YIN AMID YANG: BUSON’S MISTY GRASSES

Here is a spring hokku by Buson. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of 19th-century American paintings of the rural countryside as it was in those quieter, greener days:

The grasses are misty,
The water silent;
Evening …

It gives a very good impression of the stillness of evening.

Though this is a spring hokku, it uses the hokku technique of “harmony of contrast,” because while spring is a time of increasing Yang energy (active, growing, warm), evening by contrast is an increasing Yin time of day (passive, receding, cool). Such a hokku expresses that even in the time of year when Yang is growing, Yin is nonetheless present, giving us a subtle feeling of aging, of transience amid the freshness, warmth, and new growth of spring. The mist, the water, and the silence are all Yin, as is the fading of the light of day. That predominance of Yin elements amid the growing Yang of spring is what makes this hokku effective in its very quiet way.

I always like to remind everyone that no knowledge of Japanese is needed to write hokku in English. I only add the Japanese version here because I have one particular faithful reader who always writes me a note if I do not include it.

The word translated here as “grasses” is kusa, which is somewhat more inclusive and general than the Engish, comprising not only grass but also other short plants below the level of shrubs. Higure is the time of sunset, of twilight.

Here is the transliterated Japanese with a literal translation:

Kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana
Grasses mist water at voice is-not evening kana

David

THE WINDBELL IS SILENT

You will recall that very old hokku often used two things joined by a third.  Yayu wrote an interesting hokku that uses two things also, but provides the third that unites them in an interesting way:

The windbell is silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

It is a very hot summer day without a breath of wind.  The windbell hangs unmoving and silent.  The only sound in the heavy heat is the steady, regular, dry, metallic tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock of the clock (obviously pre-digital days).  We feel the persistence of the summer heat in the ceaseless ticking that marks off the seconds and minutes and hours of the hot, oppressive day with the same weariness we feel in William Blake’s lines,

Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun….

In Yayu’s hokku, the third element that joins and harmonizes the silence of the windbell and the steady ticking of the clock is of course the heat!

David

THE CLEAR WATER

The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it —
The clear water.

Buson

While working stone, the metal chisel of the stonemason becomes too hot to hold — from the heat of the day and from the friction of repeated blows — so he holds it in the clear, cool water to take away the heat.

This is a hokku of harmony of opposites — the heat of the summer day (this is a summer hokku) and the heat of the chisel from working the stone are placed against the coolness of the water — Yang (heat) against Yin (coolness and water) — and in this case, Yin overcomes Yang, which makes for a very refreshing verse.

David