DEEPENING

Here is a loose translation of an old winter hokku by Issa:

Deepening
The loneliness —
Frost on the window.

There is something about the cold and clear austerity of winter that makes us feel our solitude even more deeply.

 

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

 

PURE EXPERIENCE

Issa wrote a hokku that we might render in English as:

Half of it
Is fluttering snowflakes;
Spring rain.

It is not a profound hokku, but it does express the “mixed” nature of early spring weather, when we still feel the Yin effects of winter though spring has weakened them.

The hokku makes a statement, but it is not an interpretation.  That is important in distinguishing Objective Hokku from other kinds.  It just tells us — objectively — what Issa saw (those last two words make me want to say “I saw Issa sitting on a seesaw” really fast), and because it is limited to that, we see it too.

That is the great virtue of Objective Hokku (in contrast to other kinds of hokku); it does not put a writer between the reader and the experience.  And it does not block the experience with unnecessary words and interpretation.

In Objective Hokku, the difference is that we present the experience directly, in simple words.  We do not write about the experience — we write the experience.  Now of course we use words to do that, but the words are not important for their own sake — as they are in what we usually think of as poetry.  Instead, the words are just the means of conveying the experience, as a cup conveys the experience of drinking cold water or hot tea.  We do not want them to get in the way.

Nor do we want the writer to get in the way.  If he or she does, then we no longer experience the hokku directly.

Issa wrote another hokku in which he “gets in the way” of the experience by adding an interpretation:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The foolish crow.

Instead of just presenting us with the mist and the morning and the continual caws and rattles of the crow, he comments that the crow is “foolish,” or we could also translate that as “stupid.”  Issa has added his own “thinking” to the experience, so it is no longer objective.  He has obscured the pure experience with his own opinion.  To remove his comment, we could rewrite the verse as Objective Hokku, like this:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The crow.

I hope you see what a difference that makes.  It is no longer Issa telling us about his experience, it is now we who are having the experience itself, with nothing added, and no writer’s interpretation in the way.

Now how you react to Issa’s verse — and to the objective version — will tell us how you react to verse in general.  Some people are not accustomed to thinking of verse as pure experience, without the added comments, opinions, or “thinking” of the writer.  Some feel that to be “poetic,” all of that must be added.  But as I constantly repeat, we should not think of hokku as “poetry” in the usual sense.

The great difference is that in Objective Hokku, the poetry is not in the words.  They are — we could say — only the seed of poetry, that when read by the receptive reader suddenly sprouts into the experience in the mind.  And that experience itself, pure and alone and unobscured — is the poetry in hokku.

In the first hokku, the experience is the spring rain, half mixed with fluttering snow.  In the third, revised hokku, the experience is the spring mist and the continuous noisiness of the crow from morning on.

This purity of experience, with no writer or comments to hinder it, is the very essence of Objective Hokku.  If you find that a significant discovery, then you are the kind of person who can appreciate Objective Hokku and its remarkable aesthetics.

 

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

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.

 

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

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

VANISHED SPRINGS: ISSA’S VIOLETS

Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:

(Spring)

Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.

 

David

ISSA’S PINE TREE

pinebranches

As regular readers here know, I am not a big fan of the verses of Issa, but there are a few worthwhile examples among them.  Here is one:

(Autumn)

The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

I repeatedly stress that (unlike haiku) it is necessary to study how to write hokku, because it has definite standards and principles and characteristics that must be learned.  It is also necessary to learn how to read hokku.

The history of modern haiku, paradoxically,  is an illustration of that.  Modern haiku began through the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the old hokku.  Western writers read a few examples of hokku, and they focused on its superficial characteristics, without understanding its inherent aesthetics.  They read hokku without understanding what they were reading, and then went on to create modern haiku.  As students of hokku, however, we can see what they missed.

Issa’s verse is an autumn hokku.  That means it should express the season.  Of course it mentions autumn, but does it express it?

A student of hokku will know that autumn is the season of decreasing yang (active, warm) energy, and the increase of yin energy (passive, cool).  And that autumn, in human life, corresponds to old age.  And that in a day of 24 hours, autumn corresponds to late afternoon and evening.

A student will also know that at the heart of hokku aesthetics is impermanence — the knowledge that everything in this world is transient, nothing lasts.  That which is born must eventually age and die.

Knowing these things, let’s look at the hokku again:

The pine I planted
Has also become old.
The autumn evening.

In hokku we have the principle of internal reflection, where one element is “reflected” by other elements.  So in this verse we have

The aging of the pine;
The “autumn” of the day (evening)
The implied aging of the writer.

All of these things express declining yang and increasing yin, which is the essence of the season of autumn.  So the autumn evening is reflected in the aging of the pine and in the implied aging of the writer.  Everything in this verse is in harmony, speaking of age and impermanence.

There is also an additional cultural element, which is that in Japan and China the pine tree is an old symbol of age and longevity, but one need not know that to appreciate the verse in an English-language culture.  But one does have to understand how the elements of the hokku work together to express the nature of autumn, and how we see it in the pine and in ourselves.

Here is the verse in Japanese:

waga ueshi matsu mo oi keri aki no kure
我        植し      松     も 老 けり 秋  の    暮
I          planted pine too aged has autumn ‘s evening

I have noticed that one online modern haiku group has begun presenting a few member verses classified as “stand-alone hokku.”   As one might expect from the haiku site context, they exhibit neither the aesthetics of the hokku nor its correct form in English.  That seems to always be what happens when people attempt hokku without understanding its standards, principles, and characteristics — they just end up writing more modern haiku instead of hokku, no matter if they confusingly attach the title “hokku” to it.  Just calling a verse “hokku” does not make it so.  It must have the aesthetics and standards of a hokku, and those one must learn, whether the intent is to read or to write it.  Otherwise one just adds to the confusion.

By the way, the use of the term “stand-alone” in referring to hokku is largely modern haiku jargon.  A real hokku is a hokku whether it is presented in the context of linked verse, embedded in prose, or used independently.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that Masaoka Shiki invented the independent hokku (which he began calling “haiku”) near the beginning of the 20th century, but that is not true.  Hokku were often used as independent verses by Matsuo Bashō in the 17th century, and became quite common.

 

David

A FEW SNOWFLAKES

The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:

(Winter)

Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….

 

David

The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana

 

 

A POOR WAYFARING STRANGER

The autumn chill;
Every place I live in
Belongs to another.

We have entered the time for autumn hokku.  Autumn is when Nature withers, and the energies of life go inward.  It is also a time of migration for birds and animals, and so is connected to travel among humans as well.

This hokku gives us a sense that we are all transients on earth, just passing through.  Some people are able to own houses and “put down roots,” but for many, life is a sequence of rentals, always living in a building that belongs to someone else, always at the whim of circumstance.  But there is a truth in that; nothing here really belongs to us.  Nothing here can really be ours.  Nothing here will last.

The verse is based on a hokku by Issa that is usually translated differently; but this rendering is better, and has a deeper significance.

 

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: THE FORM

There are two aspects to hokku:

1. The form
2. The content

Of these two aspects, the content takes some time to absorb, particularly the aesthetic spirit characterizing hokku. The form, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes.

It can easily be described and learned.

An English language hokku is:

1. Written in three lines.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

2. Fully punctuated.

A hokku has one or more internal punctuation marks, and an ending punctuation mark.

3. Divided into two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The long part consists of two lines, the short part of only one line.
The short part may begin or end the verse.
An appropriate punctuation mark separates the two parts of a hokku.

Punctuation in hokku is simple.

A period (.) or other appropriate punctuation ends a hokku.
A semicolon (;) is used for a meditative pause.
A dash (–), typed as two hyphens, indicates a longer meditative pause. Ellipses (…) may serve a similar function.
A comma (,) indicates a short, connective pause.
An exclamation point (!) indicates something unusual, unexpected, surprising, or strongly emphasized. It is used rarely.
A question mark (?) indicates an asked but unanswered question.

The simplicity and practicality of the hokku form in English enables the writer to concentrate on form.

Let’s take a look at a verse — in this case a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

Autumn

Evening clearing;
Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

At the top of the verse comes its overall seasonal setting, in this case autumn.

The first line gives us the particular setting — “Evening clearing” — the clearing of the sky at evening. The sky having cleared, we see the subject of the verse in the second and third lines:

Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

The primary punctuation mark that separates the two parts of the verse is the semicolon at the end of the first line:

Evening clearing;

There is a secondary punctuation mark at the end of the second line, which in this case not only connects the second and third lines but also gives us a rather long meditative pause:

Against the pale-blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

We could also use a comma if a shorter pause is desired:

Against the pale-blue sky,
Rows of autumn hills.

Many verses have no secondary punctuation before the ending mark, but they always have the primary punctuation mark separating the long and short parts of the hokku.

Just which punctuation mark to use in a given case depends upon how the writer wishes the verse to be read. Punctuation is used to guide the reader through the verse easily and without confusion, but it also provides fine shades of pause and emphasis that vary depending on which mark is employed.

Now you know the outer form of hokku, and you should be able to easily use it. The trick, however, is to learn how to put good and effective content into that form, and learning that comprises all the rest of hokku.

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: INTERNAL REFLECTION AND HARMONY OF SIMILARITY

In the previous posting I discussed the Hokku Wheel of the Year, the hokku calendar that is in essence remarkably close to the old calendar not only of the hokku writers of old Japan but also that of the old Chinese poets, with only slight variation, though of course the names of the chief seasonal points differ.

Having read that posting, you will have noticed that we can also describe the seasons in the following way, as they relate to the two opposite but complementary forces of the universe — Yin and Yang:

Spring: Yang grows as Yin declines.

Summer: Yang grows until it reaches its maximum at Midsummer’s Day, then gradually declines as Yin begins to increase.

Autumn/Fall: Yang declines even more as Yin continues to increase.

Winter: Yin increases until it reaches its maximum at Yule, the Winter Solstice, then gradually declines as Yang begins to increase.

For practical purposes then, we can describe the seasons like this, according to their predominant energy:

Spring: Growing Yang
Summer: Maximum Yang
Autumn: Increasing Yin
Winter: Maximum Yin

You will recall that Yang is the energy of warmth and activity; Yin is the energy of cold and passivity. So we think of spring and summer as being increasingly warm and filled with activity in Nature, while we think of autumn and winter as being increasingly cold and a time of growing inactivity in Nature.

Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons. Every hokku is set in a particular season, because that season not only connects us with the natural world, but it also provides the environment — the context — in which a hokku event happens. That means the seasons are an integral part of hokku.

In old Japanese hokku the seasonal connection was made in each verse by using a season word that by accepted convention indicated a particular season. Anyone wanting to write or understand hokku had to learn those season words in order to know (except when obvious) the season in which each verse was set. Over time the number of such words greatly increased, until near the end of the old hokku period, it required years for one to learn the season words and how to use them properly, a growing complexity that was not really in keeping with the natural simplicity of hokku.

The old season words were also based on a particular and rather limited climatic region of Japan, as well as upon plants, animals, birds and fish within that particular region. Can you imagine how complex and difficult it would be if we expanded that region worldwide and included not only all climatic regions but all natural life?

