BIRD OF TIME

A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:

京にても京なつかしやほとゝぎす

Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.

Or:

In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.

 

CHOMPING

A winter hokku by Kiūkoku:

The horse
Chomping and chomping straw;
A snowy night.

The loud chomping noises only emphasize the stillness of the night of snow, so we can say this is a hokku with harmony of contrast — two very different things put together that nonetheless come out as harmonious instead of discordant.

Best wishes to everyone on this New Year’s Eve for a far better and happier coming year than the last has been.

David

WHY THIS, NOT THAT?

English is an interesting and useful language, but I am glad I grew up speaking it instead of having to learn it as a second language.  That is because it is filled with countless idiomatic usages and traditional ways of saying things.

What does this have to do with hokku?  It relates to how we use articles (“the,” “a,” “an”) — particularly in first lines.

Look at these examples of possible first lines:

Autumn moon;

Cold rain;

Morning light;

Evening star;

Hot stone;

Cool water;

An English speaker automatically feels that the following require “the”:

The autumn moon;
The evening star;
The hot stone;

However these can be either with or without “the”:

Cold rain/The cold rain;
Morning light/The morning light;
Cool water/The cool water;

Trying to come up with a fixed rule to fit all possibilities would be devilishly difficult, because it is often just a matter of traditional usage and common speech — in short, what sounds right to one brought up speaking English.  For those learning the language, it is a constant effort to determine what is normal in each particular case.

This is often an initial difficulty for those coming to hokku from long exposure to modern haiku, which tends to frequently avoid the use of articles, thinking that there is a virtue in making a verse as grammatically minimal as possible.

That mistaken notion is partly derived from seeing literal translations of Japanese hokku; Japanese does not have articles or plurals.  But English is quite unlike Japanese, and to try to mix English words and Japanese grammar just comes out as odd.  This trend toward excessive minimalism in modern haiku is also partly the influence of the experimentalism in English-language poetry of the first half of the 20th century, which sometimes found even eliminating punctuation desirable.

Of course if we carried this idea of minimalization by elimination of articles to its logical conclusion, we would be writing hokku, such as the verse I posted yesterday, in a form like this:

Autumn moon;
On floor
Pine shadow.

Instead of like this:

The autumn moon;
On the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

In short, we would be writing in pidgin English.  And of course many in modern haiku would even eliminate the capitalization and punctuation.  But in contemporary hokku, we do not go for the peculiar.  We use ordinary English in ordinary ways.

When people come to hokku from modern haiku, they are often so accustomed to the partial (or even complete at times) elimination of articles and punctuation that seeing a hokku written in normal English seems initially peculiar to them, because they have been mistakenly conditioned to think that writing a verse requires some kind of special, abbreviated language.  But in hokku, we just write of ordinary things in ordinary English.

It is true that in hokku we keep to the principles of poverty and simplicity — that is, eliminating all that is unnecessary so as to make a stronger verse.  That does not, however, extend to the deliberate distortion of common English usage to fit a preconceived and mistaken notion that by doing so, a verse is somehow made better.

 

David

PINE SHADOW

Here is my loose translation of an autumn hokku by Kikaku, in daoku form.

The autumn moon;
Across the floor —
The shadow of the pine.

Literally, in Japanese it is:

Meigetsu ya tatami no ue ni matsu no kage
   名   月    や     畳     の 上  に   松     の     影
Bright moon ya tatami ‘s on at pine ‘s shadow

The meigetsu is the bright or autumn moon — the harvest moon.
Tatami is the woven grass floor covering used in old Japan.

We could make it a big more rustic and rural Western:

The autumn moon.
Across the wooden floor —
The shadow of the pine.

It has a better flow to it, and a wooden floor is certainly more natural than linoleum.

We could also change it a bit more, without going too far from the original:

Autumn moonlight;
A pine shadow
Across the floor.

As you can see, I am not just translating old hokku to be translating them, but want to show you how to write hokku in English — in this case a daoku, or objective hokku.  If hokku is not to die out, there must be those who value it and continue to write it.

David

AUTUMN, HOKKU AND HAIKU

We have entered autumn by the old hokku calendar — the decline of the year.  Autumn is the progressive weakening and retreat of the vital forces in Nature.  In old China, this weakening was called the “return to the root,” and that is precisely what we see.  The sap falls in the trees, and many plants either die (if they are annuals) or the energy goes into the roots below the soil surface (if they are perennials).

In time, autumn corresponds with mid afternoon to twilight.  In human life, it corresponds with the beginnings and progress of old age.  It is the time of increasing loss, which is also why it is the time — in agricultural communities — for storing away food for the coming of winter.  In terms of Yin (passive, cool) and Yang energies (active, warm), Autumn is declining Yang and increasing Yin.

Autumn, in hokku, is above all the time when we become aware of the impermanence of things, both in Nature and in human life.  We see it in the withering of plants, in the coloring and falling of leaves, and in the change and gradually cooling of the weather.

The beginning of autumn is a good time to review some of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  Both are written today, but they generally have very different principles.  I know that people involved in the modern haiku community — either directly or indirectly — come here and read my site, and sometimes it is obvious that they do not understand that hokku and haiku are fundamentally two very different things — and that it is a mistake to confuse them.  If you approach hokku as though it were haiku, you will never understand it.

Haiku — though in name it began in Japan with the reforms of Shiki near the end of the 19th century — is really a modern creation.  In the West, it grew out of misunderstandings of the old hokku, which was seen in terms familiar to Western poets, and viewed through the lens of Western notions of poetry.  That led it off on a very different course from that of hokku, and modern haiku has continued on that somewhat erratic and rudderless course today.  Haiku has become whatever an individual writer says it is — so there are many different kinds of haiku.  The one constant is generally that matters such as form and content and aesthetics are left to individual choice — and that accounts for why there are different “sects” in the modern haiku community, and why “haiku” has become an umbrella term covering many disparate kinds of verse under the very wide “haiku” umbrella.

The tendency in modern haiku is for it to diverge ever farther from the hokku that originally was its inspiration, however misunderstood in the West it may have been.  But given the great range of variation among modern haiku writers, there are some closer to hokku and some farther and farther away.

What are some of the differences between hokku and haiku?

First, there is the form.  As we have seen, form in modern haiku varies considerably.  Some use no capitalization; some use no or minimal punctuation; some vary the number of lines, or even reduce it to one word; and some — surprisingly — still follow the notion (based on a misunderstanding) that it should be written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables.  All of these are permissible in modern haiku.

In contemporary hokku, by contrast, the form is standardized.  A hokku consists of three lines, the middle often — but not always — longer than the other two.  It is divided into two segments:  a longer portion of two lines, and a shorter of one.  The shorter segment may come either at the beginning or the end.  The two segments are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark (not just a hyphen, as is often done in modern haiku).  The hokku also ends with appropriate punctuation.  This standardized form works very well, and makes controversy over form quite unnecessary.

