HOKUSHI’S POND STARS

A winter verse by Hokushi:

Stars on the pond;
Again the patter
Of winter rain.

It is a chilly winter night. The rain has ceased, and one can see the silver stars reflected on the still dark surface of the pond. But suddenly there is the patter of rain again, and the stars on the water blur and fade as the rain increases.

Where is the writer in this? Of course rationally we know he had to be there to experience the event, but it is the great virtue of hokku that in such verses the writer disappears completely, replaced by the reader, who becomes the experiencer of the stars on the pond, the beginning patter of raindrops, the shaking and blurring of the pond stars.

Because of its lack of emphasis on “I” and “me,” hokku enables the reader to become the experience. One must make this adjustment to really enter into the spirit of hokku, to give up the obsession with “I saw,” “I heard,” “I felt.” That is why “selflessness” is an important part of hokku. Because of that, the writer must get out of the way, must disappear, and just let Nature speak.

In this de-emphasis on the writer, hokku is generally quite different than most Euro-American verse, which often focuses on “I,” “me,” and “my.” It does not mean hokku never uses these words, but they are used seldom, and when used are presented objectively, as one would discuss a leaf or a dog or the wind.

Here is the original transliterated and with a rather literal translation:

Ike no hoshi mata harahara to shigure kana
Pond ‘s stars again falls to winter-rain kana

You can see that the original does not use the sound word “patters,” but rather uses a word (harahara) that means to fall down in a sequence of drops, or of flakes in the case of snow.

We could translate:

Stars on the pond;
Again drops of rain
Begin to fall.

or

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

Why no “winter” in the second two options? Because each hokku in English comes with its seasonal classification, so from that we know that the rain is “winter” rain, without having to say so in the verse (though we can if we wish).

Remember that when sharing a verse, the seasonal classification goes with it, like this:

(Winter)

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

That enables a number of hokku to be easily classified by season when collecting or anthologizing them.

There are many possible variations in translating a hokku. My emphasis here, however, is on learning to write new hokku in English. So what we learn from this is that there are many, many different ways to arrange and present the elements of a hokku. When composing we can can move and change nouns and verbs and the order of things until we arrive at an arrangement that best conveys an experience. We should pay attention not only to meaning, but also to sound.

David

CONTEMPLATIVE HOKKU IN WINTER

Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

David

NOT DIVIDING THE ATTENTION

Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.

David


WINDY SNOW

We have seen that hokku avoids the use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” unless it is awkward to do so.  That means there is no emphasis on the “I” as ego, but that does not mean those words are never used in hokku.  They are used when they are needed and when it fits the aesthetics of hokku.

We find such a use in this winter hokku by Chora:

Kaze no yuki   tatazumu ware wo   furimeguru
Wind ‘s  snow  standing me wo
blows-around

The windy snow,
Blowing about me
As I stand.

In English that has both “me” and “I,” but they are used in keeping with the spirit of hokku.  Chora writes about himself the same way he would write about the snow blowing about a rock or a tree — objectively.

Hokushi wrote a verse that is very satisfying, yet it applies far more to Japan than to America:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure
Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

One sees the paper umbrellas held up as the snow falls delicately onto and around them — a very Japanese scene.  But in the United States, people use umbrellas when it rains, not when it snows.  Somehow it just does not seem right to Americans to obstruct the falling snow with an umbrella as one walks through it.

Old hands here will recognize the simple structure of this verse, a standard hokku having setting (the snowy evening), subject (many umbrellas) and action (passing by).  It is not only one of the best forms for those beginning to learn hokku, but also one of the best forms no matter how advanced one happens to be.

David

LINGERING HEAT

Modern people tend to view the world as a collection of separate and unrelated things, without seeing the whole.  But life is not that way.  In reality, everything is connected to everything else.

No event happens in isolation, as an abstraction.  All events have their necessary contexts.  That is why in hokku, “rain” by itself means little.  It is only when we know whether it is spring rain, or summer rain, or autumn rain, or winter rain that we fully feel it.

Everything in hokku is associated with a season.  In old hokku this was indicated by special “season words” (ki-go).  But this system gradually became much too complicated and artificial.  For a student to become familiar with these season words and how to apply them properly took years.  Whole dictionaries of season words and their appropriate times (saijiki) were compiled.

When hokku moved out of Japan, the situation became even more complex.  Every area of the world has its own climate, its own distinctive plants and animals and trees and local customs.  It is simply impractical to try to categorize all of these things according to season.

Nonetheless, season is an integral and very important part of hokku.  We cannot simply drop it, because if we do so, we lose the context of a verse.  So in modern hokku we instead drop the use of season words, but keep seasonal classification by writing on each verse the season in which it was written.  This is a remarkably simple and practical solution, and quite in keeping with the spirit of the old hokku, which was to simplify, not to make needlessly complex.

There is a hokku by Hokushi, one of the students of Bashō:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This has little meaning unless we know it is an autumn verse.

Summer has drawn to an end, and autumn has come.  We see the dry, lifeless dust that coats the leaves of the grasses, and in it we feel the lingering heat that still remains — for the moment — from the summer that is past.  Soon the dust and stagnant heat will be washed away by the cooling rains of autumn.

This works well as a transitional verse for the period we are now in — the change from summer to autumn.  But notice that without this seasonal context, the hokku would lose most of its significance.

Every hokku I present here is really a little lesson in how to write.   So if you play close attention and apply what is presented here to your own writing, you will gradually learn hokku.  But be careful not to mix it with any other kind of verse, long or short, or you will go astray and end up writing something else.

Let’s look at the example:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This is called a “standard” hokku.  It consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  These need not be in that order.  The setting — the wider context in which something happens, is “Lingering heat.”  The subject is “dust.”  The action — something moving or changing — is “lies on the leaves of the grasses.”  

You may wonder why the dust on the leaves of the grasses qualifies as something moving or changing here; after all, it is just lying there, not doing anything.  The reason is that we know formerly there was no dust on the leaves.  And when the autumn rains come, it will be gone.  So an “action” in a hokku can be something with a long-term change, not just something you see moving or changing before your eyes.

Also, how we name the parts of a hokku can change depending on how that part is used in a hokku.  In this one the dust on the leaves is an “action.”  But of course in other circumstances, dust on the leaves of grasses could be a subject.  Never forget that the “formula” for a standard hokku is not an absolute law, but rather just a tool to help you acquire the hokku way of thinking — to get you started — and eventually you will do it naturally and without thinking.

Countless hokku can be written following this simple but effective pattern.  Keep in mind that the setting need not be the first of the three elements.  It may come at the end, as it does in this example.  Pay close attention to punctuation:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

Notice that in this verse, as in all hokku, there is a longer and a shorter part.  These two parts are separated (and joined) by appropriate punctuation.  Here a semicolon is used.  The semicolon provides a strong a definite pause in hokku before moving on to the second part.  It enables the reader to experience what precedes it fully before moving on.

All English language hokku end with appropriate punctuation, whether the very common period, or ellipses indicating something left unfinished (….) or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!), which is used sparingly because it indicates something surprising or unexpected or very emphatic.

And do not forget to capitalize the first letter of each line.  That is not only a nod to the English poetic tradition, but from experience I have found that it avoids any confusion.  And it also makes for a unified format that contributes to the sense of community in hokku.  We use a common visual language, a common form, and so there is no occasion for petty quibbling and bickering.  The form works remarkably well, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

David