ALMOST NOTHING HERE

Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

AUTUMN BEGINS: TAIGI’S EVENING RAIN

 

An autumn hokku by Taigi:

Autumn begins;
The evening shower has become
A night of rain.

We feel the change of the season in the change from a temporary shower to prolonged rain.  We also feel the autumn reflected in the growing darkness of evening to night.

Hatsu-aki ya yūdachi nagabiku yoru no ame
Beginning autumn ya evening shower prolonged night’s rain

 

David

MISATTRIBUTED TO BASHŌ: BAI JUYI’S “EVENING RAIN”

Some two months ago, I moved to a less busy neighborhood and a place with a tiny bit of gardening space.  One of the first things I did was to plant a couple of small hardy bananas, the kind known as Musa basjoo, which can survive the winters here.  The “basjoo” part comes from the Japanese name for the plant, and that in turn was where the hokku writer Bashō got his name.  He not only liked the beauty of the large, green leaves (as do I), but also felt a kinship with their fragility — the leaves are easily torn by the wind.

bananaleaves

In many places on the Internet, one will find this verse (or a slight variation of it) attributed to Bashō:

Outside the window,
Evening rain is heard;
The banana leaf speaks of it first.

I am not sure where, precisely, this widespread but mistaken attribution to Bashō began.

Actually, however, the lines come from a brief Chinese poem by the Tang Dynasty writer Bai Juyi (白居易, also found as Po Chü-i), who lived from 772–846 c.e.

Here is my rather loose rendering:

EVENING RAIN

An early cricket chirps and is silent;

The lamp flame dims, then brightens.

Evening rain has begun outside my window —

Announced by the pattering on the banana leaves.

Literally, the last two lines in the original mean that the rain is “first announced” by the banana leaves — but that of course means the pattering sound of the drops on the wide leaves is heard.

Now how did it come to be thought a hokku?  That we can tell.  In the first volume (Eastern Culture) of R. H. Blyth’s “Haiku” series (remember that Blyth unfortunately used the then-current term introduced by Shiki), he gives his translation of Bai Juyi’s poem:

RAIN AT NIGHT

A cricket chirps and is silent:
The guttering lamp sinks and flares up again.
Outside the window, evening rain is heard;
It is the banana plant that speaks of it first.

Then (this is on page 62), Blyth makes two hokku (which he calls  haiku) out of it:

1.
A cricket chirps
And is silent;
The guttering lamp sinks.

2.
Evening rain;
The bashō
Speaks of it first.

Blyth quite accurately calls verse #2 “the essence of the original poem.”

It is a good poem, whether in the Chinese original or as hokku #2.  But the hokku is not by Bashō.  It is R. H. Blyth’s “essence” of the Chinese poem by Bai Juyi.

Blyth’s making of the hokku from the Chinese verse is a good example for students of how to reduce an experience.  It is not that the hokku is better than the Chinese original; it is just that as hokku, it distills the experience to — as Blyth says — its essence.  And that is what hokku gives us:  the essence of any poetic experience.  So the Chinese poem is better as a Chinese poem, and the hokku version is better as a hokku.

It is rather difficult to find the original poem in Chinese online, so here it is for those of you who like to see originals:

baijyiyeyu

Now, with my own banana trees newly in the ground, I can add my own related hokku:

(Spring)

Pattering on the leaves
Of the just-planted banana —
The first raindrops.

David

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK: Alfred Edward Housman

Today’s poem, even in its austerity, is one of the great mourning poems of the English language.  Whitman has his poems on the death of Lincoln, but those are “state” poems; Auden has his effectively-overstated “Stop All the Clocks.”  And Housman has this poem, which manages to take us from stiff-lipped objectivity to a moving cry of the heart.  Let’s take it verse by verse:

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that’s due and right
Let’s home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.

