A great tree
Felled in the summer mountains;
As readers know, I often use the ancient concept of the two opposite yet harmoniously-working elements of the universe, Yin and Yang, in explaining hokku. Jia Dao wrote:
Asking the young boy beneath the pine,
He says, “Master is off gathering herbs,
Just someplace in these mountains —
The clouds are deep — I don’t know where.”
Aren’t these Chinese mountains amazing? Who would have guessed that such mountains exist anywhere this side of Pandora? Looking at them, we see the high (Yang) mountains rising into the swirling mist and clouds (Yin).
I was fortunate recently to find a photograph locally by Keith Liang. I have it up above my desk as I write this. A friend of mine who does Chinese brush painting stopped by and noticed it immediately. She thought at first it was a painting, because it expresses the spirit found in Chinese landscape painting so well. And she was very taken with its interaction of dark spaces and “blank” spaces, the interaction of mountains and clouds. No doubt that is what drew me to it when I first saw it.
In China, a landscape is called a “mountains-water.” We certainly see both in this photo.
But I want to talk a little about Chinese poetry, which influenced hokku, particularly through the anthology known as the Three Hundred Tang Poems. “Tang” here means the Tang Dynasty. One of the poets in that collection is Jia Dao, who wrote the verse above.
In the original, it is a “five-character” poem, meaning that each of its four lines is composed of five characters. These characters function very similarly to our “essential words” in composing hokku, except that in hokku we add the necessaries of normal English to finish. In literary Chinese, the words remain as they are.
If we look, for example, at the first two lines and translate them literally, they look something like:
Pine under ask child boy
Say master gather medicine go
Those of you who have read Chinese poetry in translation can see from this why different translations of the same verse are often so unlike one another. It is because the very basic elements of literary Chinese make many different ways of translating into English possible.
There is nothing to prevent us from writing our own Nature-based, “Chinese” style verse today, and when we do so, the “essential words” construction of the Chinese poem can be a great help.
I have already said that Jia Dao’s poem is a five-character poem (we can think of it as using five “essential words,” those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar in English). There are also seven-character poems, with seven to a line instead of five. But for practice here, we will try one like that of Jia Dao, in four lines and with five essential words. This will give you a rough idea how to do it. Don’t overthink the essential words — just think of them as nouns, verbs, and prepositions essential to meaning. Don’t worry about grammar, don’t bother too much initially about plural or singular. Then you might get something like:
This year summer late come
Day day cool rain fall
Clouds cover west hill top
Mist swirl on long river
Now we can clean that up to make the verse:
This year summer comes late;
Day after day the cool rains fall;
Clouds hide the west hill summit;
Mist swirls above the long river.
We can leave it at that, or if we like, we can take it one further step from the original, as do many translators of Chinese verse, to put it into more flowing English.
Summer is late in coming this year;
Day after day the cool rains fall.
The western peaks are veiled in clouds;
Mist swirls above the long river.
Even from our little sample here, we can see why we often find short poems written on Chinese landscape paintings. It is because the images and the words go very well together.
I hope that readers here will experiment with writing some “five-character” Chinese poems in English. It is just as easy as I have demonstrated. Don’t worry about making your poems great literature. Just use them to express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, just as in hokku.
This is a very easy and pleasant way to write Nature poetry with a spirit very much like that of hokku, only with more “space,” which is not surprising, because one characteristic of Chinese poetry in comparison to the hokku is that the former usually has a much greater sense of space and distance, while hokku tends to focus on the small and near-by.
Another difference is that hokku works in “threes,” such as the three lines of our English-language hokku, while Chinese verse works in couplets — pairs of two lines. Jia Dao’s verse, then, is a quatrain (four-lined poem) consisting of two couplets (pairs of two lines).
We can, if we wish, write five-character poems longer than four lines, and we can also increase the number of “essential words” per line to seven, to approximate a Chinese “seven-character” poem. However we do it, writing Chinese-style poetry gives us a wonderful option for writing about those experiences of Nature that simply do not fit well into the three lines of a hokku. And we can write them in the same spirit of poverty, simplicity, and transience, exhibiting the changes of Nature through the interaction of Yin and Yang as the seasons come and go.
If you found this posting interesting, you may also wish to read the following, with additional information on how to write “Chinese” poetry in English:
Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku. The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable. Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:
A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.
That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku. It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.
Why is that? We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way. That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.
Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly. And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.
As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:
The leaping trout,
This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly. Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.
Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku. Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print. Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then. Movement adds energy to a hokku. An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.
Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku. You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason. But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective. That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.
Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse. All are part of learning. But we should be able to tell the difference. That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques. If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them? But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.