DON’T LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE: LEARNING HOKKU BY PLAYING WITH MODELS

Many people think of Masaoka Shiki as a writer of haiku, but much of what Shiki wrote was simply hokku under a different and now very misleading name.

Because they were generally still hokku in form and content, Shiki’s verses were not at all like much of the modern haiku one finds on the Internet.  They even retained the season words that were essential to traditional Japanese hokku.

Shiki, however, was very influenced by the concept of Western “open air” painting — making a quick sketch out in the fields or forests  — that had become so popular in the Europe and America in the 19th century.  That accounts for why Shiki’s verses often are like illustrations, like woodcut scenes from Nature and life in general.

Shiki was very good at writing such “block print” verses, which are pleasant in their own way, even though they may lack the depth of earlier hokku.

Here is one of my favorite autumn verses by Shiki:

Aki ie no              to ni neru inu ga              yanagi chiru
Empty house ‘s   door at sleeping dog ga   willows fall/scatter

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

Autumn is the time when the active energy — Yang — of life diminishes.  It is the time when the great dying in Nature begins, when the energy of life begins returning to the root in preparation for winter.

If we look at Shiki’s verse, that decline of active energy is present in its three elements:

1.  In the sleeping (inactive) dog;
2.  In the emptiness of the house;
3.  In the falling of the willow leaves.

So we can see that this verse is very much in keeping with the character of autumn.  But keep in mind that none of these things are symbols or metaphors.  We just feel these connections because of the layers of associations such things have for us.

There is a kind of overall loneliness in the verse, which again is in harmony with autumn.  Where have the people gone who once lived in the house?  Was the sleeping dog abandoned when they left, or is he a wandering stray who has found a place to sleep where no one will chase him away?  We are not told what the past was, which makes us just focus on what is before us, yet leaving us with the underlying feeling of something left unspoken.

In Nature, autumn is the waning of the year;
In human life, autumn is our years of growing old after middle age.
In the daily cycle, autumn is the late afternoon and early evening.

I always see this verse of Shiki as happening n the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, with everything quiet and drowsy, and the yellow willow leaves slowly scattering through the air.  This is the peaceful pause before the cold and hardness of winter.

But in learning hokku we do not let sleeping dogs lie.  Instead we take an old hokku and we play with it, trying different options and possibilities and substitutions.  That is a very good way to learn how to write new hokku.

For example, we could make this change:

A cat asleep
On the porch of the empty house;
Autumn rain.

Or

A broken doll
In the window of the empty house;
The autumn evening.

There are many, many possibilities, and of course much of what we come up with in this practice exercise may not be as good as the original model, but that does not matter.  The point is that we are learning how to form hokku, and also learning to see what is effective and what is not.  Now and then we may hit upon something that works very well.  And of course, very importantly, we are seeing how changing the elements in a hokku also changes the relationship among them, and how by doing so we alter the whole effect of the verse.

Shiki wrote another autumn “empty house” verse that is not nearly as good:

Asagao no chi wo haiwataru   aki ya kana
Morning-glory ‘s earth wo rambling  empty house kana

A morning glory
Rambling over the ground;
The empty house.

One reason this verse is less interesting is that it tells us everything.  What you see is what you get.  There is no sense of anything deeper, of anything left unspoken.

In the “sleeping dog” verse, by contrast, we feel that there is much we are not told.  Where did the dog come from?  What will become of him?  And because of the dog, we wonder what happened to the people who lived there that caused them to abandon the house.  Not knowing all of that gives the verse a kind of latent energy.  But we do not feel nearly so invested in the “morning glory” verse.  It is just an untended garden plant wandering across the unkempt ground around a vacant house in autumn.  In that sense, it is far more “just a picture” than the “sleeping dog” verse.  There is no significant latent energy in it.

That missing sense of unspoken depth makes all the difference between a hokku that is just “flat” and a hokku that holds our interest.  Shiki often fell into the kind of verse that is just a lifeless photograph, but in the “sleeping dog” verse, he succeeded in writing something that affects us more deeply.  That underlying feeling of something left unsaid, combined with the overall harmony and unity of the verse, helps to express quite well the character of autumn.

