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

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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