A significant difference between hokku and modern haiku is that much of the modern haiku community pays little or no attention to season.  In hokku season is crucially important.  Every hokku is written in one of the four seasons, and is also to be read in that season.  Summer hokku are not written in winter, nor are winter hokku written in some other season.  That practice helps to keep the writer constantly in touch with Nature and the changing seasons.  Old hokku used specific season words, but that practice became eventually so complicated that it took years for a learner to master it — which is really contrary to the simplicity of hokku.  In modern hokku, we simply head every verse with the season in which it is written, like this:

(Autumn)

That way, when hokku are read or shared or anthologized, one always knows the appropriate season for each verse.

Related to the difference in use of season between modern haiku and hokku is the great difference in attitude toward Nature.  In hokku, Nature is all important.  The very definition of modern hokku is that it has as its subject matter “Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, seen in the context of the seasons.”  Modern haiku, however (except for the more conservative segments), may abandon Nature entirely, resulting in verses about modern technology and many other topics quite contrary to hokku’s focus on Nature.

Then there is the matter of topics.  Modern hokku is a form of contemplative verse, the result of its very old influences from Buddhism and Daoism, which continue today as non-dogmatic spirituality.  That means it avoids topics that trouble or disturb the mind, such as romance, sex, and violence.  Modern hokku also has a decided preference for verses written from actual experience, whereas in modern haiku, verses are frequently composed entirely from the imagination of the writer — resulting in haiku that are completely “fictional,” including even haiku about science fiction.

In hokku, however, it is preferred to put aside the intellect as much as possible.  That is why modern hokku are generally quite objective (the term used for such objective hokku is “daoku”).  In hokku we also tend to avoid the use of ego terms such as “I,” “me,” and “my,” except when doing so is impractical.  The point of this is to get the writer out of the way so that Nature may speak.  In modern haiku, by contrast, there is often an emphasis on the individual writer — and on the writer as “poet.”  In modern hokku we generally do not refer to the writer of hokku as a “poet,” nor do we refer to hokku as “poetry,” because both terms — given their Western meanings and frequent subjectivity — are very misleading when applied to hokku.  Where in hokku the objective is generally favored (the omission of the writer’s comments and opinions about the subject) — taking the emphasis off the writer — modern haiku often favors the subjective (including the writer’s thoughts and commentary about the subject).

Now as mentioned, there are some conservative segments of the modern haiku community that are closer to hokku in some respects, and some very experimental segments that are quite far from it.  I noted in a recent book review that one modern haiku writer advocates a return to spirituality, which is something a large segment of the modern haiku community had long discarded — though it has always been a part of modern hokku.  And that writer (Gabriel Rosenstock) also advocated a “disappearance” of the ego — which is quite in keeping with the hokku attitude.  How these manifest in writing, however, often still reveals significant differences between the aesthetics of contemporary hokku and even the more conservative segments of modern haiku.

Here we can look to the old biblical adage, “by their fruits ye shall know them.”  It is not just through the differences or similarities in principle that we distinguish modern haiku from hokku, but also in practice — in the aesthetics of the verse on the page. Modern haiku — in spite of some occasional similarities to hokku — generally lacks the deeper aesthetic background that contemporary hokku has inherited from old hokku — something that was lost when hokku was re-interpreted by Western poets in terms of what they already knew of Western poetics, resulting in the more profound aspects of hokku being abandoned, misunderstood, or ignored as modern haiku developed.

Because of its definite principles and aesthetics, hokku takes time and patience to learn, even though it is ultimately quite simple.  Modern haiku is generally considered an “instant” kind of verse that anyone can quickly learn to write.  Because of that, and because of its rather open boundaries, many choose to write haiku.  Also, there is the obvious fact that modern haiku is far better known than hokku.  Many people have never heard of the hokku.  When I first began teaching it years ago, it was common for people in the modern haiku community to express complete disbelief when I told them that Bashō and Buson and the rest of the old Japanese writers wrote hokku, not “haiku.”  And there was a time in the 20th century when the Haiku Society of America actually wanted writers of dictionaries to declare the word hokku obsolete.

That confusion still exist today, with some in the modern haiku community defining hokku as the “first verse of a series of linked verses,” completely ignoring the fact that hokku were often written independent of linked verse even in the days of Bashō.

Whether to write hokku or haiku comes down, like many things, to simply a matter of personal preference.  Not everyone has the “hokku spirit” and appreciation of Nature that hokku requires.  Some simply wish to “express themselves,” and modern haiku is a much more fitting means to that end than hokku, which has just the opposite goal:  to get the writer out of the way, so that Nature may speak.

For those, however, who want to continue on the old path, writing of Nature and the changing seasons and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, hokku is ideal.

 

David

 

 

DAOKU IS SIMPLE

Writing daoku (objective hokku) in English is really very simple.

First, you need an experience involving Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  And for that, of course you need a connection to the natural world.  One cannot expect to sit in a city apartment all the time and still write daoku, because there is no connection with Nature in such a place.

That means to write daoku, one must get out and connect with Nature, whether in a home garden, a park, or a trail through a field or forest, or a place by a stream, a pond, a river, the seashore, and so on.  You get the idea.

Next, do not think of daoku as “poetry.”  Do not think of yourself as a “poet.”

Think of daoku as recording an experience of the senses —  whether seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, smelling, or a combination of any of these.  But it is not just any experience.  It has to be one that for some inexplicable reason, we feel to be significant.  If someone asks us why it is significant, we cannot say —  and that is why it is expressed in the simple words of daoku.   The daoku evokes the experience, and with that comes the feeling of a significance beyond the words.

In daoku the words should be the means of transmitting the experience.  And to keep that experience pure and strong, the writer should not add any of his or her own thinking about the experience.  Daoku should just transmit the experience, free of any commentary or interpretation or elaboration by the writer.

When we write such a verse in English — or translate an old Japanese hokku with those characteristics into English — the result is a daoku — an objective hokku.

Here is a hokku in transliterated Japanese:

Hirou mono mina ikite iru shiohi kana

And here is the daoku it becomes in English:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
Everything picked up
Is moving!

Chiyo is walking along the beach at low tide.  She reaches down to pick up some seemingly lifeless shells, but is surprised to feel and see them moving in her hand; they are not dead, but alive.

Now as you can see, all that the writer needed to do was to put that experience into simple words.  In English, we divide the result into three lines consisting of two parts — one longer, one shorter, and those two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  Each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

It is just that easy.

Of course there are some things to keep in mind.  A hokku is not just a random assemblage of things.  We should feel a relationship among the elements of a hokku, just as the “moving things” in Chiyo-ni’s verse relate to the beach at low tide.  And every hokku as daoku is set within the context of a particular season, which we add as a heading in parentheses, so it will be transmitted to the reader.

Hokku — and consequently daoku — should be written and read within the appropriate season, which keeps us in harmony with the seasons and their changes.  The exception is that when learning, examples out of the appropriate season may be used.

It is also helpful to write daoku that show us something experienced in a new way, from a different perspective.  That helps to keep the experience fresh and new.  And never forget that feeling of un-speak-able significance.  If a daoku is not felt to have that significance, it tends to be just uninteresting and mediocre.

Remember to keep daoku brief.  In English there is no fixed number of required syllables.  Use ordinary, everyday words.  Above all, transmit the experience, not your thoughts about the experience.

 

David

WHERE ONCE …

For years on this site, I have explained hokku in terms of their basic aesthetics.  I wonder how many of you can do so at this point.  So here is a question:  what qualities or characteristics of hokku do you find, or not find, in this verse?  What do you feel — or not feel — on reading it?  If you would like to answer, or to say anything else about this hokku, just leave a comment.