The speaker of the poem is in a cemetery.  The church and graveside rites are over, the grave has been filled in and the tombstone set in place.  Out of a grey and darkening sky, the rain beats down on the stone and on the new-piled dirt of the hillock that marks the burial.  The writer speaks in his thoughts to the one buried there, and as he does so, speaks to himself as well.  All has been done that’s due and right — the memorial services and ritual words, the flowers, the black garments.  Yet he stands there in the rain, the freshly-dug clay clinging to his boots.

Now he says farewell:  “My lad, good-night, for I must turn away.”  Everything is ended, including your life and all it meant.  It is time to leave.

Good-night, my lad, for nought’s eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And still he pauses.  “Good-night, my lad,” he repeats, “for nought’s eternal.”  Nothing is forever.  Nothing lasts.  Everything ends.  Even our relationships, yours and mine — that is certain and obvious.  The mourner tries to tell himself that “Tomorrow I shall miss you less.”  This ache of loss, the heaviness of spirit, are things that only time may ease.

Over the hill the highway marches
And what’s beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

The highway — the main road — passes over the hill and beyond into the wide world and all it holds, a world and time that the person in the grave will not see.  The highway means a future, new experiences.  It is a symbol that the mourner’s road of life will continue, while that of the deceased has ended here at this soggy hillock of earth.  Given all that must await out there, the mourner again tells himself that the sorrow and painful memories will gradually fade away; sad thoughts of the deceased will come less and less, until the ache is no longer felt.

The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.

He tells the departed, and in doing so himself, that the skies are not always raining and grey through the year; life now will not always be gloom and sorrow.  There are sure to be sunny times, and the mourner will no doubt have pleasant days, and meet new and good friends in his wanderings.

Through all this he has repeated to himself, in various ways, that the painful memories will lessen, that he will be happy again, that he will make new acquaintances — but at the last verse he drops this would-be objectivity in a wrenching cry of sorrow:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

“The house is fallen that none can build again.”  The house is the body and life of the friend, once filled with joy and hopes.  But now that house is fallen, and none can build it again.  No one can change that.   And the mourner expresses his own profound sorrow and the sorrow of the human condition by projecting it onto the mother of the deceased:

“How full of joy and woe your mother was all those years ago, when in the happiness of having a child and in the pains of childbirth, she brought you into this world.  And now all her hopes and wishes for you have come to nought.  You are dead, and tonight you lie in the earth and the dark and the beating rain.”

Though it is thought that the poem was influenced by the death of Housman’s brother Herbert, who died in Africa in the Boer War, the first draft of the last stanza was actually written before that event.

This verse is number XVIII (18) in the volume titled Last Poems, published in 1922.

 

MORE THAN JUST A PICTURE: ADDING INTEREST TO HOKKU

I usually avoid presenting hokku here that are specifically Japanese in location, in favor of more general subject matter. But today I want to talk about a such a verse because it is helpful in learning how to bring interest into one’s hokku.

If I were to present a hokku about Oneonta Gorge or the Columbia palisades, it might mean something to people in my area, but it would mean little to people in other parts of the country or of the world, because they would not know the sites and so no clear corresponding image would arise in their minds. That is why I generally counsel that it is often best to avoid naming specific places in hokku; it is then easier for people in other regions to relate to a verse.

Jōsō wrote a hokku about the once-famous long bridge at Seta in Japan, or rather I should say that he wrote a hokku set at that bridge. His hokku is really about more, and that is what makes it interesting.

Suppose we just give the reader a subject, like this:

Seta Bridge;

If the reader is familiar with that bridge (and most educated Japanese would have been), it would evoke an image in the mind, but it would do little more. So how does one make such a subject interesting?

Two ways to do this are:

1. See the subject in a “new” way, a way different from what is ordinary.
2. Add action.

Beginning with the second, what exactly is action in hokku? It is how we bring something to life and make it more interesting. Action is something moving or changing — even if it is changing slowly. Of course the more rapid the action, the more striking it tends to be.

In writing today’s hokku, Jōsō used three basic elements: Seta Bridge, rain, and people.

