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.

THE HOLES IN THE ROOF

The medieval Japanese woman Izumi Shikibu, whose life spans the late 10th to early 11th centuries, wrote a waka that we might render simply and loosely like this in English:

Where the wind

Blows through the gaps

In the roof,

The moonlight

Also shines in.


It amounts more to a kind of proverb than a poem — one gets the good with the bad, the light with the dark.  A pessimist will notice just the cold wind, but an optimist will see the moonlight.  Most of us lie somewhere between.

We could also see it as a kind of Buddhist parable:  the difficulties, suffering and impermanence of life can also be the impetus for us to take the path to enlightenment.

PURE EXPERIENCE

Issa wrote a hokku that we might render in English as:

Half of it
Is fluttering snowflakes;
Spring rain.

It is not a profound hokku, but it does express the “mixed” nature of early spring weather, when we still feel the Yin effects of winter though spring has weakened them.

The hokku makes a statement, but it is not an interpretation.  That is important in distinguishing Objective Hokku from other kinds.  It just tells us — objectively — what Issa saw (those last two words make me want to say “I saw Issa sitting on a seesaw” really fast), and because it is limited to that, we see it too.

That is the great virtue of Objective Hokku (in contrast to other kinds of hokku); it does not put a writer between the reader and the experience.  And it does not block the experience with unnecessary words and interpretation.

In Objective Hokku, the difference is that we present the experience directly, in simple words.  We do not write about the experience — we write the experience.  Now of course we use words to do that, but the words are not important for their own sake — as they are in what we usually think of as poetry.  Instead, the words are just the means of conveying the experience, as a cup conveys the experience of drinking cold water or hot tea.  We do not want them to get in the way.

Nor do we want the writer to get in the way.  If he or she does, then we no longer experience the hokku directly.

Issa wrote another hokku in which he “gets in the way” of the experience by adding an interpretation:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The foolish crow.

Instead of just presenting us with the mist and the morning and the continual caws and rattles of the crow, he comments that the crow is “foolish,” or we could also translate that as “stupid.”  Issa has added his own “thinking” to the experience, so it is no longer objective.  He has obscured the pure experience with his own opinion.  To remove his comment, we could rewrite the verse as Objective Hokku, like this:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The crow.

I hope you see what a difference that makes.  It is no longer Issa telling us about his experience, it is now we who are having the experience itself, with nothing added, and no writer’s interpretation in the way.

Now how you react to Issa’s verse — and to the objective version — will tell us how you react to verse in general.  Some people are not accustomed to thinking of verse as pure experience, without the added comments, opinions, or “thinking” of the writer.  Some feel that to be “poetic,” all of that must be added.  But as I constantly repeat, we should not think of hokku as “poetry” in the usual sense.

The great difference is that in Objective Hokku, the poetry is not in the words.  They are — we could say — only the seed of poetry, that when read by the receptive reader suddenly sprouts into the experience in the mind.  And that experience itself, pure and alone and unobscured — is the poetry in hokku.

In the first hokku, the experience is the spring rain, half mixed with fluttering snow.  In the third, revised hokku, the experience is the spring mist and the continuous noisiness of the crow from morning on.

This purity of experience, with no writer or comments to hinder it, is the very essence of Objective Hokku.  If you find that a significant discovery, then you are the kind of person who can appreciate Objective Hokku and its remarkable aesthetics.

 

David

OBJECTIVE HOKKU: THE VERSE OF SENSORY EXPERIENCE

What is Objective Hokku?

It is a hokku of things — not about our opinions of them or our interpretations of them.  It is somewhat like tasting a bowl of soup.  If someone asks you what you think of the soup, or what it reminds you of, or what it is like — then what you tell them is subjective.  It is you talking about the soup, giving your opinions and interpretations of it — not the actual taste of it.  So in hokku, we do not talk about the soup, we just hand you the bowl and say, “Here … taste!”

Because it deals with the “thing in itself,” Objective Hokku has no symbolism, no metaphor, no similes.  It has meaning, but that meaning lies in the sensory experience, not in any explanation of it.

Objective Hokku is the distillation of the old Japanese hokku tradition down to its purest essence — the sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of the changing seasons.

