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.






Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.






New Year’s Day;
A crow sips a puddle
Thawed by the sun.


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A change would mean all comments would be visible by the public except those the sender specifically requests be kept private and visible only by me.  Except, of course, for spam, obscenity, and other irrelevant messages, which are deleted.







Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.




We all know that Shiki was the individual who began the revisionism that has proved so disastrous for hokku — so damaging, in fact, that in the 20th century most people did not even realize that Bashō and all the others up to Shiki wrote hokku, not haiku, let alone having any inkling of the aesthetic principles necessary for the reading and writing of hokku.

And keep in mind, revisionist though he was, Shiki was still on the conservative end of things, if we look at the history of haiku overall.  Most haiku written today have as little in common with what Shiki called haiku as they do with hokku, and are in fact quite new kinds of verse.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the trouble.  Shiki had a predilection for art, which is no doubt what attracted him so to Buson; Buson was the most painterly of hokku writers, and his verses often show his “artistic” intent, usually not for the better.  Then too, Shiki was influenced by Western open-air painting, and he came up with the notion that a “haiku” — his revisionist version of hokku — should be a kind of nature sketch in words.

We can see that in one of his “winter” verses (remember that Shiki, unlike most Western haiku enthusiasts, still held season to be an essential element):

Akaki mi    hitotsu koborenu   shimo no niwa
Red   berry   single  fallen         frost    ‘s    garden

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

I often talk about how Shiki’s verse tends toward mere illustration, and this is an excellent example.  We could, in fact, turn it into a block print using only two kinds of ink — red and white.  A red berry seen against the white frost background.  One could make it of construction paper, a red dot on a white page.

It is, in a way, an experience abstracted from nature.  It reminds one inevitably of William Carlos Williams’

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Aside from the extraneous “so much depends upon,” that too is essentially just a color assemblage, though slightly more advanced than that of Shiki.

Shiki’s verse is a tiny, circular spot of bright red set on a field of white.  It could be simply an abstract painting  — “Red Dot on White Field.”  It has its virtues for what it is, but it is a step away from what hokku should be.

Shiki takes the first step toward abstraction by not telling us what kind of berry it was.  That leaves us with the spot of red.  Thoreau would not have done such a thing.  To Thoreau a berry was not a mere spot of red; it was a winterberry, or perhaps a tree cranberry, or some other specific thing.  To Thoreau, as for hokku in general, Nature was not in the abstraction but in the specific particular.  So in hokku, when we write about a red berry, we want to know specifically what kind of berry, because then it will immediately appear before our inner vision as itself, not as an abstraction.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki    karasu mo yuki no    ashita kana
Usually hateful  crow    too  snow ‘s    morning kana

Usually hateful,
The crow too
This snowy mornin

That is a bit cryptic in English, because in Japanese one was expected to “intuit” what the writer meant, which was simply

The usually hateful crow is also something pleasant this snowy morning.

And of course one was to know automatically the reason for this, which is that the crow, being so black, looks quite pleasant when seen against the pure white background of snow.

Now we can see that Bashō’s hokku too would make an interesting block print — simply a black crow against a white background — but Bashō has not abstracted the crow into a generic black bird, as Shiki has done with the berry, and of course with the crow there is life; one sees it stalking about in the cold whiteness, turning its head.

Such differences seem small, but it is by failing to understand such things that one fails to grasp the essential nature of hokku as different from other kinds of verse, including much of haiku.