long been silent — the warfare that began the ancient wrong of Saxon against Briton.  And the voices all those who shed bitter tears over the wrongs done to them by the Saxons in those days have long been silent.

In my heart it has not died,
The war that sleeps on Severn side;
They cease not fighting, east and west,
On the marches of my breast.

The writer tells us that even though in the outer world, the sounds of battle and the tears are long past, they still exist in his heart — he still feels that struggle of East and West — of Saxon agains Briton at the Severn river — “on the marches of my breast,” which contains his heart — and the heart is the ancient symbol for the innermost feelings of a person.

Here the truceless armies yet
Trample, rolled in blood and sweat;
They kill and kill and never die;
And I think that each is I.

He still fees that dissension — that division — within himself, the struggle between his English and his Welsh side.  It is there that the ancient war goes on, never knowing a truce or pause.  He still feels the killing and death that seems to go on perpetually, and in each person killing and killed, he feels himself always in the battle.

None will part us, none undo
The knot that makes one flesh of two,
Sick with hatred, sick with pain,
Strangling– When shall we be slain?

So we know the writer feels an endless inner conflict of his Briton and Saxon ancestry — he is both, and the conflict pulls him in two directions perpetually.  This knot that binds his Saxon/English and Briton/Welsh ancestry will never be untied, and he suffers psychologically from the internal struggle — “sick with hatred, sick with pain,” and wonders “when shall we be slain,” that is, when this terrible inner conflict will end.

When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Puts to sleep my mother’s curse?

In this final stanza, he continues the thought expressed in the previous one — wondering when his internal struggle will be over.  When will he die, and at last be free “of the wrong my father did” — that is, of the great wrong the Anglo-Saxons — the English — did the Britons — the Welsh.  And he finishes by wondering how long he must suffer this internal division, how long it will be until he himself is finally dead, thus putting an end to the mental conflict though the spade that digs his grave and the hearse that bears his body there.

This is a rather unusual poem for Housman, with its sense of a person struggling over his internal dual nature.  It is not unique in its theme, however.  We find a similar conflict in Thomas Mann’s novel Tonio Kröger. In it, the protagonist Tonio is the son of a rather cold and authoritarian north German merchant father, and a very different artistic and sensuous Italian mother.  The polarization in his parents’ personalities is reflected by an ongoing conflict in his own.  Of course this is without the extreme violence of the Housman poem, but the sense of being pulled in two different directions by one’s own nature is much the same.  The question in both cases is when (or whether) the internal opposites will be united and harmonized.  In the case of Housman’s poem, the sufferer thinks it will never happen, but will end only in death.

Housman is deliberately vague about dates and times, because it is the psychological conflict of a border lad with both Welsh and English ancestry that he wants to portray.   As in his poem “On Wenlock Edge,” he moves from ancient times to his own time.  And it is set in Shrewsbury, because of its historical position in the Welsh Marches as the doorway between England and Wales — and the site not only of ancient conflicts but also of the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

The Welsh-English conflict did not end with the defeat of the Britons.  Even in the beginning of the 20th century, students were flogged in Wales for speaking Welsh to one another in schools — English being the only permitted language.  An old Welsh term for England was Gwlad y Saeson — “Land of the Saxon,” and even today the Welsh term for the English language is Saesneg — “Saxonish.”

There is much discussion among scholars today as to how accurately the early accounts describe the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain, particularly how violent the transition was. Archeologists claim to find little evidence of such violence, and tend to regard the Anglo-Saxons as mostly just peaceful farmers — but in Housman’s time the early accounts of the violence of the “Anglo-Saxon invasion” were generally accepted.

PLANTING HOLLYHOCKS

There was frost on the rooftops this morning, which is typical here for early spring, when the air is pulled back and forth between the lingering cold of winter and the increasing warmth of progressing spring.  It is time to begin planting seeds indoors, to later move into the garden when the arc of the sun is higher in the sky and the earth becomes warm enough for the young seedlings.