In Objective Hokku we leave aside all other aspects of the range of old hokku and focus on what is best and most unique in that tradition — the ability of one writer to transmit a sensory experience of Nature to another person, without any commentary or ornamentation or ego intervening.

Because our goal is to achieve that in the writing of hokku, we need not concern ourselves with how or why hokku were written in old Japan, or what the intent of the original author was.  All we need do is to open ourselves to experiencing Nature and the seasons now, and to learn how to simplify an experience down to its essentials.  Then we put that experience into a few simple words.

I often use translations of old Japanese hokku as examples of Objective Hokku, even though some of them originally had hidden allusions or meanings other than their “surface meaning.”  To us that makes no difference if, as they stand, they work as Objective Hokku.  We take the obvious meaning and leave the rest, because in Objective Hokku, the meaning is in the experience; nothing is hidden.

We see that in this spring hokku by Onitsura:

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

It is primarily visual, but there is also an undertone of touch in the chill of the morning air as the eastern sky lightens.  It allows us to experience a dawn in early spring, when the Yang energies — the active, warm energies — are growing, and the cold passive Yin energies are beginning to wane; spring is growing and winter is receding.  We see Yang in the dawn and in the young barley leaves, and we see lingering Yin in the white frost that covers their tips.

Here there is no symbolism.  There is only the bare experience, with nothing whatsoever added to it. Further, there is no writer visible anywhere in it, because the writer has become a clear mirror that reflects without addition or distortion.  That is how a hokku experience is transmitted — selflessly — from one person to another.

It is important to note that even though I like to use selected old Japanese hokku as examples of Objective Hokku, one need know nothing about Japan or about the history of hokku.  All we need are the principles of Objective Hokku as we practice it today.  That makes it a living thing, not a relic of the past or a subject of academic speculation.

It is important to note that people too are a subject for Objective Hokku, but people seen as part of Nature, in the context of a given season, as in this spring verse by Suiha:

Spring cold;
The puppeteer
Keeps coughing.

In Objective Hokku, we see the constant change inherent in Nature, inherent in our existence.  Impermanence — transience — is at the very heart of hokku, because it is at the heart of life.

In future postings I hope to discuss Objective Hokku in more detail — its aesthetic principles, and how to write and read it.  If there is anything you do not understand in these discussions, please ask, because no doubt there are others with the same questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPRING AND NEW BEGINNINGS

We are only a few days away from Candlemas — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.  I am certainly seeing signs of it where I live.  Tiny crocuses, both blue and yellow, have already burst into bloom in my garden, much to my surprise.

I have been thinking a lot about this site and where I would like to go with it as spring begins.  I have decided to continue discussions of hokku and of poetry, but in addition I will expand the range of topics to include just about anything I am moved to write about.  That may include some subjects people might find troubling, perhaps even occasionally politics (shudder!), but probably only when that relates to the well-being of the planet or human rights.  In any case, for those of you who like to avoid such subjects, be forewarned.

Among other topics I shall likely spend some time on are gardening (one of my favorites), and discussion of books, whether new or old — but probably more often the old.  At one time I had even planned to open a blog titled “The Belated Reader,” where I could talk about interesting books from the past that deserve more readers.  Instead of doing so, I shall just incorporate “The Belated Reader” into this site.

Then too, there will probably be some postings on our changing climate and environment — a troubling topic, I know, but a critically important one which has begun to affect us all in one way or another.

In addition, I will likely post now and then about religion and spirituality, and the differences between the two, and along with them, the importance of freedom of thought, speech, and expression.

As for hokku, the original subject of this site before I expanded it to include discussions of poetry in general, I plan to review what it is and how to read and write it.  My approach this time will be somewhat different however, as I want to move away from hokku in general toward a specific discussion of objective hokku as a field in itself, seen in its own context.  That will enable me to focus on the one kind of hokku I consider the most unique and worthwhile.

Whatever the topic, I hope both long-time readers and new readers here will continue to find something of interest on this site.

OH — OBJECTIVE HOKKU

Let’s look again at some good winter hokku:

The daikon puller;
He points the way
With a daikon.

