THE IMPORTANCE OF SEASON IN HOKKU

Here I have strung together some information on season in hokku, as well as a bit on the role of Yin and Yang:

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku,

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of Yang into Yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (Yang) to inactivity (Yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast – of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests a season — meaning what evokes its essential nature.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not manifest that essential nature are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it begins to change into its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations.  That is why I have been posting recently about the traditional calendar and the flexible “hokku” calendar.

In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter.  Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.

It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves.  One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century.  We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.

Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live .  Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both.  And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults.  That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time.  The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.

In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons.  One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).

The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them.  But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku.  So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates.  This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku.  It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.

That is why in modern hokku, the old system of season words has been dropped.  It was, after all, only a means of linking hokku to the seasons, and when another and more convenient means is used, it is no longer necessary.  In modern hokku that new method is marking each verse with the season in which it is written.

The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season.  But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete.  To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just some kind of haiku or other brief verse — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.

As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.

Some topics are self-evident.  In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons.  That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.

Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:

The Season – the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”

The Sky and Elements – for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”

Gods and Buddhas – Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.

Fields and Mountains – withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.

Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school.  Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn.  And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Birds and Beasts – such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc.  And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.

Trees and Flowers – Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums,  withering flowers in the garden and other such things.

Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.

It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku.  To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction.  Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.

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

HOKKU IS NOT “WRITING POETRY”

I have written previously about this statement by R. H. Blyth on hokku.  He tells us that a hokku

“...is the result of the wish, the effort, not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure further the truth and suchness of a thing with words, with thoughts and feelings.”

Some people no doubt find that statement — short as it is — confusing.  But that is because they mistakenly assume that Blyth does not mean what he says or say what he means.  But he does.

What does it mean to wish not to speak, not to write poetry, not to obscure the truth and suchness of a thing with words, thoughts and feelings?

In this question lies one of those keys that can open up the real nature of hokku to us, if we will only use it.  It is simple to explain, but one must pay attention in order to understand.

If you sit in the woods on an autumn day, with its weak, honey-colored sunlight, and the leaves of the trees slowly falling one by one, that is “truth” — that is “suchness.”  It is that experience we want to convey.  But if we want to write “poetry” about it, that means we want to make it into something other than what it is in itself.  It means we want to “doll it up” literarily, and to do that we have to add things to it — our words, our thoughts, our feelings.

The experience as it is, is truth — is suchness — is poetry — but it is not the poetry of humans, who think they have to make things over, “soup them up,” use them as symbols or metaphors, add comments, add “thinking.”  But in hokku we do not want all of that, because the real writer of hokku has precisely that urge “not to speak, not to write poetry.”

People in modern haiku, not understanding this at all, often ridicule it.  They have no idea what we mean when we say that hokku is not poetry.  “Of course it is!” they insist.

But really, it is not.  At least it is nothing like what we are accustomed to think of as poetry, and this is where modern haiku goes horribly wrong.  Instead of letting the thing itself speak through its existence, through its action, they think there must be a “poet” who interferes, who somehow stands between “truth” and the laity as a priest used to be considered the only way for people to approach a deity.

It is true that hokku uses words, but only the minimal number necessary to convey the experience while maintaining normal English.  It does not obscure the experience with words, but rather uses them transparently in order to reveal it, as Boshō does here:

A chestnut falls;
The insects cease their chirping
In the grasses.

That is precisely the truth — the suchness — that we do not want to obscure with words or distort by making it into “poetry” through adding our thoughts and feelings to it.  Now do you see what Blyth meant?  If you do, it can open up a completely new way of writing.  If you don’t, you will spend your time trying to be a “poet” who writes “poetry.”

Hokku is not writing poetry; it is simply allowing the poetry inherent in an experience to be seen.  And those are two very different things.

David

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY

Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

SPRING:
Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

SUMMER 
begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

AUTUMN/FALL
For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

WINTER:
Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.

David

IT’S ABOUT TIME: THE HOKKU YEAR

The seasons are very important to hokku.  But when we look a bit closer, we find we have both formal and natural calendars:

The old traditional European calendar — now a formal calendar — was divided into four seasons, each with a festival at its beginning, its middle, and its end.  The end point also marks the beginning of the next season.  I give it here using traditional English and Irish names.  The notation “The first week” indicates that the day on which it begins had some variation in old usage.

Spring:

Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  1st week of February.
Midpoint:  Spring Equinox, March 20/21.
End:  the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh).  1st week of May.

Summer:

Begins with May Day (Bealtaine).  1st week of May.
Midpoint:  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End:  The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1.  1st week of August.

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.
Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
End: the evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.
Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.
End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

We can simplify the traditional calendar for the purposes of hokku:

Spring:

Spring begins:  Around February 1st.
Spring deepens:  Around March 20/21.
Spring ends Around May 1st.