Today I planted some Russian hollyhock seeds (Alcea rugosa/Alcea taurica/Alcea novopokroskiy).  They are said to be from the Crimean and Caucasus regions, and they do quite well in my area (zone 8b, which has an average extreme winter temperature of 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit/9.4-6.7 Centigrade).  I grew them years ago, but lost them when I moved from a place with a garden space to one without — and I really felt the change.  Now that I am happily gardening again, I want them back.

Russian hollyhocks do not grow as tall as some hollyhocks and hybrids, usually between about three to five feet.  The flowers are a cheery light yellow, and also — unlike the hollyhocks one commonly finds in plant nurseries (Alcea rosea)– they are perennial, coming back faithfully each year.

And — this is very important — Russian hollyhocks are free of the fungal “rust” disease (Phragmidium) that plagues the  Alcea rosea hollyhocks — those with which most people are familiar.

For those wanting hollyhocks that are free of rust but offer more in color variety than Russian hollyhocks, there is fortunately another kind that is easy to grow and has a bright range of colors — the Fig-leaved/Figleaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), said to have originated in Siberia.  Its leaves are shaped rather like those of a fig, with toothed edges instead of the more rounded leaves of Alcea rosea.  And — oh joy! — it is rust-resistant.   Sometimes called the “Antwerp” hollyhock, you may find seeds of  it also under the name “Happy Lights.”

Hollyhocks are one of the old traditional garden flowers, and their blooming spires offer a strong and welcome height variation in gardens afflicted with that “flat” look — with all plants on the same level.

And speaking of the “flat” look, you have perhaps noticed — as I have — that taller perennials seem to be disappearing from the selections of plants in many nurseries.  The reason, of course, is that it is easier for growers to pack more plants into less space if they are quite short.  And so increasingly it is becoming harder and harder to find varieties of plants that are not “dwarf” varieties.  This benefits the commercial growers, not the home garden.  And you may also have noticed a decline in the range of flower seeds offered in nurseries and plant shops.  Some things that were once quite common have now become a challenge to find.  Following the pattern of modern society, there seems to be an effort to limit and standardize the variety of seeds available.  And perhaps you have also noticed that seeds are much more expensive than they were just a few years ago.

The rising cost of seeds and the difficulty of finding some kinds of flowers in seed form is a good reason for saving the seeds from your own garden each year, rather than assuming you will be able to replace them from garden shops the next growing season.  You may be disappointed.

But back to hollyhocks.  If you like the “old-fashioned” look to a garden, there is nothing that achieves it quite as well as adding a few hollyhocks.  Now you know that you can grow them without fearing rust, if you select the right kinds, and it is easy to save the seed of your favorites (and hollyhocks produce prolific seeds at the end of their growing season).

This year I am also planting a kind new to me — the Turkish hollyhock (Alcea pallida).  It grows from Greece and Turkey into the Balkans.  From the photos, it appears to be a very  pale rose color, with a more “wild” look to it.  I don’t have great expectations of it, but one never knows until a plant flowers in one’s own garden.

 

David

 

THE OBJECTIVE SELF

(Early Spring)

There and back,
The only footprints are mine;
The snowy road.

Because Objective Hokku is a very selfless kind of verse, we generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “mine,” except in cases where they are necessary for clarity.  That does not mean, however, that we do not use them at all.  We use them, but we use them objectively.  That means we speak of the self just as we would of a fox or a wild goose, or a river — without adding our own opinions and comments and interpretations.

Now oddly enough, when we do that, it removes the writer from the verse.  The “self” in the verse — the experiencer — then becomes the reader.  So when you read the hokku above, it is you seeing that the only footprints on the snowy road are yours, in spite of the fact that I wrote it this morning on my way back from walking through the snow to the grocery store.  And because that is the way of Objective Hokku, I am happy to disappear entirely from the verse so that it may become your experience.

That is how the self appears in hokku.  We might call it the “selfless” self.