(Spring)

In withered weeds
Where once a house stood —
Blooming daffodils.

 

David

SOMETIMES IT’S DAOKU, SOMETIMES IT’S NOT

In a previous posting, we saw that while all daoku is hokku, not all hokku is daoku.  In the English language they are identical in form, but can be differentiated by content.  Daoku is objective, while hokku can sometimes be more subjective.

Here is an example — a spring verse by Sodō:

宿の春   何もなきこそ   何もあれ
Yado no haru   nani mo naki koso   nani mo areDwelling ‘s spring what-too is-not at-all what-too is

Though quite cryptic in a direct translation, we can paraphrase it in English as:

My spring dwelling;
Though nothing at all is there,
All is there.

Now as you see, “my” is not included in the original — only implied.

Blyth translates it as:

In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, —
There is everything!

This is obviously a philosophical hokku, not an objective verse.  It shows us the “thinking” of the writer.  There is a place for such verses, and this one is often quoted because people find its paradoxical nature superficially very “Zen,” and some in the modern haiku movement have eagerly adopted the use of paradox in writing.  It is not, however, suitable for daoku, which avoids subjective and philosophical comments, preferring to remain with the concrete rather than the abstract — with things and sensory experience rather than our ideas and musings about them.

That is why this verse is not useful as a model for daoku — an example of “all daoku is hokku, but not all hokku is daoku.”

We can clearly see the difference if we look at an objective spring hokku by Buson that is very appropriate as a daoku model:

燭の火を   燭にうつすや   春の夕
Shoku no hi wo    shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
Candle ‘s flame wo  candle at copy ya   spring ‘s evening

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

It makes a very good daoku, because it gives us only the golden light of the candles in the shadows of the spring evening, as we see one used to light the other.  It is very objective — experiencing, not “thinking.”  It has a wonderful simplicity — ordinary things in ordinary words.  In this lighting of one candle with another, we feel a deep, unspoken significance — and of course behind it all is the impermanence so important to the atmosphere of hokku.

Notice that an action is taking place, yet there is no “I,” “me,” or “my.”  That enables us to focus on the action — on the sensory experience — without being distracted by the “self” of a writer.

 

David

 

David

DAOKU — THE KIND OF HOKKU I TEACH

As I have said before, when I began teaching hokku — using that term –on the Internet — most people did not even know what the word meant.  They were accustomed to the anachronistic term “haiku,” which they retroactively applied to the short verses of Onitsura, Bashō, and all the rest — even though that was not what those writers called them.

The reason I revived the term hokku for my use in teaching was not only that it was the original name of the verse form, but also it became quite obvious that it was very important to distinguish it from what modern haiku had become.  Though modern haiku was loosely inspired by the old hokku — largely as a misperception and misunderstanding of it — in general it no longer reflected (nor does it today) the aesthetic values of hokku.

Today, hokku and haiku are two often widely divergent verse forms.  My preference is for the hokku, while those who want a less challenging form may prefer modern haiku.

Now that we are about to enter spring — the time of new beginnings — it is also time for me to make yet another distinction.  As readers here know, I have always favored hokku that reflect the traditional aesthetics hokku developed due to its roots in Buddhism — specifically Zen, which had a deep effect on Japanese culture — and in Daoism.  Those origins gave hokku its specific character — its appreciation of Nature and the changing seasons, its sense of the transience of all things, as well as its selflessness and simplicity.

Old Japanese hokku did not always live up to those qualities.  Mixed in among what to me were the best hokku, there were also a great number of hokku that displayed varying degrees of subjectivity.  Subjectivity in hokku is adding the thoughts, opinions, comments, cleverness, intellection (“thinking”) and self of the writer.  While subjective hokku may be interesting — or even quite good — as poetry, they cannot go beyond that.  They leave an emphasis on the writer as “poet” and on what is written as “poetry.”

By contrast, in my view the unique contribution of the best of old hokku was its objectivity — presenting an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature directly, without “thinking” or cleverness or the writer getting in the way.  It does not convey an experience through ideas, but rather through sensory experience — seeing, tasting touching smelling, and hearing.

What all this comes down to is that we may divide old hokku (and even modern hokku, to some extent) into subjective and objective verses.  Subjective verses are more like what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, though of course considerably briefer.  Objective hokku, however, are often quite unlike the bulk of Western poetry, though fragments of objectivity may be found within it, here and there.

To me, objective hokku were the best the old hokku had to offer, and that is what I like to teach.  The term by itself, however, may be subject to some misunderstanding, because what is objective hokku to me — which of course includes Nature and the seasons as its foundation — may not be what others think of when hearing that term.

That is why — some time ago — I first introduced the word daoku for the kind of hokku I teach.  The word is a combination of the Chinese dao — meaning “way” — the way of Nature, the way of the universe — a way of being in harmony — and the Japanese term ku, meaning “verse,” though it was borrowed from China and originally meant “song.”  That gives us daoku — which we may think of as the verse of harmony with Nature.

Because it is a newly-coined term, it can be given a very specific meaning, and that meaning is basically what I have been teaching all along as hokku — more specifically objective hokku — and now very specifically as daoku.  I think the use of this term — when supplied with a more complete definition — will prevent much misunderstanding as to precisely what I am talking about when I discuss the aesthetics, principles, standards, techniques and practice of hokku — the kind of hokku I prefer and teach.

Consequently, in future postings here, you will read less about hokku (though of course the term will still be used when appropriate) and much more about daoku — the particular form of objective hokku that to me exemplifies the greatest contribution old hokku made to the world.  So when  you see me referring to this or that verse of an old Japanese hokku writer as daoku, you will know that I am referring to a particular kind of largely Nature, season, and sense-based hokku.  Yes, it is still hokku, but the use of the new terminology will enable me (and you as well, should you choose to adopt the term) to be very specific and clear as to precisely the kind of verse I teach, very clearly distinguishing it from all other kinds of objective hokku and hokku in general.

Expect more on the principles and practice of daoku as we enter spring (according to the old calendar) with Candlemas and the beginning of February.  For long-time readers here, it will look very familiar as what I have long taught as simply “hokku” but now finer distinctions will be possible, and should lead to greater clarity in understanding.

 

David

HOKKU IS NOT WRITING “POETRY”

A major difference between the kind of hokku I teach and the verses of modern haiku lies in a fundamental divergence in what one considers the verse form to be.  In modern haiku, verses written are considered “poetry,” and the writers “poets.”

Now this brings with it all kinds of cultural and literary baggage, because writing “poetry” puts the emphasis on the writer as well as on the cleverness of what is written.  That is a long-standing tradition in Western poetry, and it is precisely why — in my view — so many people never gain an understanding of hokku.  At its best, hokku is something quite different than “poetry.”  It is a momentary experience of the fundamental unity of humans and Nature.

If one is to experience that unity, then Nature must be allowed to speak through the writer — instead of the writer manipulating Nature in words — or even manipulating words while ignoring Nature entirely, which is often the case now with modern haiku.