If we use only the first, we get just a rather static image of the bridge in the mind, as we have already seen.

If we use the first and second, that adds something, but not a lot:

Seta Bridge;
Many people
are on it.

It is common for beginners to write hokku like that, not realizing that two such elements are not enough in themselves to create interest in the mind of the reader. So how did Jōsō do it? To the bridge and the people he added movement, in fact very strong movement, by adding rain and not just people, but scurrying people. Here is his verse:

(Winter)

So many people
Running across in the rain —
Seta Bridge.

We have the bridge, we have the people, we have the rain, and we have the action of running. That makes it interesting because it now has life and movement.

The bridge at Seta was an unusually long wooden bridge across water. This was in the pre-auto days when traffic across it would have been mostly by foot. So this is the scene:

Being on the bridge, those crossing are openly exposed to the elements, and when a cold winter shower begins to pour down upon them, they dash and scurry all the way across the long bridge, hurrying to the get to the end and to some possible shelter.

Now let’s see what the verse would have been without the strong action added by the rain and the running:

So many people
Crossing over
Seta Bridge.

That kind of verse, again, is dull. It has some action in the crossing people, but not enough to make it worthwhile. It is very ordinary, and does not enable us to see crossing the bridge in a new way. And it is also important to note that even though we know it is set in (early) winter, there is not a connection to the season in the verse that makes us really feel it. That connection is added by the rain, which at that time of year would have been cold and strong and unpleasant, thus the hurrying to get out of it in Jōsō’s original.

Remember that if a hokku merely shows us a common, everyday scene, it is likely to be uninteresting. How do we change that?

We have seen that one can add interest by using strong action, but also very important is the second way of adding interest mentioned earlier, and it is a basic principle: to make a subject interesting, we should show it in a new way, show it differently than we usually see and experience it. And that is what Jōsō has done with the subject of the long bridge at Seta.

That is, in fact, what the block print artist Hiroshige did with his visual rendering of that same bridge. Instead of depicting it on a pleasant spring or summer day, he rendered it in rain. His version, however, is a bit more placid than Jōsō’s verse, and though pleasant, it does not have quite the strong effect of the hokku, as you can see. That is partly because we do not find in it such an emphasis on scurrying crowds as we find in the hokku.

HiroshigeSeta

For those interested in the Japanese version, it is:

Ikutari ka shigure kakenuku seta no hashi

how-many people ? cold-rain running across Seta ‘s bridge

Shigure is the cold rain that falls in late autumn-winter; kakenuku means to run all the way across or to something.

David

COLD MIDNIGHT RAIN

R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.

David

COLD RAIN

I hope many of you paid close attention to the recent articles here about the hokku calendar.  Here is where we are now as we move toward autumn’s end:

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.

Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.

End:  The evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

As you can see, in the formal “Western” hokku calendar, Halloween marks the end of autumn.  And the next day, Samhain — the first day of November — is the beginning of the winter season in the wheel of the year:

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.

Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  — Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.

End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

This year — at least where I live — things seem very much on schedule.  The leaves of the trees at present are yellow and gold and deep red.  But tomorrow, if the weather report proves correct, begin at least five days of rain.

The old Japanese writers of hokku would have called such a rain shigure, their term for the cold rains that fall in late autumn and early winter — precisely the period we shall soon enter.  We will call those rains simply “cold rain” in the verses translated here:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

When we write about an emotion in hokku, there are two ways of doing so.  First, we can present a thing-event that evokes the emotion and leave the emotion itself unmentioned; or second, we can simply mention the emotion, treating as we would something we see in the external world — treating it, in other words, objectively, as Rōka does in the verse just given.

Those of you who have been paying attention for some time here (how many of you are there, I wonder?) will readily note what this verse is in terms of Yin and Yang:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Sadness is a very yin emotion.  Rain (water) is also yin.  And cold rain is even more yin.  And of course a tombstone is associated with death, which is very yin.  So altogether, this is a very yin verse, quite different from a verse which has elements of Yang, such as joy or heat and warmth and light.  When one piles such yin elements together like this, it makes for a very yin verse, in keeping with the season.