That is one of the best of Issa’s hokku.  A daikon is a very large, long, and white radish, much like a giant carrot in shape.  Here, when Issa stops by a field and asks directions, the daikon puller holds out a daikon, using it as a pointer to show the way.  It is like a part of his arm.  Knowing this is a winter hokku, we can feel the cold air, and see the mud adhering to the long white daikon.

In Japan, daikon is a staple winter food.  It is particularly good in winter cooking — such as in soups and stews — because it is beneficial for the lungs.  One finds it appearing more and more in American markets.

Here is a verse by Rankō:

Withered reeds;
Day by day they break off
And float away.

That hokku is notable not only for its austere simplicity, but also for the attention — the awareness shown by the writer, who noticed the poetry in the breaking and floating away of the withered reeds — something many would pass by without a glance.

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

As the light of day begins to fail, flakes of snow begin to fall — first only a few, then increasingly more and more.  We cannot help but sense there is some deep meaning in this because we feel it, but we are helpless to put it into words.  It is a meaning of the senses and not of the superficial intellect.

Wordsworth similarly said,

To me the meanest [most common or insignificant] flower that blows [blooms] can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
In hokku what we find is a sense of significance rather than intellectual thoughts — that lie too deep for any words of explanation.  It can only be felt, not explained.  But the interesting thing is that when we read the words of the hokku, which are not words of explanation, but simply present the experience, that feeling of some deep, unspoken significance arises within us.
That is the amazing thing about hokku — the thing so many miss who look on it as “poetry.”  But as I have often said, what we think of as poetry in the West is generally nothing at all like the hokku seen above.
Each of them is an experience of the senses, not of the “thinking” mind.  Because of that, the impact of each hokku — as was just said — lies too deep for words; it is below the level of thought.
Further each of these hokku — these experiences of the senses — is set in a particular season — the season of winter, in this case, which deepens the sensory experience.
And also — this is extremely important — each of these hokku is completely objective.  Each merely presents the experience in three lines of simple words.  There is no explanation, there is no symbolism nor simile nor metaphor.  When we read the hokku, we have a wordless experience, though it is transmitted through words.
It is this aspect of Japanese hokku — or modern hokku in English or other languages written in the same spirit — that I find most significant and important.  There were other kinds of hokku in old Japan, but I see objective hokku as the most significant contribution of Japanese hokku to posterity — a legacy valuable enough and universal enough to be continued in our modern world through the writing of new objective hokku.
So if you want an identifying abbreviation for this kind of hokku, we can call it OH — Objective Hokku.  In it there is no ego, no explanation; only the simple, sensory experience with a significance that lies too deep for words.
David

ACTIVITY AND REST: FROST’S “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Today we will look at one of the best-known winter poems — Robert Frost’s

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

The poet is passing by a forest at evening.  He thinks he knows who the owner of the forest is, but it does not matter.  The presumed owner lives in the village, not out here in the country, so he will not see the poet stopping to watch the snow falling and covering the trees and ground.  No one will suddenly appear to ask him why he is there or what he is doing.

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year. 

The poet is there with a little horse, and he supposes the horse must think it strange that the man wants to stop without any farmhouse — the kind of place where he would usually stop — nearby.  Instead, the poet has paused between the snowy woods and a frozen lake, on this, the darkest evening of the year.  By “darkest evening of the year” the poet means it is the longest night of the year, which comes at the Winter Solstice.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.  
 

The horse gives his head or body a sudden shake — which rings the many harness bells attached — to indicate that the creature feels there is something amiss; it must be a mistake to stop out in “nowhere.”  Other than that quick shake of the harness bells, the only other sound in that isolated location is that of the easy wind filled with light and fluffy snowflakes.

From what has been said so far, we can see that the poet’s little horse has harness bells — sleigh bells, which were worn about the neck or around the body just behind the front legs, or in both places,  so the poet has come to these snowy woods in a sleigh pulled by one horse.  The bells were used on sleigh horses so that people in the path of a sleigh could hear it coming, and move accordingly.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

The poet thinks to himself that the woods are beautiful, they are dark, and they are deep; he would like to just remain there in the chill, dark silence — far from the noise and worry of the human world — but he cannot.  He has made promises.  He has places he must be, appointments he must keep.  He must continue on his way back into the everyday world of people, because he has much to do before he can rest that night — miles yet to go before his work is finished and he can sleep.