If one regards hokku as poetry created by a poet, then an obstacle is put in place preventing a direct experience of Nature.  In writing hokku, ideally the writer should disappear, so that the reader may become one with the experience, with no poet or poetic cleverness getting between the reader and the experience.

To do that, a writer of hokku must — at least momentarily — become selfless; by doing so, all that remains is the experience, without poetic ornamentation, without cleverness:

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is pure experience.  In it, there is no overt poetry.  The poetry is in the experience — beyond the words.  When it is read, there is no “poet,” no “poetry” — just

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is the selflessness of hokku, with the writer disappearing so that Nature may speak.

 

David

 

MARKS OF RAT TEETH

In a long-ago previous posting, I talked about Richard Wright, and how — like most people in the West in the 20th century — he did not quite understand hokku.

I wrote of him,

“The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics:

I used this verse by Wright as an example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

I said of it:

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials….”

As we can see, Wright’s verse reads as a sentence with no pause in it.  But in hokku, the pause is important; it lets the reader experience the first part of the hokku fully, before moving on to the second part.

Wright’s “rat” verse has in its subject matter the simplicity and directness of hokku, but he has cluttered it a bit by making it too general.

Instead of the general and plural “winter mornings”  — which covers a long span of time — hokku prefers the specific:

A winter morning;

That gives us the first line of a hokku, and it has the pause allowing the reader to take a moment to be in that winter morning and experience its cold and silence and austerity.  And then we continue.  But instead of the rather roundabout phrasing

The candle shows
Faint markings of the teeth of rats

— we can again simplify it to

Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

By doing so, we have changed Wright’s

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

to

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

That makes it a real hokku, set in the season of winter.

Wright’s “wordiness” was due to the preconception — common in the latter half of the 20th century — that a hokku (which was not the term generally used at the time) should consist of three lines arranged in a pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, making seventeen in all.  That preconception arose from a mistaken attempt to translate Japanese phonetic units into English syllables, which is not an accurate equation.  And in any case, English being so different grammatically from Japanese, it is not wise to simply try to transfer the characteristics of one language to the other.

But let me pause here to again praise Wright’s choice of subject, which fits hokku precisely.   When simplified and put into hokku form, his “rat” verse so obviously has the hokku spirit that it seems translated into English from a Japanese original written by a Japanese master of earlier centuries.

We live in such different times now than even the 1950s were, and many people today know candles only as something one sees on birthday cakes or as scented decorations for a home.  But only a few decades ago, candles were important to have when the electricity went out.  And a century earlier they were even more important as a source of pre-electric light.

That Wright mentions a candle could set the verse in the 1950s or it could set it  centuries earlier.  But that he uses it at all makes one think of a rather poor room in which there is a candle to provide light.  And waking on a winter morning to find marks of rat teeth on the candle tells us that this is a house where one is not likely to be surprised by finding a rat.  That again indicates a poorer dwelling.  It gives us the poverty of hokku.

Remember Blyth’s saying that to write hokku, one should either live in house with a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.  At least then we would not always be so cut off from Nature and its changes.

Further, finding marks of rat teeth on the candle means the rat was looking for food.  That makes us feel the harshness and severity of winter.  Candles in earlier years were often made of tallow — an animal product — and even after the introduction of paraffin, stearic acid — also an animal product — was generally added in candles.  So a rat would naturally be drawn to something that seemed a food source, which accounts for the tooth marks on the candle.  We feel in that the hunger of the rat, and the poverty of the house in which the candle stands on a cold winter morning.

Winter, as we know, is the season when we most feel the lack of food, so a rat gnawing a candle reflects the season — and such internal reflection is often used in hokku.

It is unfortunate that Wright did not have the guidance he needed to mature his hokku potential.  For many people that is still the case today.  The principles of hokku are still little known in the early 21st century, and in its place people substitute easy and “instant” forms of short verse that were loosely inspired by the hokku but are without its substance,  having little in common with hokku but brevity.  Generally in our time the hokku spirit has been lost, and people do not even know what they have missed.

BARE RUIN’D CHOIRS

Wild geese cry
Above the frosty roofs;
Autumn’s end.

Yes, according to the old calendar, autumn is ending.  It ends with Halloween, the present day incarnation of the ancient holiday Samhain that marked the point at which the time of darkness and cold increases — the beginning of winter.

There is an interesting sonnet (#73) by Shakespeare that, in spite of its antiquated language, reveals the same universal correspondences we find in hokku.  I will give each stanza in the original, followed by a paraphrase.

But first, I want to talk about about the poet and the person to whom the poem is addressed.  Contrary to some interpretations, I do not read this poem as a love poem addressed by an old man to a young woman.  It just does not fit.  And in spite of all the publicity given youth-age Hollywood “for profit” marriages, romantically the young — let’s face it — love the young, not the old.  And as the old Victorian song goes,

‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age.

That is why when I read this poem, I think of an old man addressing someone only a little younger than himself, such as might be said in an old married couple who have shared their mellowed love for many years beyond the time of burning, sensual romance.  I think it will make more sense to you as well if read that way.  So let’s give it a try.

The poet begins with an analogy:  he, in his old age, is like the season of late autumn:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

You can see in me that I am like that time of year
When yellow leaves — or few of them or none of them —
Hang on branches that shake in the cold [wind] —
Like bare ruined choirs where just a little time ago the sweet birds sang.

The poet is saying that his listener can see he is in the late autumn of life, when only a few altered traces — or maybe even none — of his youth remain.  He feels his aged appearance is like the cold bare branches of trees from which the leaves that made them attractive have nearly or all fallen.

Shakespeare uses a very effective and poetic metaphor  here:

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

He is using “choirs” here in its architectural sense, so he does not mean choirs of singers here, but rather choirs as those parts of old English churches that were furnished with wooden stalls in which the members of the choir sat.  Here is a modern image of such stalls in an architectural choir:

(Photo: http://www.heatheronhertravels.com/)

Knowing now that meaning of “choirs” here, you can picture the

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang

as the cold tree branches bereft of leaves, where earlier in the season the birds still sang sweetly.

Now he makes second analogy:  his life is like the twilight, the end of day:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me, the poet says,  you see the twilight of a day that will fade in the West after sunset, its light taken away by black night — a thing akin to Death, and like Death, the night will cover everything with rest.

Then he uses a third analogy:  his life is like a weak fire that will soon go out:

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d by that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In me, he says, you see the glow of a fire that barely remains on the ashes it created when it was stronger — the death-bed-like ashes upon which it will extinguish itself, consumed by the same energy that previously made it burn brightly.  The same energy of life that made me strong and attractive in youth will now in old age burn the last of what remains of my life.

As Lord Byron wrote,

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,

And the poet finishes it all by saying,

You see all of these signs of aging and death approaching, and they only make your love for me stronger, because they tell you that soon I shall die and you must say goodbye to all our years together, because I shall be no more.

We often find in hokku the equivalency between autumn and human aging, just as we find the equivalency between twilight and age.  The difference, however, is that in Western poetry for the most part — as here in Shakespeare — these equivalencies are openly expressed.  In hokku, however, twilight and autumn are not symbols of aging, or analogies or similes of aging — they are merely things that happen in Nature.  Yet seeing them happen, they evoke in us the equivalencies, even though they are not openly expressed.  Instead, we say that age is “reflected” in twilight and autumn, meaning the equivalency is much more subtle — unspoken in hokku, but expressed openly and clearly in English poetry.