That is why in modern English-language hokku, we take away the complexity and return to the simplicity favored in hokku, by using only four seasonal markers — the four seasons. Every hokku, when written, should be marked with the season in which it is written. That way, when it is shared with others the season goes with the hokku. And if a group of such hokku are gathered into a collection or anthology, all the verses can be easily classified under their respective seasons. This takes a huge burden away from learning hokku today while still keeping the essential connection to the seasons.

So now you know a lot about the seasons and the cyclic changes in Yang and Yin energy through the year.

That brings us to the important matter of internal reflection.

As you saw in the previous posting, the changes in the seasons correspond also to these changes in time and in human life. We say they are “reflected” in these other things. For example, here are some general reflections:

Spring: Beginnings (Growing Yang)
In human life: birth, childhood, youth;
In the day: dawn and morning;
In plant life: sprouting, growing, blossoming.

Summer: Maturing (Yang reaches its maximum)
In human life: adulthood, middle age;
In the day: mid-day, noon;
In plant life: maturing, fruiting.

Autumn: Aging (Yang weakens as Yin increases)
In human life: “Getting old,” roughly the years from 40 onward;
In the day: late afternoon to dusk
In plant life: plants “gone to seed,” leaves withering and falling.

Winter: Endings (Yin reaches its maximum)
In human life: Very old age and death
In the day: after sunset to deep night.

These are just some of the most obvious correspondences/reflections.

So how do such reflections manifest in hokku? By putting together things that are the same in character. This is called harmony of similarity.

Here is a very obvious example of putting things together that reflect one another:

An old man walking in the autumn amid falling leaves.

As you can easily see, everything in this verse has the character of weakening Yang and increasing Yin. The year is old (autumn), the man is old, and the leaves are old. That is why this combination gives us a feeling of harmony, the feeling that these things just “go together.” That is harmony of similarity, and it is achieved by using, in this case, things that reflect the nature of autumn, Yin things.

Similarly, look at this assemblage:

A child picking snowdrops amid the melting snow.

That is very obviously a collection of “beginnings” The child is young (beginning life), the snowdrops have just sprouted into bloom and are “new,” and the melting snow shows us the increasing of the Yang (warm) energy. So it automatically makes us feel the sense of newness and fresh beginnings of the early spring.

Now, keeping in mind the list of Yin-Yang correspondences that you saw in the previous message, take a look at this hokku by Bashō, which I give here in English-language hokku form:

Autumn

On the withered branch
A crow has perched:
The autumn evening.

You should easily be able to see the internal reflections. Just in case you have overlooked one of the elements, I will remind you that bright things are Yang, dark things are Yin. Do you see now how each element in the verse reflects the others?

Here is how it works:

Heading: The seasonal marker “Autumn” (It is not really needed to indicate the season in this verse, but it is in many others, so we always include it for ease of classification)

First line:
On the withered branch
A withered branch is an old branch, so that gives us the sense of age, which is Yin.

Second line:
A crow has perched:
The crow is, of course, black; and darkness is a Yin element. Also, the crow has settled into inactivity, which is also Yin.

Third line:
The autumn evening.
Autumn is the time of increasing Yin; evening is also a Yin time in the day.

So everything in this verse is Yin, everything has to do with aging, and there is a correspondence between the darkness of the crow and the gathering darkness of evening, as well as the reflection of the withering of nature in autumn with the withered branch on which the crow has perched.

It is very important to see that these corresponding elements reflect one another. The Yin we see in one, we also see manifested in some way in the others. Do not mistake this for symbolism. Each element is fully itself, while also being fully in harmony with the others and with the autumn season.

Let’s look at another verse, this time by Issa. Here is R. H. Blyth’s translation. I have added the seasonal marker:

Autumn

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

The seasonal marker is essential to understanding here, because otherwise we might think it to be Memorial Day, a spring holiday. But knowing it is an autumn verse makes all the difference because of internal reflection:

First line:
Visiting the graves;
Graves, of course, we associate with the passage of life and with and death, and both aging and death are Yin elements.

Second and third lines:

The old dog
Leads the way.

It makes all the difference that the dog is old. His age is in harmony with the season (Autumn – increasing Yin), and with the graves (death = maximum Yin). So both are Yin subjects, set in a season of increasing yin, a season of withering and dying. We can see the dog, showing his age in the slow pace of his walk, taking the lead on a path he has gone down many times.

Just for contrast, let’s look at what would happen if we changed the Yin dog to something freshly Yang:

Visiting the graves;
The awkward toddler
Leads the way.

That gives us a completely different feeling, and that feeling is not quite right. It lacks the harmony of Issa’s verse, though there is a place for using contrasting elements, as we shall find.

Now you know about internal reflection in hokku as well as harmony of similarity. In the next posting I will discuss a different (but related) technique, harmony of contrast. It too is based upon Yin and Yang, but it creates a different, yet still harmonious effect by using “opposite” elements.

By the way, if all of this seems a little difficult, it is only because it is likely new to you. Once you are accustomed to this way of thinking you will easily and naturally see such correspondences. But to do this well, you must know about Yin and Yang, so if those are not clear in your mind, just review the previous posting with its list of characterics of Yin and Yang.

David

LEARN FROM THE SCARECROW: ISSA’S HARVEST MOON

An autumn hokku by Issa:

English: harvest moon
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing unaffected
Beneath a Harvest Moon —
The scarecrow.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.  We admire and ooh! and ah! over the large, bright Harvest Moon, but the scarecrow just stands there unconcerned.  Full moon or no moon, it is all one to him because he does not think.  When it is warm he warms, when it is cold he cools; he is equal to all circumstances because he does not have a mind that prefers one thing and dislikes another.

Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us.

To see ourselves as others see us would indeed be helpful.  But it would also be useful to know how other people see the world in general.  We do not all see the same world, nor are we even consistent as to how we see the world from day to day.  When we are sad the world looks sad, when we are happy the world looks happy.

As the Dao De Jing says, without ugliness, how could we know beauty?  Without sorrow, how could we know happiness?

But none of this affects the scarecrow, who in his way is like is said of God, that he rains on the just and unjust alike.  To the scarecrow it is all one whether there is a beautiful Harvest Moon or an ink-black night.  And the reason he is in this hokku is because humans, as with dolls, cannot help the feeling that because of the human-like form of scarecrows, there must be some undefined thing about them that is in some way “human.”  That is why they move us more than do mere piles of sticks or of old clothing.

The old Ch’an Buddhist treatise Xin Xin Ming says,

To attain the Great Way is not difficult;
Just beware of liking and not liking.
When there is nothing you love or detest
Then everything becomes bright and clear.

The Harvest Moon, by the way, is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, which this year has already come and gone.  Now the days are growing ever shorter and the nights longer as the Yang of summer has given way to the increasing Yin of Autumn.

David

 

 

 

 

 

AUTUMN AND THE MORNING GLORY

asag

Today I would like to talk about morning glory hokku.

Why?  Because I happened to pass a blooming morning glory vine this morning, as you can see from the above photo.  Also, in old Japanese hokku, the morning glory was generally considered an autumn flower.  They called it asagao, “morning face,” — asa = morning, gao = face.

The morning glory is particularly appropriate for autumn hokku because it is so ephemeral, so transient, with blossoms that appear in the morning and are gone by afternoon.  That made a deep impression on the old hokku writers, because transience — the impermanence of things, was one of the main underlying aesthetic principles of old hokku, as it is of modern hokku.  That came from watching Nature and life, and it came also from the fundamental principal of Buddhism that all things change and eventually pass away, and we cannot really keep anything, least of all our own lives.

Moritake, an early writer of hokku, wrote this:

Asagai ni                     kyō wa miyuran        waga yo kana
Morning-glory as     today wa may seem   my    life  kana

Like the morning glory
It may seem today —
My life.

It is not very good as a hokku, but it makes an interesting point about the brevity of life.

Issa wrote:

Asagao no            hana de           fuitaru iori kana
Morning glory’s flowers by       covered  hut kana

Covered over
By morning glory flowers —
The hermitage.

That one always reminds me of my college years, when I too lived in a tiny cottage, its roof covered with blooming blue morning glories.

Taigi wrote:

Chirizuka ni   asagao sakinu                 kure no aki
Dust-heap on  morning glory blooms  end ‘s autumn

Out of the trash heap
A morning glory has bloomed;
Autumn’s end.

Autumn, you will recall, is the season when we particularly feel the transience of life, because it is the time of year when things begin to wither and return to the root.  It corresponds, in human life, to the early to mid “senior” years, and in the day it corresponds to evening.  So the morning glory, enjoyed in the dawn but gone by evening, is very appropriate for early autumn hokku where I live.

David

A LEADING DOG: DETERMINING QUALITY IN HOKKU

Context makes a huge difference in hokku, even if one uses the same subject.

Let’s talk about dogs.

Issa wrote two hokku — one a summer hokku, one autumn — in which a dog is leading someone somewhere.  But one is a rather mediocre hokku, while the other is quite good.

Here they are.  First, summer:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

When issa says “hermitage dog,” he really just means the dog from his own poor little dwelling.

The verse lacks unity and harmony.  In anyone educated in hokku, there will be the question as to what relationship exists between the dog going ahead, and the looking for a place to view fireflies?  The answer is that there is no apparent relationship, or an unclear relationship, or at least none that arouses a sufficiently suggestive feeling in a reader that might make this a worthwhile verse.

Now let’s look at an autumn verse by the same author, also with a leading/guiding dog:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

That is Blyth’s translation, and it can hardly be bettered.  In this there is a world of difference from the first example.  It is the season of autumn, the time of weakening Yin forces, of Nature dying and returning to the root.  That is in harmony not only with the graves, but also with the old dog himself.  And as I have said before about this particular verse, we have the feeling that the old dog has made this trip to the graves with the family many times in many years, and that gives us the feeling of the passage of time, of aging.  All of this gives the verse depth, and that is why it is much superior to the “firefly viewing” example, which seems quite flat and uninteresting:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

Now if Issa had said instead for his summer hokku something like:

Letting the dog
Choose the way;
Firefly viewing.

That would make at least some improvement.  It would indicate that, like the haphazard appearance of the lights of fireflies, the writer is in keeping with that randomness, letting the dog choose which way to go, while the writer follows after, accepting whatever comes.

No doubt there are many other ways one might improve on Issa’s summer verse, but my point here is just to show how one judges quality in a hokku.  As you can see, suggestiveness and a feeling of unity are good guides.  Without these, a hokku tends to be flat and tasteless.

David

HOW TO READ A HOKKU: ONE MAN, ONE FLY, ONE ROOM

People often forget that in learning hokku, one does not just learn how to write them, but also how to read them. The same principles that apply to writing apply also to reading, and both are important.  If one does not know how to read a hokku, it will fail just as miserably as if it were the creation of a person who does not know how to write hokku.

One very significant characteristic of hokku is unity. That means, as I have said before, that a hokku is not just a random assemblage of things tossed together into a brief verse. For example, I could write

The dog barks;
A bouquet of dried flowers
In a window.

That would not be a hokku, in spite of the fact that it is in three lines, and despite correctly having a longer and a shorter part separated by punctuation (which also ends the verse). So merely having the correct “format” does not make a hokku, just a poor imitation.