The repetition of the last line

And miles to go before I sleep

is for emphasis, as if one is saying, “I have a long way to go, yes, a long way to go.”

The charm of this poem lies partly in its simplicity — simple words and simple rhymes — and partly in the sensory experience it provides — the cold of the night and the snow, the sound of the flakes blowing in the easy wind and the metallic jingle of the harness bells, the dark depths in the forest.  But the charm is also in the lack of details.  That is important.  We do not know who the man is, or what promises he has made that he must continue on his way, or even where is is going.  That raises the unanswered questions in our mind that we find so often in old and modern hokku, and they give a similar effect — what we may call the “unanswered question” experience.

What we do know is that for him, this pause to watch the snow falling on the deep and dark woods is a respite, a brief relief, a moment of rest from all the cares of his life.  It gives the reader too an immense sense — for the moment — of peace and tranquility, before we are called back to our responsibilities.

Though there are many possible explanations of the who and why, it would have been a fitting poem for a country doctor in the old days — one who had his visit or visits to make among scattered farmhouses, but who stops for one brief moment of peace somewhere between, to watch the woods fill up with snow.  However, he has people or patients he must see, so cannot pause as long as would like — but must continue on his long way, knowing that he will have much to do before he can finally return home and sleep.  Perhaps you have your own interpretation of the man and his duties and his goal — or wish to apply them to someone you know or to yourself, in a metaphorical way.  But the best is not to interpret them at all — just accepting the poem as it is, with its unanswered questions.

We could say that this poem — aside from its beauty — is a contrast between what we must do as humans who have our duties and responsibilities, and what we would like to do.  In terms of Chinese philosophy, it is a contrast between the yang of activity and the yin of peace and stillness and rest.  And of course the poem is set in the cold winter — the most yin time of the year.

Many people apply this poem symbolically, and then the man’s journey through the night is his duty-filled daily life, and his brief pause by the dark, chill forest is the call of death and rest — but the man has responsibilities in life that he must fulfill before he can rest in death.  Yet Frost does not actually say or imply anything about death, and I do not think the poem is to be read in that way.  In my view, Frost’s poem is both simpler and deeper than that — the often overlooked depth of everyday things like snow and cold and darkness.  But it is just human nature to find meanings — to take something and see it as a symbol of something else — so people tend to give even simple poems meanings beyond what the poet intended.  We see the same in the interpretations people attach to Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” particularly the lines

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet Frost himself made clear that he had intended no profound philosophical meaning in those simple lines.

I think what people tend to miss in Frost is that the depth and profundity in life lie in ordinary, everyday simple things — not in the intellectual interpretations we attach to them.  That is also the message of the verse form known as hokku.

IT SIFTS FROM LEADEN SIEVES

Today — now that we have entered the dark of the year — we will look at a poem on snow by Emily Dickinson.  If we consider the position and presumed tasks of women in her day (1830-1886), we should not be surprised if it then reads as a “feminine” poem.

Let’s examine it part by part:

IT SIFTS FROM LEADEN SIEVES

It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

The snow falls slowly, like flour falling through a leaden — meaning heavy and slow here — sieve or sifter.  One may also think of “leaden” as referring to the grey color of the sky from which the snow falls.  Thus the poem begins with an image well-known to women, the sifting of flour for baking.

The snow — like fine white flour — “powders all the wood” — it covers the trees in the forest with whiteness.  It also fills the “wrinkles of the road” — the ruts and highs and lows and wagon and buggy tracks — with “alabaster” wool — meaning wool that is very white.  Alabaster is a translucent white stone, but it is being used as an adjective here to mean “pure white.” Dickinson is likening the falling flakes of snow to tiny tufts of pure white wool.  That is again something with which women of the 19th century would have been very familiar, from their spinning and weaving and related household tasks.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

Likely still thinking of the snow filling “wrinkles,” Dickinson says that it “makes an even face” of the mountains and the plain — that is, the hills and the flat areas below, smoothing them, making an “unbroken forehead”  — that is, a wide smooth area — from East to West.  We see in this the preoccupation of many women of the time with having a smooth and pale complexion — something Dickinson uses here to poetic advantage.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

The wide, flat expanse of snow reaches all the way to fence, and slowly “wraps” it — that is, begins to cover it rail by rail, until it is “lost in fleeces” that is, obscured by the whiteness of the deep snow, which Dickinson again here likens to wool — a “fleece” is the wool taken from a sheep or goat.

