HOT THINGS: THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

I often emphasize the importance, in writing hokku, of seeing something in a new way.  It is not that we constantly have to look for quite new subjects; it is just that when we see an ordinary thing in a new way, we perceive it differently; we have what Blyth used to call a “little enlightenment.”  We suddenly realize that the experience is telling us something we already knew, but did not know that we knew, until it was shown to us in a different way.

The seasonal context of a thing changes it.  We experience the same thing differently in different seasons.  Here is a good example, a “little enlightenment” of Buson:

(Summer)

Spider webs
Are hot things!
The summer grove.

Ordinarily we think of such webs as light and airy, open to the wind.  But in the heat of summer, entering and walking through a dry and windless grove of trees, we feel spider webs sticking to our face and hands, and suddenly we realize

Spider webs
Are hot things!

Like the verses in the two preceding postings, the bothersomeness of the spider webs on our skin in the windless grove only magnifies the heat.  One uncomfortable thing added to another uncomfortable thing makes both worse, with each bringing out the nature of the other.  And in doing so, they help to give the verse unity; the parts all work together as one experience, which in hokku is very good.

Suddenly realizing that spider webs are “hot things” is seeing something ordinary in a new way.  That is an opportunity we should use in writing.  Of course without the context of summer and heat, it would not be so.  In a different season and context, the nature of the spider webs — how we experience them — would also be different.

 

David

 

 

 

HEAT ON HEAT: A KNOCK AT THE DOOR

Here is a “westernized” variation on a hokku by Yayū that borders on senryu:

(Summer)

Hurriedly dressing
At a knock on the door;
The heat!

It is a very hot day, and the writer has been lying around nearly naked in the shadowy house interior, trying to cool off.  Suddenly there is a knock at the door, and he/she gets up with a start and hurriedly throws some clothes on, which, with the sudden activity of the body at the knock, make the heat of the day feel even more intense.

 

Davidhokku

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

 

 

 

 

COOL, CLEAR WATER

 

With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:

(Summer)

At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:

(Summer)

Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:

(Summer)

Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.

 

David

 

 

A LOAD OF WIND

Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana

David

HOKUSHI’S CRACKED BELL: A SUMMER HOKKU

Even the “bong”
Of the cracked bell is hot;
The summer moon.

The functioning of this hokku by Hokushi lies in the use of the perceived similarity of the uncomfortable summer heat — so oppressive that it is felt even in the evening — and the oddly “off” bong of the large, cracked bell, a discordant sound that is also felt to be uncomfortable, and only adds to the discomfort of the evening. One bothers the skin, the other bothers the hearing, and so they are akin, with the sound of the bell manifesting audibly the discomfort felt in the evening heat.

In contrast to these, high above, serene and calm and flawless, floats the summer moon, perceived as cool and perfect but too distant to do more than represent a visual contrast to the dominance of the first two elements in the senses of touch and hearing. The first two elements of heat (touch) and sound (hearing) are disagreeable here, the moon is not, and in that simple fact lies the point of the poem.

Hokushi tells us how hot the evening is indirectly: ““Even the “bong” / Of the cracked bell is hot;

Of course one is just to feel this, and to explain it at length, as I have done, is like explaining a joke; inevitably something is lost. But I explain it nonetheless so that students may see how different hokku are constructed and how they work. And by learning that, students can then apply the same principles to the making of new hokku.

For readers who want the original Japanese (and I have one who always chides me if I don’t give it), literally the verse is:

Waregane no hibiki mo atsushi natsu no tsuki

cracked-bell ‘s sound too hot summer ‘s moon

David

THE EFFECT OF YIN AND YANG

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

stonebasin

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

David

BUSON’S BARE MOUNTAIN: A SUMMER HOKKU

Buson wrote an effective hokku that, like many good summer hokku, deals with the heat of the season:

higaeri no hageyama koyuru atsusa kana
Day-trip ‘s bald-mountain crossing heat kana

A day’s journey
Across a bare mountain;
The heat!

The elements of the verse go together well.

We could be a bit looser with the translation, like this:

A day’s journey
Over a treeless mountain —
The heat!

We feel the weariness of the traveller and his discomfort in that high place with no shelter from the hot summer sun.