Late autumn and early winter, you will recall, are the times when Yang is steadily declining toward its weakest period, and Yin increasingly predominates.

Here is a verse very similar in feeling by Bashō:

Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

Here again we have the yin of cold rain.  Added to that is the cut stubble left in the fields, withered and dead — Yin.  And now with the cold rain that stubble begins to decay and darken.  That too is a yin event.  So everything in this verse, as in the first, shows the nature of late autumn and early winter.

These are verses for the time when the bright leaves of autumn have fallen, the skies are grey, and the cold rain falls.  And that time is very near.

David

FALLING LEAVES AND WILD GEESE

Today I would like to discuss two hokku that are somewhat similar in effect.  Originally one was an autumn hokku, the other a winter hokku.  The explanation lies in old Japanese verse, with its somewhat artificial system of “season words” that made seasonal distinctions among colored leaves and falling leaves (generally autumn subjects) and fallen leaves (the last being a winter subject).

Now we may ask why this distinction, and the answer is simply that it became a literary convention, and its artificiality is one reason why in modern hokku we abandon such artifice for something more in keeping with the actual characteristics of the season where we are.

The verses discussed today have different subjects:  The first is fallen leaves, the second is wild geese.

Gyōdai wrote one of the best old hokku, which in America would generally be considered a verse of mid to late autumn:

Leaves fall
And lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

It is very pleasing in its simplicity, and very effective in its combination of the visual and the auditory — sight and sound.  But look a bit closer, and you will see how Gyōdai accomplishes this.

You will recall the “standard” hokku form, which consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  Gyōdai’s verse, however, consists of a subject-action pair, which brings to mind the parallelism and couplets of Chinese verse:

Leaves (subject) fall and lie on one another (action)
Rain (subject) beats on rain (action)

In spite of this, the greater visual “space” given to the leaves nonetheless maintains the “uneven” feeling that distinguishes hokku from the more precise parallelism of Chinese verse.

So much for form.  Now on to why the hokku “works.”

As you all know, I constantly emphasize the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku.  You will recall that something ascending is Yang; something falling is Yin.  Also something dry is Yang; something wet is Yin.  Of course these are not absolutes, but must be seen in relation to other things.

Regular readers here also know that harmony and unity are very important to hokku.  And that is what we see In Gyōdai’s verse:

1. Leaves fall and lie on one another
2. Rain beats on rain

The falling leaves exhibit the Yin character of autumn, its loss of energy and its aging.  The falling rain also exhibits the Yin character of the season.  The rain descends (Yin), and is wet (Yin).  The fallen leaves lie unmoving, just piling on one another (Yin).  So this is a hokku of harmony of similarity, meaning it creates a sense of harmony and unity by combining things that are similar in character or feeling.

Unlike many hokku, this verse does not have a specified setting, but the setting is created by the verse itself, without being put into definite words.  It is (in our climate) autumn.

Now we will move on to the second verse and examine how it is similar to the first, even though the subject is different:

The voices
Of wild geese lie on one another;
The cold of night.

That is a rather literal translation and thus a bit confusing in English, though it can easily be understood if one compares it to Gyōdai’s preceding hokku.   So to make it more clear in English, we will follow Gyōdai’s lead:

Wild geese descend,
Their cries piling up;
The cold of night.

Do you see the similarity with Gyōdai’s hokku now?  In both something is falling — descending — coming down:

1.  Leaves
2.  Wild geese

And in both something is lying on top of something else –“piling up”:

1. Leaves
2.  Cries (voices) of descending wild geese

We can see further that the sound of the rain beating on the rain in Gyōdai’s verse is matched — though somewhat differently — by the sound of the cries of the wild geese in that of Kyoroku.