The snow “flings a crystal veil” — that is, it covers as if with a translucent white cloth — the stumps of trees, the stacks  — perhaps of hay left out, and of other things — and the stems of plants.  She calls this area “the summer’s empty room,” because it is the fields and gardens empty and flat after the harvest.  She describes it as “acres of seams where harvests were” — that is, the rows of stubble (now covered by snow) where crops once grew, which she likens to the long seams made by women in their sewing.  And she adds that if it were not for these remaining traces of harvest, there would be no record — no evidence — of the crops that had grown there in summer; they would be “recordless,” without evidence or remembrance that they had once been.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

The snow surrounds the bases and joints of posts, creating what Dickinson likens to cloth “ruffles,” such as might be found on the “ankles of a queen.”

The last line is a bit tricky, and rather ambiguous at first sight.  Dickson has spoken of the snow ruffling the “wrists of posts,” then says it

…stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

Grammatically, “its artisans” must refer to the artisans of the snow, but who or what are they?  The best explanation I have seen is that the “artisans” are the falling snowflakes, which vanish like ghosts when the snow stops falling, as though they had never been in the air.  But their work — the white covering of hills and fields and posts — is left behind.  The creators are no longer seen — having disappeared into the creation.

It is not a perfect poem, and certainly far from the best poem one might find on the subject of snow.  Dickinson greatly mixes her metaphors, from baking to cosmetics to sewing and costuming, but it does create a poem to which a woman of her day could easily have related because of the familiar allusions to household tasks and personal grooming interests.

THE PERSISTENCE OF NATURE

Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.

 

David

 

SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

AUTUMN ENDS

Autumn ends;
Again the cries of wild geese
Passing overhead.

Yes, autumn is ending, according to the old calendar.  And it ends with Halloween, the night before the old Celtic holiday of Samhain — (pronounced Sah-win) –which is only a few days away.  Then comes the beginning of winter — the time of turning inward.

 

David

 

THE AGING YEARS

As people grow old, their friends and acquaintances begin more and more rapidly disappearing, one by one — leaving this life.

Last night I dreamed I was talking with some elderly ladies in a sort of “do-it-yourself” retirement home.   They mentioned someone who was gone, and I said to them,

You go someplace
And you knock on the door,
And the person who was there
Isn’t there anymore.

Just then I began waking up, and realized it rhymed, and formed a kind of simple poem that summarized the common experience of those in their later years.

 

David

 

“POETIC” HOKKU AND DAOKU

I often express the view that the best hokku are those that keep the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That means hokku expressing an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, through one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

There were, of course, many hokku that did not do this — even though written by the same author.

In the West, we are not accustomed to poetry that focuses on a sensory experience of Nature.  It is, in fact, rather rare in English-language poetry.  People encountering sensory hokku for the first time therefore often fail to recognize it for what it is, being accustomed to verses in which a poet expresses personal feelings about something, or expresses a point of view, or uses an event in Nature as a prelude to a poem discussing personal emotions or opinions.  So in general, there is a lot of “I” in English poetry — a lot of the “self,” a lot of the poet expressing opinions and emotions, or else simply trying to be clever in words.

What all this means is that when a Westerner first encounters hokku, she or he will commonly view it in terms of Western poetry, which is, for the most part, quite different from sensory, objective hokku — so different, in fact, that even thinking of such hokku as poetry only contributes to the misperception.  That is why I say that in trying to understand hokku — by which I generally mean sensory, objective hokku — it is best not to think of it as poetry, because we in the West are not accustomed to viewing objective sensory experience as poetry.

Westerners are generally far more at ease with verses such as this one, by Buson:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku   yume no hit0-dori
Morning-mist picture in painted dream’s people-passing

Morning mist;
Painted into a picture —
Dream people passing.