What is wrong with it? It has no unity. There is a barking dog, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a window, but there is no relationship felt between them. They are just things and events thrown together. It does not matter that in the “real world” these may have actually been experienced. The fact remains that for the reader, there is no perceived relationship, no sense of unity, and that is why it fails as hokku.

This is something that people new to hokku, particularly those coming to it from other kinds of brief verse, tend not to grasp until it is pointed out to them.

Issa wrote a hokku that is a very basic lesson in unity, because we can easily see in it how the parts of the verse must relate to one another for it to make sense. If the reader does not make that connection, there is no hokku. That means the reader must trust that there is a connection, and the writer must know the aesthetics and principles of hokku well enough to make sure that the connection is there. If either writer or reader fails in this, the hokku will also be a failure.

English: Housefly

So here is Issa’s verse — only eight words in English. It is a summer hokku (remember that a hokku should always be marked with the season):

One man
And one fly;
The big room.

Knowing that in hokku things relate to one another, a reader familiar with this principle will intuit that the man and the fly are IN the big room. It does not need to be stated in words. And further, from his or her own experience, the reader will immediately feel the bothersomeness of that tiny fly to the one man in the very large room. We do not have to be told that the fly will keep lighting on the man’s forehead, or on his book, and the man will swat at it with his hand and it will fly away, only to be back again to trouble him repeatedly. And all of this is only made more bothersome by the fact that it is a summer day. One can even hear the buzzing of the fly in the  warm silence of the room.

In addition to unity —  the relationship between room, man, and fly — this hokku demonstrates rather obvious humor, which we feel in the “big” man in the much bigger room at the mercy of a tiny fly.

That does not mean all hokku should have this kind of psychological humor that is really very close to senryu. That is not the lesson of this verse for us. What we should learn from it is that everything in a hokku should be felt to relate to everything else in a meaningful way, so that we see the underlying unity and harmony of life that we so often do not notice in the apparent disparateness of things.

Today, for example, it is pouring rain where I am, even though it is the middle of June. I am staying indoors, quietly writing this posting. My remaining indoors relates to the rain, because when it rains, particularly when it pours, people tend to react by staying under shelter. And the rain seems to encourage quiet in us rather than action, which is precisely why I am sitting here tapping these keys to tell you about it instead of occupying myself with something else.

So please keep in mind, as you begin to learn hokku, that things should relate to one another in a verse, and that when a verse is read, the reader should be able to see that relationship. Otherwise, if the writer does not understand this principle of hokku, there will be nothing for the reader to “put together,” no threads uniting everything in the verse. That leaves us with just a three-line brief verse, a random assemblage of unrelated things. Whatever one may call it, it cannot be legitimately called a hokku.

David

ALAS, THAT SPRING SHOULD VANISH WITH THE ROSE

Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.

fadros

To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.

David

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: AUTUMN AND JOURNEYING

I have always had the feeling, when autumn has arrived, that it is time to begin reading Tolkien’s works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  And that in spite of the fact that the first book in the series, The Hobbit, begins its adventure “one fine morning, just before May.”

Then I realized that it is the “journey” aspect of the story that connects it to autumn, which in hokku is a time of journeys and migrations.  The birds begin flying southward overhead, as cold weather arrives.   In the old days, Native Americans would be coming out of the high mountains to avoid the harshness of winter there, going down to winter in the lowlands.  In the winter, the high mountains of Europe were considered the abode of spirits, which is the origin of the Germanic custom of the Perchtenlauf, when the mountain spirits come down into the villages and show themselves to the people.  I will talk more about that when winter comes.

We see the connection between autumn and travel in verses such as Issa’s

The autumn evening;
A traveling man
Mending his clothes.

The original says “a traveling man’s sewing” (harishigoto) but that is too vague for English.  What we see is a poor man on a journey, pausing at an inn in the evening, taking advantage of the time off his feet to mend his worn clothes.

This is a very good verse because it combines the sense of migration that is a part of autumn with the sense of the passage of time, which we feel in his worn clothes that need mending.  The passage of time — aging — is very much a part of the feeling of autumn.  In addition, the hokku exhibits the sense of poverty that has always been such a significant part of hokku.  And there is also that hokku sense of loneliness  of — “aloneness” — in the verse; the man has no one to mend his clothes for him, so he does it himself.

Of course spring too is a time for journeys, but they have a different feeling than those of autumn.  Spring is a returning, a growing.  Autumn is a leaving, a diminishing.  That is why it leads us gradually into the silence and inwardness and hibernation of winter.

By the old hokku calendar, autumn is already past.  By the new calendar, it is coming gradually to an end.  I hope that all of you may find a secure place as autumn ends where you are, and the chill silence of winter begins.

David

HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM KOBAYASHI ISSA

English: Susuki (Miscanthus sinensis) in Japan

Issa wrote:

Withered pampas grass;
“Now once there was
an old witch….”

That verse does not come off quite the same in English, because of the term “pampas grass” that we must use for what Issa knew as susuki — a kind of wild, grassy plant with a whitish-silver tall plume that is found on the uncultivated fields and hills of Japan.  It is Miscanthus sinensis, whereas what we know as pampas grass in the West and use as a tall ornamental is Cortaderia selloana.  And also, the word “pampas” tends to remind us of Argentina, which leads us astray.  The plumes at the top of susuki are thinner than those of the pampas grass we know, and they give a picturesque look to pathways through the Japanese hills, particularly in the late autumn.

As a late autumn verse, this hokku fits very well with our Halloween.  The withered grasses set the stage with a certain atmosphere, and then we hear the voice of the old granny (well, it has to be an old granny, doesn’t it?)  begin a scary story.

The point of the verse for English speakers is the feeling it creates in us — the late autumn feeling combined with that slightly “spooky” feeling of the beginning of a scary story.

It is unfortunate that we must know all about susuki in order to “see” this verse correctly.  There is really no way to transfer it to English without transferring the setting to something “Western,” and that inevitably changes the verse.

We could say,

Withered cornfields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That does not, however, have the “wild” implications that susuki has, where we see it growing along a pathway in the hills, perhaps with a rising moon in the background.

We could also say,

Withered grasses;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

That is getting there, but still does not have quite the same effect.

We could try,

Withered fields;
“Now once there was
An old witch….”

There are lots of possibilities, but none convey the original just right.  So this one I will just leave with “pampas grass” and the necessary explanation.

I cannot resist throwing in an image of the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, as visualized by Ivan Bilibin.

ENTERING AUTUMN

Blue morning glory  (asagao) flowers, Gifu, Japan
(Photo credit: Joel Abroad)

Here is a timely repeat of an earlier posting:

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

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

There is a related hokku by Chora:

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

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn. So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.  Morning glories are also associated with impermanence because the flowers bloom and die so quickly.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind; it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling. That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it. That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event. The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing. That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement. It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day. All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them. That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn. We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic. The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes. Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect. All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude. To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts? We know already, because the autumn wind tells us. They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory. For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry. We do not have to ask.

We know.

 

David

CAT DANCING

Issa wrote:

Harusame ya neko ni odori wo oshieru ko
Spring rain ya cat with dance wo teaches child

Spring rain;
The little girl teaches the cat
To dance. 

The little girl, unable to go out and play, has inflicted herself on the cat, which struggles to get away as she holds him up by his forelegs, moving them to and fro and pulling the    struggling cat along in time to the rhythmic melody she sings.

Blyth has an appropriate comment about this.  He says of the spring rain that forms the setting of this hokku,

“It falls in the gusts round the verandah, as thoughtlessly, as heartlessly as the child and the kitten.”

Most people reading this hokku for the first time mistakenly see it as “cute.”  That is not the feeling of the cat, and much of Issa’s verse has this underlying sense of the pain of life expressed through creatures other than human.

David

AVOIDING HOKKU AND HAIKU AS “RELIGIOUS” FUNDAMENTALISM

Every now and then, I like to clarify my approach to the hokku — that is, to teaching the writing of new hokku — for readers who may be novices here.

English: Portrait drawing of Henry David Thoreau
HENRY DAVID THOREAU

As many of you know, I have been teaching hokku on the Internet for many long years; in fact to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first person to ever actually teach either hokku or haiku on the Internet. Of course now the number of such people is legion, but I am still — again to the best of my knowledge — the only person actively teaching the hokku as distinct from modern haiku.

Except as a matter of historical interest, it does not matter in the least to me what Bashō or Taigi or Gyōdai or Buson or Issa or any of the other writers of old hokku had to say about the nature or composition of the hokku. Further, it similarly does not matter to me (again except for historical reasons) what is said by any modern scholar, Japanese or Western, about the history or practice or aesthetics of the old hokku or of its numerous offshoots, ancient or modern.

Why? Because what I teach as hokku does not depend for its validity or value on any of that. Instead, the hokku I teach stands on its own merits. And though one can say that hokku as I teach it reflects and continues this or that aspect of the old hokku, it would not matter to me in the slightest if it did not.

Do not misunderstand. There is an obvious and very clear continuity between old hokku and what I teach, because I teach largely from old examples written from the 1600s to near the beginning of the 20th century. In that, one could say that what I teach is as close to old hokku as one is likely to get. The only difference is that I translate the models I use for teaching into English form and punctuation. So hokku as I teach it is a continuation of the old hokku, but in a different language, and with emphasis on some aspects of the originals that fit what I consider to be hokku at its best, and a de-emphasis on aspects of old hokku that I regard as superficial or unnecessary.

There are endless quibbles in print and on the Internet over what is “real” in the history of the hokku, which many people today anachronistically and inaccurately term “haiku,” confusingly mixing it with modern haiku: What was the role in old Japan of “season words”? What is the historic use of “cutting words?” Did Bashō use metaphor or not? Did Shiki “free” the hokku when he re-named it “haiku”? How can we write “real” hokku or “real” haiku (for those who use that word) today, if we do not know precisely how it was written in old Japan? To me one need not worry about such questions.  It all just leads to pointless bickering.  Such discussions  are merely of academic — not practical — interest.

Some may wonder why, then, I teach hokku by frequently using translated or modified old Japanese examples.  It is not because such examples validate what I teach as a quotation from “scripture” presumably validifies this or that religious doctrine.  It is, instead, because the examples I choose exemplify quite well aspects of the hokku aesthetics I teach, and it is easy for the student to use them as models for the structure and aesthetics of writing hokku today. A good model makes for good learning. So the old hokku I use in teaching validate what I teach not because they are old, but because they are good.

I like to teach the hokku as though it had no history at all, because then people do not get caught up in those kinds of fundamentalistic arguments over whether this particular brand of hokku or haiku is what Bashō “really” taught, or whether this or that word in a Japanese original actually meant something other than it appears to mean.

I consider all such questions to be literary archeology, or idle speculation irrelevant to the actual writing of hokku today. It is an unnecessary distraction, and worse than that, it is the cause of seemingly endless bitter quarrels and animosity among different factions over whose form of verse is the most genuine, the most in keeping with the spirit of the original — the most “scriptural,” one is tempted to say, because again, it all seems to me like arguing over points of religious doctrine — and equally as profitless.