 

David

FALLING LEAVES AND WILD GEESE

Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.

David

DESCENDING GEESE, FALLING LEAVES

Some Japanese hokku seem to defy translation into English, even though their meaning is not difficult.  An example is Kyoroku’s:

Descending geese —
Their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night.

As one group of geese comes down from the sky, followed by yet another, their cries seem to layer one upon the other.  This piling of cry on cry only intensifies the cold of the night.

Does this verse seem a little familiar?  It should, because it is similar to Gyōdai’s

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

In Japanese, forms of the word meaning “to pile up, to collect on one another” are operative in both, which I translate here as “pile on one another” in the first case and “lie on one another” in the second.

LEARNING FROM OLD HOKKU

Every good hokku is simultaneously a pleasure and a lesson.  We enjoy the experience of it, but we can also learn how to write our own hokku from it.  Take this verse by Bashō:

In the original it is:

Ochikochi ni   taki no oto kiku   ochiba kana

Literally,

Far-near at   waterfall ‘s sound hear   falling-leaves kana.

We can translate it as:

Far and near,
The sound of waterfalls —
The falling leaves….

Again we may think back to Sōgi in very early hokku, who often used two things joined by a third — a simple but effective way to write hokku.  Here those two things are:

1.  The sound of waterfalls
2.  The falling leaves

And they are joined — united — by the third, which here is the setting — “Far and near.”

In my region this would be an autumn hokku.  The autumn rains have begun and fresh snow has fallen in the high mountains — so the waterfalls will have increased their flow.  Then too, now that November has begun, the leaves are falling in profusion.

Using Bashō’s verse as a learning model, we do not have to stray too far from it to make another autumn hokku:

Far and near,
The cries of wild geese,
The falling leaves.

We have changed only one line, but that has quite altered the verse, making it something new.  See how easy it is to learn from old models?  Only one step, and we have a new hokku.

And of course we could continue to change this line or that line or all of the lines, making countless variations on the pattern that would fit reflections of the present season or any season.

David

FALLING LEAVES

In old hokku, falling and fallen leaves are generally a winter subject.  But where I live, as well as in many other parts of North America, they are generally more appropriate to deep autumn.

Ryōkan wrote:

The wind
Brings enough for a fire —
Fallen leaves.

Have you noticed that old hokku often put the main subject of a verse last?  That gives us a kind of “wondering” buildup to the answer:  The wind brings enough what for a fire?  Then the answer — fallen leaves.

Buson does the same thing in another hokku:

Blown from the west,
They pile up in the east —
Fallen leaves.

To remember this technique, we might call it the “What is it?” technique.  In the first first, we ask “What is it the wind brings enough of?”  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

In the second we ask, “What is it that blows from the east and piles up in the west?  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

If you remember that, it will help you when an experience fits that technique.

Here is one of my very favorite hokku, by Gyōdai:

Falling leaves
Lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

Notice how this verse has a kind of parallelism reminiscent of old Chinese verse, and we can put the parts side by side like this for study:

Falling leaves lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

The first line has the subject fallen leaves and the action lie on one another.
The second line  has the subject rain and the action beats on rain.

In hokku we want to avoid perfect parallelism in all things, so in this one the third line — comprising the entire second part of the parallelism — is shorter than the first part.

Ryūshi wrote

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

That is the regular setting-subject-action hokku.

The setting is “stillness.”

The subject is “the sound of a bird.”

The action is “walking on fallen leaves.”

Many old hokku are about the sound of one thing or another.  You will recall that the best-known of all hokku — Bashō’s Old Pond verse (a spring hokku), has “the sound of water.”

I will end today with another good hokku by Taigi, very expressive of the autumn season and its changes:

Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
Fallen leaves.

At first the falling leaves are few, and easily removed.  But as autumn deepens they fall in ever greater numbers, until finally one just gives up and lets the season follow its course.

From this we learn that hokku is not simply a “moment in time,” but rather an expression of time and change.

And do not overlook that Taigi’s hokku also fits the “what is it?” technique:  What is that that we first sweep up, then do not sweep up?  Fallen leaves.

David