That is a verse completely unlike sensory, objective hokku.  Instead, Buson (who was also an artist — a painter) has added his imagination to the verse.  “Morning mist” is sensory enough, but the remaining two lines of the hokku are simply Buson’s imaginative interpretation of an event.  The event itself  consists of people passing through the morning mist.  Buson, however, has used his imagination to make it into an analogy with painting:  in his interpretation, the morning mist becomes the white paper, and those passing though it become misty watercolor people.  It makes an interesting image, and for what it is, it is rather good poetry — but it does not at all do what sensory, objective hokku do, which is to take us away from the imagination and intellect into pure sensory experience.

Compare Buson’s verse with this, by Kikaku:

Tombō ya  kurui-shizumaru   mikka no tsuki
Dragonflies ya disorder-calms  third-day moon

We have to gloss it a bit to get the meaning in English:

Dragonflies;
They cease their wild flight
As the crescent moon rises.

This is a simple statement of what is happening.  The sensory experience is primarily visual.  We see the erratic, wild flight of the dragonflies end with the rising of the crescent moon.  There is no likening it to something else, no interpretation.  It is just what it is, with no “thinking” or emotion added.

Now historically, both Buson’s “dream people” verse and Kikaku’s “dragonflies” verse are both technically hokku — but they are worlds apart, two completely different kinds of verse using the same form, but using different aesthetics to fill it.

When the Western haiku (as distinct from hokku) movement really got underway — which did not happen for all practical purposes until the 1960s — many of its enthusiasts automatically gravitated toward verses using “thinking” and imagination rather than sensory, objective verses.  That is because the former are much more like conventional English-language poetry than the latter.  As time passed, this trend only became magnified, which resulted in Western haiku moving ever farther away from its inspirational origins in Japanese hokku.

As long-time readers here know, I favor sensory, objective hokku.  I do so because they are what was unique and innovative in old hokku.  Their existence can be traced to the influence of Daoism and Zen Buddhism on Japanese aesthetics, so one could refer to such objective hokku as “Zen” hokku — but not because of any connection to Zen as a religious organization.  It is their simplicity and purity  that make the connection.

Because of these historical, aesthetic influences on sensory, objective hokku, I like to refer to this category of hokku as daoku — “Dao” or “Tao” verses: hokku that give us an objective experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature through one or more of the five senses, without the addition of the writer’s ego, imagination, intellection, or interpretation.  Those verse are really — in my view — the best that Japanese hokku had to offer, a unique gift to the world.  And those are the verses that make the best models for learning objective hokku — or daoku — today.

Daoku, by the way, borrows the word Dao — meaning the Way — the Way of the Universe, the Way of Nature — from the Chinese language, and the word ku — meaning “verse” — from Japanese.

AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Though the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

SOME NECESSARY DOOM AND GLOOM

Here is what is happening where I am:

Autumn heat;
The red sun sets
In a smoky sky

The smoke is from distant wildfires.  Wildfires are a part of Nature, so the scene in the hokku is not unusual from time to time.

But lately — because of the changing climate — wildfires have become widespread and more frequent — along with heat waves and drought — and that, scientists tell us, is only the beginning.

We are quickly moving — sad to say — toward the edge of an environmental cliff.  I would encourage everyone to read this article:

Dyer: Scientific word is out on coming ‘Hothouse Earth’

Things have reached a crisis point.  We need to do what we can — including some basic lifestyle changes — to attempt to slow and if possible eventually reverse this disastrous course; and of course we must as quickly as possible vote out of office anyone who refuses to seriously work to offset climate change. Hold politicians accountable.

There are lots of little things that can be done. If  you eat meat, stop.  The raising of cattle for meat contributes substantially to the destruction of the environment and to climate change.  Of course the worst offender is the burning of fossil fuels.  Be aware of the companies and businesses that are the worst offenders in fossil fuel consumption, and deal with them accordingly in your personal habits.  Apply an awareness of fossil fuel use in your daily life.  Look for alternative transportation when possible.  If you have a lawn, use a push mower — or better yet, reduce your lawn to a minimum or take it out entirely, and plant flowers that encourage bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  Cut your water usage by favoring drought-resistant flowers and other plants in keeping with your region.

