FREEZING FINGERS

December has begun, and with it has come a deeper cold in my region.  The next few nights are expected to be at or below freezing.

Taigi wrote a hokku expressive of such growing cold:

Tsumetasa ni   hōki sutekeri   matsu no shita
nail-pain at      broom left        pine   ‘s    under

The “nail-pain” of which Taigi speaks is the pain one feels in one’s fingernails when the fingers become very cold.  So what Taigi is saying is that he went out to sweep up the fallen leaves, but quickly found it so cold that the ends of his fingers began to hurt, and so he abandoned his broom beneath the pine tree, and went quickly back indoors.

This is a difficult thing to translate literally into English and still have it sound natural, so we will have to approximate, perhaps something like,

My fingers freezing,
The broom is left
Beneath the pine tree.

The verse expresses well that transitional time  from autumn to winter, when one has not yet realized how cold it has become.  Going out to sweep up the leaves left by autumn, we find that the cold of winter has unexpectedly come, and it has come so strongly that it forces us to abandon our broom and hurriedly return inside — where it is warmer.

Structurally this verse is simple:

Setting:  My fingers freezing
Subject:  The broom
Action:  Is left beneath the pine tree

It is important to remember that the setting of a hokku is not limited just to the wider physical environment.  It may also be a condition in or under which something takes place, and in this verse that condition is “My fingers freezing.”  In English we cannot just say “My fingers hurting,” because the reader will not know why they are hurting, so we must be more explicit and make clear that they are hurting from the cold.

Keep in mind that the point of what we do here — of talking about and translating old Japanese hokku — is just to help you to learn how to write hokku in English, or in whatever your native language happens to be.  Old hokku are enjoyable to read, but if we do not write new hokku as well, the tradition will die out.  So the point of discussing what the old Japanese hokku writers did and how they did it is to show visitors to this site how to continue the hokku tradition in modern times, in modern languages.  It does not matter if that language is English or Russian or Norwegian or Welsh, or any other language.  One can write real hokku in it if one understands the aesthetics and underlying principles and techniques.

David

THE HOKKU OF WINTER

Winter is at the door.  In some places it has already come.  So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.

Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces.  Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness.  In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang.  Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum.  And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite.  So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline.  Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.

Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night.  Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin.  Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon.  This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.

Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night?  It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.

We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways.  In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period,  and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither.  We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day.  And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.

Snows are already falling in the high country.  Frost has come to many regions.  The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.

Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent.  That is a mistake.  Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme.  So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.

An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:

Akatsuki ya   kujira no hoeru   shimo no umi.
Dawn     ya whale  ‘s  roaring  frost ‘s sea.

Dawn;
Whales roaring
In the frosty sea.

That is a rather literal version — but effective.  In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so.  But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin.  We find that in the words the frosty sea.

The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible.  And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang.  But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold.  So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.  We could diagram it like this:

Dawn;  (setting)
Whales (subject)
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)

You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea.  Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.

Notice the selflessness of the verse.  There is no human anywhere in sight.  All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.

That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite.  That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale.  It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.

That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea.  Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy.  It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.

Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces.  In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:

No ni yama ni   ugoku mono nashi   yuki no asa
Field at  mountain at   moving thing is-not  snow ‘s morning

In fields and mountains
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is a very Yin verse.  We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving.  That is the stillness of winter.  We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse.  But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning.  In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.

It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin.  That is easy to see.  When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket?  In the Yin of winter.  And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire?  Again, in the cold of winter.

Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors.  Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood?  They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it.  Winter has great significance when we live close to it.  If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like.  We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.

It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.  That is really a kind of Jungian statement.  Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness.  Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?

Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

That is the Moby-Dick of hokku.  It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel.  Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote?  Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city?  Of course not.  How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?

I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic.  But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons.  Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.

Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us.  The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.

David

AUTUMN COMINGS AND GOINGS

Gyōdai wrote:

Aki no yama   tokorodokoro ni   kemuri tatsu
Autumn’s mountains   here-there at   smoke rises

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

It is a pleasant verse, and reminds one of Appalachia, of seeing smoke from cabins rising here and there among the gold and red leaves of autumn covering the hills.

But it is a verse of early to mid autumn, and now we are entering deep autumn, a more severe and chilly time that leads us directly on to winter.

There is a hokku by Shōhaku that can be understood as early or as late autumn, depending on whether we translate it by the old lunar calendar or by the newer calendar.  Under the new calendar it is:

October;
I go nowhere —
No one comes.

Read thus, it expresses the beginning of the pulling away from the activities of life that we find in autumn as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, as Nature begins to wither.  One thinks of a hermit life amid the coloring and falling leaves.

The first line is literally “tenth month.”  It is like the old Quaker calendar, in which the months were numbered rather than named, but even more literally it is the “tenth moon.”

But what does “tenth month” mean?  Actually, two different things, depending on whether we read Shōhaku’s verse according to the modern calendar adopted in Japan during the Meiji period, or by the old lunar calendar of Shōhaku’s day.