AUTUMN MOUNTAINS

Here is my loose rendering of a hokku by Issa:

The autumn mountains;
On one after another
Evening falls.

That offers a good example of how the common pattern — setting/subject/action — varies.

In this verse, the setting is the autumn mountains.
The subject is evening.
The action is … falls on one after another.  But of course it is not written that way.  Instead “on one after another” is the second line, and the verb “falls” comes right after the subject “evening” in the third line.

So the setting, subject, and action do not have to be in a rigidly divided sequence.  Hokku is not that restrictive.  And of course the setting/subject/action pattern is just a tool — an aid to writing hokku — but it is a very good and useful tool.

 

David

 

BLACK MATES

(Summer)

Down the bright road,
A crow and his shadow
Flying together.

I saw that a couple of days ago.  A crow swooped down not far from me, and as it flew very low over the sunny road, I was struck by the black shadow just below the crow and the black crow just above the shadow, both flying close in unison.

This is, I think, a good example of what I always say hokku should be:  ordinary things, but seen in a new way or from a different perspective.

 

David

OH — OBJECTIVE HOKKU

Let’s look again at some good winter hokku:

The daikon puller;
He points the way
With a daikon.

That is one of the best of Issa’s hokku.  A daikon is a very large, long, and white radish, much like a giant carrot in shape.  Here, when Issa stops by a field and asks directions, the daikon puller holds out a daikon, using it as a pointer to show the way.  It is like a part of his arm.  Knowing this is a winter hokku, we can feel the cold air, and see the mud adhering to the long white daikon.

In Japan, daikon is a staple winter food.  It is particularly good in winter cooking — such as in soups and stews — because it is beneficial for the lungs.  One finds it appearing more and more in American markets.

Here is a verse by Rankō:

Withered reeds;
Day by day they break off
And float away.

That hokku is notable not only for its austere simplicity, but also for the attention — the awareness shown by the writer, who noticed the poetry in the breaking and floating away of the withered reeds — something many would pass by without a glance.

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

As the light of day begins to fail, flakes of snow begin to fall — first only a few, then increasingly more and more.  We cannot help but sense there is some deep meaning in this because we feel it, but we are helpless to put it into words.  It is a meaning of the senses and not of the superficial intellect.

Wordsworth similarly said,

To me the meanest [most common or insignificant] flower that blows [blooms] can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
In hokku what we find is a sense of significance rather than intellectual thoughts — that lie too deep for any words of explanation.  It can only be felt, not explained.  But the interesting thing is that when we read the words of the hokku, which are not words of explanation, but simply present the experience, that feeling of some deep, unspoken significance arises within us.
That is the amazing thing about hokku — the thing so many miss who look on it as “poetry.”  But as I have often said, what we think of as poetry in the West is generally nothing at all like the hokku seen above.
Each of them is an experience of the senses, not of the “thinking” mind.  Because of that, the impact of each hokku — as was just said — lies too deep for words; it is below the level of thought.
Further each of these hokku — these experiences of the senses — is set in a particular season — the season of winter, in this case, which deepens the sensory experience.
And also — this is extremely important — each of these hokku is completely objective.  Each merely presents the experience in three lines of simple words.  There is no explanation, there is no symbolism nor simile nor metaphor.  When we read the hokku, we have a wordless experience, though it is transmitted through words.
It is this aspect of Japanese hokku — or modern hokku in English or other languages written in the same spirit — that I find most significant and important.  There were other kinds of hokku in old Japan, but I see objective hokku as the most significant contribution of Japanese hokku to posterity — a legacy valuable enough and universal enough to be continued in our modern world through the writing of new objective hokku.
So if you want an identifying abbreviation for this kind of hokku, we can call it OH — Objective Hokku.  In it there is no ego, no explanation; only the simple, sensory experience with a significance that lies too deep for words.
David

THE PERSISTENCE OF NATURE

Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.

 

David

 

SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

AUTUMN ENDS

Autumn ends;
Again the cries of wild geese
Passing overhead.

Yes, autumn is ending, according to the old calendar.  And it ends with Halloween, the night before the old Celtic holiday of Samhain — (pronounced Sah-win) –which is only a few days away.  Then comes the beginning of winter — the time of turning inward.

 

David

 

AGE

Bashō wrote this autumn hokku:

Ie wa mina   tsue ni shiraga no   haka-mairi
Family wa all staff-on white-haired ‘s grave visit

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

This refers to the O-Bon  festival, a commemoration of the dead that in Bashō’s time took place from the 13th to 16th day of the seventh lunar month (what would now be August).  It was customary to visit the family graves at this time, and indeed, this hokku was inspired by a message Bashō’s brother sent, asking him to come home for the festival in August of 1694.

Blyth gives the Japanese of this verse a bit differently:

Ikka mina shiraga ni tsue ya haka-mairi
One-family all white-haired at staff ya grave-visiting

And he translates it as:

All the family visiting the graves,
white-haired,
And leaning on their sticks.

Let’s look again at my translation of the first version:

All the family,
With white hair and canes —
Visiting the graves.

As an autumn hokku (you will recall that in the Hokku Calendar, autumn begins on August 1st) this verse is an example of “harmony of similarity.”  Autumn is the time of declining Yang — of the waning of life and things aging, so the old family — white-haired and leaning on their canes, and visiting the graves, are in keeping with that.  Harmony of similarity would be even stronger if the verse were set in the time of falling leaves.

If we were to write of the same family visiting a grave in the spring, it would then be “harmony of contrast,” meaning a contrast between the growing Yang of spring — the increasing life and energy, and the declining Yang energy (and increasing Yin) visible in the white-haired elderly family with their infirmities.

 

David

 

LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern blows out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

COMPOSING HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF AUTUMN

Now that we have entered the season of autumn — which by the old calendar extends from Lammas to Halloween — we will look at how the old writers expressed the season.

Not all old hokku were equally effective, and many do not make good models.  We will look at those that do, and perhaps also at some that do not, because it is helpful to see why some succeed while others are weak.

Here is a hokku by Issa:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale blue sky —
Autumn mountains.

That is a very simple hokku — in fact rather reminiscent of the later Shiki, in that the sensory impression is primarily visual.  But of course we are to feel autumn in the air, and the waning of the Yang energies.  There is harmony between the autumn season and the evening.

In the original, Issa does not say “pale blue sky,” he just says asagi — which in earlier Japanese literature meant a kind of pale yellow color, but later came to be considered primarily a pale to turquoise blue.  Notice how the hokku changes if we were to use the more literary meaning of the word:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow —
Autumn mountains.

In English we would want to make it more clear to avoid confusion:

A clear evening;
Lined up against the pale yellow sky —
Autumn mountains.

Blyth treats “clear” as a verb in his rendering:

Clearing up in the evening;
In the pale blue sky.
Row upon row of autumn mountains.

That makes for a rather overly-long verse (in keeping with Blyth’s tendency toward explanatory translations).

We could simplify it to:

A clear evening;
Rows of mountains
Against the pale blue sky.

Again, it is primarily a visual hokku, but it gives a pleasant picture of evening mountains seen against the sky.