So I repeat, for emphasis, that hokku as I teach it has nothing to do with all that. People may think of it, if they wish, as something completely separate from the history of hokku or that of haiku — something entirely new. That way they will not approach it with all the baggage of this or that faction of the modern haiku community, or this or that faction of Japanese or Western scholarship on the history of hokku. My students should never feel that they have to justify the form or aesthetics of what they write from any old Japanese writings or any statement by past or modern scholars.

That approach to hokku automatically removes the cause of a great deal of bother and dissension. It frees students from caring whether R. H. Blyth accurately represented the Japanese hokku or did not, whether Shiki was justified in his revisionism of hokku into “haiku,” whether the “right” path is set forth today by this or that pundit or advocate or critic of hokku or of modern haiku. It saves a tremendous amount of needless historical research and semi-religious, fundamentalistic “proof-texting.”

Above all, that approach gives one a sense of extraordinary freedom in one’s practice of hokku, because then one can just concentrate on learning its principles and in writing it and developing one’s understanding of it. All the rest matters not one whit.

Of course, to repeat, doing so is dependent upon one’s desire to do so, and whether to write hokku as I teach or not is entirely up to the individual and his or her inclinations. Those who prefer some other verse form or no form at all will not find themselves cast into outer darkness or anathematized. To each his or her own. But of course I will continue to teach “my” approach to hokku on this site, for those who may be interested.

And I will continue to hope, as I always have, that there are some out there who will find that hokku as I teach it — which I sometimes call Contemplative Hokku — “speaks to their condition,” as the Quakers say — that they will see the virtues and value that I find in it.

So, to conclude , if you want to learn hokku from my postings here, please do so without any sense of dogmatism in comparing it to the past or present of either hokku or of haiku. It is helpful to completely separate from any such history or dogma. Learn it for itself, because it is only by doing so that you will discover what it has to offer.

Keep in mind, as you do so, Henry David Thoreau’s principle that what is required is not “new clothes” (in change of form or subject matter in this case) but rather “a new wearer of clothes.” I teach that we should not drastically change hokku to fit us and our whims, but rather that we should change to accord with the profundity underlying hokku. That is, seen deeply, just what it was for Thoreau — a spiritual teaching.

You will find it, I think, a liberating experience.

David

MORE ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

A reader has asked me to clarify a few points in this list (borrowed from R. H. Blyth) of the characteristics of hokku.  Though he asked about only three, perhaps it might be helpful to give some explanation of all, for those readers just beginning to learn about hokku:

1.   Willing limitations (hokku is not “all things to all men” and has willingly-accepted standards and boundaries).

Comment:  Hokku has a relatively fixed form.  In English it consists of three lines, each line with an initial capital letter, and the whole fully punctuated.   It is separated into two parts (divided by appropriate punctuation), a longer part and a shorter part.  Further, it is set in a particular season.  But beyond this, hokku limits itself to subjects that do not trouble or disturb the mind, which is why it avoids topics such as war, violence, sex, and  romance.  These limits are willingly accepted by those who practice it, realizing that hokku (unlike modern haiku) is not whatever anyone wants it to be.  It has a definite purpose, and to achieve that, the limitations of hokku are seen as virtues rather than as undesirable boundaries.

2.  Sensationism (a focus on sensory experience).

Comment:  Hokku lays primary importance on experiences of the senses — taste, touch, hearing, smelling, seeing.  It avoids abandoning this concreteness for abstract “thinking,” for adding the comments and ornaments that are common to much of Western poetry.  In short, hokku are about experiencing, not thinking about an experience or analyzing it.

3.  Unsentimental love of Nature.

Comment:  Hokku has as its subject matter Nature and the place of humans in and as a part of Nature.  Nature is not treated unrealistically, nor is it used as a symbol or metaphor for something else.  The writer is always aware that Nature is a process of change — of constant impermanence –and that nothing can be permanently grasped or possessed.

4.  Lack of elegance.

Comment:  Hokku — unlike the old waka poetry of Japan — does not deal merely with subjects thought to be “high” and poetic; instead it shows us the poetry in ordinary things.  An excellent yet paradoxical example of this is Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming.

Here we have a simple flower blooming in a broken crock.  There is nothing “elegant” about the subject matter, in fact it is filled with a sense of poverty.  And though there is an elegance of simplicity in the way the subject is expressed, hokku avoids any materialistic elegance of status, of elevating “high” subjects above “low.”

5.  Appreciation of imperfection.

Comment:  We have just seen an example of that in Onitsura’s verse.  The broken crock is obviously imperfect.  Imperfection is a characteristic of existence, and hokku is realistic.  It makes a virtue of such imperfections, seeing them as manifestations of the impermanence found throughout all Nature.

6.  Skillful unskillfulness (appearing to have been easily, naturally written without effort or contrivance).

Comment:  Those who have been reading here for some time know that hokku takes time to learn.  There are many helpful techniques and there are all the basic principles and underlying aesthetics.  And yet when the hokku is written, none of this should show.  The hokku should appear just as spontaneous and natural as a ripe pear falling from the branch, otherwise we are too aware of the writer and are distracted from the experience that hokku should convey.

7.  ”Blessed are the poor” (an emphasis on poverty in experience and phrasing).

Comment:  Poverty is very important in hokku and it means many things.  Essentially it is an appreciation of the simple things in life, the opposite of materialism.  In writing it means that we choose ordinary subjects, but present them seen in a new way.  It also means that in writing we limit ourselves to a certain amount of space, and to simple and ordinary words.  And it means that in hokku we are limited in how much we can say, and, as we have seen, there are limits too on the subject matter.  Hokku thus expresses the sense of the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” because it means that in accepting voluntarily such limitations, we avoid materialism and ego, preferring spiritual development.  This poverty is not seen as deprivation, but as the “empty cup” one must have so that something fresh and new may be poured into it.

8.  Combination of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.

Comment:  For Westerners, there is a vagueness built into hokku.  Because of its poverty, it never seems “finished” like a Western poem.  It seems to be saying more than is in it, but what that something is, is never clearly stated.  Instead it must be felt through having the experience of the hokku.  A hokku only gives us a part of the wider whole.  There is always something missing or hidden, because the poverty of hokku lets it only say and include just so much, and nothing beyond.  It is like an old Chinese painting in which we see a landscape with considerable portions hidden by mist.  Here is an example by Kyoroku:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

We always see the bright fronts of morning glory blossoms, but the wind of autumn blows them in such a way that we see the pale whitish reverse side.  We feel that there is a significance in this, but we cannot say what it is.  We are just to experience the verse, feel the autumn wind, see the pale “backs” of the morning glories, and have that feeling of unexplained significance — a mixture of the poetic vague and the poetic definite.  The verse is quite definite in what it shows us, but there is a vagueness underlying the whole that should not and cannot be clarified.  We see the indefinite through the definite.  There is more to a hokku than what it reveals, and yet what it shows us includes everything written and unwritten:

It shows the backs
Of the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

9.  Human warmth.

Comment:  Because humans are seen as a part of Nature, the writer of hokku cannot help but see them as included in its impermanence.  Because of that, a compassion arises in the writer.  We know that human life is brief, and filled with sorrows and joys that both are temporary.  This compassion should not be “preachy” and obvious in hokku, but instead we should feel it behind a verse, like feeling the love of a mother pushing her child patiently in a swing — and it extends both to humans and to other creatures, as in this by Bunson:

The Harvest Moon;
In the dark places,
Insect cries.

10.  Avoidance of violence and terror ( hokku are generally peaceful and contemplative).

Comment:  Modern haiku enthusiasts often complain about the limits of hokku, saying that one should be able to use it for “protest verses,” for showing the horrors of war, for all kinds of purposes that really have nothing to do with what hokku is all about.  But hokku — particularly as I teach it — is a contemplative form of verse, meaning it should contribute to peace of mind rather than adding to the stress and worry of modern life.  Hokku shows us the peace behind all of life’s problems, and that is why in writing, it helps to have a peaceful mind.  Hokku is to take us beyond the continual emotional ups and downs and upheavals of life, to give us a little taste of what it means to live without an ego that is constantly fretting and desiring.  So in hokku there are limits to what one can or should do (you can see how this relates to all that has been previously discussed here).  The mind of the writer of hokku should be like a still pond in which the moon is reflected.  It cannot be so if stirred by fears and emotions.  And similarly, it should convey that sense of the peace underlying all the surface disturbances of life to the reader.  That is why we call it a form of contemplative verse — contemplative in the sense of peaceful and meditative, silent and free of ego and open to the experience of Nature.

11.  Dislike of holiness (hokku is very spiritual, but not in any “preachy” or dogmatic  sense).

Comment:  Hokku is a very spiritual kind of verse in that to write it, one must get the ego out of the way — if only temporarily — so that Nature may speak.  The writer should be like a clear mirror, free of the dust of emotions and desires.  When that mirror is wiped clean, Nature can be clearly reflected in it.  Unlike much Western poetry, in which the “poet” is considered important, in hokku the writer as “ego” is seen as an obstacle.  So the hokku writer must put the ego aside, and simply convey an experience of Nature, neither adding his thoughts and comments to it nor ornamenting it.  That of course includes omitting any obvious “preaching” about this or that, which is why when hokku talks about religion, it does so objectively.  One of the worst things a beginning writer of hokku can do is to write a lot of verses filled with obvious references to Zen or Buddhism or Christianity or meditation — filling them up with concepts about religion instead of with concrete experiences.  The spirituality of hokku lies in simply getting the ego out of the way.  That does not mean one cannot include any mention of religion, but that mention should be natural and never forced or “sermonizing” or obvious.  Issa, who sometimes failed in this, nonetheless gives us an example of a winter verse that is successful:

The Buddha in the fields;
An icicle hangs
From his nose.

Issa means, of course, an image of the Buddha.

12.  Turns a blind eye to grandeur and majesty (like the early Quakers, who refused to remove their hats and used the same second-person pronoun for wealthy and poor, hokku is “no respecter of persons”).

Comment:  Hokku has little use for glory.  In hokku an orchid is not superior to a dandelion, nor is a beautiful young person preferable to one old and wrinkled.  In fact, given the choice, hokku will usually choose the ordinary over the extraordinary, the plain over the conventionally pretty.  In hokku a person with money has no greater value than a beggar in the streets.  In fact the latter is more likely to appear in hokku than the former.

Further, hokku tends to prefer one thing to many — a single flower instead of a huge bouquet, one person alone instead of a crowd.  That is why in old Japanese hokku, even though there is no indication of whether a subject is singular or plural, it is generally understood as singular.  One thing is felt to have more significance than many things.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is the general rule of thumb.

13.  Unobtrusive good taste.

Comment:  Good taste in hokku is seen in the absence of things that disturb the mind, as well as in the absence of catering to mass taste.  It is seen in the poverty of hokku, as well as in its peaceful, contemplative atmosphere.  And it is seen in the writer’s selection of elements included in a verse, which nonetheless must appear natural and spontaneous, even if it took the writer weeks to get it “just right.”  Above all, good taste is seen in the selflessness of the writer, in his (or her) getting out of the way and allowing Nature to speak through a simple experience of the senses, set in the context of the seasons.  All of the principles of hokku contribute toward this sense of unobtrusive good taste.