We have seen that by the new calendar the “tenth month” is October.  But by the old calendar it is November.  So that gives us two different feelings expressed in the same verse, depending on which calendar we choose.

By the old calendar it becomes

November;
I go nowhere —
No one comes.

This gives the verse a darker feel.  The leaves have already been swept from the trees by the rains and cold winds.  The gold and crimson colors are gone, giving way to bare branches and dim, grey skies.  Here the verse expresses the inhospitableness of the weather through the actions — or rather the lack of actions — of the writer.  He visits no one, no one visits him.  But it also expresses a kind of late autumn of the soul, an isolation and apartness that those growing older notice as they see they are no longer of interest to young people, and those their own age either have their own affairs to deal with with or have left this world.

All too often, it is the story of the elderly in America.  I remember  a Korean fellow I met in college.  He was staying in a cheap, rundown apartment building in which numbers of old people also lived, because it was all they could afford.  Watching their poor lives from day to day, seeing their isolation and how they were treated, he remarked to me, “America is Hell for old people.”  I have never forgotten that “outside” perspective on how this country treats its elderly.

But getting back to hokku, this growing isolation of individuals in the late autumn makes “things to the contrary” matters of significance.  That is why Buson could write

A person came
To visit a person;
The autumn evening.

It is quite a bland verse until one reads it in the context of the season as explained above.  There is a significance to making a visit in autumn, a significance to receiving a visit, and this significance too is expressive of the season.

By the way, I rather consistently translate the common line aki no kure, found in large numbers of hokku, as “The autumn evening.”  Technically it could also be translated as “Autumn’s end,” and that should be kept in mind not for linguistic reasons, but because it gives us a very good line for many hokku of the deepest part of autumn that is just about to become winter.

So for those of you interested in technicalities, the line can be understood either as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   evening

or as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   end

Shiki wrote this simple verse, which is a bit too interpretive for good hokku.  It is both true and not true:

I am leaving,
You are staying;
Two autumns.

Yuku ware ni    todomaru nare ni    aki futatsu
Go     I  at           remain      you   at    autumns two

One could loosely paraphrase it as:

With me going
And you staying,
There will be two autumns.

Shiki  is seeing the situation from a dualistic point of view:  When I am gone, we shall each experience our separate autumns.  But there is also the unitary point of view, in which you and I are both autumn, along with each reddening and falling leaf.  That is the wider perspective.

One must always keep in mind that when we are talking about weather and what is happening in Nature, a lot depends on where one is.  A month that is golden autumn for some is already icy winter for others.

David

 

WHAT COMES FROM THE READER

There are some hokku difficult for young people to understand — difficult not because of complexity, but because one must go through certain experiences to fully appreciate them.  One of the most obvious of these is Buson’s verse:

Chichi haha no    koto nomi omou    aki no kure
Dad      Mom  ‘s    matter only think   autumn ‘s evening

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.

At first this seems a rather bland hokku, but a great deal depends upon the reader knowing how hokku work.

We know that a hokku is an expression of a season, in this case the season of autumn.  Autumn is the time of aging and withering and eventually dying.  That is the key to understanding this verse.

When Buson says that he is thinking only of his parents, he means it in the sense that they keep coming into his thoughts for some reason — that even when he tries to think of other things, the faces of his parents keep returning.

Why is that?  It is because in the autumn, one realizes both what one is losing and what one has lost.  Autumn is the time of growing yin, the time of things — of life — returning to the root.  It is the time of withering plants and falling leaves and the diminishing of warmth and light and the increasing of cold.  All of these things combine to bring Buson’s mother and father constantly to mind.

He does not tell us if they are aged — in which case one has the sorrow and concern of seeing their lives fading — or if they have passed away, in which case one has the grief that never really goes away, the bittersweet memories easily evoked by the season of autumn.

One can see that the last line,

The autumn evening

is very important.

So there is a world of feeling in this verse.  It is at the same time very personal and very universal.  Buson thinks of his parents, but when we read it, it becomes a hokku about our own parents, whether we are near to losing them or have lost them.

Dante says in the Divine Comedy that there is

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….

That there is

“No greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery.”

Time is the thief that steals all things — our childhood, our youth,  and leaves us

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.

David


DESCENDING GEESE, FALLING LEAVES

Some Japanese hokku seem to defy translation into English, even though their meaning is not difficult.  An example is Kyoroku’s:

Descending geese —
Their cries pile on one another;
The cold of night.

As one group of geese comes down from the sky, followed by yet another, their cries seem to layer one upon the other.  This piling of cry on cry only intensifies the cold of the night.

Does this verse seem a little familiar?  It should, because it is similar to Gyōdai’s

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

In Japanese, forms of the word meaning “to pile up, to collect on one another” are operative in both, which I translate here as “pile on one another” in the first case and “lie on one another” in the second.

THE NATURAL APPROACH TO SEASONAL SUBJECTS

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.