We can see in these various renderings the same principles we apply when writing new hokku — look for the essentials of an experience, and simplify, cutting out words not necessary for meaning.  But we do not cut so much that the verse becomes unclear.  That is why “sky” is added above, even though it is not in the original — for clarity.  We do not want to leave a reader wondering what is meant, because that obstructs the immediate experiencing of the verse.

Here is another primarily visual autumn hokku by Ryōta:

August;
At every house,
The  morning glory blooms.

The blooming of morning glories is a sign of the beginning of autumn, so in this verse, we see autumn in the flowers that twine and bloom at every house — autumn’s beginning is seen everywhere.

The original actually uses a rather poetic term for August — hazuki (ha-tsuki) “leaf-moon/leaf-month,” but of course that does not work in English.

We could also write a verse like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We could have phrased it like this —

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

That changes how we experience the verse.  If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
At every house
The morning glory blooms.

— we see the houses first, then the morning glories blooming at them.

If we say it like this:

Autumn begins;
The morning glory blooms
At every house.

— then we see first the blooming morning glories, then all the houses at which they bloom.

We could also write it like this;

At every house
The morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.

We could also put it like this:

August begins;
At every house,
Blooming morning glories.

However, the repetition of the -ing sound in blooming morning glories is not quite smooth, so instead we could say —

August begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

We know that Lammas — August 1st — is the beginning of autumn, so even though the month is mentioned rather than the season, we know it is the beginning of autumn.  Still, it is not quite as effective as

Autumn begins;
At every house,
The morning glory blooms.

As you see, there are lots of options — even more than given here.  It all depends on what we wish to emphasize, and how we want the reader to experience the verse.

For practice, think of indicators you see or have seen that signify the beginning of autumn — and remember that in the hokku calendar, autumn does not just begin with falling leaves, but with any sign of the seasonal change — including even the sensing of the change “in the air,” as in this verse by Kyoroku:

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

There is also the similar verse of Chora, which again has morning glories as a signifier of summer’s end — the beginning of autumn:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

Try to use one or more indicators you notice in your area (in separate hokku if more than one) to express the beginning of autumn.

 

David

SMOKE AND COLD

Gyōdai wrote a very simple, yet effective autumn hokku:

Autumn mountains;
Here and there,
Smoke rises.

In those few words we see the mountains colored with autumn, and from hidden places in the hills, small plumes of smoke rise up.

There is a harmony of feeling between the autumn hills and the smoke.  We see humans (or rather we do not see them, but feel them through the smoke) not as apart from Nature, but as a part of it.

This is a kind of variant on the “big to small” technique, in which we first experience the wider picture, and then we focus in on a smaller detail.  Here the mountains are the “big” element, and the smoke rising here and there is the more detailed “small” focus — though of course really it is all seen as a whole.  But for compositional purposes, that might be a helpful way to see this verse.

In hokku we tend not to express emotions for themselves, though sometimes we find simple descriptive words like “sadness” or “loneliness.”  Often what we find, rather, is an event that arouses a certain emotion in us.

Shiki — that writer from around the end of the 19th century — kept the old form and connection of hokku with Nature in most of his verses, even though he used a different name for them.  Here is an autumn verse by him:

The light in the next room
Also goes out;
The cold night.

In this successive extinguishing of light we feel the fading of Yang energy, and in the cold darkness that remains after the light is gone, we feel the increased Yin energy of late autumn.   You will recall that Yang energy is bright and active and warm, while Yin is dark and passive and cold.  This extinguishing of the last light, makes the sudden awareness of cold even more intense, and the consequence is that the verse arouses an emotion in us — a kind of loneliness.  That feeling is also akin to autumn — the time when things wither and fade, and the nights grow longer and colder.

SEEN THROUGH A HOLE

R. H. Blyth wrote that in autumn the Milky Way is most clearly seen and felt.  Sadly that is no longer true in many places.  The reason is the pollution of the night sky by uncontrolled artificial lighting.  These days, a city dweller is fortunate to see even a few stars at night.  We have lost touch with our place among the stars.

Issa wrote:

How beautiful!
Through the hole in the shōji —
The River of Heaven.

To understand that, one must know that a shōji is a door or window that is a light wooden frame covered with white paper.  It allows light to penetrate, but of course one cannot see through it unless there is an accident — a hole poked or torn in the shōji.

So in this hokku, Issa is in the darkened interior of a poor house where holes in the shōji paper are not quickly mended.  He notices that through the hole, he can see the dark night sky outside; and slanting across it, the faint brightness of the Milky Way, which Japanese call the River of Heaven.  Among Native Americans it was commonly known as the Spirit Road or Spirit Path — the path followed by spirits to the afterlife.

Neither Issa nor nor Native Americans knew that the Milky Way is actually what we see when we look toward the center of a galaxy in which our planet is less than a dust mote.  We live on our tiny planet about halfway between the center and the outer edge of a cosmic whirlpool composed of untold billions of stars.  And our galaxy is just one of many billions of galaxies in the universe.

 

WHAT ZEN IN HOKKU REALLY MEANS

I have written before about the misguided efforts in the late 20th century —  and even up to the present — to “debunk” the notion that there is any connection between hokku (which the would-be “debunkers” usually anachronistically call “haiku”) and Zen.  In my view, their efforts are largely attacking a creation formed of their own misperceptions.

Of course when referring to Zen in hokku, the name always brought up is that of R. H. Blyth, who closely linked the two.

The simple answer to the pointless controversy, however, lies in these basic facts:

  1.  By “Zen,” Blyth meant neither that all writers of hokku were Zen Buddhists, nor that all hokku exhibited the Zen aesthetic.
  2. Blyth — in making the Zen-hokku connection — was not referring to Zen in the form of organized religious sects in Japan, but rather to the aesthetic principles that characterize the best hokku.
  3. Blyth himself writes, “…by Zen we mean a state of Self-consciousness, in which though we know and are fully conscious that I am I, and the flower is the flower, we are also deeply conscious of one life, one existence rather, moving and flowing in and between us. With Zen as a method of attaining this state [that is, the formal practice of Zen meditative training] we are not now concerned, and for the purpose of poetry we must emphasize one particular aspect of Zen as a way of living, its simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.
    (Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, page 39)

I have added emphasis to that in italics and in bold type.

So that is the “Zen” Blyth saw in hokku; he saw it as a way of life, as an aesthetic of simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality. At least that is what he found in the best of old hokku.

(Hancock Shaker Village, MA; Library of Congress)

As to the historical origins of hokku, no one can legitimately deny the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture and aesthetics.  I often quote Shōei Andō, who wrote in his interesting book  Zen and American Transcendentalism:

…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

We see the influence of Zen in Japanese ink painting, in flower arranging, in the tea ceremony, and in Japanese literature such as Noh drama and hokku.  So the correct way to regard Blyth’s comments is simply to recognize that Blyth saw and recognized the Zen aesthetic influence in hokku, which manifested there as simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

Nonetheless, hokku being what it is, Blyth would have correctly seen Zen in it even if it had no historical connection to the aesthetic principles influenced and spread by Zen Buddhism in Japan — because Zen, as understood by Blyth — is quite independent of all that.  Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality may be found in any place and culture where conditions permit such an aesthetic to arise, even if it is only manifested in rare individuals.

