FIRE AND ICE: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In recent review postings I discussed internal reflection in hokku — how similar things interact within a verse — and I discussed the technique of harmony of similarity. You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Today we will add to that another technique, harmony of contrast.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream — Yin — on a hot day — Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this hokku (I translate a bit loosely here):

Autumn

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a hokku using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

Autumn

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a hokku by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

Autumn

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old hokku by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

Autumn

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

Autumn

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a hokku. You should always remember that a good hokku is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a hokku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a hokku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All hokku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter hokku in summer or fall hokku in spring. And we ordinarily also read hokku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer hokku in winter or spring hokku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.

David

THE EFFECT OF YIN AND YANG

Summer heat;
The drip — drip of water
In the shadows.

stonebasin

This verse illustrates a fundamental technique used in many hokku — harmony of contrast. It is simple. One just combines things that are opposite in nature — heat is yang, shadows and water are yin. Using it, one can effectively convey many experiences. The technique is a good way to bring out the character of the heat, and also that of shade and of water.

David

THE YIN AND YANG OF SUMMER

sstream

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know how important an understanding of Yin and Yang are to the practice of hokku.  And you will know that speaking very broadly, Yin is cold and passive, while Yang is warm and active.

We are now entering the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means we are entering the most Yang season of the year.

We must remember, however, that Yin and Yang are relative terms.  So even though summer is, overall the “Yangest” of months (well, that word seems to work in English) nonetheless it too has its stages; and here they are:

Early summer is increasing Yang and decreasing Yin, so we may say that it is a “Yin” time of summer, but note that “decreasing Yin.”

The height of summer is the most Yang time, but as you will recall, when Yang reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite; so just when summer Yang gets to its highest point, that bit of Yin begins to grow in it, which takes us to late summer.

Late summer is decreasing Yang and increasing Yin, which you can see is just the opposite of spring.  So to summarize (should I say “summerize” in this case?), for convenience we can divide summer into three parts:

Early summer is growing/increasing Yang, the height of summer is maximum Yang, and late summer is decreasing Yang.

Those descriptions should call to mind the “set phrases” for the three phases of a season in hokku — “begins,” “deepens,” and “departs” (or their equivalents), that may be used for the setting of a hokku,  for example:

Summer begins;
Summer deepens;
Summer departs;

Now, having gotten through that background, we can take a look at what all this means in practical terms for hokku.

It applies to the two kinds of harmony in hokku — harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast.  Harmony of similarity means using elements in a hokku that are similar in some way.  Harmony of contrast means using elements that we tend to think of as “opposites” in some way.

To make that plain, a hot cup of tea and a hot summer day are “similar,” so if we put them both in a hokku, we have harmony of similarity.

A cold block of ice and a hot summer day are contrasts/opposites, so if we put them together we have harmony of contrast.

You may be wondering why we speak of opposite or contrasting things put together in a hokku as  still having harmony — why aren’t they inharmonious?  It is because we tend to feel that such opposites naturally go together, therefore harmony.

Now a very important part of Yin and Yang is that each calls forth its opposite.  What does that mean?  It is easy to understand once I tell you about it, and you are already aware of it, though you may have never thought of it in these terms.  It is simply that living things react to strong Yang in a Yin way, and they react to strong Yin in a Yang way.

That is why, on a hot summer day (Yang), you want to jump in a lake or river (Yin); similarly, on a cold winter’s night (Yin) you want a blazing fire on the hearth and a warm blanket (Yang).  It also explains why people in very sunny climates (Yang) tend to develop darker skin (Yin) as protection, and why people in very cloudy climates (Yin) tend to develop lighter skin (Yang), such as is found in Ireland, for example.  Of course that is something that happens over thousands of years, but it happens nonetheless.

So now you know what is behind this summer hokku by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is the middle of a hot summer day, and that calls forth a Yin reaction, which in this case is to take a nap — to become inactive.  And we see that through the gradual slowing and eventual motionlessness in sleep of the hand that was fanning the drowsy subject of the verse.  It is a Yin reaction to a Yang environment.

We see a similar, though less obvious example, in a summer hokku by Buson (I translate loosely here):

What joy!
Striding through a stream,
Sandals in hand.

Now that would lose its significance if we did not know it as a summer hokku, because it is the contrast between the warmth of the day and the coolness of the stream on his bare feet that gives the writer such delight.

So now you have a basic understanding of the Yin and Yang of summer, and how it applies to hokku.  Of course there is more to be said on that subject, but for now I will just close with the last words from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen:

Der sad de begge To Voxne og dog Børn, Børn i Hjertet, og det var Sommer, den varme, velsignede Sommer.

“There sat the two of them, grown up yet still children, children at heart, and it was summer, the warm, blessed summer.”

David

WOLVES HOWLING: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

Per Jōsō:

Lupos ululante
Omnes insimul;
Le vespere nivee.

By Jōsō:

Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy evening.

In hokku habemus harmonia de similaritate, ma anque harmonia de contrasto.  Iste verso per Jōsō nobis mostra le harmonia de contrasto.  Como?

In hokku we have harmony of similarity, but also harmony of constrast.  This verse by Jōsō shows us harmony of contrast.  How?

Prime, iste es un hokku del hiberno; le hiberno es Yin.
Secunde, le vespere es un Yin tempore del die.
Tertie, le nive es anque Yin.

First, this is a hokku of winter; the winter is Yin.
Second, evening is a Yin time of day.
Third, the snow is also Yin.

Ma in medio de tote de iste Yin, videmus le lupos, qui son multe Yang.  E le lupos ululanten, e le sono de lor critos es anque Yang.

But amid all this Yin, we see the wolves, who are very Yang.  And the wolves howl, and the sound of their cries is also Yang.

Quando usamus harmonio de similaritate, nos accentuamos le character Yin del hiberno.  Le vespere e le nive — siente ambes Yin — nobis mostran similaritate.  Ma quando usamus harmonio de contrasto, nos exprimemus como le Yang accentua le Yin, e simultaneemente, le Yang accentua le Yin.  

When we use harmony of similarity, we accentuate the Yin character of winter.  The evening and the snow — both being Yin — show us similarity.  But when we use harmony of contrast, we express how Yang accentuates Yin, and simultaneously, Yang accentuates Yin.

In le frigor nivee e le obscuritate crescente del vespere, le Yang ululante de le lupos es, in consequentia, plus impressionante.

In the snowy cold and growing darkness of the evening, the Yang howling of the wolves is, in consequence, more striking.

David

HARMONY OF CONTRAST: PLUM BLOSSOMS AND CHARCOAL DUST

Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.

David

A HOKKU IN FIVE WORDS

There is a summer hokku by Kikaku that requires very few words in English translation:

Inazuma ya   kinō wa higashi    kyō wa nishi
Lightning ya
yesterday wa east  today wa west.

Lightning;
Yesterday east,
Today west.

Even though it has a wider time scale than most hokku, it does have a sense of concentrated power and change.

We have seen that many hokku use harmonies either of similarity or of contrast.  In this verse we have the contrast of past and present, yesterday and today; and in addition we have the contrast of East and West.

That is why this hokku gives us a sense of space.  There is the  vast space between yesterday and today, which is in harmony with the vast space between the eastern sky and the western sky.  Both are unified by the lightning.

David