14.  A still, small voice.

Comment:  Hokku is not grand.  It is not loud.  It is not obtrusive.  It appears almost too brief to be worthwhile.  And yet it is in that very brevity and poverty and simplicity that we find the whole universe expressed in a falling leaf, in an ocean-smoothed pebble, in a crow on a withered branch at evening.  Where much of Western poetry is “in your face” and advancing, hokku is quiet and retiring, like Wordsworth’s “violet by a mossy stone, half-hidden from the eye.”   Because it does not try to be “all things to all men,” it is easily overlooked and undervalued, like a still, small voice.  But those of you who recognize the biblical allusion in that will know that its smallness does not mean it is to be underestimated.

And yet, as Blyth correctly says, hokku “is not much in little, but enough in little.”

To those in modern haiku, the poverty of hokku and its voluntary willingness to limit itself was never enough.  But that is the way of materialism, never to be satisfied, never to pause to realize that “enough” can be of greater value, ultimately, than “much.”  Haiku is always looking for more, always wanting something new and different and more modern.  Hokku, however, is quite satisfied with its own poverty and simplicity, making a virtue of the very things that for others are defects.

I hope these brief explanations help to give a better understanding of characteristics of hokku.  It is important to realize that these are not applied in practice like ingredients in a recipe — a pinch of poverty, a teaspoon of human warmth — but are rather to be regarded as overall characteristics, part of the “atmosphere” and aesthetics of hokku that give it is distinctive nature.

David

AUTUMN SCARECROWS

Autumn has begun.

Autumn is the declining of the life energies in Nature.  We see it in the withering of grasses and plants, in the yellowing and coloring and, eventually, the falling of the leaves.  In America our “native” name for the season is the Fall, and that is what it is — the fall of the leaves.  It is also the fall of the turning wheel of the year from the Yang height of summer to the deep Yin of winter.

In hokku it is very important that things reflect one another, that they are harmonious even in difference.  The declining of vital energy in the autumn is in keeping with late afternoon in the day.  In human life, it corresponds to the time when a person grows old, the “autumn of life,” as people say.  Autumn is a time of the calming of the energies of summer, a time when Nature prepares to go inward, to “return to the root” as we see in plants whose upper leaves wither as the energy to survive winter begins to concentrate in their roots.

Autumn is a time of change, of preparation for the harshness and stillness and poverty of winter.  Animals store their food or prepare for hibernation; birds, as the air cools, begin their great journeys southward across the skies.  Even humans like to find, when possible, a secure place to spend the coming winter.

Autumn, then, is the declining of Yang energy and the increasing of Yin, a movement toward the predominance of stillness and silence over activity and sound.  It manifests all through the season, for example in the cries of migrating wild geese high overhead that quickly pass and disappear in the distance, and in sudden storms that fade eventually to silence.

We see autumn, then, in things that are aging and things that are old; in fading leaves, in bleached boards, in withering plants, and old people with grey hair and slowing step.  We see it in the chilling of the air and the return of the rains, and of course in the decline of the path of the sun in the sky and the shortening of the day.

Scarecrows are a favorite subject for hokku in autumn because they manifest the character of the season so well — its aging, its frailty, its deepening poverty, its weakness:

Kyoroku wrote:

First,
The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm
.

That shows us the frailty and weakness that are in keeping with the season, in spite of the strength of the storm.  And of course we can say of the scarecrow — as Nyōfu does here,

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

That is what makes it such an expressive manifestation of the autumn — its poverty, its weakness, its inherent frailty.

The scarecrow, we must note, is not a metaphor for anything; it does not symbolize or represent anything.  But of course because of the principle of reflection, we cannot help feeling ourselves in the scarecrow, and in fact, feeling all of Nature at autumn in the scarecrow.  It is said that a single falling leaf is all of autumn, and the same may be said of a scarecrow, which we feel in this verse of Chōi:

The autumn wind
Goes right through its bones —
The scarecrow.

The scarecrow shows us the transience and impermanence inherent in Nature, inherent in all things.

Shōha gives us the harmony of two similar things in this verse:

The evening sun;
The shadow of the scarecrow
Reaches the road.

The scarecrow is old as the day is old, and the sun declines as the year declines into silence and darkness.

The scarecrow is the ultimate of humility and selflessness.  It is no respecter of persons.  It removes its hat before no one, and it is unmoved alike by beauty and ugliness, as Issa points out:

A full moon;
It stands there indifferent —
The scarecrow.

Of course there is a bit of animism in that, the tendency of people to see “life” in things that are not alive in the usual sense.  The birds of autumn, however, are not fooled, as Sazanami shows us:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

It reminds us of the words of Jesus in the New Testament in that most poetic of translations, the “King James” version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The scarecrow, however, is above such sermons, unimpressed by status and position and wealth, unmoved by glory or shame, just a manifestation of elements that come together temporarily to make a form, and then disperse again into nothingness.

Impermanence.

David



SNAILS, LOCKS, AND BRUSHWOOD GATES

In Japan, Issa’s hokku have always been remarkably popular.  And they are popular in the West as well — at least the better known verses, among which one finds this:

The brushwood gate;
Instead of a lock,
A snail.

But of course that is not the popular translation, which is, following Blyth,

A brushwood gate;
For a lock,
This snail.

There is a subtle distinction between the two, and for me it makes the difference between an acceptable verse and one that is just “too cute for words.”  It is the difference between “acting as” and “instead of.”

To say,

For a lock,
This snail.

is to put the verse into the childish mind — which we do indeed often find in Issa — but in an adult it comes off as mawkish.  This is all the more dangerous in hokku because in the West, people eat “mawkish” with a spoon.  They cannot get enough of it, and as I discovered long ago, one of the worst failings of some beginning students of hokku is that they go for the “cute” and sentimental like flies to dead flesh, particularly female writers, but males too are not immune.

The difference can be seen in the two translations of this verse.  We can put that difference into prose like this, so that it may better be understood:

In the first translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate — a gate made of roughly cut sticks, the bark left on.  And he tells us that there is no lock on the gate, and that where one would expect to find one, there is only — at the moment — a snail.  A snail instead of a lock.

In the second translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate, and says that he has a snail acting as a lock; the snail takes the place of and serves the function of a lock.  That, of course, is just childish fancy; a snail cannot serve the purpose of a lock.  It is in this incongruity that we find the “cuteness” of the verse.  It reminds one of children playing “bank” with leaves as money.  But what is cute in children is just sentimentality in an adult’s hokku.

Now in his commentary on this verse, Blyth remarks that “The snail is used both as an absurd-looking creature and to point to the ridiculousness of all locks and bolts and gates and doors.”

It is a brave effort, but I do not quite buy it.  To me, as good hokku,  the verse is simply expressing the writer’s poverty — that he really has nothing worth stealing, so a snail where one would expect a lock really does not much matter.  If one understands the verse that way, it loses some of its sentimentality, but it is hard to read it that way in the second translation, which tends instead to fall into mere sentimentality.

That is why I prefer the first translation, which prevents us from confusing lock and snail, and tells us quite plainly that there is no lock on the gate — just a snail where a lock would ordinarily be.  “Instead of” rather than “acting as.”

Now as to what Issa actually intended, we can only say that either translation is possible.  I suspect, however, that Issa intended the more mawkish reading, knowing Issa’s way of thinking and reacting, which is why I seldom use his verses as models, and when I do, it is only those free of such personal peculiarities.

David

THE ONE-FOOT WATERFALL

Issa wrote:

The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.

This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”  A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”

Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”

SUBJECTIVE HOKKU, OBJECTIVE HOKKU

We earlier saw that there are basically two different kinds of hokku — subjective hokku and objective hokku.  Subjective hokku are those in which the writer adds his own view or interpretation, his “thinking.”  Objective hokku are those that simply present an experience and let the reader experience it too.

I teach objective hokku, because to me, it is the “purest” kind, very appropriate for a contemplative lifestyle.  Just as we should not add “thinking” to our meditation, we also do not add it to our hokku.

It is not difficult to recognize the other kind, subjective hokku, however.  We need look no farther than Bashō to find numerous examples, some very well known:

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

“Fleeting dreams beneath the summer moon” is the “thinking” addition.

Ill on a journey;
Dreams run about
The withered fields.

“Dreams run about the withered fields” is the added “thinking”

Art’s beginning —
The rice planting songs
Of the interior.

“Art’s beginning” is the added “thinking.”

Did it cry itself
Utterly away?
A cicada shell.

“Did it cry itself utterly away?” is the added “thinking.”

But we also find in Bashō some quite good examples of objective hokku — those without added “thinking”:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

On a withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Generally it is easy to recognize subjective hokku — hokku with “thinking” added.  But some are a bit tricky, for example, Chiyo-ni wrote:

The well bucket
Taken by the morning glory;
Borrowing water.

At first this would seem to be an objective verse, because Chiyo-ni is just stating “facts.”  But then we realize that the point of the verse is that she does not want to tear the morning glory vine away from the well bucket, and so she goes to borrow water from a neighbor.  That introduces a subjective element, and puts the writer of the verse front and center.  In hokku, however, we prefer that the writer get out of the way so that Nature may speak.  We do not want to know about Chiyo-ni’s delicate aesthetic sensibilities; we just want a sensory experience.

By contrast, here is a pleasantly objective verse by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

Rankō has an objective hokku, though it has a longer time span:

Withered reeds —
Day after day breaking off,
Floating away.

And of course in Issa we have the very obvious “thinking” of:

This dewdrop world —
A dewdrop world it is,
And yet….

In Onitsura ‘s hokku we find objective examples such as:

Beneath
The leaping trout,
Clouds pass by.

But sometimes he is subjective, as in:

I have not yet
Taken off the Floating World;
The change of clothes.

The “floating world” is the “worldly” life.  “The change of clothes” signifies that time when one changes from cold-weather clothing to warm-weather clothing.  It is not difficult to see that “I have not yet taken off the Floating World” is Onitsura’s “thinking” addition, his added subjectivity.

In both reading and writing hokku, we should be increasingly able to recognize subjectivity, and to distinguish it from objectivity.  “Subjective” hokku are those people are likely to think of as more “poetic,” because people in the West are accustomed to subjective thinking in poetry.  But in hokku we look for sensory experience, and that requires greater aesthetic awareness to appreciate.  It demands more of reader and writer, because it offers us those experiences in which we perceive an unspoken significance, even though all we have is tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and seeing — without added “thinking.”

David

ONE BIG, LAZY CAT IS ALL OF SUMMER

Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan
Asleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

FROM BELOW THE BRIDGE

Issa, whom we do not often use as a model, wrote this summer hokku:

From below
The bridge I creep across —
A cuckoo!

Though Issa says merely “bridge,” we can tell from his timid creeping across it that it is a hanging bridge over a canyon or ravine.  As he fearfully, hesitantly crosses, suddenly from far below he hears the “ho-to-to” cry of the bird the Japanese call the hototogisu, a kind of cuckoo.

Some writers think that Issa may simply have seen the bird below, but that would cause the hokku to lose its effect.  The whole point of it is the startling, unexpected sudden cry from below that emphasizes the feeling of the height and precariousness of crossing the little hanging bridge.

David

NO MODERN HAIKU, THANK YOU!

R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.

David

FROG WORLD

Issa wrote:

Waga kado e    shiranande hairu    kawazu kana
My       gate   e unknowing coming-in  frog     kana

Entering
My gate unaware —
A frog.

