HARMONY OF CONTRAST: PLUM BLOSSOMS AND CHARCOAL DUST

Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.

David

POPPING COALS AND PAINTED PINES

I have already said that Issa’s hokku reflect a scarred and sad childhood.  That is why he tended to project his emotions onto other creatures and things:

Asabare ni   pachipachi sumi no   kigen kana
Morning-clear at pop-pop charcoal ‘s good-spirits kana

This bright morning,
Pop! pop! goes the charcoal
In good spirits.

This reminds one immediately of Hans Christian Andersen, who similarly had a difficult childhood and constantly projected human thoughts and emotions onto creatures and things. “Crick! Crack! said the furniture” — that sort of thing.

This is a very old way of behaving, in which what is unconscious in a human, instead of being made conscious, is projected onto the outside world.  Do you remember childhood pictures in which the sun and moon have human faces, flowers have voices, and so on?  It is the same kind of attitude.

Personally, I do not like it in hokku.  I prefer things as they are, free of the projections of the writer.  That demands a more mature attitude from the reader.

In Issa’s verse, it is not the charcoal that is in good spirits; it is Issa.  So very often Issa is not really writing about sparrows or snails or other things — he is writing about Issa, projected onto those things.  That is why much of his verse is so unsatisfactory as hokku, though it greatly appeals to sentimentalists.

Bashō wrote:

Kinbyōbu  matsu no furubi ya   fuyugomori
Gold-screen pine ‘s   aging ya winter-seclusion

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

“Winter seclusion” was a common topic in old winter hokku.  It is remaining inside for long periods of time because of the inhospitable weather outside.  It is somewhat like the old farm families in the United States being snowbound.  With no place to go and very little to do, one turns inward.

That is what happened to Bashō.  As the minutes and hours passed, he looked at an old gold-leafed screen on which a pine tree was cleverly painted, and in the slow passage of time he felt the pine on the screen aging along with everything else, though it was painted and not living.  That is basic Buddhism.  Everything passes, everything changes, nothing remains forever, whether a pine painted on a screen, a pine growing on a rocky crag, or even the crag upon which it grows.  Bashō is experiencing the transience that is so much a part of hokku.

David