I have a very small flower garden.  This summer my neighbors’ lawns on both sides were like mini-deserts devoid of life, while my little garden was filled with blossoms and honey bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and regular visits from a hummingbird.  It not only makes an environmental difference, but it is far more pleasant than a monotonous stretch of lawn.

Climate change will not go away by ignoring it and going on with business as usual.   The heat waves we are seeing now in various places around the world — and the deaths and discomfort resulting — are only the beginning of what are likely to be even more catastrophic and widespread events as normal weather patterns become increasingly disrupted and abnormal. Food and water supplies are threatened; mass migrations and social upheaval will be serious consequences.

I don’t like to talk about these things, but the situation is far too serious and the resulting effects on the world climate  — and consequently on human, animal, and plant life — far too dangerous to ignore.  We all need to become advocates for climate and environmental protection.   What we collectively and individually do — or do not do — will determine the future of our species on this planet — including whether our species is to have a future.

GOING TEN STEPS

Shiki wrote a very simple but effective autumn verse, though it does not look like much literally translated:

Mon wo dete  juppo ni  aki no umi hiroshi
Gate wo going-out  ten-steps at autumn sea wide

We have to put it in English and loosen it up a bit to see its significance:

Going ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

We could phrase it like this:

Going ten steps
Out the gate;
The vast autumn sea.

Or we could write it like this:

Just ten steps
Beyond the gate;
The vast autumn sea

We could also translate it as:

Just ten steps
Beyond the door —
The vast autumn sea.

“Vast” — which is also the word Blyth chose in his version — is preferable in English to the less effective “wide.”

The point of the verse lies in the sudden expansion of the visual horizon:  as one goes out the gate/door, there before us lies the vast sea of autumn.  It is a very strong use of the “small to large” technique in writing, in which one first sees the small element (the gate/door), and then the large element (the sea).

We saw a similar expansion from small to large in Issa’s autumn hokku:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

First we experience the (small) hole in the paper door, then through it we move to the (large) vastness of the Milky Way — the “River of Heaven.”

It is noteworthy that one could set Shiki’s verse in any season, but each would have its own feeling:

The spring sea;
The summer sea;
The autumn sea;
The winter sea;

That is because we experience things as a whole.  Much of modern life tries to abstract things from their environment, but that is wrong.  We do not just see the moon.  We see the spring moon, or the summer moon, or the autumn moon, or the winter moon, each with its own feeling and significance.  In hokku we return to this connection between humans, Nature, and the seasons — seeing things in a more “wholistic” and connected way — which is really the way they are.  Things do not exist as abstractions, but only in relation to other things such as season, weather, etc.  In Shiki’s verse, we are not separate from the autumn, and the autumn is not separate from the sea.

Learning — or rather re-learning this relationship of all things — is fundamental to the successful writing of hokku.

 

David

 

COMPOSING HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF AUTUMN

Now that we have entered the season of autumn — which by the old calendar extends from Lammas to Halloween — we will look at how the old writers expressed the season.

Not all old hokku were equally effective, and many do not make good models.  We will look at those that do, and perhaps also at some that do not, because it is helpful to see why some succeed while others are weak.

Here is a hokku by Issa:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale blue sky —
Autumn mountains.

That is a very simple hokku — in fact rather reminiscent of the later Shiki, in that the sensory impression is primarily visual.  But of course we are to feel autumn in the air, and the waning of the Yang energies.  There is harmony between the autumn season and the evening.

In the original, Issa does not say “pale blue sky,” he just says asagi — which in earlier Japanese literature meant a kind of pale yellow color, but later came to be considered primarily a pale to turquoise blue.  Notice how the hokku changes if we were to use the more literary meaning of the word:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow —
Autumn mountains.

In English we would want to make it more clear to avoid confusion:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow sky —
Autumn mountains.

Blyth treats “clear” as a verb in his rendering:

Clearing up in the evening;
In the pale blue sky.
Row upon row of autumn mountains.

That makes for a rather overly-long verse (in keeping with Blyth’s tendency toward explanatory translations).

We could simplify it to:

A clear evening;
Rows of mountains
Against the pale blue sky.