Six words.

The whole point of the verse lies in the word “unaware.”

Our world is a “people” world in which frogs are found.  A frog’s world is a frog world in which people are found.

It makes one wonder of what we are unaware.

Notice the difference between this “frog” verse and the famous one by Bashō:  In Issa’s verse, there is an observer (indicated by “my gate”) and an observed (the entering frog).  In Bashō’s verse, however, there is only

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

There is no writer-frog separation.  One could say there is no writer-old pond-frog separation.  The subject (the writer) has disappeared, has become the object (that written about), so that a “twoness” becomes a oneness.

David

THE LARK ASCENDING: MORE WORK WITH MODELS

There is not just a single way to translate a hokku from one language to another.  Structurally, and in vocabulary, Japanese and English are very different.  And English has considerable freedom in how one says a thing.  This is very beneficial in composing English-language hokku.

Onitsura wrote a very simple and pleasant hokku.  Such verses are characteristic of him at his best:

Aomugi ya hibari ga agaru are sagaru
Green-barley ya skylark ga rising is descending

Green barley;
The skylark rising
And falling.

But that is only one way in which the same verse may be presented.  We could also do it as

Green barley;
The skylark ascends
And descends.

Or we could use my favorite,

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Because of the various streams of language that flowed together to make modern English, we have such a range of options.  “Rises and falls” uses Anglo-Saxon words;  “ascending and descending” makes use of forms given by Latin.  English is a very rich language in the variety with which we may speak and write, and we should take advantage of that in writing hokku.  Our language in hokku should, however, remain simple and direct.

Remember, however, that the hokku I translate here are not presented merely for the pleasure of reading them.  They are models to be used in learning how to compose original hokku.  Do not expect the result of using such models to be immediately great.  The practice is to familiarize you with the structure and patterns of hokku, not to give you instant success in wonderful verses.

We can take today’s hokku:

Green barley;
The lark ascending
And descending.

Remember that in using a model, we can substitute any or all of the elements, like this;

Green pastures;
The lark ascending
And descending

Or we can go farther:

Spring winds;
A kite rising
And falling.

Or even farther by adding an adjective;

The still pond;
Dark fish rising
And sinking.

One can see, as I said previously, the countless opportunities for writing new verse by using this method.  And this is just one of a number of hokku patterns we may use.

Working from models — which as already mentioned is a very old and traditional practice in hokku — enables us to quickly learn how the elements of a hokku are assembled and varied.   Then it becomes very easy for the student to write new hokku based on personal experience.

Another great benefit of writing in English is that the language — unlike old “hokku” Japanese — has punctuation.  In composing hokku we should not be afraid of making good use of punctuation because it is a part of normal English.  We should never write hokku without it, because each verse should not only have an internal “cut” to separate the short part from the longer part (the single line from the two “continuous” lines that form the other part of each verse) — it should also have ending punctuation.  Sometimes there may even be a secondary internal pause in keeping with how we say things in English.

Blyth, for example, translated a spring verse by Issa like this:

Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
A lark singing above it.

He used three punctuation marks!  The “cut” is the first comma at the end of the first line, and the second comma is merely a pause necessary for the right effect in English.

Let’s look closer at that verse:

Kojima ni mo   hatake utsunari    naku hibari
Little-island on even field tilling  crying skylark

I would translate it as:

Even on the small island —
A field being tilled,
A skylark singing.

Issa sees spring everywhere.  Not only on the mainland, but even on a small island he can see someone tilling a field and hear a skylark singing.  The island is its own little world.

The point of all this, however, is not to be hesitant in using punctuation when smooth English usage requires it.  This is quite the opposite of the practice in much of modern haiku, which, following the once avant-garde, now outdated poets of the early 20th century, began dispensing with normal punctuation, using little except perhaps an occasional, perfunctory hyphen.  In English-language hokku, however, we make good and beneficial use of the punctuation available to us.

As I often say, punctuation is used to add fine shades of pause and emphasis, and it guides the reader through a verse smoothly and without confusion or awkwardness.  That is precisely why we use it in everyday English, and precisely why we use it in hokku.

David

ISSA’S SIX PATHS

I have spoken before about the pervasive influence of Mahayana Buddhist spirituality — influenced by Daoism and a dash of Animism (via Shintō) — in old hokku.  Usually I just call it the “spirituality” of hokku, and some call it the influence of Zen in hokku, which indeed historically it was.

When we come to the verses of Issa, however, we see a variant influence.  It is still Mahayana, but with a difference; Issa was a follower of the Pure Land sect, the aspect of Japanese Buddhism — in fact a kind of “folk Buddhism” — that some see as most like Christianity.

Zen believed in relying on one’s own efforts.  Pure Land believed in relying on the “other,” the other being in this case the compassion of the Buddha Amitabha, called “Amida” in Japan, who in Pure Land tradition vowed to save all beings who sincerely call upon him.  In feeling, Pure Land is very different from Zen.  It is the “easy” way, which is no doubt why it became the most popular form of Buddhist practice in Japan.

Today Buddhism in Japan has degenerated to the point where temples are handed down in the families of married priests, and people seldom visit them at all, except on special occasions.  In a bizarre twist, Buddhism has become associated in the minds of the modern Japanese people with funerals, as the country becomes ever more materialistic.  Even in his day, R. H. Blyth lamented that the Japanese had abandoned their traditional culture.  How horrified he would be to see today’s technological Japan, and Buddhism in even greater decline there!

But back to Issa and his brand of Buddhist practice.

He wrote a series of six verses all on the same theme, which is the “Six Ways”  or “Six Paths” that one may take after death, standing for the six realms in which one may be reborn.  When Protestant Christians say they have been “reborn,” what they mean is not at all what a Buddhist means by the term.  In traditional Buddhism, when one dies, one’s kamma (karma in sanskrit) causes rebirth in one of several realms, either in a “hell,” or as a suffering ghost, or as an animal, a nature spirit, a human (the most favorable in Buddhist belief) or as a deva or “god.”  Each of these realms has its own characteristics.

One can see that in these verses Issa has a peculiar take on the various realms, seeing them not so much in other places as in this very world.  Keep in mind that this is not really what hokku is for, but Issa had his own personal quirks and his hokku reflect the kind of person he was.

Here are the “Six Ways”:

1.  HELL

Yūzuki ya   nabe no naka nite   naku tanishi
Evening-moon ya pot ‘s inside boiling  mud-snails

The evening moon;
Boiling in the pot —
Crying mud snails.

This verse reflects Issa’s awareness of lower forms of life, which permeates his verses.  Quite aware of suffering in his own life, he was aware of it also in the lives of “lesser” creatures. Isn’t it obvious that for many creatures, this world is Hell?

The next higher stage of rebirth is

2.  HUNGRY GHOSTS

Hana chiru ya   nomitaki mizu wo   tōgasumi
Blossoms fall ya drink-desire water wo  far-mist

Falling blossoms;
The water we thirst for —
In the far mists.

The realm of Hungry Ghosts is the realm of spirits whose tormenting desires cannot be satisfied.  They want to satisfy their hunger but cannot, to satisfy their thirst but are unable.  Here amid the falling cherry blossoms — which embody transience — the water for which the spirits desperately thirst is far off somewhere in the confused mists of the afterlife, always enticing them, always grieving them, always never quite attainable.

3.  ANIMALS

Chiru hana ni    butsu tomo hō tomo   shiranu kana
Falling blossoms in   Buddha even Law even know-not kana

In the falling blossoms,
They see neither the Buddha
Nor the Law.

Animals have not the perception of humans.  Men look at the falling cherry blossoms and are able to see the impermanence of life in their transience, and think of the Buddha and the Law — the Dhamma (Dharma in sanskrit) that will lead them out of suffering.  Animals are aware of none of that, and Issa feels for them.

4.  ASURAS

Koegoe ni    hana no kokage no bakuchi kana
Voice-voice at   blossom ‘s shade ‘s gamblers kana

With arguing voices
In the shade of the blossoms —
The gamblers.

The Asura (Japanese Ashura or Shura) realm is the realm of temperamental, self-important and easy-to-anger creatures just below the human realm, a kind of touchy nature spirit.

Here Issa sees them as shouting and arguing as they gamble in the shade of the blooming cherry trees.  In spite of the beauty of the blossoms, the Asuras are too intent on their own “pushy” pursuits to notice.

5.  HUMANS

Saku hana no naka ni   ugomeku shujō kana
Blooming blossoms ‘s among at  wriggling human-beings kana

Amid
The blooming flowers,
Wriggling humans.

Not a flattering picture.  Humans wiggle about, moving here and there, amid the blooming cherry trees.  One pictures a crowd of people viewing the blossoms, turning this way and that, but really going nowhere.

And finally, we come to the realm of the devas or gods:

6.  THE HEAVENS

Kasumu hi ya    sazo tennin no    gotaikutsu
Haze day ya surely heaven-person  ‘s tedium

The hazy day;
Even the devas
Must be bored.

It is a very quiet, hazy day in spring.  Nothing to do, nowhere to go, and the hours drag.  The lives of the devas in the heaven realms are unimaginably longer than those of humans.  If humans are so easily bored, what must such a day be like for the devas, Issa wonders.

One can readily see that there is both deadly seriousness and humor in this series of verses.  And like “Occasion” hokku, we can read them on two different levels.  On one level these things are happening in the various realms in which humans may be reborn.  On another level, all of these things are happening in this world.

1.  In this world creatures and humans suffer at the hands of others — Hell.
2.  In this world both animals and humans may ignore the transience of life — Animals.
3.  In this world human desires are endless — Hungry Ghosts.
4.  In this world people bluster and argue and fight to overcome — Asuras
5.  In this world humans waste their time, acting as though they will live forever — Humans
6.  In this world people are easily bored — Devas

Issa mixes them all up, seeing the Hells and the Heavens and all Six Realms interpenetrating this world.  As Omar Khayyam wrote in Fitzgerald’s translation, “I myself am Heaven and Hell.”

As is obvious, this kind of verse is not really “normal” hokku, and I only post it here so that readers may see some of the odd variations into which hokku was drawn historically.  Issa, for the most part, does not make a good model for hokku, but just as Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan, even so the quirky hokku of Issa — which are very human and often very psychological — became the most popular among the ordinary people of Japan.

As the old saying goes, De gustibus non disputandum est — there is no arguing about tastes.  We can, however, point out the differences between hokku put to these ends and the kind of hokku we practice, which from the Japanese perspective would be more “Zen” oriented than “Pure Land” oriented.

David

INEVITABLE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing.  Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.

Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom.  Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.

We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life.  So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.

In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.

This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms.  One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….

Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:

All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.

In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms.  The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.

Even Issa has this reverent attitude:

Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Cherry blossoms!

Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.

Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:

Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
Cherry blossoms.

This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.

Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:

Stillness;
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.”  We could also translate it like this:

Stillness;
The rustle of falling
Cherry blossoms.

Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku.  The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.

David


EYES GROW WEARY

In the last posting, we looked at a verse by Issa, who tends to bring emotion into his hokku.

Today we will look at something more objective on the same “spring” topic, “the long day.”  As we saw in Issa’s example, he composed the verse by combining two “long” things — age and the lengthening of the day — then making a statement on them:  that even the lengthening of days as one grows old “brings tears.’