David

WRITING BY SEASON

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, but not the important and essential aesthetic connection.  As a means of linking hokku to the seasons, now we use a simpler, more practical and more convenient way.  That new method is  to mark 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 to some kind of brief verse that resembles it superficially — 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

HARMONY OF SIMILARITY, HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE

Yesterday I discussed the importance of season in hokku — how hokku is the poetry of the seasons, and how the subjects we choose for our verses should reflect the character of the season in which we are writing in some way.

This is a very new concept for many people, who are accustomed to writing about any subject in any season of the year, in other forms of brief or long verse.  That is not the way of hokku.

Readers here know that I use the word harmony again and again.  It is very important that our verses should be in harmony with the season, and that the elements used with a hokku should be in harmony with one another.

The typical example for this is Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku — an autumn verse:

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

The last word in that setting is obviously appropriate to the season, because it mentions autumn.

Now think about what we discussed yesterday concerning the character of autumn, and how it manifests.  Autumn is the season of declining Yang and growing Yin, a season of the vital energies waning, of things withering. In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening.  That is completely in keeping with the full setting of Bashō’s hokku:

The autumn evening.

The setting, as we see, comes in the third line.  The first and second lines give us the subject and action:

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;

If we rephrase that as “A crow has perched on the withered branch,” it makes it easier to see that “A crow” is the subject, and the action is “has perched on a withered branch.”

So all three elements give us setting, subject, and action — a “standard” hokku.

Having seen that the setting is quite appropriate to autumn, what about the rest?

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

In the first line we have a withered branch.  That is obviously in keeping with the character of autumn, the time of things withering.

In the second line, we have a crow.  Of course the crow is black, and that is in keeping with the growing darkness of the evening.  So again we have harmony.

In the last line, as already mentioned, we not only have the evening, which is in keeping with autumn as the late afternoon or evening of the year, but also autumn itself is mentioned.

It is not hard to see, then, that in this verse everything is not only in harmony with autumn, but each element — withered branch, crow, evening, autumn — is in harmony with every other element.  Even the act of the crow perching on the branch, ceasing its active flying about, is in keeping with the weakening energies of autumn.

If you remember all that I say here about harmony with the season and internal harmony in a verse, it will make your learning go much easier.

When we talk about harmony, we must remember that it is of two primary kinds:

1.  The harmony of similarity.  That is what we see in Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku.  It is composed of things that are in some way alike.

2.  The harmony of difference.  This kind of harmony relates again to the principle of Yin and Yang.  Remember that we said that when Yin or Yang reaches its maximum, it changes into its opposite?  Yang, for example, grows until midday, at which time it begins declining — which means it has changed into growing Yin.  Winter, at its deepest (maximum Yin), gives way to a faint hint of warming, meaning it has changed into growing Yang.

Following this principle, things that seem to be opposites are actually in harmony with one another.  For example, a roaring fire in the stove on a freezing winter night is in harmony with winter; and stepping barefoot into a cool stream on the hottest day of summer is in harmony with the summer, even though coolness is a Yin characteristic, and we normally think of Yang heat as in harmony with summer.

So there is harmony of similarity and harmony of difference.  Both are very appropriate to hokku.

What we do want to avoid are verses that are not in harmony with the season, and elements within a verse that are not in harmony with one another.

When we look at the hokku of a given season, we can see that some verses manifest it more obviously, others in a less obvious way.  That gives us a suitable range of subject matter.  Again, what we want to avoid are verses that do not manifest the character of the season at all.

Compare the obviousness of Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku with this autumn verse by Kyoroku:

Even in the pot
Where potatoes are boiling —
The moonlit night.

Now from the perspective of English-language hokku, this verse would be marked when written as an Autumn verse.  So unless it is written by someone who does not understand hokku, we know that there are within it connections to autumn, even if not directly obvious to a beginner.  And if we hone our perceptions, we will begin to recognize them.  In a way it is like the hokku version of “Where’s Waldo?”  We learn to recognize where in verse an element manifests a relation to another element and to the season.

First, there is the setting (remember that the setting is generally the BIG element in the verse):

The moonlit night.

In autumn the moon seems particularly big and bright and round and near.  So there is harmony between the moon and the autumn.  There is also a harmony of difference between the light of the moon and the darkness of the night.

Then there is the rest of the verse:

Even in the pot
Where the potatoes are boiling —

The roundness of the pot is in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  The whiteness of the potatoes (which would be “Irish” potatoes in the West) is in keeping with the whiteness of moonlight.

What this verse shows us (for our purposes) is a pot of white potatoes boiling in the water on a moonlit night.  They are being cooked in a dim or shadowed place, so that the moonlight can be seen in the water in which the potatoes are boiling.  We need not worry in such a verse if the “boiling” seems to bear little relation to the season, because it is the overall effect that is important, though by stretching it a bit, we could even say that the bubbles in the boiling water are in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  But we must be careful about overdoing things.

Now one can see that this verse makes substantially more demands of the reader than Bashō’s “Withered Branch.”  But that is quite all right, because in hokku we should become more aware of things, of our environment, of Nature and how we relate to it as part of it.