Summer begins:  Around May 1st.
Summer deepens:  Around June 20/21.
Summer ends:  Around August 1st.

Autumn / Fall begins:  Around August 1st.
Autumn / Fall deepens:  Around September 21/22.
Autumn / Fall ends:  Around November 1st.

Winter begins:  Around November 1st.
Winter deepens:  Around December 21 /22.
Winter ends:  Around February 1st.

Now you may be thinking that makes no sense.  Spring, where you are, may begin in May!  The preceding calendars are “formal” — the first astronomical and the second meteorological.   But in hokku, with its lack of artificiality, we may be flexible and informal.  The seasons are not the same in all places.  Winter comes earlier in mountain regions than in lowlands, and spring comes later.

The so-called “meteorological calendar” recognizes, for example, that though the time of maximum sunlight comes at Midsummer, nonetheless its effects are not felt until some four weeks later.  That shifts the seasons, loosely speaking, by about a month.  We then have a calendar like this:

Spring:
Begins:  March
Midpoint: April
Ends:  May

Summer:
Begins:  June

Midpoint:  July
Ends:  August

Autumn / Fall:
Begins:  September
Midpoint:  October
Ends:  November

Winter:

Begins:  December
Midpoint:  January
Ends:  February

Given these different approaches to the seasons, which is the writer of hokku to follow?

The answer is simple.  Use the traditional formal calendar for times and seasons and celebrations, and with that, use a “natural” and flexible calendar that  reflects the seasonal changes of Nature where you are.  We all know that spring does not really begin punctually on February 1st or March 1st or at the Spring Equinox in the natural world.  If you first see sprouts and buds poking through the earth some time in February, that is when your spring begins.  If it happens in March, that is when your spring begins.  Go with the natural climate and weather where you are, which may be very different from the natural calendar of other people living in other regions.  Some very warm parts of the world may have only two main seasons, a dry season and a rainy season.  One is their “summer,” the other their “winter.”

I live in a temperate and moderate climate much like that of the British Isles, so it is no problem for me to follow the old traditional calendar, with Spring beginning with its first signs in February — though in some years, February can be a very cold month.

The traditional calendar provides a pleasant way to maintain a connection with our ancestors and their seasonal times and celebrations, but we should pay close attention to the “natural” calendar where we live as well.   So we can celebrate the important old “Quarter Days” — the Winter Solstice (Great Yule), the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day), the Autumn Equinox — and we can also celebrate the old “Cross-Quarter Days” — Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and Samhain (marked by Halloween the night before).  But in addition, we always keep a close eye on what is actually happening in Nature, and on when it is happening.  That is our real guide to the seasons in hokku.

So here, without attached dates, is the “natural” calendar of hokku, which you apply to each year and region a bit differently.  But the order remains the same:

SPRING:
Spring begins
Spring deepens
Spring departs

SUMMER:
Summer begins
Summer deepens
Summer departs

AUTUMN / FALL:
Autumn begins
Autumn deepens
Autumn departs

WINTER:
Winter begins
Winter deepens
Winter departs

See how very simple it is?  When you see the signs of spring beginning in Nature, that is when it begins for your hokku.  When you see it advancing, that is when spring deepens in your hokku.  And when you begin to see the changes that signify its ending and the transition to another season near, that is when spring is departing in your hokku.  Just apply this principle to each season.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year.  You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm.  Yin is passive, Yang active.  Yin recedes, Yang advances.  Yin is wet, Yang is dry.  Yin is still, Yang moving.  Yin is silence, Yang is sound.  Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin.  At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite.  Yang first begins to grow within it.  So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite.  Yin begins to grow within it.  So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter.  Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer.  Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another.  As Yang increases, Yin declines.  When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines.  This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year.  We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring:  Growing Yang
Summer:  Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

All of this has profound significance in hokku.  Hokku is the verse of the seasons, so whatever the apparent subject of a verse, the real subject is the season in which the verse is written.

That means every hokku should manifest and express the qualities of the season.  That is why in spring we may talk about budding flowers, in summer about the heat, in autumn about falling leaves, and in winter about snow.  These are just some very obvious examples of seasonal manifestations.  The seasons actually manifest themselves in hokku in a multitude of ways, which is why the possibilities for hokku are endless.

David

THE NATURE OF HOKKU

R. H. Blyth gives a good summary of the characteristics — the nature — of hokku.  In that summary we find:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

4.  Lack of elegance.

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

7.  “Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

9.  Human warmth.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

I hope those who read here will think about these and how they apply to the hokku we have discussed thus far, or to those read elsewhere.  Perhaps in the future — or if people have questions — I will expand on these characteristics.

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