By contrast, here is a hokku by Taigi on the same topic:

Nagaki hi ya   me no tsukaretaru   umi no ue
Long  day ya eyes  ‘s  grow-weary  sea ‘s on

The long day;
Eyes grow weary
On the sea.

Remember that in old hokku, the reader was expected to know enough about the principles of hokku to “get” what the writer was saying.  That is not, however, often the case for modern readers on their first reading of a rather literalistic translation of some old hokku.  Modern readers need a verse to be a bit more explicit, which is also a difference in general between the Japanese language, which tends to vagueness, and the English language, which tends to be more direct and clear.

What Taigi is saying then, is this:

The long day;
My eyes grow weary
Looking at the sea.

We can see that this is very much like the verse by Issa in structure, but without Issa’s emotion.  It even uses the same method of combining two similar things. In Issa it was age and the lengthening day; in Taigi it is the long day and the sea.

Now one may ask how the long day and the sea are the same, and though an adult may not understand, any child can tell you that they are both “long.”  Look out at the sea and it goes on and on to the horizon; that vast stretch is in keeping in feeling with the perceived length of the day in spring, so much longer than the short days of winter, and growing ever longer.

So this verse simply combines two similar things, as did Issa, and makes a statement about them.  Taigi’s statement is “My eyes grow weary.”  Of course we could take out “my” and make the verse a more literal translation, but in English it is really necessary for completeness, and we want to make not only our translations of old hokku but also the new hokku we compose in English thoroughly English, not just reflections of Japanese language practice.

If we look at other hokku on the same topic, we find similar methodology in many verses, and Shiki, who began confusingly calling his verses “haiku” even while he was still writing hokku, used it constantly:

Sunahama ni   ashiatao nagaki   haru-hi kana
Sandy-beach on  footprings long   spring day kana

On the sandy beach,
A long line of footprints;
The spring day.

By now you should be practiced enough in this method to see what Shiki is doing.  He is just doing the same as Issa, the same as Taigi, in combining two things.  But unlike the two previous verses, he adds no statement, so this is not a “statement” hokku.  Instead it is just a standard hokku (in spite of Shiki’s terminology), which means setting, subject, and action:

On the sandy beach,  Subject

A long line of footprints;  Action (the writer sees the long line stretching into the distance)

The spring day.   Setting

We should note that usually in hokku, the “action” is something moving or changing; here it is simply the perceived change from the ordinarily blank sand to the presence of the footprints, which from our perspective is hardly “action” at all.  It is a kind of “passive” action, but one must really be careful with this kind of thing, because all to easily it can make a verse into simply a photograph.  And all too often a hokku as photograph is too static to be interesting.

For Shiki, however, it was a part of his personal approach to many hokku, which was to make them small sketches of Nature.  That is why so many of his verses — like this one — could be easily converted into Japanese block prints requiring no real movement.  In that lay the character of much of Shiki’s verse, but also often its shallowness, which we do not feel in this example in spite of the technique.

The “combination of similar things” technique can be applied to many things, and Shiki did so.  Keep in mind that even though Shiki is known as the “creator” of haiku, he has almost nothing in common with most modern haiku.  Actually he is just the petulant point at which hokku splits into modern haiku and modern hokku.  Shiki himself still wrote verses that generally qualify as hokku, and most modern haiku people are as much at a loss to understand the methodology Shiki inherited from hokku as they are to understand the greater body of old hokku verse.  Modern haiku is simply a verse form that in English, for all practical purposes, was created in the middle of the 20th century out of misperceptions and misunderstandings of the old hokku combined with Western notions of poetry.

But back to Shiki’s use of hokku technique.  We see the “combining similar things” method also in this verse by him:

Hyakunin no      nimpu tsuchi horu   hi-naga kana
Hundred-men ‘s   laborers earth dig   day-long kana

A hundred workers
Digging the earth;
The long day.

To understand such a verse, we must think not as modern haiku thinks (when it does at all), but rather we must see it from the hokku perspective, which is precisely the “combine similar things” method.  Here Shiki’s two things are the “hundred workers” and “the long day.”

We must not be too literalistic about this or we will fail to understand the method.  It is not that a hundred workers are long in the same way that the day is long; instead, it is a perception of volume/extent.  To put it in the terms of a child, which is generally the best way to understand and approach hokku, “a hundred workers” is a “long” number of workers, just as “the spring day” is long.  The big, slow job at hand takes a lot of laborers, and the passage of the long spring day takes a lot of time.  And that is how one varies the method.

Shiki also gives us another verse in which the combination of similar things is more obvious:

Kawa ni sōte   yukedo hashi nashi   hi no nagaki
River at  along walking bridge is-not  day ‘s long

Following the river,
Still there is no bridge;
The long day.

The two combined similar things here are of course “the river” and “the long day.”  Shiki unites them by adding the effect of walking on and on but finding no bridge to cross.  That adds to the effect of the length of the river and the length of the day.

The knowledge of such techniques faded out in modern haiku, which claims descent from Shiki, but it is still very much alive in the practice of modern hokku, which gets it — just as Shiki did — from the long tradition of old hokku.  R. H. Blyth, of course, explained the latter verse in his four-volume series (though he did not name or clarify the general method as clearly as I have done here), but the pundits of modern haiku paid little or no attention to him in the mid-20th century, preferring instead to remake “haiku” in their own image, which was really all they could do, given that they understood so little of the aesthetics and methodology of the old hokku, which even Shiki used in his very conservative “haiku.”

David

THE LENGTHENING OF DAYS

One of the most obvious characteristics of the coming and advance of spring is the lengthening of the days.  The sun rises earlier and lingers later.  To those who live close to Nature this is a matter of great significance.  That is why in old hokku, “the long day” — the lengthening of the day in spring — was a fixed topic, what was called a “season word.”  Today we no longer use season words because the system became too complex and unwieldy, but we do still keep the importance of seasonal classification of hokku in our writing, and with it also the old topic — “the long day.”

How one approaches it depends on how one approaches hokku in general.  One can usually count on Issa to have a very “personal” approach, somewhat dangerous for Westerners, who are so attuned to “I,” “me,” and “my” that they tend to overpersonalize.  Nonetheless, Issa sometimes presents us with something interesting, as here:

Oinureba   hi no nagai ni mo   namida kana
Age-if          day’s length at too   tears     kana

Growing old,
Tears come also at
The length of days ….

We can improve that by smoothing it out a bit;

Growing old;
Even the lengthening day
Brings tears.

Old hokku tended to assume that the reader had a poetic nature and would intuit the point of the verse, which in modern times is not always the case — for many moderns, a poetic nature must be taught and acquired, or at least “educated.”

So what is Issa saying?  Well, as usual he stretches the bounds of hokku, which usually just presents us with an experience of Nature and lets us feel its significance for ourselves.

Here he is saying that he is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”  He suffered in life, and understood, as Buddhism teaches, that underlying all human existence is a deep dissatisfaction, because ultimately no “thing” can satisfy us more than temporarily.  Issa had a very difficult childhood, and it left emotional scars which are readily visible in his verses.  On reading them, one often thinks of the “male” version of the old folk song that begins, “I am a man of constant sorrow; I’ve seen trouble all my days.”

Knowing that, we are ready to look again at Issa’s verse.  Whereas for many of us the lengthening of the days in spring is a cause for rejoicing, Issa knows that more daylight hours just bring more troubles.  We may find that hard to understand, because many of us have grown up in protected pockets of the world.  But in many places and in many times, life has been very difficult — and still is.  Our ancestors, who generally had to work remarkably hard for a living, knew this well.  They saw the harsh realities from which we have often been shielded.

Issa, then, is combining two things here.  First is the process of growing old, which brings its aches and pains and ailments along with the weakening of the senses.  We feel time in that.  And with that Issa gives us the lengthening of the day in spring, so we see that he is actually using an old hokku technique that we learned some time ago — the combining of things that are similar in feeling.  Here we have the “length” of life in old age and the length of the day.

And then Issa makes a comment on the two combined, which is that as one grows older, the lengthening of the day also may seem just one more cause for sorrow.  Not only does it bring the problems inherent in more daylight hours, but it also gives us a feeling of time stretched out to the point of pain, so that one begins to feel, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread .” (The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien)

Technically, then, this is a “statement” hokku made by combining two similar things and making an objective statement about the result.  Now one may question how objective Issa’s comment is here, but for him it was objective; it was simply the way he perceived things, and about that there is no quibbling.

Of course there is the more usual and more obviously objective approach to the subject of the lengthening of days, but I will save that for another little talk.

David

PLAYING WITH WATER

Continuing with hokku of very early spring, we find this by Issa:

Monzen ya     tsue de tsukurishi    yuki-ge-gawa
gate-front ya stick with made      snow-melt-river

Like many hokku, this is written in the original (transliterated here) by combining borrowed Chinese characters with Japanese phonetic signs (hiragana).  “Monzen” is two Chinese characters (mon and zen) meaning “gate front” (“front” here in the sense of “before,” “in front of”).  The rest is in hiragana with the exception of the last three characters, which again are Chinese, and mean “Snow” (yuki) “Melt” (ge) “River” (gawa/kawa).

All of that is probably far more than any of you wanted to know, but it is useful in pointing out that whereas in English hokku we have the visual distinction of upper and lower case letters, in Japanese there is the distinction of “Chinese” characters combined with hiragana phonetic symbols.

Long before, women writing in medieval Japan did so in hiragana, while men wrote in “Chinese” charcters — kanji — which required far more extensive education than was considered appropriate for females at the time (why do women always get the short end of the stick?).  This notion that kanji signified “educated” persisted — and it still exists in modern Japan, though today women write using both kanji and hiragana (as do men), and a third writing system is also mixed in for writing non-Japanese words — katakana.  The number of kanji in common use today has been greatly reduced.

Aside from adding that the early hiragana writing of women was often very beautiful and spidery, that gives you the basic background for understanding how hokku were written — sometimes in hiragana, but more often in a mixture of kanji and hiragana, as in this one by Issa.

Having gone through all of that, which really has nothing whatsoever to do with writing hokku in English, it is time to take a look at the meaning of Issa’s hokku, which is simply this:

The gate front;
With a stick I have made
Snow Melt River

This verse expresses childlike play and fantasy, presented in a pseudo-important way.  Issa is saying that just outside his gate, where the snow is melting in the early spring weather, he has traced a long line in the mud with a stick, thereby making a little stream of melt-water that he has given the pompous title “Snow Melt River.”

Now one may think this just a bit of playful nonsense, and in a way it is.  But on the other hand, one cannot help thinking of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, for whom such play was so significant that he used to spend long periods of time making streams and rivulets and other water works on the shores of Lake Zurich.  Perhaps Issa, who had such a scarring childhood, found it similarly therapeutic, and perhaps that helps to explain why he so often comes across as a big child compared to the more “serious” writers of hokku.

And there is the fact that water is a very potent symbol of the unconscious mind.

David

MORNING FROST AND MELTING SNOW

Is is unfortunate that Onitsura had no students to carry on his approach to hokku, which was really quite good.  But Bashō was the one with all the followers, so he is the one remembered, though Onitsura was writing in the same period and is along with Bashō a co-patriarch of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses often have a kind of spare and aesthetic elegance, like this:

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no   haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

That is Onitsura’s austere way of sharing with us the period of seasonal transition when the last traces of the cold winter must give way to spring.

