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.

FADING LIGHT

This is a variation on an autumn hokku by Sōgi:

Fading light
And streaks of rain:
The autumn window.

 

David

 

 

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