MORNING WIND

The old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams attributes this autumn hokku to Bashō — though I have not been able to find it in collections of his verses.  In modern hokku terms it would be a daoku, that is, an objective hokku, but whether it was so originally, I cannot say.  Remember that sometimes old hokku were written with a double meaning.  I prefer to take it as objective, which makes it in my view a far better verse than a subjective interpretation would offer:

Morning wind;
Only one wild goose
In the white clouds.

Or we could revise it somewhat to improve the flow:

Morning wind;
Among the white clouds —
A lone wild goose.

Asa          kaze   ya  tada shira kumo  ni     kari          hitotsu
Morning wind   ya  only white clouds at wild-goose one

It gives us a feeling of solitude that one senses in many autumn hokku, when, as Nature begins to turn inward, so do humans.

It often seems to me as I translate, that when writing hokku, English generally gives us far more options for word choices and shades of meaning than the traditional Japanese “hokku” vocabulary.  Is that just a limited perception or reality?  It would be interesting to hear a  learned Japanese view on this.

 

David

 

 

 

 

LISTENING TO THE WIND

As I often say, some old Japanese hokku were needlessly vague — something we want to avoid when writing new hokku.  There is, for example, this verse by Sora:

yomosugara akikaze kiku ya ura no yama
よ も すがら 秋  風    聞くや  裏    の    山
All night autumn wind hear ya behind ‘s mountain

As it is written in Japanese, one would read it as:

All night long
Listening to the wind;
The mountain behind.

That, however, fails in English to adequately make the link between the wind and the mountain/mountains (remember that in Japanese there is no written plural)

I would prefer this understanding, in daoku form:

All night long,
Listening to the wind
On the mountains behind.

That way we we know that the writer is listening all the night to the wind blowing through the trees on the mountains behind where he is lodging.

Historically, Sora was apparently kept awake by an illness when he wrote this, but a hokku should not be linked firmly to its original circumstances if it is to become our experience as well — as a hokku should.  There are many reasons for being awake all the night, with only the sound of the wind on the hills.

David

 

PINE SHADOW

Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.

The autumn moon;
Across the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

Literally, in Japanese it is:

Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage
   名   月    や     畳     の 上  に   松     の     影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow

The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon.
Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.

We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:

The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.

It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.

We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:

Autumn moonlight;
A pine shadow
Across the floor.

As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku.  If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.

David

CHORA’S CLOUDS

Here is a hokku by Chora that requires a rather interpretive translation to make sense in English.

Autumn begins;
In the flowing clouds
The wind is seen.

The flow of clouds in the sky reveals the wind — the first sign of the wind of autumn that will become more and more obvious as the season progresses.  It is the wind that carries the clouds across the sky.

In the Japanese original, it is like this:

Autumn begins;
Clouds flowing —
The wind is seen.

If one reads that before the interpretive translation however, English speakers are likely to fail to see the connection between the clouds and the wind, which is why an interpretive translation makes the relationship clear — and thus is better.

Aki tatsu ya kumo wa nagarete kaze miyuru
秋   たつ や    雲     は  ながれて   風   見 ゆる
Autumn begins ya cloud wa flow wind is-seen

Remember that a hokku should be simple and clear; one should not have to puzzle it out.  Its effect on the reader should be immediate.  Vagueness was sometimes found in old Japanese hokku, but it was a flaw rather than a virtue, and should not be emulated when composing in English.

 

David

WHITE AND GREY

A hokku in daoku form by Shōha:

(Autumn)

On the white wall,
Shadows of dragonflies
Flitting by.

         壁  に  蜻  蛉  過ぐる  日 影    かな
Shira-kabe ni tombō suguru hikage kana
White wall on dragonfly pass shadow kana

The shadows of the dragonflies and their translucent wings on the white wall in the autumn sun are fleeting, and their impermanence is in keeping with  the sense of autumn as a time when impermanence is much in evidence.

This hokku is a study in grey and white — the whiteness of the wall, and the faint grey shadows of the dragonflies — so it is very simple, but also effective.

This daoku (objective hokku) is a good example of the “setting/subject/action” form because they are so clearly separated here:

Setting:  On the white wall
Subject:  Shadows of dragonflies
Action:  Flitting by

The S/S/A form is a very good one for beginners in hokku because it enables them to arrange the significant elements of a hokku experience easily, and countless hokku can be written using it.  Because it is simple does not mean, however, that it is only for beginners.  It is a good tool for writers of hokku at any stage, from beginner to very advanced.

