I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:


Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.









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There are many ways of arranging the elements of an experience to make a hokku.  We always think first of the common “Setting/Subject/Action” method, found in hokku such as this slight variant on one by Seibi:


The flame of the lamp
Does not move;
The freezing night.

In that example, the setting comes at the end:  The freezing night.
The subject is The flame of the lamp.
The action is Does not move.
Because of its simplicity, the Setting/Subject/Action pattern is very good for those beginning hokku, and it can result in very good hokku when the elements — together — make an interesting event.

Today we will look at another way of arranging the elements in a verse.  This one we can call the “Subject/Action” pattern, as in this verse by Rankō:


Withered reeds;
Day after day breaking off
And floating away.

The subject is Withered reeds.
The action is Day after day breaking off / And floating away.
We see the “Subject/Action” pattern also in such hokku as Chora’s


The windy snow —
Blowing about me
As I stand here.

The subject is The windy snow.
The action is Blowing about me / As I stand here.

There is also another way of writing Subject/Action pattern hokku — the little variation in technique called “Repeated Subject.”  In using that variant, the subject is first mentioned, then referred to again with a pronoun (it, they, he, she)  This is how it works with the two verses we have just seen:

Withered reeds  —
Day after day they break off
And float away.


The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand here.

Whether to use the regular Subject/Action pattern or the “Repeated Subject” variant depends on the effect the writer wishes to achieve.  Notice that with the regular Subject/Action pattern, an action verb used with it usually has the -ing ending (“breaking,” “floating,” “blowing).  But with the “Repeated Subject” variant, we find third-person (singular or plural) verb forms (“break,” “float,” “blows.”).


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There are a LOT of holiday movies out there on DVD.  Most of them are really mediocre.  Much is made about the old — and still pleasant — It’s a Wonderful Life, which is frequently seen on television every year sometime during the holiday season.

Views of course differ, but in my opinion, the all-time best holiday movie is the old 1951 black and white production of A Christmas Carol (released as Scrooge in England) — the one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  There are several movie versions of the classic Dickens tale, but accept no substitutes:  the absolute best of them is the Alastair Sim version.  And be sure to watch it in black and white, not the colorized version, because the latter loses a good part of its visual effect.


And for something lighthearted, if you can find it, The Cheaters (1945) is another pleasant holiday surprise among old black and white films (why are so many of them, made at a fraction of the cost of today’s films, often so much superior?)  In it you will find Billie Burke, who also played the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.


Yesterday I discovered a much more recent film (2007) — in color — that is so well done it really should become a holiday classic, though I was previously unaware of it.  It is a film made in Finland, where it is titled Joulutarina.  The title of the English version, available on DVD, is simply Christmas Story.  It is directed by Juha Wuolijoki.  It is well written, beautifully acted and filmed, and if I tell you what it is about, it would spoil the surprise.  Suffice it to say that you will see something familiar in a quite different perspective.


The important thing about these films for the winter holiday season is that they may allow us to look beyond the superficiality of so much of modern life to a deeper significance — a change that comes from within rather than from without.



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Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:


The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.




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Though there are many “secular” songs for the holiday season such as the very popular “White Christmas” (written, oddly enough, by the Jewish Irving Berlin), there are also numbers of older songs which, even though one may not have the slightest interest in Christian dogma, are traditional and very often heard.

My point in mentioning this is linguistic. I have noticed that many people, even those who have heard or sung these songs all their lives, are not quite sure what some of the words mean.

It is not a matter of mishearing, such as thinking that “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is actually “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night.” It is a matter of not knowing what certain old terms mean, because the words are no longer used in everyday speech.

So as a preface to the holiday season, here is a discussion of such often puzzling words in some old Christmas carols.

Let’s being with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” This is not, as some kids think, a song about an angel named Harold. “Hark!” is an exclamation meaning “Listen!,” “Turn your attention to the sound!” In old literature we often find the related “hearken,” as in “Hearken to my words,” meaning “Listen attentively to my words.”

So the lyrics are saying “Listen! The herald angels sing…” A herald is someone who proclaims a message, often a message sent by royalty or some other state authority. So “herald angels” are official messengers sent to bring and proclaim a message.

Later in the song come the words “With th’ angelic host proclaim…” “Th'” is of course just an abbreviation of “the.” But what is a “host” here? It does not mean a host who entertains or takes care of a guest or party, as used today; instead it comes from the old meaning, “a multitude of soldiers,” “an army,” though in this particular case “heavenly host” is generally just understood to mean “a multitude of angels,” a “great crowd of angels,” with no emphasis on “army.”

The carol “Angels We Have Heard on High” sounds at first as though it is addressing angels, but it means simply “We have heard angels high above.” And when it speaks of mountains “echoing their joyous strains.” “Strains” is the problem word here. Today “strain” commonly means either to filter something or to damage a muscle; but in this carol it is a plural noun meaning the phrases of music sung by the angels; today we would just say that the mountains “echo back their joyous song.”

And of course many people have no idea what the carol means when it goes off into its long Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a in Excelsis Deo. That is because it is Latin, derived ultimately from the very old Vulgate translation of the Bible. It has nothing to do with a girl named Gloria, but means instead “Glory (Gloria) to God (Deo) in the height” (in excelsis) or as the King James Bible gives it, “Glory be to God on high.”

People happily sing the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” but they almost never understand what it means. It does not mean “God give you rest, merry gentlemen”; instead, it uses the word “rest” to mean “keep in a certain condition.” So “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” means “May God keep you merry, gentlemen.”  “Merry” is a very old, bu now seldom-used word in English (I always think of the old line from the Liber Eliensis (c. 1175), Merie sungen ðe muneches binnen Ely ða Cnut ching reu ðer by — “Merry sang the monks at Ely as Canute the King rowed there by”).  And when it finishes up with “O tidings of comfort and joy,” “tidings” means “news.”

And then there is the popular “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” “Deck” here means “to ornament, to adorn.” So it is referring to putting up branches of the holly tree in rooms to ornament them. And then comes the now-notorious “Don we now our gay apparel,” which originally meant simply to put on bright and colorful or festive and cheerful clothing. It continues with “Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” “troll” meaning here to “sing with a full and merry voice” the very old carol of the Yule time, Yule having become the “Christmas” season.

“See the blazing Yule before us.” means “Look at the burning Yule log (in the fireplace) in front of us.” The burning of the Yule log in the fireplace at Christmastime was an old English tradition. “Strike the harp” means “Pluck (play) the strings of the harp.”

A word often heard in regard to the Christmas season and in some Christmas carols is “Noel.” It is borrowed from Middle French (and Anglo-Norman), and signifies “Christmas.”

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Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

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

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”


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Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.”  This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.

We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
   Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
   To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
In state his glory well-befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions

An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —

Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts.  Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times.  In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).

All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change.  It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.

Here is the link to the article:





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