It is important for beginners not to get worried by how complex this may be seem at first.  It is really quite simple and not complex at all, because when we hone our perceptions, events we experience that seem somehow significant to us and worthy of hokku will often seem so because they already contain elements that are in harmony with one another and with the season.  So in explaining the matter as I have here, we are putting the cart before the horse.  What often happens is first  the experience that affects us strongly, and then later we understand — from the principles of hokku — why it affects us strongly, why it seems so in keeping with the season.

David

THE SEASONAL KEY TO HOKKU

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 — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not, 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; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, 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 changes to 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.

I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress.  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.

David

HOKKU IN AUTUMN

In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.

David

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT JAPANESE HOKKU WAS LIKE….

By chance I flipped open a book to the Japanese original of a hokku by Onitsura, one of the two “patriarchs” of our kind of hokku.  Though it is out of season, it gives me a good opportunity to show you exactly what old hokku were like, and how they are translated into English-language hokku form.  An old hokku would have been printed vertically, like this:

鶯      Uguisu   nightingale / bush warbler  (Chinese character)

や     ya           (cutting word — Japanese phonetic hiragana symbol)

梅    ume         plum  (Chinese character)

に   ni             on, at  (Japanese hiragana)

と    to-           (hiragana)

ま    ma-         (hiragana)

る    ru –         tomaru = perch, stop (hiragana)

は    wa (ha) subject marker (hiragana)

昔    mukashi  ancient, past  (Chinese character)

か    ka –  (hiragana)

ら    ra –   kara from (hiragana)

    Let’s put it in horizontal form for convenience.
    鶯 梅 に とまるは 昔 か ら
    Uguisu ya ume ni tomaru wa mukashi kara
    literally,
    Nightingale ya plum on perch wa ancient from
    When a Japanese writer presented a noun followed by the cutting word ya (as here with uguisu ya), he was giving almost precisely the effect we get by writing in English
    The nightingale —
    In other words, he says, “Here is the nightingale; take a moment to experience it before we move on.”  Notice how perfectly the dash does in English what the cutting word does in Japanese.  Depending on the nature of the individual verse, we might also want to express the pause with a more definite and less connective semicolon (;).
    Having given us the setting, which here is the shorter part of the two parts of a hokku, he then goes on to the longer part.
    (It) perched on the plum
    In English the verb requires a subject, so we insert “it,” then we reverse the order because in English we say “perched on the plum” instead of “plum on perched.”  Notice that the Japanese has no “the,” because Japanese had no articles, no “the,” no “a,” no “an.”  But they are required for normal good English.  Notice also that we do not need the subject marker wa/ha, because it does not fit English grammar.  We know the perching is done by the nightingale because of the word order in the sentence.  But to convey the sense of the hokku, we should add the word “has”:
    (It) has perched on the plum
    Mukashi means “ancient,” “old,” “past.”  When we add kara it means literally “ancient from,” but in English we would say “from ancient times,” or “from of old.”  So we can end the verse with
    From ancient times.
    You can see how very clipped the structure of hokku Japanese is compared to normal English.  Nonetheless that is no obstacle in translation, because the meaning is conveyed easily in this case from one language to another.
    Notice also that the original Japanese had no upper case or lower case letters, because it did not use letters; it used a mixture of borrowed Chinese Characters (kanji) and Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana).  Nor did hokku Japanese — or old Japanese in general — have punctuation.  In that it is similar to many ancient Western documents, which also had no punctuation, and consequently proved quite confusing.  In translating original manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, for example, scholars sometimes have to guess where one sentence ended and another began.
    Punctuation was adopted in English for precisely this reason, and for its invaluable function in enabling fine shades of pause and emphasis.  That is why we unfailingly use it in hokku, and it serves the purpose superbly — better even than the old cutting words, which were not quite as expressive on the whole.
    We now have the entire hokku:
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    By “plum” is meant of course the tree, not an individual fruit.
    Onitsura presents us with a subject — the nightingale — and then he makes an evident statement about it.  Not a statement of opinion, but something very obvious and not requiring intellection.  There are many, many hokku that follow this pattern, and so we call this type of hokku a “statement” hokku.
    Onitsura sees a nightingale perched on a branch of flowering plum; in Japanese culture, the plum tree and the nightingale had been associated with one another in literature for a long, long time.  So Onitsura sees both the present and the past, and realizes that
    The nightingale —
    It has perched on the plum
    From ancient times.
    As Blyth said,
    We get a vista of birds and trees, in which this plum-tree is all plum-trees, this uguisu all uguisu.”
    It is very much like the lines of Walter de la Mare from his poem All That’s Past:
    Very old are the woods;
    And the buds that break
    Out of the briar’s boughs,
    When March winds wake,
    So old with their beauty are —
    Oh, no man knows
    Though what wild centuries
    Roves back the rose.
    To allay the fears of those who might think that I am going to go into such great linguistic detail every time I present an old hokku, I have no intention of doing that.  We write in English, not Japanese.  Nonetheless it is useful — at least once — to have a clear picture of just what old Japanese hokku looked like, of how it was structured, and of how it is translated into English.
    This particular example is further useful in that it shows us the inappropriateness of using a Spring verse that speaks of plum trees and nightingales at the end of summer and beginning of autumn, when we are beginning the decline of the year.  That verse was meant for the beginning of the year, and that is why we customarily read and write hokku in season, not out of season.
David

DIRECT EXPERIENCE AND CREATIVE SELECTION

In hokku as I teach it, we may write both from direct experience and from creative selection.