Now whether we say “voices” or “cries” in English depends on the effect we want to give.  “Cries” makes the sounds loud and somewhat distinct; “voices” is more indicative of a steady gabbling of the geese as they descend and chatter among one another.

In everything I tell you on this site, my purpose is not merely to explain old hokku as one might explain the characteristics of fossils in a museum.  My intent is to show you how these verses are not fossils, not merely dry bones, but rather still have the fresh juice of life in them.  And not only that, but to show you how you may write new verses in the same, long hokku tradition.

Want I do not want is for people to use what I say here only as information for writing a paper or for trying to impress others with their learning.  Instead I want to help people of the presently-living generations to bring the too-long-overlooked hokku tradition back to a full and vital and healthy contemporary life.  It has lain far too long in the oppressive and unhealthy shadow of modern haiku, which, far from being a continuation of the old hokku tradition, is actually a very recent, mutant offshoot that has long been deleterious to hokku and has prevented its understanding.

And to that end, I remind all readers again that hokku is NOT modern haiku.  It does not share the aesthetics or the attitudes or the goals of modern haiku.  Instead, the writing of hokku is to bring us back to an understanding of our place as humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature; and it is to help us develop our lives as spiritual and contemplative beings rather than contributing to the egotism, materialism, greed, and environmental destruction so common and so threatening to the world today.

And, of course, hokku is to simply give us a quiet, meditative pleasure as it reunites us with Nature and the always changing seasons, the ever-turning wheel of the year and the continuous interplay and transformations of Yin and Yang.

David

HOKKU — AN OLD-FASHIONED WAY OF BEING NEW

I am always surprised and amazed by those who speak of hokku as though it were something outdated and to be discarded.  The emphasis today is on “new,” “new,” “new” and “different,” “different, “different.”

What people with such childish thinking do not realize is that everything one sees is continually new, continually different.  It is their way of seeing that is the same.  That is why Thoreau told us that what we need is not new clothes, but rather a new wearer of clothes.  We must change how we see things if we want to follow hokku well.

I like very much — and apply to hokku — what Robert Frost once said of his own kind of poetry:  “It is an old-fashioned way of being new.”

Buson wrote this summer hokku:

June rain
In the downspout;
The ears of old age.

David

THE INTERACTIONS OF YIN AND YANG

Kitō wrote:

A summer shower;
The exhausted horse
Comes back to life
.

I always see the muscles of the fatigued horse begin twitching with life shortly after the first drops of cool rain strike it.

We feel the sudden energy of the falling summer rain in the sudden renewed energy of the horse — activity in the rain, activity in the horse, so superficially one might think this verse exhibits harmony of “likeness.”  Well, superficially, it does.

However, there is something more to it.  Things exposed to a Yin environment over time tend to be Yang in nature; things exposed to a Yang environment over time tend to be Yin in nature.

Take, for example, the climate of Hawai’i, which is very warm, very Yang.  The fruits that grow there are very Yin, very sweet and cooling.  And people who live in a very Yang environment over countless centuries, such as Africa or the South Pacific, tend to develop “Yin”- colored skin, that is, dark skin, while those people who live in a very “Yin” environment such as Norway or Ireland tend to develop “Yang” -colored skin — that is, light skin (dark is Yin, light is Yang)

The best quality ginseng — a tonic root that is very “Yang” in herbal medicine — grows in the coldest mountains of North Korea, a very “Yin” environment.

How does all of that apply to Kitō’s verse?  Well, the horse is exhausted by the Yang heat of summer and activity.  The Yin rain refreshes the creature, and as a consequence he returns to his Yang, energetic state.  So we can see that though the initial appearance of this verse is one of harmony of similarity, it is really showing us harmony of difference as the Yin rain brings about a Yang reaction in the horse.

We also learn from this that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their countless interactions.

David

WHAT A SOUND

Taigi wrote:

A summer shower;
What a sound breaks out
Atop the forest!