Again, it is primarily a visual hokku, but it gives a pleasant picture of evening mountains seen against the sky.

We can see in these various renderings the same principles we apply when writing new hokku — look for the essentials of an experience, and simplify, cutting out words not necessary for meaning.  But we do not cut so much that the verse becomes unclear.  That is why “sky” is added above, even though it is not in the original — for clarity.  We do not want to leave a reader wondering what is meant, because that obstructs the immediate experiencing of the verse.

Here is another primarily visual autumn hokku by Ryōta:

August;
At every house,
The  morning glory blooms.

The blooming of morning glories is a sign of the beginning of autumn, so in this verse, we see autumn in the flowers that twine and bloom at every house — autumn’s beginning is seen everywhere.

The original actually uses a rather poetic term for August — hazuki (ha-tsuki) “leaf-moon/leaf-month,” but of course that does not work in English.

We could also write a verse like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We could have phrased it like this —

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

That changes how we experience the verse.  If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house
The morning glory blooms.

— we see the houses first, then the morning glories blooming at them.

If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

— then we see first the blooming morning glories, then all the houses at which they bloom.

We could also write it like this;

At every house
The morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

We could also put it like this:

August begins;
At every house,
Blooming morning glories.

However, the repetition of the -ing sound in blooming morning glories is not quite smooth, so instead we could say —

August begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We know that Lammas — August 1st — is the beginning of autumn, so even though the month is mentioned rather than the season, we know it is the beginning of autumn.  Still, it is not quite as effective as

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

As you see, there are lots of options — even more than given here.  It all depends on what we wish to emphasize, and how we want the reader to experience the verse.

For practice, think of indicators you see or have seen that signify the beginning of autumn — and remember that in the hokku calendar, autumn does not just begin with falling leaves, but with any sign of the seasonal change — including even the sensing of the change “in the air,” as in this verse by Kyoroku:

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

There is also the similar verse of Chora, which again has morning glories as a signifier of summer’s end — the beginning of autumn:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

Try to use one or more indicators you notice in your area (in separate hokku if more than one) to express the beginning of autumn.

 

David

HARVEST HOME: SUMMER’S END

When my morning glory begins to bloom and blossoms appear on the Japanese Anemone, I know summer is ending by the old calendar, and it is time for autumn to begin.

The calendar marker for this change is the old festival of Lammas — “Harvest Home,”  — the halfway point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  That happens on August 1st.   It was at this time  — or a few days later, depending on location — that the harvesting of the grain began, and its storage in barns.

That does not mean the hot weather is over; it just means the Wheel of the Year has turned, and now the Yang energy will increasingly wane as Yin energy grows, though the effects will likely not be really noticeable for about a month.

To us it signifies that we are now moving from summer hokku to autumn hokku.  Here is a repeat of something I have posted before:

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.”

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

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

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

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

When you read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma MèreMy Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

 

David

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.

SEEN THROUGH A HOLE

R. H. Blyth wrote that in autumn the Milky Way is most clearly seen and felt.  Sadly that is no longer true in many places.  The reason is the pollution of the night sky by uncontrolled artificial lighting.  These days, a city dweller is fortunate to see even a few stars at night.  We have lost touch with our place among the stars.

Issa wrote:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

To understand that, one must know that a shōji is a door or window that is a light wooden frame covered with white paper.  It allows light to penetrate, but of course one cannot see through it unless there is an accident — a hole poked or torn in the shōji.

So in this hokku, Issa is in the darkened interior of a poor house where holes in the shōji paper are not quickly mended.  He notices that through the hole, he can see the dark night sky outside; and slanting across it, the faint brightness of the Milky Way, which Japanese call the River of Heaven.  Among Native Americans it was commonly known as the Spirit Road or Spirit Path — the path followed by spirits to the afterlife.

Neither Issa nor nor Native Americans knew that the Milky Way is actually what we see when we look toward the center of a galaxy in which our planet is less than a dust mote.  We live on our tiny planet about halfway between the center and the outer edge of a cosmic whirlpool composed of untold billions of stars.  And our galaxy is just one of many billions of galaxies in the universe.

 

WHAT ZEN IN HOKKU REALLY MEANS

I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.

 

David