What is meant by direct experience?  It is a hokku written from viewing an actual event, with everything in it faithful to that experience, whether the hokku is written on the spot or hours or days or weeks later.

This principle goes back to a very old practice common in Chinese painting — that one entered and contemplated Nature, mountains and rivers, rocks and streams, trees and birds — and if one did this with sufficient awareness and perception, one would absorb the characteristics of such things, so that when one returned home to paint, one would paint a scene that, while not a photographic representation of Nature, nonetheless faithfully expressed the spirit of what was seen.

In life we accumulate a great many direct experiences of Nature.  We see spring rains and autumn rains, trees in bud and trees withered, wild geese arriving and leaving.  We see fog and snow, lightning and windstorms, twilights and dawns.  All of these experiences, if noticed with sufficient awareness, are stored away in the memory as a kind of library or vocabulary of sensory experience of Nature.

When writing a hokku, then, we have these options:

1.  One may write a verse faithfully from an immediate experience, a hokku of a single, actual event.  I did this with my verse:

Summer’s end;
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap.

Every part of that hokku is faithful to an event I experienced.

2.  One may write a verse from a mixture of direct experience and creative selection, meaning that while part of the verse reflects an actual “immediate” event, another part may be selected from the mental vocabulary of past sensory experience.

For example, one may have seen:

Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

But that requires a setting.  Perhaps the “real” setting is that you saw the shadows passing on the grass.  But you think the verse would be more expressive with a different setting, so you might make it:

The paper screen;
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

The actual old Japanese hokku from which I have made this example was:

On the white wall,
Dragonfly shadows
Pass to and fro.

So one has the freedom to use creative selection in composing, based on one’s own personal vocabulary of things and events.  The key is to make it “real,” by which is meant keeping it in harmony with Nature.  And to do that, one must have direct experience of Nature.

3.  One may write a hokku entirely from creative selection, meaning the verse is not a reflection of a particular actual event, but rather a combination of elements from different past events, yet united and harmonious.

A good example of this is Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse:

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

Now Bashō did not write this verse from direct experience, according to old accounts.  He had the last two lines, and was looking for a setting, so the story goes.  He tried many possibilities; someone suggested beginning it with the yamabuki, the yellow shrub Kerria japonica, often translated, rather confusingly, as “mountain rose” in the West.

 

But in a sudden inspiration, Bashō spoke “Furu ike ya,” — “The old pond”; and according to the possibly apocryphal story, everyone was thunderstruck.

Whatever the truth of the story, we know that Bashō would have experienced many frogs jumping into water in his life, and would have seen many old ponds.  He just did not happen to see this precise event when he composed the verse.  Instead it was composed from his mental vocabulary of past sensory events.  It was thus written from experience, but not from immediate experience.  This is an important point.

Some old hokku never happened.  Buson, for example, wrote a verse about stepping on his dead wife’s comb; but his wife was not dead!  He did it merely for effect.

One could write like that, but there is a great danger of artificiality.  The more we draw from our own imagination instead of from actual experience — whether immediate or from our mental vocabulary of past experiences — the less likely our hokku are to seem real and in keeping with Nature.  Too many of Buson’s hokku thus seem artificial and contrived for effect.

That is why I discourage students from writing strictly from the imagination.  In today’s world we are more and more separated from Nature, and because of that, our verses — if not directly connected by immediate experience or by creative selection from genuine past experience — tend to be rootless and “phony.”  And so we must keep in mind the old advice that when writing about pines, one goes to learn from the pine — meaning that if you want to express Nature faithfully, you must go and learn from Nature, absorbing it until you can express it naturally and without artificiality.

In our way of hokku we have the principle that the writer must get the ego out of the way, must be a mirror reflecting Nature.  That applies whether the experience is immediate or creative selection.  Our purpose in writing is to restore the unity of humans and Nature, not to escape into the imagination.

Our course is directly the opposite — out of abstract fantasy and back to Nature as the true home of humans, our mother and father, our origin and our ending.

David

AUTUMN BEGINS

In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.

David

WHAT COLOR IS THE BACK OF A MORNING GLORY?

As mentioned in an earlier posting, traditionally morning glories in old hokku are flowers of the last part of summer and beginning of autumn.

Kyoroku has an interesting verse:

It shows
The backs of the morning glories —
The windy autumn.

The reverse side of morning glories, as anyone who has grown them will know, is pale and whitish.  When they are blown by the wind of autumn, we see that less obvious side that ordinarily does not draw our attention.

R. H. Blyth remarks correctly of this verse that “the whitish backs of the flowers are in accord with the autumn and its loneliness and poverty.”  I often speak of internal harmony in hokku, and that is precisely the internal harmony in this one.