For those of  you who may come to hokku from other short verse traditions such as modern haiku, be sure to note the definite characteristics of the daoku form:

It consists of three lines.
The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts to the verse, one long and one short.
The two parts are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark.
The daoku ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

Remember that unlike modern haiku, contemporary hokku in English has not only a definite form, but also definite aesthetic principles that the student of hokku must gradually learn and absorb.  Also unlike much of modern haiku, hokku keeps the strong connection with the seasons found in old hokku, so every verse has a seasonal heading in parentheses, as you see above.

Also, it is very important to remember that unlike much of modern haiku, contemporary hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

If you are unfamiliar with the term daoku, it simply means an objective hokku — one without any opinions or comments of the writer added, or as we commonly say, “no thinking.”  Daoku form means the standard form we use in writing contemporary hokku — the form shown above.

 

David

 

DUST AND RAIN

I have discussed today’s verse before (in 2017), but it is worth mentioning again in a little more detail.  It was written by Kyoshi, whose prolific verses on the whole tend to be rather bland, and who wrote in and beyond the time of Shiki.  He even took over as editor of the magazine — Hototogisu — that Shiki had formerly edited.  That means we are in the “haiku” period, even though like Shiki, Kyoshi kept season words and a more conservative kind of verse that was sometimes indistinguishable from hokku — which is why I am discussing a verse by him today as daoku (objective hokku) in English.  Here it is:

Falling
On the dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
石    の  上 の       埃  に  降るや   秋  の   雨
Stone ‘s on ‘s   dust   at  falling ya autumn ‘s rain

I think of this as one of those transitional verses written at the time when one season has begun merging into another, in this case summer has transitioned into autumn.  We still feel the lingering heat and dryness of summer in the dust on the stones, but the rain is the rain of autumn, and its drops spatter the dust on the stones into mud.  It is a very objective verse, and quite good because it not only lets us feel the seasonal change clearly, but it also has a strong appeal to the senses in its mixture of dryness (Yang) and wetness (Yin).  So we see it is a verse with harmony of contrast.

You may recall that harmony of contrast is a technique used in hokku through combining things felt to be opposite or contrary in a way that reveals an underlying harmony, as in this combination of dust and rain, dryness and wetness, that nonetheless create a very satisfying combination.

We could translate the verse very closely to Kyoshi, like this:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

There is something a bit awkward about that, however, as we often find when we try to translate more literally.  So we could translate a bit more loosely, while still keeping the meaning:

Spattering
The dust on the stones —
Autumn rain.

You may recall that I once made a slight variation on Kyoshi’s verse in this daoku:

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

R. H. Blyth spoke of the poet “dissolved in the object,” by which he meant the same as we say in hokku: that the writer must get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That selflessness is the objectivity of daoku.  Today’s verse, therefore, well qualifies as daoku– objective hokku.

David

 

HOKKU AND POVERTY

As I have mentioned many times, when R. H. Blyth wrote about haiku in his four- volume set under that title, as well as in his two-volume History of Haiku and in his other writings, what he was really talking about was hokku.  Yes, he included verses of Masaoka Shiki — the “founder” of haiku — in his anthology, but as we have seen, Shiki for all practical purposes still wrote hokku; he just re-named his verses and declared his “haiku” independent of linked verse, though hokku had already often been written independent of linked verse even in the times of Bashō.

So that means generally, when we read Blyth, we can simply substitute “hokku” for the anachronistic term popular in the Japan of Blyth’s time, “haiku”; and I shall do that in what follows.

When, in his book Oriental Humour, Blyth writes of hokku, he says this:

Chinese culture was to a large extent that of rich people, at least of scholars, but in Japan, especially from the seventeenth century [the time of Bashō], there was a poetry of poverty, quite different from that of the Renaissance culture of Europe, based as much of it was upon power and wealth.

Senryu, no less than hokku, arises from poverty, that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty.

Further, he writes something that many may find shocking:

To live the life of hokku it is necessary to be poor and obscure; it is a difficult and narrow way, and few and fewer there be that find it.” (pages 208-209)

Elsewhere, Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write hokku, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.

Now what does all this mean for the writer of hokku today?

Well, it does not mean you have to get rid of everything you own and empty your bank account and live on the street.  It does mean that we — as writers of hokku — should live simply, non-materialistically, and close enough to Nature to be keenly aware of its changes within the seasons.  It also means that we should be able to appreciate simple food and simple pleasures such as a warm blanket on a cold night, or a cool drink of water on a hot day.  We should be able to recognize the essentials in life, and not live as though possessions answered spiritual needs (which they definitely do not).  It means we live modestly rather than extravagantly, and we do not try to “make a name for ourselves,” which simply feeds the ego — and hokku is definitely not “ego” verse.

On reading of “… that material poverty which invariably accompanies spiritual poverty,” one thinks of those like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote ‘The necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.’  We should be very aware of just what we choose to add to those basics in our lives — and why.  Blyth once suggested that we should have few possessions, but those few should be of the best quality for the purpose that we can manage.

