THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good hokku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:

(Spring)

Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

cropped-trout.jpg

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.

OLD POND, OLD WELL

As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in, —
The sound of the water.

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.

David

WORKING WITH PATTERNS

In studying contemplative hokku, a very good way to begin learning is by using patterns.

Patterns are hokku “frameworks” that we can use for writing countless new hokku.  By using them we learn the feel of the hokku form, and by changing the elements of a pattern we learn gradually to write original verses.

One of the most common patterns in hokku is the “standard” pattern, which consists of setting, subject and action.  For example, Shiki wrote:

A summer shower;
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We can easily use that as a pattern, replacing adjectives and nouns and verbs, etc.,  to make any number of new hokku.

Here is an article I wrote some time ago (you can see that I wrote it in autumn).  It shows how to use old hokku as patterns for learning to write new hokku:

Let’s begin by working with a slightly different pattern, a hokku by Gyōdai:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

And here is how one uses a hokku as a pattern for learning:

All parts of it can be changed, as long as one keeps the same basic form.

We can see that this is a standard hokku, meaning that it has a setting (the autumn hills) a subject (smoke) and an action (rises here and there).  These three elements need not be divided precisely line by line.  For example in this verse, the subject is found at the beginning of the third line, while the action is divided between the third line, where the verb is found, and the second line.

Do not worry about the order in which subject and action come, but rather just be sure there is a subject and an action.  We will keep the setting as the first line for this practice.

In the model verse, the setting is

The autumn hills;

That is an adjective followed by a noun.

We can change both the adjective and the noun.  We could make it:

The blue hills;
The distant hills;
The high mountain;
The deep forest;
The clear water;
The windy gorge;

And so on to infinity.

We can also change “the” at the beginning to “a” or “an.”

Because we are beginning autumn, whatever setting we choose as our adjective-verb  should relate to autumn (this changes according to the current season).  And we can make our start as easy as we wish at first, and then we can vary more and more elements as we gain experience.

As an example, we could use the same setting and only vary the subject and action:

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Trees redden.

Now obviously that is rather mediocre, but in the beginning do not worry about making the “practice” hokku you write from patterns great hokku; improved content will come gradually.  Instead, focus on making the hokku fit the season and on following the pattern as you replace or vary elements within it.

We could also keep the same subject and action, and practice different first-line settings;

An old village;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Or

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

Once we begin getting the feel of it, we can vary both setting and subject and action, and we can also work on improving content:

The autumn fields;
Here and there
Scarecrows lean.

Again, remember that we are not looking to rival great hokku in our beginning practice.  We are just learning, first, to use a model; second, to be in keeping with the season; and third, to practice our freedom in varying the elements of the model.

Now what is the point in all this?

Beginning hokku is like wearing a toolbelt with lots of empty pouches, but no tools.  Each model we practice puts a tool in a pouch of our belt.  And then when one actually has an experience in Nature, one can use this tool — this pattern — as a way to organize that experience.  The more patterns we learn, the more options we have for organizing.  And you will find that as you practice these basic patterns, they will readily come to mind when you do have an experience and want to write it down.

In working on these patterns, keep in mind that the setting is usually the wider context in which something happens.  It can be a place, the weather, the season — usually the BIG part of the hokku into which the subject and the action fit, like in the model.  The smoke rising here and there happens in the BIG setting of the autumn hills.

The subject — aside from the setting — is what the verse is “about,” in this case “smoke.”  And the action is something involving the subject that is moving or changing.  In this case the smoke “rises here and there.”

Now you have the first tool that fits in your hokku workbelt.  You only have to practice using it for it to become very practical and helpful.

If you have any questions about any aspect of this, or need help with some problem in your practice, feel free to ask me by posting a comment to the site (only I shall see it).  And feel free, if you wish, to show me your progress and ask advice as you need it.

It is very important that if you really want to learn hokku, you practice these patterns carefully, making your changes and replacement of elements as simple and gradual as you like.  Go at your own pace, without being lax.  Do not make things too hard for yourself at first.  But again, as you get more practice in replacing elements in the pattern, and begin to get the sense of how it works, you can replace more elements and make your variations more different.  And as you do that, you can also work on content, keeping in mind all that I discuss in other postings.  Gradually your hokku — even your practice hokku — will improve.

Do not do it just once or twice; keep making variations of all kinds on a pattern until doing so comes quite easily.  That will make it much easier, eventually, to write hokku from your own direct experiences.

How well learning from patterns works depends on how hard the student works, and how well the student can absorb and express the aesthetics and spirit of hokku.  I have talked about these aspects in other postings.

Working with patterns is a first step on the path of hokku.  Taking it is up to you.

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best.  Here is one (out of season at present):

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have a range of options.  ”Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  ”ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct — never complicated or confusing.

Remember, however, that the hokku I present are not here merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.  But you may be surprised at what interesting verses you can write as you begin to use models — hokku patterns.

We can take today’s practice hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the English language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse, which I would translate as:

Even on the small island –
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which — following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century –began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

I have mixed verses of different seasons in this posting — which can be done for educational purposes — but remember that when you do the pattern work, you should use replacements that put the verse in the PRESENT season, which now would be autumn.

David

THE CLEAR WATER

A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”

David