Kyoroku does present it in a somewhat different way, however.  The common Japanese expression in hokku is aki no kaze — “the wind of autumn.”  Kyoroku uses instead, kaze no aki, literally “wind’s autumn,” or “windy autumn,” making a unity of the wind and the autumn, which become one thing, and because of the harmony with the rest of the verse, it also unifies the whole.

Notice again the “repeated subject” form that comes in so handy with hokku in English.  “It” and “windy autumn” both refer to the same thing.  That is why we call it “repeated subject.”

David

A LOOK BACKWARD: THE HOKKU OF SŌGI

Bashō — the best-known writer of hokku — tried to follow the overall aesthetic in his verse that he found in the other contemplative arts of tea, of ink painting, of waka, and of renga.  He mentioned a representative master of each, and that for renga — the linked verse that preceded the kind of hokku Bashō wrote — was Sōgi.

Sōgi (1421-1502) is worth remembering not just because Bashō found his work admirable.  He is also the person who formalized the connection between the hokku and the seasons.

We must remember that Bashō did not invent the hokku.  Instead he developed it in a different direction by mixing the traditionally “high” subjects of the slightly longer Japanese waka — such as the cries of wild geese — with “low” subjects such as a frog jumping into the water, where formerly in waka it was customary to have the crying of frogs.  In doing so, he expanded the range of hokku while keeping its overall aesthetic.

Knowing then, that Bashō did not create the hokku, let’s take a look at some of the older hokku of Sōgi, which in their subject matter are very akin to the more elegant and deliberately poetic waka.

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

Wild geese in the clouds,
Ducks crying in the gorge;
The mountain path.

This morning they cover
The rains that fell in the night —
Falling leaves.

It is not hard to discern a general pattern in many of Sōgi’s earlier kind of hokku.  He likes to  present two things or events, and then to unify them by a third, for example the setting moon and the swift tide both joined by the summer sea; then the wild geese in the clouds, and the crying ducks in the gorge, both united by Sōgi’s perspective of witnessing them from a path in the mountains — geese above him, ducks below.  And finally, what falls in the morning (leaves) covering what fell in the night (rain) — the falling leaves covering the puddles and traces of rain.

It is a rather elegant and simple way to write, and again, with its choice of subjects it is closer to waka.  What Bashō did was to lessen the elegance and to increase the commonness, to lessen the obvious poetry, and to make the poetry more in the experience of everyday things seen in a new way — telling us things we already knew, but did not know that we knew until we read the hokku:

In the morning dew,
Muddy and fresh —
The melon.

After the elegant hokku of Sōgi, written as part of renga (linked verse), came the development of a new kind of renga that mixed in wit and humor, and was thus called “haikai no renga” — “playful” linked verse.  But this approach gradually degenerated into clever attempts at word-play.  It was this kind of low-class hokku that Bashō first learned.  But as his sensibilities developed, Bashō realized that the hokku could take on depth and profundity if it took a middle way — not quite the elegance of Sōgi’s hokku, and no longer the cheap wit and low humor of writers such as Teitoku — but a mixture of the high subjects of Sōgi’s “waka-like” hokku with the ordinary subjects of haikai;  and that is how the hokku we practice today, which mixes the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, came to be.  Of course Bashō was not the only one to see the advantages of such a middle way — there was for example Onitsura as well — but Bashō, probably because he had students to carry on his name, is the best known today.

David


SEASONAL HARMONY

In hokku the concept of harmony is very important.  If a verse is composed of elements that are inharmonious with one another, the hokku will fail.  But beyond that, the hokku should be in harmony with the season in which it is written.

It often seems initially odd to many Westerners that one should read a hokku in the season in which it is written, but it really is not an unfamiliar concept.  If we see a house with Christmas lights still up in August, we feel there is something out of place; and if we see a pottery Halloween pumpkin in May, we have the same feeling of disharmony.

It is the same with hokku, only we become even more aware of such discords of object and time, because hokku takes us away from our personal and social preoccupations and puts us in touch with the seasons that were for millennia the essential and unfailing context of our ancestors’ lives.

This is not something peculiar to hokku.  It is a commplace in the aesthetics of the culture out of which hokku grew.  And as R. H. Blyth reminds us, the contemplative arts of Japan share as their foundation virtually the same aesthetic principles, so that if you understand one, you understand them all.  That is why, on entering a traditional Japanese home, one will find a flower arrangement in harmony with the present season; and if there is a hanging scroll, it will depict a scene in harmony with the season.

To have an arrangement of lilies in midwinter, or of daffodils in autumn, is discordant — inharmonious.  And in hokku one is very sensitive to such things, because hokku is to put us in harmony with Nature, not to divide us from it.

That is why in hokku we both read and write verses in season.  It is true that we will sometimes use a verse from one season in discussion during a different season, but that is merely for purposes of learning and explanation, and it does not in any way negate the principle that the hokku and the season should be in harmony when written and when read.