Hokku asks us to look — as Thoreau once did — for the essential facts of life, and not to clutter it with all that is unnecessary and pointlessly distracting — all that our consumer-based society tries to convince us we need — in spite of the environmental and spiritual cost.

Of course in the Japan of the old writers, poverty was common and often right at the door.  We live in easier times today if we are fortunate (and many are not, even in the supposed “wealthiest country in the world”) — but we should still keep to the simplicity and selflessness of hokku.

That poverty also extends to the verse we write.  Hokku is not a florid or extravagant kind of verse.  It uses simple words in simple ways.  It does not try to be clever or intellectual — in fact hokku deliberately avoids intellectualism of all kinds — including the luxury of a writer ornamenting or elaborating or commenting needlessly on his subject.  Everything is kept very bare, using only what is essential to convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the changing seasons.  That is why we often mention three of the important characteristics of hokku as poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

That does not, of course, mean that the life of hokku is without pleasure, but it is not the kind of pleasure modern society often so frantically seeks.  Instead, the life of hokku is one of simple pleasures, and those may be found in many places, and often without cost.  Here is a hokku in daoku form by Bashō:

(Autumn)

Among the stones
In the stone seller’s yard —
Blooming chrysanthemums.

菊      の     花  咲く や  石屋  の  石   の  間
Kiku no hana saku ya ishiya no ishi no ai
Chrysanthemum’s flower bloom ya stone-seller ‘s stones among

 

David

THE ABANDONED BOAT

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

In the abandoned boat,
The hail
Bounces about.

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

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

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

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

 

David

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

 

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 blows out;
The sound of wind
Through 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

 

 

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.

 

AUTUMN GUSTS

Autumn gusts;
Leaves blow along with me
As I walk.

It is a very windy morning here on the day before Halloween.

As you know, Halloween is the ending of autumn and the beginning of winter in the Hokku Calendar.  It is one of the cross-quarter days, which means it falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice, in this case between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.

Halloween marks the beginning of the long darkness of winter nights, when the days are at their shortest.  So in the hokku calendar,  it is the entry to the most Yin time of the year — Yin being associated with cold and darkness and the withdrawing of the energies of Nature.

The full moon after Halloween — the Frost/Frosty Moon or Beaver Moon — will be on November 4th this year.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David

 

AUTUMN BEGINS: TAIGI’S EVENING RAIN

 

An autumn hokku by Taigi:

Autumn begins;
The evening shower has become
A night of rain.

We feel the change of the season in the change from a temporary shower to prolonged rain.  We also feel the autumn reflected in the growing darkness of evening to night.

Hatsu-aki ya yūdachi nagabiku yoru no ame
Beginning autumn ya evening shower prolonged night’s rain

 

David

Sunrise

 

(Autumn)

Sunrise;
My very long shadow
Walking in front.

Sometimes the simplest things seem meaningful, like the lengthened shadow we see stretching ahead from our feet when walking westward on a morning in the beginning of autumn.

As you know, in hokku we generally avoid the use of  “I,” “me,” and “my.”  The reason for this is that hokku takes the focus away from the ego.  Unlike much modern verse, it is not all about the “I” and its likes, dislikes, and whims.  But there is also an additional reason.  If hokku become too personal  — too particular — that is, too particularly focused on one person’s life — then it is difficult for others to relate to such a verse.  But if the hokku event is a more general human experience, then many people can relate to it — can have the sensory experience presented in the verse.

That is why this verse — even though it uses the word “my” — is still not an “ego problem.”  It is a verse people in general can relate to.  It is an ordinary experience, but that a hokku can be made of it just reminds us that hokku are often about things we already know, but don’t know that we know.  So the “my very long shadow” easily becomes the shadow of whoever reads the verse.  That means it is possible to use “I,” “me,” or “my” in hokku without an undue focus on the self.  Even though we generally avoid them, if we understand the reasons behind that avoidance, we are free to use them when appropriate.

 

David

EXPRESSING AUTUMN: TWO HOKKU BY CHARLES TUSKEY

Today I would like to share two verses by the long-time writer of hokku, Charles Tuskey.  They are very expressive of autumn:

All day,
It is twilight;
Autumn rain.

  

The wild geese;
Sounding far off, they come —
Sounding far off, they go.

wildgeeseflying_1

These two very effective examples remind us clearly of the fundamental definition of the aesthetics of the hokku — that it is a verse form expressing Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  And they remind us that hokku at its best is a sensory experience.

I am very pleased that Chuck permitted me to post these verses.  They show that hokku can be written today that are as good as those written in the distant past.   They also show that though the hokku aesthetic tradition is centuries old, it enables one to produce verses that are fresh and timeless.

