ARRANGING A HOKKU: SHIKI’S GATE

I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:

(Winter)

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WHITE ON WHITE: A HOKKU BY KYOROKU

Today is that very ancient holiday Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice.  It is the day when the sun reachest its highest point in its yearly arc across the sky, and it is the longest day of the year.  After this day, the hours of light begin to shorten.

Here is a hokku by Kyoroku that must be translated rather loosely:

(Summer)

Above white cloth
Spread out in the sun —
Billowing clouds.

If you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the technique used in writing this.  It is harmony of similarity.  Two similar elements are combined, and the pleasure of the verse is in the combination.  Here the elements are very visual:  1.  white cloth; 2. billowing clouds.  The brightness of the sun brings out the whiteness of both, thus joining the two elements.

Here is the transliterated original:

Teritsukeru sarashi no ue kumo no mine
Sun-shining-down bleaching-cotton ‘s above cloud ‘s peaks

David

HAIR AND HEAT: SONO-JO’S CHILD

The unseasonably hot days continue here.  It brings to mind a hokku by Sono-jo, a female writer.

As you know, summer and winter are the two “extreme” seasons; summer for its heat, winter for its cold.  Consequently it is effective in hokku to put opposites together — a cool river on a hot day, a warm quilt on a freezing day.  That helps to bring out and express the nature of the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

There is another useful method, however, for expressing the nature of an extreme such as heat or cold.  That is by combining it with something similar in some way, so as to add emphasis.

Here is how Sono-jo did it (Blyth’s translation, which can hardly be bettered):

(Summer)

The child on my back
Playing with my hair —
The heat!

Not only is the day unbearably hot, but the heat is only magnified by the sweaty heat of the little body against her back, and the hot little fingers tangling and tugging her hair.

Photo:  Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis
Photo: Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis

So it is the “bothersomeness” of the child carried on her back and playing with her hair, that magnifies and emphasizes the last line:

The heat!

We feel the uncomfortableness of the heat in the uncomfortableness of having the little child on her back.  It is not that she does not like the child; it is just that in this case, at this particular time, the child has become a living manifestation of the heat and its troublesomeness.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recognize this as just another variation on the writing method known as “harmony of similarity.”

It is good to keep such correspondences in mind as possible techniques to use when writing hokku, as well as in reading them.

 

David

 

 

 

 

SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN: WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR AND HOKKU

In much of Western poetry, an event is used simply as a lead-in to talking about another subject somehow related to the first. An example is this poem by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864):

DEATH OF DAY

My pictures blacken in their frames
As night comes on,
And youthful maids and wrinkled dames
Are all now one.

Death of the day! a sterner Death
Did worse before;
The fairest form, the sweetest breath,
Away he bore.

Landor has begun with the light of day departing from a room in which paintings hang, and in them are women both young and old. But as the light fades, the pictures all turn gradually black as night falls. All of this, however, is just an introduction to his real subject:

Landor calls the end of day the “death” of the day. And he immediately moves on to his main subject by saying that a sterner, a more real and harsh death than that of day was when Death took away a beautiful person that he obviously loved, someone beautiful in form and face. By “sweetest breath” he does not mean only that this beautiful person had a fresh and inoffensive breath. In biblical usage (and Western poets were once heavily influenced by the Bible, which in translation was considered the primary book of English literature), when the breath departs the life departs, so Landor is using “breath” to mean that the sweetest life is gone, the life of the beloved one.

“Away he bore” is of course a personification of Death as a dark, male figure; Death carried away the life of the beloved one.

In the previous posting, a variation on a hokku by Buson, we also had an “ending event” — a spring evening. And if you are a regular reader here, you will recall that evening, which is the end of day, also corresponds to the waning of the Yang energies that cause all the growth and life in spring and summer. So early evening corresponds to autumn. It does not symbolize autumn, it just has that feeling of being the same in some way. That is why when we talk about an evening in autumn, we are using harmony of similarity. When we talk about an evening in spring, however, we are using harmony of contrast, because evening is a time of ending, but spring is a time of beginning.

Landor obviously felt the same similarity — end of day, end of life (Death). But the big difference is that Landor comes right out and says it: “Death of the day,” which of course hokku does not, because hokku is much more subtle, more filled with unspoken implications, and that is a great part of the beauty of hokku. In hokku it is more important to FEEL such connections and rather too crude and blunt to actually SAY them.

I remember my Chinese teacher, who was brought up in the old way, telling us that in the China of her day, people would not say “I love you” to another. That was considered vulgar and brash, because saying something is easy; the far more meaningful way is to show someone that you love them through your actions toward them, how you treat them. That is very much the attitude of hokku. It is far more meaningful, more fitting the hokku aesthetic, to imply something while leaving it unspoken. “Show me, don’t tell me.”

So what would a hokku writer do with the event Landor experienced, but used as his introduction to talking about the death of his beloved? The writer of hokku would reduce it to the brevity of hokku, and would use only the event itself, an event filled with unspoken implications.

We could make it an autumn verse, if we wanted harmony of similarity, like this:

Day darkens;
All the paintings on the wall
Become the same.

We often find verses or lines in Western poetry that by themselves have something of the spirit of hokku, but generally, as I first mentioned and as we see in Landor’s poem, they are only the lead-in to, the excuse or inspiration for, talking about something else. But in hokku it is the EVENT ONLY that we want, because such events in a season, in a life, are filled with unspoken meaning. That is why we say of hokku that it is “much in little.”

The hokku variation on Landor’s “event” would require someone to be very quiet and aware to experience and think worthy of notice something as simple as the light fading in a room and the paintings gradually losing their colors and images with the coming of night. One has the sense of someone sitting there alone in the dim silence as the minutes slowly pass and everything blackens all around, someone who, for reasons unknown, does not rise to turn on a light (or light a candle in earlier times), but just continues sitting there in solitude, gradually enveloped by the night.

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

THE WIND OF AUTUMN

Sometimes I like to take an old hokku and modify it to make it fit an American environment:

falling apart

An abandoned house;
The wind of autumn
Over the bare floor. 

This is a “harmony of similarity” hokku, in which we feel the relationship of the various elements that reflect one another — the principle called “internal reflection.”

Autumn is the time when the Yang life forces recede.  We see that in nature, with the dying of plants and the trees losing their leaves.  In this verse it manifests in the empty house — the house from which life has departed.  And we see it in the bare floor, over which now only the autumn wind moves.  It all gives us a spare and rather lonely feeling, which is often the case with autumn hokku.

In the original of this verse by Teiga, the house was a brushwood hut and the floor tatami mats.

 

David