David

WELL BUCKETS AND I, ME, AND MY

In Western poetry the “self” plays a very large role.  In Objective Hokku, however, the self is not only minimized, but often does not appear at all.  That is because in Objective Hokku the writer is the mirror of Nature.  The self is like dust that obscures that mirror; the more of self, the less Nature can be clearly reflected.

In hokku the writer is to get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  There are many other kinds of verse in which the writer can express the self in any way desired; but in hokku the self is generally an obstacle, not a help.

That is why in Objective hokku we very seldom use the words “I,” “me,” and “my.”  In fact they are commonly only used when not using them would be awkward or too vague.

When the self does appear in hokku, it is treated as we would treat anything else in Nature, the same way we write about a fox, or a dove, or a tree — objectively.

Because of this, the aesthetics of Objective Hokku frown on verses that bring the writer too much to the foreground, drawing the reader’s attention.

In this regard, R. H. Blyth very appropriately quotes Robert Frost’s A Tuft of Flowers:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared,
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Contrast that with much of Western poetry, which intends to draw our attention to the writer — his or her thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, desires, complaints, etc. etc. etc.

Knowing all this, we look at a hokku such as Chiyo-ni’s

The well bucket
Seized by a morning glory;
Borrowing water.

This is a very popular verse, but unfortunately it draws our attention to the writer’s sensitive aestheticism, so finely tuned that instead of disturbing the morning glory that has entwined the bucket, she will go to borrow water from a neighbor.  This is not quite as precious as Oscar Wilde’s remark that he found it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china, but the effect is perilously close.

And try as we might, that is the effect we get from the verse, because as Blyth points out, beyond that there is really nothing else — no genuine poetic connection between the  green tendrils entwining the bucket and Chiyo-ni going next door to borrow a bucket of water.  And overt aestheticism is not at home in hokku.

What we learn from all this is to avoid bringing the self to the foreground in Objective Hokku, but instead to either keep it out entirely or treat it objectively when it does appear.   Our approach as writers should be like that of the mower — acting with no intent to draw one thought of the reader to us.  That is in keeping with the principle of selflessness in hokku.

There is a senryu satirizing Chiyl-ni’s hokku:

Yokutoshi wa   Chiyo idobata wo satte ue

The next year,
Chiyo planted farther
From the well.

David

HOKKU AS SPIRITUAL VERSE

Hokku at its best was and is spiritual verse.

That does not mean “religious” in any dogmatic sense.  It is not about dogmas and beliefs.  It is spiritual in that it re-unites — if only briefly — subject and object, humans and Nature.

We are accustomed to verses in which a writer writes about himself and his emotions, or about his opinions and comments on things and events.  Many think this is essential to being modern and relevant.  But they forget that what is ultimately relevant is our relation to Nature, from which we come, by which we live, and to which we return.  Forgetting that has led us to the dangerous worldwide environmental situation in which we now find ourselves.

In hokku we do not dwell on ourselves and our emotions, we do not expound on things and events.  Instead we return to the the most primal level of existence — sensory experience.  We are simply presented with things and events, and all we need do is experience them.

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

It is fundamental to hokku to know that this is not a symbol of something else.  It is not a metaphor.  It is only what it is. You will find nothing hidden in it, nothing to interpret.  There is no attached meaning to it, nor commentary, nor emotion.  We are simply to experience it.  And that experience is hokku.

Hokku are simply things and events, without interpretation, without added ornaments or commentary.

Have you ever noticed that a thing is an event, that our common separation of the world into nouns and verbs — things and actions — is really false?   That a leaf, for example, does not exist in the abstract?  There is only a leaf growing, or coloring, or trembling in the wind, or falling, or lying on the ground, or decaying.  We cannot separate thing and action, thing and change, though the change may be so slow as to be imperceptible — but even then there is simply a leaf leafing.  A thing is an event, and without things there are no events.  So we could say that a hokku is an experience of a thing-event.

Not everything is hokku, however.  Hokku are thing-events in which we feel an inexpressible significance, something that cannot be put into words, but can only be experienced.

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

But why do we feel this unspoken significance?  We could take this verse apart, and any element of it will have some effect separately, but it is only by combining them that we get the hokku effect, which is a sense of unity and harmony.  Without this harmony of elements, a hokku will not work — it will not be effective.

There is no writer present.  When we read it, there is only the crow perched on the withered branch in the autumn evening.  If we are reading it with our full attention, that is all that is.  The reader thus becomes the thing-event — dissolves into it — and the separation of subject (the writer or reader) and object (the crow on the withered bough in autumn) disappears.

That is why we speak of a hokku as a “little enlightenment” in which the illusory separateness of the human ego disappears — if only for a moment.  That is the “Zen” of hokku, and anyone can know from experience that it is not theory but fact.  If one is reading a hokku intently, the “self” is forgotten, and only the hokku exists — not as words and lines, but as a sensory experience of a thing-event.

We have all had a similar experience when, on reading a book or watching a movie, everything else disappeared from our perception, leaving only what was read or watched.  So there is nothing mysterious about this.  But we must not forget that it is only a “little” and momentary enlightenment — a far lesser analog to the greater enlightenment spoken of in meditative traditions.

