One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst. Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here. But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity. In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry. That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today. Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now. All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme. Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:
And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!
That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far. In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!
It is almost a hokku. In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:
No sky nor earth,
And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:
In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.
That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.” Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.
I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:
The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand.
Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about. In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.
For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow. Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two. There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer. That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.
I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.
I recently posted information about the hokku calendar. If nothing else from it sticks in your mind, remember these two things:
1. Autumn /fall and winter are the two yin seasons; spring and summer are the two yang seasons. In the yang seasons, yang is growing and will gain predominance over yin. In the yin seasons, yin is growing and will gain predominance over yang.
2. Each season, for the purposes of hokku, is divided into a beginning, a midpoint, and an end, which in hokku we describe as, for example:
Now as to why we pay so much attention to these things, it is simply because in hokku we wish to remain constantly connected to and in harmony with the season, because hokku is essentially about the season and how it manifests itself.
The full moon of autumn, which old hokku referred to by the epithet “the bright moon,” is what we call the Harvest Moon, which is technically the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox.
Using traditional names, here are the “moons” of August through December — the moons of declining Yang and increasing Yin. Keep in mind that the “moon” name is not only the lunar month name, but also the name of the full moon in that month, which I have given here corresponding to our regular calendar months:
August: The Green Corn Moon
September: The Corn Moon
The Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which can occur in September or October.
October: The Falling Leaves Moon
November: The Frost Moon
December: The Long Night Moon
August and September, the Green Corn Moon and the Corn Moon, have slightly different significance in Britain and America. In Britain corn is grain; in America corn is maize.
From windy grasses
It rises —
In hokku aesthetics, we find that it often favors that which is undecided, undetermined, incomplete. We see that in two verses which superficially appear very different. The first is by Chora:
The summer moon;
On the other side of the river —
Who is it?
Old readers here will immediately recognize this as a “question” hokku, a verse in which the whole point is that the question remains unanswered, leaving us with that “not-knowing” feeling.
Taigi wrote a verse that is not a question hokku:
The bridge fallen,
People stand on the bank;
The summer moon.
Blyth — because the people are standing on a bank — assumes that the bridge has washed away, and in fact he so translates it. But the point I want to make here is that we see the bridge has collapsed; we see the people on the bank staring at where it had been. What will they do? How will they cross? How will it affect their lives? None of this is told us. We are left with that uncertainty, that sense of “not-knowing,” and here you see precisely what this verse has in common with a “question” hokku, even though it is not a question hokku. Both have that sense of something unanswered, unfinished, incomplete. And it is that particular feeling that such hokku wish to evoke.
It is worth mentioning in passing that hokku avoids violence and disasters. Occasionally we will find something rather borderline, like Chora’s verse about the fallen bridge, but it is not really over the boundary, and its point, as already mentioned, is in what the verse evokes.
We can see, however, that when people began to change the hokku into something else near the beginning of the 20th century, an un-hokku-like harshness was introduced, as in this verse by Shiki, who in this case crosses the line into a kind of verse alien to the spirit of the hokku:
Without a home —
Twenty thousand people;
The summer moon.
Shiki wrote this about the great fire of Takaoka, apparently that in 1900. This is more journalism than verse. The catastrophe and its scope are not right for the aesthetics of hokku, and this, along with the gradual and increasing introduction of technology, led to new kinds of verse that diverged ever more sharply from the contemplative aesthetics of the hokku.
But of course these later kinds of verse increasingly and rapidly lost also the influence of Buddhist spirituality. That is why we make a clear distinction between the aesthetics of hokku and those of other kinds of verse that may have been loosely inspired by or descended from the hokku.
Incidentally, all three of these verses may be found on two facing pages in Blyth. All but the first are my translations. The first — by Chora — is in Blyth’s translation, which one can hardly better.
All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons. That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate. In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or to even just a dry season and a wet season.
I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons. Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.
Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well. That is to keep us in harmony with Nature. Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.
But on to summer hokku. We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe. These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.
Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.
The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:
Winter is deepest Yin. When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang. As Yang grows, winter changes to spring. As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin. As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.
The same cycle happens in a day. The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang. Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.
This is the cycle too of life, including human life. Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day. And then come evening and night, old age and death.
One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.
Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn. In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases. In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.
The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness. This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter. So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.
That was a rather long but essential introduction. But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites. That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku. It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season. So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer. The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day. And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).
It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes. There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.
I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another. It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword. But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out. One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly. That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:
They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.
Kyorai wrote that. We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer. We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.
There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it. This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things. Hyōka wrote:
There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler. It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer. That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.
An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:
Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.
Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element. That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh. Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.
Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:
The clear water.
Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing. The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.
Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days. Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.
And so we return to our original premise: All hokku are seasonal hokku. At base, each verse is about a season. So summer hokku should express the summer in some way. And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.
We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct. Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.” Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.
That is how hokku works.
I was remiss in not posting a hokku for Vesākha, the remembrance of the Birth, the Enlightenment Nibbana (Nirvana) and the Passing Away (Parinibbana) of the Buddha.
Vesākha takes place at the time of the full moon in May.
In hokku it is generally best not to be too overtly religious or “preachy,” so this verse by Chora fits quite well:
A mountain temple;
No one comes to venerate
The Nibbana picture.
It is an isolated temple in the hills, too far for people — who are or think they are busy in any case — to come and make their devotions before the picture of the Buddha’s passing — his final entry into Nibbana.
It reminds me a little of Memorial Day, when so many people think they have better things to do than to pay respects to the memory of their relatives who have passed on.
Nonetheless, in regard to the hokku, the Buddha is still the Buddha, recognized or not, with or without pilgrims. It reminds one of the ancient saying,
Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.
“Called or not called, the god will be there.”
In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing. Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.
Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom. Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.
We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life. So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.
In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.
This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms. One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….
Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:
All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.
In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms. The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.
Even Issa has this reverent attitude:
Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.
Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:
Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.
Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.
Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.” We could also translate it like this:
The rustle of falling
Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku. The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.