David

BIG ANT, BIG HEAT: INTERNAL REFLECTION IN HOKKU

IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.

David

ABSENCE AND PRESENCE AND SUMMER HEAT

The windbell silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

This summer hokku by Yayū is somewhat unusual, first because it includes a clock.  We already know that “modern technology” is not a part of hokku, and if we allow ourselves to become very literalistic about that limitation, instead of understanding its spirit, we might think that Yayū made a mistake in including a clock.  But clocks are very old, and belong to a kind of simpler technology that preceded the Industrial Revolution and is still within the realm of things worked and molded and cast, like iron pots and door hinges, in spite of a clock being somewhat more complex.  So they are not entirely out of place in hokku, and as we shall see, Yayū included a clock for a specific reason.

Most hokku are about things that are present — rain, sunlight, a spider, the wind.  But it is an important characteristic of hokku that things NOT present are just as important.  Things not present are absent, so we may speak of two kinds of hokku:  hokku of presence and hokku of absence.

Yayū’s hokku is again unusual in that it is a hokku of both absence and presence.  When Yayū writes:

The windbell silent;

what he is really presenting to us is the absence of sound.  The windbell is not moving, not making its customary, pleasant sound.  That means there is no wind.  The absence of sound equals the absence of wind here.  So what this first line is actually telling us is that it is a hot, completely windless day in summer.  That is the “absence” part of the hokku.

wind bell
(Photo credit: koizumi)

Now for the presence:  In that absence of the sound of the windbell that would indicate a cooling breeze, there is instead another sound — the regular, dry, mechanical ticking of a clock.  But Yayū, just as he presented us with the absence of wind indirectly by making us notice the silence of the windbell, now presents us with something else through this ticking:

The heat
Of the clock.

Now of course rationally we may ask what is hot about a clock?  But then we should remember that in hokku, perception is what counts.  The world is not viewed as an accumulation of isolated objects and events.  Instead, everything relates to everything else.

We have already seen that demonstrated in the silence of the windbell, which means not simply silence but also the absence of wind.  Now we see another relationship in the ticking of the clock on a summer’s day.  That ticking — like the absence of wind — is not mentioned at all, yet just as we know the wind is absent because the windbell is silent, we also know the clock is ticking because of the heat.

When Yayu speaks of the heat of the clock, we hear the dry, mechanical, regular ticking, and in that metallic regularity, so unlike the randomness of a windbell moved by a breath of air, we feel the oppressive heat of the day, and we feel it magnified by the absent ringing of the windbell:

The heat
Of the clock.

It really is a remarkable hokku, and if one did not understand how hokku work (and most do not, until someone tells them), it would be very easy to overlook or dismiss such a verse.

When a hokku is read, it must be with the premise of the universe as many things all interrelated. So in this verse, the silence of the windbell and the absence of a breeze are one thing; the clock and that heat and the ticking are one thing; and when we have finished the verse, what is absent and what is present together become one experience, each element giving significance to the other.

David

THE HEAT!

R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”

David

THE WINDBELL IS SILENT

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

The windbell is silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

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

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

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

David

ONE BIG, LAZY CAT IS ALL OF SUMMER

Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan
Asleep.

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.

David

THE RED SUN

Sōseki wrote this summer hokku:

The red sun
Sinks down into the sea;
The heat!

The sun sinks into the sea every day, so what is different about this that makes it worthwhile and not just a commonplace?  It is the combination of the redness (very yang) of the sun combined with the intensity (we see it in the exclamation point) of the heat (also yang).  Both are unified by the flat horizon of the sea to give a very strong physical sensation, which is what we look for in hokku.

The heat of the day is already there as evening nears.  But it is the largeness, the redness of the setting sun that brings out its magnitude; we not only feel the heat, we see it in the redness.

The setting is “the heat.”
The subject is “the red sun.”
The action is “sinks down into the sea.”

As I have said before, we can write countless hokku on countless subjects using the combination of setting, subject, and action.

David

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE

Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.

David

THE HOKKU OF SUMMER

All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.