The sound of which Taigi speaks is the sudden sound of countless drops of rain striking the countless leaves of the forest canopy.  It is an awesome sound, the sound of that particular time when the warm rain of summer and the broad summer leaves of the forest come together.  We feel the abundance of rain, the abundance of leaves, in the great abundance of sound.

David

THOUGHT AND THE FRETTING BOY

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Yesterday we saw a verse that, while dealing with emotion, treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

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

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

THE RAIN IS RAINING ALL AROUND

The fundamental principle of hokku is that it is about Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature — set in the context of the seasons.  Here is a hokku by Shōha emphasizing the human part of that.  It is particularly appropriate to the last few weeks of weather where I am:

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

This verse is not about a boy or a kite or the rain.  It is about a-boy-and-a-kite-and-the-rain, all as one thing.  Full of impatient and frustrated hope, the poor little guy waits and waits for the rain to stop so he may fly his kite.  And his parents feel his pain, the suffering of childhood.

Without the rain there would be no hokku; without the kite there would be no hokku; and without the child there would be no hokku.  It takes them all together to present us with this verse, a verse that shows us “humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.”

Shiki wrote:

In the water jug
A frog is floating;
Summer rain.

This is a very watery, Yin verse — water in the jug, water in the rain, and a watery frog.  It makes one think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verse,

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

David

CLOUDS APPEAR

We just looked at a verse for the time when spring is nearing its end:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Today, by contrast, we shall look at a verse on the other side of the seasonal divide:

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

In the first verse we still feel the gentleness and abundance of spring, when the forces of Yang are growing, but softened by the Yin of the rain.  But in high summer we come to the time when Yang predominates, and it manifests as heat and dryness.  That second verse is by Kōkyō, and he gives us a sense of the harshness of Yang when unmitigated by Yin, just as in midwinter we feel the harshness of the cold Yin unmitigated by the warmth of Yang.

Both heat and cold are extremes, and though they make for unpleasantness and discomfort, they also give us effective hokku because these extremes of heat and cold create strong sensations — sensory experiences — and sensory experience is the basis of hokku.

When using old hokku — which are really Japanese verses — in learning how to write modern hokku, we should generally forget completely that they are Japanese.   Instead we should apply them to the country where we live.

That is why when I read Kōkyō’s

Clouds appear,
Yet no rain falls;
The heat!

I always think of an American farmer looking upward at the hard blue sky in which a few wisps of whitish cloud appear, only to pass over and dissolve without a single drop of rain falling onto the parched soil.  And yes, I know it is a bit old-fashioned, but I always have the feeling of a windmill in the background, completely silent and still in the oppressive heat of a day without even the hint of a breeze.  That latter element by itself could be used in a summer hokku:

The windmill
Silent and unmoving;
The heat!

In such a verse we feel the heat in the stillness of the windmill, which, we could say, “reflects” the intense sensation of heat through its unmoving silence.  That is how hokku works; we combine things that work in harmony to express the season through sensory experience.

I hope readers here — at least long-time readers — are beginning to see how essentially simple hokku is.  If we abandon all the intellection, all our notions of what “poetry” should be, and just go for the basics of season and sensation — an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature — then we will be going in the right direction for hokku.  Anything else will take us away from hokku.

It is worth mentioning that the principles of hokku, unlike those of modern haiku, can be clearly expressed and taught.  And when one gets away from those principles, one is no longer writing hokku even if one happens to use the outward form of hokku for such a verse.  That clarity and simplicity in our understanding of hokku and its aesthetics and principles and techniques explains why we in hokku do not have the constant bickering and “intellectual” argument one finds among writers of other kinds of short verse.  We know what the aesthetics of hokku are, we know what the form is, we know how a hokku is written and what a hokku is to be written “about” — so that leaves nothing for pointless quibbles and mind games.

Why, then, is such abstract bickering endemic on modern haiku sites?  It is essentially because those in modern haiku view what they write as “poetry” and themselves as “poets” in the Western sense; they write so many different kinds of verse, all called haiku, that the modern haiku community as a whole has no overall unifying aesthetic or purpose.  And that underlying uncertainty and dissension becomes obvious in discussions on modern haiku by those within it.

