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