When looked at that way, we can see that “Zen” in Blyth’s understanding extends far beyond Japanese culture and its historical connection with Zen aesthetics.  We see Zen wherever we find simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality in expressing Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature.  That is why one can find Zen wherever one lives a life based on those qualities — as in the life of Henry David Thoreau  — and wherever one writes expressing those qualities.

That is why anyone in any country who follows this path may continue to write “Zen” hokku today, based on the same universal aesthetic principles.

 

David

BLYTH AS SNAIL

If you happen to see the book of selections from R. H. Blyth titled Essentially Oriental, you will find this verse, written by Blyth in Japanese, given in the introduction:

葉がくれに 青い夢見る かたつむり

Hagakure ni  aoi yume miru  katatsumuri

And the translation given there is:

Behind a leaf
Dreaming a blue dream
A snail.

I would translate it differently:

In the leaf shadows,
Dreaming a green dream —
The snail.

While in modern Japanese aoi can mean blue, in its older use it meant green; it uses a borrowed Chinese character (青/qīng), which could mean blue-green, but in relation to leaves, it would commonly be understood as signifying the color green.

So this is how I understand Blyth’s verse:

A snail is in the leafy shadows, seeing only shades of green, and at that moment,  this is its unthinking life — a green dream.

I strongly suspect that Blyth’s inspiration for this verse was the English poem “The Garden” by Andrew Marvell — specifically the last two lines of this stanza:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade

Looked at in the cold light of science, can a snail even see colors?  Well, many say no, but there is some evidence that they can make distinctions, though whether this would be seeing color as we do is yet another question.  Of course if Blyth were to read this, he would probably give a sniff of derision, because his attitude is that of Zhuangzi/Chuang Tzu, who, on seeing fish swimming about in the river, commented to his companion that they were happy.  His companion then told him, “You are not a fish.  How do you know they are happy?”  Zhuangzi replied, “You are not I.  How do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”

So basically, in this verse Blyth was writing like Issa, putting himself into the snail.  And that is what we see here: Blyth as snail, dreaming a green dream in the green shade of the leaves.

David

OLD AND MODERN HOKKU

What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Everything
Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.

 

David

 

 

BUBBLES ON A STREAM

Within the past two weeks, I have learned of deaths of two different people I once knew.

Here are some phrases from the beginning of the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chomei:

The river flows ceaselessly, but its waters are never the same.  In pools the bubbles appear and are gone, pausing not a moment.   So it is with humans and their dwellings in this world.

Though people are many, of those I knew, few remain.  Where once were twenty or thirty, now only one or two.  At morning some die, at evening others are born — bubbles on the water.

A verse from the Diamond Sutra — a Mahayana Buddhist scripture — tells us that all component things are impermanent.  Someone put the verse loosely into rhyming English:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

And paradoxically, spring is here.  Crocuses and daffodils are blooming outside my dwelling.  While some things die, others are born.

Impermance, as I have said from the beginning, is behind all hokku.  It is inseparable from the world we see, as well as from the seer.  That is why anyone who writes about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, also writes about impermanence.

Here is a very loose translation of a hokku by Bonchō:

On the brushwood
Cut to burn —
Sprouting buds!

 

 

THE SPIRIT OF HOKKU

The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.

 

David

 

REFLECTION

The old year has departed.  Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c.  872-945).  You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added.  In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:
5/7/5/7/7.

Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance.  It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.

Regrets
At the ending year —
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:

1.
Regrets
At year’s end;
A mirror.

2.
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there.  It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was.  That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.

As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!

How beautiful is youth,
Which nonetheless is fleeting!

We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku:  the passing of the year  is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.

 

WINTER SIMPLICITY

Another winter hokku by Issa:

Evening snow;
People passing by
In silence.

It is not difficult to see how the elements of this harmonize.  The evening and the snow are both Yin, and though there is movement, that movement takes place in silence — which is also Yin.

It calls to mind a winter verse by Yaha, this time with greater contrast:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here it is the contrast between the voices and the midnight cold.  Inside in the chilly darkness, one does not see the people passing; just the voices are heard briefly, then all returns to silence.

Note the simplicity of these verses, which is an important quality of hokku.  In English, each requires only seven common words, yet each is quite effective.

 

 

David

WINTER VACANCY

We have seen a version of this hokku by Issa before:

Snow falling;
A “House for Rent” sign
That wasn’t there yesterday.

There is something rather Dickensian about this.  People don’t like to move in winter — and particularly not in very cold weather.  The sudden appearance of the sign raises unanswered questions, and in hokku, unanswered questions are deliberately never answered.  Did the tenant/tenants leave because they could not pay rent or were evicted?  Did someone die?  There are different possibilities, but the path of hokku is not to tell stories, but rather to create a kind of physical-psychological effect in the reader.   The point of the verse lies in the sudden and unexpected emptiness of the house in the falling snow.  The emptiness (Yin) of the house is in keeping with the chill and emptiness (Yin) of winter, and both in keeping with the “absence of knowing” — the unanswered question.

In reading this, we should keep in mind the “poverty” of hokku, and from that, know the vacant house is not at all in a fashionable or well-to-do neighborhood, which makes it all the more significant.

David

SOLITUDE

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

(Winter)

Solitude;
The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.

David

FIRE AND ICE: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

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

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

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

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

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

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

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

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

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

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

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

David

WINTER BEGINS

Winter begins;
The last leaves fall
Into the rushing river.

Yes, according to the old Hokku Calendar, winter has begun.  Where I live, it is time for the first frosts to begin — though this November that has not happened yet — just lots of rain for now.

 

David

AUTUMN GUSTS

Autumn gusts;
Leaves blow along with me
As I walk.

It is a very windy morning here on the day before Halloween.

As you know, Halloween is the ending of autumn and the beginning of winter in the Hokku Calendar.  It is one of the cross-quarter days, which means it falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice, in this case between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.

Halloween marks the beginning of the long darkness of winter nights, when the days are at their shortest.  So in the hokku calendar,  it is the entry to the most Yin time of the year — Yin being associated with cold and darkness and the withdrawing of the energies of Nature.

The full moon after Halloween — the Frost/Frosty Moon or Beaver Moon — will be on November 4th this year.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David

 

FOG AND FALLEN LEAVES: NEW HOKKU, OLD PATTERNS

This is from my morning walk:

The autumn morning;
Fog and fallen leaves
And wild geese crying.   

Perhaps you noticed (it would be good if you did) that this — in its pattern — is much like that of the old hokku by Suiō:

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And crickets chirping.

The original of Suiō’s verse just said “crickets,” but in his translation, R. H. Blyth added the implied “chirping,” which indeed is better in English.

The various patterns possible in hokku make handy containers into which any appropriate content may be poured to make new hokku.  That is why I emphasize the importance of patterns — the study of how old hokku are assembled —  to those learning hokku.

 

David

 

THE STATE OF JAPANESE HOKKU IN 1907

In 1907 an English-language article about the hokku appeared in — of all places — The Reformed Church Review, published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It was written by a Japanese — Professor J. K. Maeda — apparently a teacher at the Protestant North Japan College (Tohoku Gakuin) in Sendai at that time.  It shows us that the name hokku was then still in general use, before it was overtaken — as the years passed — by Shiki’s promotion of the eventually confusing term “haiku.”