That is another major difference between hokku and modern haiku.  I cannot help pondering this difference whenever I see the wordy, abstract quarreling that takes place on modern haiku sites.  It always makes me happy for the peace of hokku.

David

DEPARTING SPRING

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Beginning with the premise that a hokku is a sensory experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the season, we can see that every hokku is really a verse about a season, whether written at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a season.  So though we do not use “titles” as such in hokku, nonetheless every hokku really has one of four “titles”:  Spring, Summer, Autumn (or Fall) and Winter.

We already know that a hokku is a sensory experience.  But how do we extract that experience from everything else that is happening at the time?  It is not difficult.  We look for the essentials of the experience.  In the hokku above, for example, there is the cloudburst, there is the warm rain, and there is the time of year — spring nearing its end.  That is all we require.

The interesting thing is that when we put these elements together, they have a sense of significance far beyond what each would have individually.  Let’s look again:

Warm rain
From a cloudburst;
Departing spring.

Everything here is in harmony.  The rain is a part of spring, but its warmth tells us that spring is soon to give way to heat of summer, when the warmth will increase and the rain will diminish or be absent.  So each element by itself, or even two of the elements together, is not sufficient to give us the whole picture.  It takes the combination of all to be effective.

We must, however, know when to stop.  We could add more of what is happening at the time, but in this case more would be less — the weight of detail would become too much, and would detract from the simplicity and directness of the experience.  That is why hokku are very brief.  Hokku, essentially, are just the fewest words necessary to convey a “whole” experience without detracting from that whole or adding unnecessary elements to it.

If one ponders this and puts it into application in writing verses, one will readily advance in writing hokku.  A hokku is not just a verse that happens to be brief.  There is a reason.  Nor is it just a verse that happens to be divided into two parts.  There is also a reason for that.  Make it shorter, make it longer, and it loses both ways.

David

RAIN DRIPPING INTO A BASIN

I periodically emphasize that I do not translate old hokku here just to be translating them, but rather to show through them how hokku are to be written today in English and other languages.

Some time ago I discussed this autumn verse by Bashō:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

I said of it,

“It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite— “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

This verse works in Japanese, but in English it is simply too long for hokku if one includes all its elements.  That is why I previously introduced five-line “extended hokku” variants for those experiences that do not quite fit the very brief three-line hokku form in English.

This gives us poetic forms flexible enough to fit what we need.  We may use either the short-long-short-long-long lines of the walden, or the short-long-short-long-short of the loren.  But we need not worry if a line exceeds its length a bit.

That means in rewriting Bashō’s verse, we can use a modified form which has five lines:

A banana tree
Blown by the storm;
Listening all night
To the sound of rain
Dripping into the basin.

That gives us the essential elements of Bashō’s hokku but without the awkwardness of trying to fit them all into hokku form, and it works much better in conveying Bashō’s meaning in English.

Perceptive readers will recognize these longer short-verse forms as simply English-language variants on the old Japanese waka, which in Japanese was 5-7-5-7-7 phonetic units.  But these variants in English are less complex and more flexible than the waka, and of course the aesthetic here remains that of an extended hokku, not the more “romantic” aesthetic of most old waka.

So keep in mind that when you have an experience that just will not fit into the small space of a hokku, you have the longer five-line option.  And of course do not forget that like the shorter hokku, these slightly longer forms are to be classified by season.  Everything that applies to the hokku regarding aesthetics applies also to these “extended hokku” forms.

In using extended forms, there is no need to limit ourselves.  You will recall that my initial “long” translation of Bashō’s verse was

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

There is nothing to prevent us from using almost those precise words if we wish, but it would be a good idea to arrange them thus:

The banana plant
Blown by late autumn gusts —
A night of listening
To rain dripping into the basin.