CLOUDS APPEAR

We just looked at a verse for the time when spring is nearing its end:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Today, by contrast, we shall look at a verse on the other side of the seasonal divide:

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

In the first verse we still feel the gentleness and abundance of spring, when the forces of Yang are growing, but softened by the Yin of the rain.  But in high summer we come to the time when Yang predominates, and it manifests as heat and dryness.  That second verse is by Kōkyō, and he gives us a sense of the harshness of Yang when unmitigated by Yin, just as in midwinter we feel the harshness of the cold Yin unmitigated by the warmth of Yang.

Both heat and cold are extremes, and though they make for unpleasantness and discomfort, they also give us effective hokku because these extremes of heat and cold create strong sensations — sensory experiences — and sensory experience is the basis of hokku.

When using old hokku — which are really Japanese verses — in learning how to write modern hokku, we should generally forget completely that they are Japanese.   Instead we should apply them to the country where we live.

That is why when I read Kōkyō’s

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

I always think of an American farmer looking upward at the hard blue sky in which a few wisps of whitish cloud appear, only to pass over and dissolve without a single drop of rain falling onto the parched soil.  And yes, I know it is a bit old-fashioned, but I always have the feeling of a windmill in the background, completely silent and still in the oppressive heat of a day without even the hint of a breeze.  That latter element by itself could be used in a summer hokku:

The windmill
Silent and unmoving;
The heat!

In such a verse we feel the heat in the stillness of the windmill, which, we could say, “reflects” the intense sensation of heat through its unmoving silence.  That is how hokku works; we combine things that work in harmony to express the season through sensory experience.

I hope readers here — at least long-time readers — are beginning to see how essentially simple hokku is.  If we abandon all the intellection, all our notions of what “poetry” should be, and just go for the basics of season and sensation — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature — then we will be going in the right direction for hokku.  Anything else will take us away from hokku.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of hokku, unlike those of modern haiku, can be clearly expressed and taught.  And when one gets away from those principles, one is no longer writing hokku even if one happens to use the outward form of hokku for such a verse.  That clarity and simplicity in our understanding of hokku and its aesthetics and principles and techniques explains why we in hokku do not have the constant bickering and “intellectual” argument one finds among writers of other kinds of short verse.  We know what the aesthetics of hokku are, we know what the form is, we know how a hokku is written and what a hokku is to be written “about” — so that leaves nothing for pointless quibbles and mind games.

Why, then, is such abstract bickering endemic on modern haiku sites?  It is essentially because those in modern haiku view what they write as “poetry” and themselves as “poets” in the Western sense; they write so many different kinds of verse, all called haiku, that the modern haiku community as a whole has no overall unifying aesthetic or purpose.  And that underlying uncertainty and dissension becomes obvious in discussions on modern haiku by those within it.

That is another major difference between hokku and modern haiku.  I cannot help pondering this difference whenever I see the wordy, abstract quarreling that takes place on modern haiku sites.  It always makes me happy for the peace of hokku.

David

A LOAD OF WIND

Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

The arrangement of that summer hokku by Kakō is necessarily different in English.  The original is literally

Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

But let’s look at the English structure:

Amid the heat,
He carries a load of wind —
The fan seller.

A setting in hokku is generally the BIG part of it, the wider context in which something takes place — often, but certainly not always, the weather.  Here the setting is:

Amid the heat

The subject is obviously the fan seller, but in this verse we find the very common and useful technique of “repeated subject,” where the subject is referred to once by a pronoun (he, she, it), an then again by its actual name or title.  So we see

HE carries a load of wind —
THE FAN SELLER

Both “he” and “the fan seller” are the same subject.  This hokku technique is endlessly useful, because it fits the syntax of English very well.

And finally we have the action, that which is moving or changing in the verse.   What is the fan seller doing?  The answer is the action:

(He) carries a load of wind.

So this verse has setting, subject, and action, and is consequently what we call a “standard” hokku.  There are countless examples of this pattern, many of them excellent verses.  But keep in mind, if you are a new reader here, that this is not the only pattern.  If you visit this site regularly, you will learn more of them, and can then apply them to your own practice of hokku.

This verse has both the sensation (the heat and the anticipation of coolness) and the subtle humor characteristic of hokku as a whole.  Remember that the humor of hokku is very slight and sometimes almost imperceptible.  It is not at all the “milk-spouting-from-the-nose” kind of humor we think of in today’s society.  It is more like the smile on the Mona Lisa — sometimes it seems to be there, and sometimes….

David