David

AUTUMN DREAMS, AUTUMN SNORES

Leaves of the Copper Beechen (Fagus sylvatica)...

A pleasant hokku for the early part of autumn is this by Suiō, in spite of its unconventional arrangement.

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And grasshoppers chirring.

It is evocative of the warm, drowsy, earlier part of autumn, when the warmth of summer is not entirely gone, and the world has begun to turn russet and gold and brown and the leaves have slowly begun to fall.

The dreams reflect the transience of life, which is felt more strongly as autumn begins, and the sleep in which they come reflects the beginning of a period of hibernation and return to the root.  And the regularity of the snores of the sleeper (-s) is reflected in the chirring of the grasshoppers.  I have talked more about the importance of the principle of reflection in hokku in earlier postings.

This verse is very good for showing how the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature — as part of the annual cycle along with everything else.

Just a note on translation.  I actually prefer the hokku in English, which is a bit more clear than the original Japanese, which says simply:

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And grasshoppers.

The Japanese writers of hokku often made things just a bit too vague for English-language taste, because there was such a tradition of making strong intuitive leaps from minimal information to the wider, unstated implications.  But in English we do not have that strong tradition.  And though we are quite capable of making intuitive leaps, we like things spelled out a bit more clearly — which in the case of this hokku is a distinct advantage.

It is true in general that English is a far more precise language than the rather archaic, clipped literary language used in old hokku.  As I have said before, some old hokku were so vague in the paucity of information given that to this day no one is entirely sure what the writer intended.  In our contemporary hokku tradition, that is considered merely bad writing, because for a hokku to be most effective, one should be able to grasp it immediately and without confusion.

 

David

 

 

AUTUMN BEGINS: INCLINING TOWARD THE TRANQUILITY OF HOKKU

In previous postings I have discussed the relationship between Zen and hokku (yes, there is one).  Today I would like to talk briefly about where Zen and hokku differ.

Kodaiji Teahouse Dimage 0159

First, Zen is more inclusive than hokku.  Hokku deliberately restricts its subject matter, avoiding topics that trouble or obsess the mind.  That is why hokku generally avoids (R. H. Blyth says “abhors”) “the sentimentality and romance and vulgarity which Zen will view with equanimity

Zen views such things with equanimity, but ordinary people who have not reached that high level — meaning the people who write hokku — do not, are not yet able.   That is why hokku avoids wars and pestilence and plagues and riots and disasters.  It is done, again as Blyth says, because “we wish to forget them, and must do so if we are to live our short life in any sort of mental ease.”  That is even more true of our modern and very stressful society.  Hokku is a quiet refuge in the midst of the turmoils of life, and all the more valuable for being such.

Hokku, being a contemplative verse form (particularly as I teach it), consequently follows the old tradition of  avoiding violence and sex and romance and all things that unduly disturb the mind.  Instead, it turns our attention to the changing seasons and to Nature, treating humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.  That is the subject matter of hokku.

That is in great contrast to modern haiku, which generally has virtually unrestricted subject matter.  In haiku one may write about iphones and digital TVs, about wars and rumors of wars, about social injustice issues and one’s new girlfriend or boyfriend and all the intimate details.  Not so hokku.

That means there is a refreshing peace and purity to hokku.

Bashō expressed this peace and purity somewhat indirectly in an autumn hokku that is very culturally Japanese, but the principle behind it is universal:

Autumn nears;
The mind inclines toward
The four-and-a-half mat room.

That makes a rather awkward and obscure hokku in English until it is explained; what Bashō was saying is that as one feels autumn beginning, the mind feels the need for a withdrawal from “the world” into the peace of the small, spare, aesthetically tranquil little room of the hut in which the tea ceremony is performed, that peaceful, quiet, studied practice that was so important in traditional Japanese culture.

We could translate it in English as

Autumn nears;
The mind is drawn
To the teahouse.

That, however, does not achieve the feeling of the original, because a tea house in English does not convey the earthy, simple aesthetics of the small, grass-matted room in which the Japanese tea ceremony was performed.

So though we cannot use this hokku as a good model for writing in English because of its cultural difference and the need to explain it, we can nonetheless appreciate the desire expressed in it to be in keeping with the nature of autumn, which is a retiring from the busy world into silence and simplicity and a kind of inward contemplation.

That tells us a lot about hokku as compared to haiku.  Modern haiku, in general, has lost this intimate connection with Nature, this simplicity and tendency toward contemplative spirituality, as it has evolved to encompass all kinds of subjects and emotions.  But hokku still is what it was — a peaceful refuge in a troubled and stressful world.

That is why we all may feel, as autumn now begins, that our minds — our hearts (the word is the same for both in Japanese) — incline toward this peaceful refuge of hokku, while around us, all of Nature begins to fade and wither and decline and return to the root.

David