Hokku, as R. H. Blyth said, tell us things we know, but did not know that we know.  They “show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, — and not recognized it.”

Yet no one has ever become enlightened in the greater sense simply by reading hokku.  One should not suppose that writing and reading hokku is in itself a substitute for spiritual practice.  Even Bashō, the most famous writer of hokku, is said to have been distraught at the time of his death, lamenting that he had become obsessed with hokku and its wider context of haikai, and had not spent enough time on spiritual development.  We must not repeat that mistake.

We have seen that hokku are about thing-events, and that nothing exists in the abstract, only in relation to something else.  It is the same with hokku, which have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  In hokku everything takes place not at some indefinite time, but in relation to a season.  So there are Spring hokku, Summer hokku, Autumn or Fall hokku and Winter hokku.  Because season is so important, old hokku generally contained a kind of “key” word that would indicate the season.  It might be stated directly:

The summer moon

Or it might be shown through a less obvious season word.

The morning glory

A verse about a morning glory is an autumn verse in the old Japanese system.

Because of this seasonal classification of things, verses could easily be anthologized not only by season, but also by subject.  But over time this system became too  complex and rigid, so that by the late 19th century there were dictionaries of season words, and it took a student years to learn and apply them well.  The system had become unwieldy and impractical, and when hokku moved out of Japan and began to be written in other countries, the number of possible subjects and their seasonal classifications became ridiculously expanded.

Nonetheless, season is very important to hokku, as we have seen.  It places a thing-event in its context within the year, so it is not just a floating abstraction.  That is why modern hokku did not abandon the important seasonal connection, it just shifted from the complex season word system to the very simple and practical marking of each verse with its season, whether Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter.  The student no longer has to spend years on learning seasonal classifications of every possible subject.  This simplicity is very much in keeping with the nature of hokku, which is avoidance of excess and keeping to the essence of things.

When we write a hokku, therefore, we are writing a thing-event in a seasonal context.  That helps to give a great deal of atmosphere to a verse.  Suppose, for example, we are writing about rain.  In hokku there is no such thing as “rain” in the abstract, just as nothing in reality exists in the abstract.  There is only

Spring rain;

Summer rain;

Autumn rain;

Winter rain.

By just adding the season, we greatly change the effect of the hokku.  How great a difference there is, for example, between a Spring moon and an Autumn moon!

If you have been paying close attention, you will perhaps have begun to notice that hokku is all about relationships and interconnections.  Nothing in the universe exists in isolation, but only in relation to something else.   Awareness of those relationships is what enables the writer to create a hokku filled with harmony and unity.

This harmony is a fundamental principle not only of hokku but of all the contemplative arts, including flower arrangement.  To have an arrangement of  Spring flowers in the Fall is inharmonious, and does not give us a sense of unity; the flowers are out of keeping with the season.  It would be like Halloween in May.  Writers of hokku must be very attentive to harmony.

A hokku is not simply an assemblage of unrelated things and events.  Everything in a verse relates to everything else, and if there is something out of harmony — out of keeping with the other elements and the season — the verse will fail as hokku.

Harmony in hokku does not mean everything must be the same.  In summer, a verse about heat is very much in keeping with the season.  That is a harmony of identity.  But there is also the harmony of contrast.  In hokku we are not only very aware of harmony of similarity, but also of the perceived harmony of opposites — of contrasts.  That is why along with a verse about heat, we may find a Summer verse such as Onitsura’s

A cool wind;
The empty sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

So remember the two kinds of harmony in hokku — similarity and contrast.  A snowstorm in winter is similarity; a warm fire in winter is contrast.  Both give us a sense of appropriateness, of harmony and unity.

Because harmony and unity are so important to hokku, we do not write a hokku out of season, and we also read hokku in their proper season.  Of course when teaching I will sometimes use out-of-season verses as examples, but that is only to help the student.  It is important to remember that except for teaching, hokku are written and read in the appropriate season.  And if you have been reading on my site for a long time, you will perhaps have noticed that even in teaching, I tend to favor verses that are in season at the time when I write on a given topic.

The interrelationships of elements in hokku bring us back to their spirituality.  Spiritual traditions tell us that our sense of separateness is illusion.  If one does a spiritual practice, one begins to discover an underlying unity among all things that superficially seem separate.  And that can drastically change how one perceives both the world and the “self.”  Hokku, again, is only a little hint of what such a profound perception is — again a kind of analog on a much lesser level.

Hokku returns us to Nature, to OUR nature — our sun nature and moon nature, our rain and wind nature, our river, stream and pond nature, our dragonfly and river stone nature.  It rejoins what had been cut asunder, and the universe once more takes on something far deeper than intellectual meaning — it becomes profoundly significant in its smallest manifestations — a leaf sinking through clear water, a bird scratching amid dry leaves.

That is hokku.

David

BEGINNING TO LEARN CONTENT IN HOKKU

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.  But I will discuss this more in another posting.

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.

David