I keep repeating the principle of reflection in hokku, because it is so important to hokku aesthetics.  Remember that hokku use different techniques; they sometimes combine things that are similar, at other times things that are different.  In this hokku we have a mixture.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring.  Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day.  So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring.  Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness.  But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the cold yin frost on the leaf of the barley.  This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature.  Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

So again, we see in this verse both the principle of reflection and the principle of contrast.  Someone who understands reflection will not mistake it for metaphor in hokku, something done all too often by Western writers and readers of modern haiku who have never learned the aesthetic principles and techniques of hokku.

Regular readers here know that I often caution novices about Issa.  Some of his verses are good, others too personal and reflective of the psychological wounds of his childhood.  Westerners usually flock to his “cute” verses like flies to honey, and have to be taught to appreciate those that are deeper in order to overcome that defect.

In any case, here is a spring hokku by him:

Yuki tokete   mura ip-pai no kodomo kana
Snow melted  village one-cup ‘s children kana

Snow having melted,
The village is filled
With children.

The Japanese original says the village is ip-pai with children.  Ip-pai means literally one cup, but here we are to take it in its secondary sense of something filled to the brim, or even filled to overflowing, like a cup of tea.

Henderson actually gives a quite good translation into English by saying the village is “overflowing” with children.

In any case, what we are to understand is that the snow has just melted (yin becoming yang) and this event is reflected in the fact that suddenly the village seems full of active children (also yang replacing yin). To say the melting snow that fills the village with running pools and puddles also fills it with running children is perhaps to explain too much, but really that is the sense we are to get from it.

So again we see the movement from the yin of winter to the growing yang of early spring presented through use of certain elements that have these qualities.  And just as spring is the beginning of the year, children are the beginning of life.  But always keep in mind that in hokku this is reflection (we can be more formal and call it “internal reflection”), not metaphor.

Issa also wrote another hokku of very early spring, touched with his characteristic quirky “psychological” approach:

Korekiri to   miete dossari   haru no yuki
That’s-it to looked very-much  spring ‘s snow

That appeared
To be all of it!
The big spring snowfall.

Korekiri (kore-giri) means “that’s all,” “that’s it.” Dossari means a “great deal” of something, a “big amount.”

This is Issa’s brand of humor.  In this verse we are right on the edge of ending winter and beginning spring, though obviously just across the spring boundary of the lunar calendar.   And there has been a sudden, huge snowfall.  Seeing that, Issa says, “Well that looks like all of it now!” meaning that the winter has ended in one last big snowfall that used up all remaining in the season, and spring begins.

Issa’s last hokku is light-hearted and humorous and child-like in reflecting the winter-spring transition, but Onitsura’s is more perceptive and deep.  Each has its place in hokku.  Yet if one goes no deeper than Issa’s approach, one will miss a lot.

David

Shiki and Spring

There are two ways of looking at Masaoka Shiki, the fellow who nearly destroyed hokku through his revisionism.

Historically speaking, Shiki is the originator of the “haiku” as the term is understood today.  All modern writers of haiku, no matter how radical and strange, can be traced back to the revisionist changes begun by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  Modern hokku alone does not trace its lineage through Shiki.

Practically speaking, however — speaking about what Shiki actually wrote as opposed to his terminology and theory — Shiki can be considered the last major writer of old hokku.  Why?  Because in form and structure, Shiki’s verses often still qualify as hokku.  They are seasonal and they follow — broadly — the usual conventions of the hokku.  It is true that Shiki’s subject matter sometimes severely strained or tore the envelope (setting the stage for all the non-Nature related haiku to come), but many of his verses are quite acceptable as hokku, though they are sometimes merely illustrative, often shallow, and occasionally just odd reflections of a physically and spiritually ill individual.

It is important to note that Shiki, though radical in his time, was really surprisingly conservative in his verse.  He kept the seasonal connection and generally the connection with Nature.  He was not even remotely as different as modern writers of western haiku.  Shiki’s chief influence (and negative influence) was not so much in his verses as in the theory and terminology he attached to them.  He was a kind of propagandist of haiku, and as a propagandist he was quite successful, as the history of the haiku movement shows.  But this influence was not in getting others to follow his style, which remained in general that of the old hokku; it was, rather, in introducing the presumed right of the individual to change the hokku however one wished and to call it whatever one wished, and the baneful result of that is easily seen today in the fragmentation, confusion, chaos, and continual change and bickering that characterize the modern haiku movement.

Shiki wrote:

Daibutsu no    utsura-utsura to    haruhi kana
Great-Buddha  ‘s  dozing-dozing  with spring-day kana

The Great Buddha
Dozing and dozing;
The spring day.

R. H. Blyth actually improves the verse in his translation:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing, dozing,
All the spring day.

The improvement is in the addition of the word “all,” emphasizing the length of the day, the passage of uneventful time.

The Great Buddha is a very large outdoor image of the Buddha, actually not sleeping at all, but in meditation.  Shiki, however, being an agnostic, just sees a large figure with eyes closed and motionless, and he thinks of it as drowsily dozing away on a peaceful spring day.

We can analyze the structure like this:

Setting:  the spring day
Subject:  the Great Buddha
Action:  dozing, dozing.

Blyth’s punctuation is a bit unconventional.  In modern hokku we would likely present it like this:

The Great Buddha,
Dozing and dozing
All the spring day.

That is fully acceptable as a hokku.  The only difference is that understood as a haiku, one could not use it as the first of a series of linked verses; as a hokku, one can use it either alone or in a linked verse series.  Hokku, then, is still a part of haikai, the term used by Bashō and all the others for their wider practice in which hokku were written.  Haiku, in contrast,  has not been a part of haikai since Shiki.  Hokku is also haikai; haiku is not.

It is worth nothing that Blyth’s improvement of the verse makes it better when considered a hokku, because the uneventful length and peace of the spring day are reflected in the immobility and apparent ongoing drowsiness of the image.  Remember that hokku do not use metaphors — they instead use elements that reflect one another.

One of the best old hokku on the beginning of spring is this, by Issa:

kado-gado no   geta no doro yori  haru tachinu
gate-gate   ‘s     geta ‘s   mud  from  spring  rises

Geta are the traditional wooden clogs worn in old Japan, platforms for the feet, each set on two vertical wooden cleats that kept the foot well above the mud.

The verse makes more sense if we anglicize and westernize it, and take it as an American verse written in a place that gets cold winters:

At every door,
Spring begins with the mud
On the shoes.

This verse then becomes very meaningful.  It tells us the days of winter frost are over, that the surface of the ground has melted, and with it comes the mud that sticks to shoes.  Outside every door muddy shoes have been left as the wearers went inside.  The muddy shoes are spring; spring is the muddy shoes at each door.  That is the hokku way to understand the verse.

We see something similar in a verse by Rankō, which I will again westernize:

Chickens
Dusting themselves in the dirt;
The spring day.

This may not mean much to someone raised in a city, but every country person will know that chickens fluff themselves up and dig themselves into the ground, “dusting themselves” as farm people say.  It is just something chickens do.  One can often see birds doing the same thing.

But the point of the verse is that the dirt is dry enough for chickens to do this, meaning the rains have ended, the warmth of spring has come and has dried the soil, and the chickens hurry to dust themselves in the fine, dry powder.  That is a manifestation of spring as sure as Issa’s mud on the shoes, though of course considerably later in the season.

David

POPPING COALS AND PAINTED PINES

I have already said that Issa’s hokku reflect a scarred and sad childhood.  That is why he tended to project his emotions onto other creatures and things:

Asabare ni   pachipachi sumi no   kigen kana
Morning-clear at pop-pop charcoal ‘s good-spirits kana

This bright morning,
Pop! pop! goes the charcoal
In good spirits.

This reminds one immediately of Hans Christian Andersen, who similarly had a difficult childhood and constantly projected human thoughts and emotions onto creatures and things. “Crick! Crack! said the furniture” — that sort of thing.

This is a very old way of behaving, in which what is unconscious in a human, instead of being made conscious, is projected onto the outside world.  Do you remember childhood pictures in which the sun and moon have human faces, flowers have voices, and so on?  It is the same kind of attitude.

Personally, I do not like it in hokku.  I prefer things as they are, free of the projections of the writer.  That demands a more mature attitude from the reader.

In Issa’s verse, it is not the charcoal that is in good spirits; it is Issa.  So very often Issa is not really writing about sparrows or snails or other things — he is writing about Issa, projected onto those things.  That is why much of his verse is so unsatisfactory as hokku, though it greatly appeals to sentimentalists.

Bashō wrote:

Kinbyōbu  matsu no furubi ya   fuyugomori
Gold-screen pine ‘s   aging ya winter-seclusion

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

“Winter seclusion” was a common topic in old winter hokku.  It is remaining inside for long periods of time because of the inhospitable weather outside.  It is somewhat like the old farm families in the United States being snowbound.  With no place to go and very little to do, one turns inward.

That is what happened to Bashō.  As the minutes and hours passed, he looked at an old gold-leafed screen on which a pine tree was cleverly painted, and in the slow passage of time he felt the pine on the screen aging along with everything else, though it was painted and not living.  That is basic Buddhism.  Everything passes, everything changes, nothing remains forever, whether a pine painted on a screen, a pine growing on a rocky crag, or even the crag upon which it grows.  Bashō is experiencing the transience that is so much a part of hokku.

David

ALONE AND COLD

In the last posting, we saw a hokku into which Bashō put too much overt emotion, which spoiled it.  How should emotion be expressed in hokku?  Indirectly, as in this verse by Issa:

Hitōri to    chōmen ni tsuku    yosamu kana
One-person   register in marks   night cold kana

“Single”
He notes in the register;
The cold night.

Notice that there is no overt mention at all of emotion, and yet the verse evokes a certain feeling in us as we read it.  That is because the fact that the fellow registering at the inn is single — alone — is reflected in the cold of night.  The cold emphasizes his aloneness, just as his aloneness emphasizes the cold.

This verse teaches us that emotion in hokku is evoked by what it includes, not by stating it openly.  When stated openly — which some writers of hokku attempted from time to time — it usually fails by saying too much and saying it too obviously.

If there is a flaw in Issa’s verse, it is that he focuses on the personal a bit too much.  It reminds us of the “lonely” paintings of William Hopper.  Issa does not exceed the bounds of hokku here, and one comes to expect his verses to be more personal than those of other writers.  Nonetheless, in this tendency we find both the popularity of Issa and his weakness.

David

ENTERING AUTUMN

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

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

There is a related hokku by Chora:

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

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn.  So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind;  it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling.  That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it.  That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event.  The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing.  That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement.  It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day.  All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them.  That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn.  We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic.  The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes.  Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect.  All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude.  To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts?  We know already, because the autumn wind tells us.  They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory.   For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry.  We do not have to ask.  We know.

David


BEGINNING TO LEARN CONTENT IN HOKKU

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an Autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of yang into yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (yang) to inactivity (yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast — of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.  But I will discuss this more in another posting.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

David