REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In recent review postings I discussed internal reflection in hokku — how similar things interact within a verse — and I discussed the technique of harmony of similarity. You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Today we will add to that another technique, harmony of contrast.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream — Yin — on a hot day — Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this hokku (I translate a bit loosely here):

Autumn

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a hokku using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

Autumn

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a hokku by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

Autumn

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old hokku by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

Autumn

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

Autumn

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a hokku. You should always remember that a good hokku is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a hokku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a hokku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All hokku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter hokku in summer or fall hokku in spring. And we ordinarily also read hokku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer hokku in winter or spring hokku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.

David

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’VE GOT ‘TIL ITS GONE: SHIKI’S FIREWORKS

I have talked previously about how conservative in many ways the supposed “revolutionary” Masaoka Shiki really was. He was not a particularly happy or even likable person, and his “reform” of hokku consisted largely of divorcing it from any possibility of being used in linked verse, in giving his reformed version a new name (“haiku”) and in largely divorcing the hokku from its spiritual roots, at least in theory, as well as contributing toward the forgetting of its underlying principles.

In practice, however, Shiki continued to write hokku while just calling them “haiku.” He kept the traditional brevity and the traditional connection with the seasons. He even often kept — perhaps unconsciously — some of the same principles of construction used by earlier writers of hokku.

In the past couple of postings I have talked about the principle of contrast in hokku. Shiki obviously picked this up and used it occasionally in his own verses, though again, perhaps not consciously.

A very good example is the following verse, which in Japan would be an autumn hokku; fireworks are a subject for autumn there. In the United States, however, fireworks are largely a midsummer topic because of the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and its traditional celebration with parades and evening fireworks. That does not mean one cannot write hokku with fireworks about other seasons, but they are particularly appropriate to “The Glorious Fourth.”

Here is the verse:

Everyone has gone;
The darkness
After the fireworks.

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone firework ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

It is not difficult to see that this uses the same principle of contrast discussed earlier. It shows us the nature of a thing by contrasting it with another. In this poem we have two things absent: 1. The people, who have all gone home from the fireworks display; 2. The fireworks, which have have ended.

In the first we have the contrast between the crowds of people who came to watch and the absence of those crowds. That gives us a very solitary and lonely feeling.

In the second we have the contrast between the bright, colorful explosions and bangs of the fireworks and the complete darkness and utter silence after. That only makes the darkness seem all the deeper.

This is a very old principle. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-zi (pronounced LA-o dzuh) wrote:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Therefore:
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

(Tao Teh Ching; Lin Yutang translation)

In other words, contrasts give significance. We know what cold is after we have become accustomed to warmth; we know what kindness really is only because we have experienced cruelty; the same could be said of countless other contrasting things in the universe.

So in hokku, something that is NOT there can be just as significant, perhaps even more at times, than something that IS there. That is why in Shiki’s verse, we feel the aloneness very deeply after all the people have gone, and we feel the darkness and silence all the more because of the contrast with the previous colorful explosions of “flower-fire.” as the Japanese call fireworks.

This is something everyone knows, but people tend to forget the most obvious things. Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the words

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone…

It reminds me of the great American trilogy novel The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter. In the beginning, the female main character feels the deep forests and ancient trees of early frontier Ohio to be threatening and gloomy. But later on, when the forests are cleared and towns of streets and houses and shops are built, and she is far along in years, she begins to sense what had been lost with the cutting of the trees.

David