We have the freedom to write hokku-like verse this way if we wish.  The important thing is that we keep the aesthetic principles of hokku.  A verse written thus — in four or five lines — is of course not hokku in form, but it is definitely within the spirit of hokku.

When I talk about the “spirit of hokku” applying to longer verse as well as the shorter hokku form, I am of course speaking of the whole range of forms we may use for contemplative verse — the kind of  verse that has its roots in the Buddhist and Daoist writers of China and of Japan, whether written in short or longer forms.

By the way, did you notice how odd it feels to be talking about an autumn verse in the spring?  That is why we always write and read hokku in season, though out-of-season verses may be used for educational purposes, as in this case.

David

THE FARTHER ONE TRAVELS THE LESS ONE KNOWS

On setting out on a journey, Bashō wrote:

Tabibito to   waga na yobaren   hatsushigure
Traveler to my      name shall-be   first-winter-rain

“Traveler”
Shall be my name;
The first rain of winter.

If that last line looks a bit long in comparison to the others, that is because Japanese translated into English does not always take up the same relative amounts of space.  Old hokku were in a pattern of 5-7-5 phonetic units generally, but in spite of that they really fall into two parts.

We can see that in Bashō’s hokku:

“Traveler” shall be my name;
The first rain of winter.

We could write hokku that way — in two lines — but generally three lines are more aesthetically pleasing.

The setting of the hokku is the third line, “The first rain of winter.”  That is the context in which Bashō sets forth as a traveller.

We are travelers through life — through time — but when one reads the life of Bashō, one has the feeling that he never realized the truth of the words of the Daodejing:

Without stepping outside one’s doors,
One can know what is happening in the world,
Without looking out of one’s windows,
One can see the Tao of heaven.

The farther one pursues knowledge,
The less one knows.
Therefore the Sage knows without running about,
Understands without seeing,
Accomplishes without doing.

(Lin Yutang translation)

In traveling one may accumulate knowledge, but knowledge is not the same as wisdom, not the same as insight.

David

WINDBLOWN BANANAS

Once a student has a good foundation in the principles and practice of hokku, he or she is then free to explore and develop.  And in doing this, one learns to take what is helpful from the old teachers such as Bashō, but not to follow them slavishly.  If one thinks everything Bashō wrote is good hokku, then one does not understand hokku.

Bashō wrote this autumn verse:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite — “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

But to get to the point, as an English-language hokku it is too long.  One would have difficulty using it as a model.  But it does contain some strong sensations, and one could make hokku from it, for example:

(Autumn)

A windy night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

We do not need the word “autumn” within the verse, because all hokku are classified by season when written.  We could make it

The long night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or

A long night;
The sound of rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or we could try

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

Each changes the sensation and the feeling a bit, and that is exactly the way one composes hokku.  We do not want to say too much (Bashō says a bit too much in his overly-long verse), but we also do not want to say too little.

Notice that we have to choose, we have to be selective.  In Bashō’s original, there is the banana plant, the storm, the basin, the rain, the listening, and the night.  That is really too much for a hokku in English.   So we learn from the poverty of hokku not to use too many things.  But if we are careful, we can combine elements effectively in a small space, as in the last example above:

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

It has autumn, the wind, the night, the rain, the dripping, and the basin.

Do not misunderstand and think that I am writing about how to translate Bashō’s verse.  No, I am writing about how to write hokku in English — the process of composition, which is of necessity different in some respects from that in Japanese.

In Japanese, for example, one can say Bashō — which means a kind of hardy banana plant — but in English one cannot simply translate Bashō nowaki shite
as “the windblown banana,” because the reader will see a long yellow fruit instead of the torn, broad green leaves of a large banana plant.  One has to take into account the length and the shortness of this or that word in English when composing, in selecting how many elements one may use in a single verse, and in deciding how to combine them for strong effect.

And yes, for those of you who do not already know it, Bashō took for his pen name the Bashō — the hardy banana plant.

David

AUTUMN BEGINS

In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.

David