It also reveals a major factor in why Westerners had difficulty appreciating the hokku for what it was.  There was a strong tendency — still prevalent in the later writing of Harold Henderson — to present the hokku to Westerners in (often abysmal) rhymed form, no doubt to make it recognizable to them as a kind of poetry (as poetry was still then generally understood), which did it great damage.  The “translated” examples in the article often distort verses nearly beyond recognition.  We also see the use here of the “5-7-5 syllables” description, which did not help the future of hokku, because Japanese phonetic units are not precise equivalents of English syllables.

Nonetheless, the article is revelatory about the state of the hokku at that time.  The magazine Hototogisu is mentioned, which of course was Shiki’s primary platform for his supposed “reform” of the hokku.  By the time of the article, its editorship was under Shiki’s follower Takahama Kyoshi.

Note, on page 386, the brief list of English-language publications featuring hokku.

It is noteworthy that the author ends by saying:

“There are many masters among the educated class of people, and they are making efforts to save the Hokku from becoming dry and prosy.  Something is being done in the way of improving this kind of composition; but there is reason to doubt whether it has much of a future.”  Professor Maeda is somewhat deprecating of the hokku, which reflects a tendency in late 19th-early 20th century Japanese culture — overwhelmed at that time by influences from Western art, literature, and technology — to see itself as not measuring up to that of the West.

In any case, here is the article in full from the Reformed Church Review of 1907:

 

 

 

 

 

 

David

WHEN YOU ARE WARNED, YOU MUST LISTEN

A line from the 1983 surreal Dutch movie  The 4th Man (De vierde man) has remained in my head over the years, and it comes to mind repeatedly now when I read or watch the daily news.  The line is this:

When you are warned, you must listen.

In the movie, the lead character keeps encountering ominous portents of something terrible to come.  And here are just a few samples from recent news:

Three-quarters of flying insects in nature reserves across Germany have vanished in 25 years, with serious implications for all life on Earth, scientists say…”  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers

“Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues

Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said…”  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

“Thawing Alaska permafrost alarms scientists

“US scientists contradict Trump’s climate claims

As President Donald Trump touts new oil pipelines and pledges to revive the nation’s struggling Coal mines, federal scientists are warning that burning fossil fuels is already driving a steep increase in the United States of heat waves, droughts and floods.”  https://phys.org/news/2017-08-scientists-contradict-trump-climate.html#jCp

“The world is facing a ‘biological annihilation’ of species, researchers warn

‘Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume’

The world is experiencing a “biological annihilation” of its animal species because of humans’ effect on the Earth, a new study has found.Researchers mapped 27,600 species of birds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles — nearly half of known terrestrial vertebrate species — and concluded the planet’s sixth mass extinction even was much worse than previously thought.

They found the number of individual animals that once lived alongside humans had now fallen by as much as 50 per cent…”  http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/world-facing-annihilation-species-extinction-animal-population-proceedings-of-the-national-academy-a7834531.html

Our great misfortune at this time is to have a government — and not the only one — that does not listen.  My own view of the matter is that any world leader who refuses to listen to the countless daily warnings of impending ecological disaster should be legally removed from office for gross negligence of duty by endangering the country and the planet.

There are many factors contributing to why people do not listen.  Schools that do not teach students how to think critically and examine evidence.  Religions that prefer fundamentalistic self-deception to factual evidence.  The greed of corporations and individuals for lifestyles that require the rape and destruction of the environment.

Just consider one factor — the effects of people who insist on eating meat when a perfectly healthy (more healthy, in fact) diet can be had without it:

Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration and deforestation.  Nowhere is this impact more apparent than climate change – livestock farming  contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together.”  https://phys.org/news/2017-04-ways-meat-plate-planet.html

Perhaps you are wondering why I am talking about this on a site usually devoted to hokku and other forms of verse.  As I have mentioned before, hokku is a rather unique form of verse because it has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.  That means it is critically connected to the environment.  And no one who pays attention to Nature and the seasons can fail to see the danger signs all around us every day now.   And as the line in The 4th Man cautions,
When you are warned, you must listen.

 

David

 

AUTUMN SUNLIGHT

The autumn sun;
The chill when it goes
Behind a tree.

The sunlight of the shortening autumn days is so weak that in a shadow, the air is cold.  In that, we feel the weakening of the Yang active energy and the growing of the cold, inactive Yin energy of the waning year.

 

David

HOKKU MISCONCEPTIONS, HOKKU FACTS

 

Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.

 

David

AUTUMN BEGINS: DUST AND RAIN

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

We feel here the transition from the heat and dryness of summer ( seen in the dust on the stones) to the cool damp of autumn (the rain beginning to fall, turning the dust to mud).

It is a new hokku made from the same image used by the sometimes too wordy late 19th-mid 20th century Japanese writer Kyoshi.

Here is his original:

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
Stone on ‘s dust on falling ya autumn’s rain.

One could translate it as:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

 

David

AUTUMN BEGINS: TAIGI’S EVENING RAIN

 

An autumn hokku by Taigi:

Autumn begins;
The evening shower has become
A night of rain.

We feel the change of the season in the change from a temporary shower to prolonged rain.  We also feel the autumn reflected in the growing darkness of evening to night.

Hatsu-aki ya yūdachi nagabiku yoru no ame
Beginning autumn ya evening shower prolonged night’s rain

 

David

Sunrise

 

(Autumn)

Sunrise;
My very long shadow
Walking in front.

Sometimes the simplest things seem meaningful, like the lengthened shadow we see stretching ahead from our feet when walking westward on a morning in the beginning of autumn.

As you know, in hokku we generally avoid the use of  “I,” “me,” and “my.”  The reason for this is that hokku takes the focus away from the ego.  Unlike much modern verse, it is not all about the “I” and its likes, dislikes, and whims.  But there is also an additional reason.  If hokku become too personal  — too particular — that is, too particularly focused on one person’s life — then it is difficult for others to relate to such a verse.  But if the hokku event is a more general human experience, then many people can relate to it — can have the sensory experience presented in the verse.

That is why this verse — even though it uses the word “my” — is still not an “ego problem.”  It is a verse people in general can relate to.  It is an ordinary experience, but that a hokku can be made of it just reminds us that hokku are often about things we already know, but don’t know that we know.  So the “my very long shadow” easily becomes the shadow of whoever reads the verse.  That means it is possible to use “I,” “me,” or “my” in hokku without an undue focus on the self.  Even though we generally avoid them, if we understand the reasons behind that avoidance, we are free to use them when appropriate.

 

David

HOKKU AND A BIT BEYOND

The three-line hokku is a very useful format for expressing Nature.  But now and then, there are experiences that we may wish to extend slightly.


The following experience, for example, can be written in a longer or shorter form, with the difference here being only one word:

(Summer)

Morning:
Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

Or it could be simply:

(Summer)

Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

The second version is a hokku, the first is not, though both have much the same spirit.  The first just adds a specific time of day, which gives the verse a further layer or tone.  We can writer either way of course, depending on individual preference and which version we think best conveys the sensory experience without becoming too “wordy.”

 

David