SUBTLE STATES OF MIND: THE REASON FOR HOKKU

English: The Wind in the Willows. A breezy sum...

As all regular readers here know, a hokku is a sensory event set in the context of a particular season.  That is basic knowledge.  But did you ever ask yourself why?  What, after all, is the point of recording sensory, season-related events as hokku?

This matter is very significant in getting to the root of what hokku is all about, yet it is very simple.  Hokku have to do with the creation of very subtle states of mind in the reader.  The operative word here is subtle.  That is why hokku are not “war” verses, not “romance” verses, not “protest” verses, not “social commentary” verses.  And it is also why hokku has a deep connection with a meditative life, such as one finds in (traditional) Zen or Ch’an Buddhism, as well as with the kind of attitude toward life found in Transcendentalism, as in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Now what do we mean by “subtle states of mind”?  You already know.  You have just perhaps never heard it put that way before.

Here is an example.  When you read the words in this title of the old classic children’s book, they automatically create a “subtle state of mind” that you may not have consciously noticed, but were aware of nonetheless — subtly aware:

The Wind in the Willows

Just those words, with nothing added, arouse a certain nearly-indefinable sensation in us.  We see the willows, we see the wind blowing through the branches, and we may even feel the wind against our arms or faces.  But beyond that, there is a distinct, definite feeling created in our minds — a “subtle state of mind” that is aroused by the willows and the wind in them.

We can modulate that effect — change it — by putting it in the context of a season.  Look how different the “subtle sensations” are that doing so creates:

Spring — the wind in the willows

Summer — the wind in the willows.

Autumn — the wind in the willows.

Winter — the wind in the willows.

What a contrast between the fresh wind of spring through the young leaves, and the cold, biting wind of winter through the bare branches!

To appreciate such verse, one must be able to appreciate simple, understated things.  There is nothing grand here.  Hokku does not strive to be beautiful or conventionally poetic.  It merely records a sensory event in the context of a season, and that creates its own “poetry” in the mind of the reader.

In modern hokku we do not write the actual season name into every verse.  But we do label every verse with the season, so we know its context, and that enables us to experience it.

Of course in the “wind in the willows” examples, I have not put them in the form of a hokku, but we can see the relationship between those examples and real hokku if we look, for example, at this verse by Ryūshi:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

In old Japan that would have been a “winter” verse;  but it could also be an autumn verse,  depending on how we label it, and there would be a difference in feeling between the two, as we see if we add the season “label” to each:

(Autumn)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves

(Winter)

Stillness;
The sound of a bird
Walking on fallen leaves.

Just by changing the season, we make it a different hokku, a different verse.  Yes, the words are still precisely the same, but the seasonal context makes a significant change in the subtle state of mind evoked.  It is not that one is “better” than the other, but rather that each has its own effect.

That is what hokku does.  It creates subtle states of mind in the reader by recording a sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) event in its seasonal context.  And that is the “poetry” of hokku — not in the words, but as it appears in the mind of the reader.  For that to happen, however, and to have its full effect, the reader must be the kind of person who is open and appreciative of such subtle states of mind.

That is one reason why, as I often say, hokku is not for everyone because everyone is not for hokku.

David

FALLING LEAVES

In old hokku, falling and fallen leaves are generally a winter subject.  But where I live, as well as in many other parts of North America, they are generally more appropriate to deep autumn.

Ryōkan wrote:

The wind
Brings enough for a fire —
Fallen leaves.

Have you noticed that old hokku often put the main subject of a verse last?  That gives us a kind of “wondering” buildup to the answer:  The wind brings enough what for a fire?  Then the answer — fallen leaves.

Buson does the same thing in another hokku:

Blown from the west,
They pile up in the east —
Fallen leaves.

To remember this technique, we might call it the “What is it?” technique.  In the first first, we ask “What is it the wind brings enough of?”  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

In the second we ask, “What is it that blows from the east and piles up in the west?  Answer:  Fallen leaves.

If you remember that, it will help you when an experience fits that technique.

Here is one of my very favorite hokku, by Gyōdai:

Falling leaves
Lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

Notice how this verse has a kind of parallelism reminiscent of old Chinese verse, and we can put the parts side by side like this for study:

Falling leaves lie on one another;
Rain beats on rain.

The first line has the subject fallen leaves and the action lie on one another.
The second line  has the subject rain and the action beats on rain.

In hokku we want to avoid perfect parallelism in all things, so in this one the third line — comprising the entire second part of the parallelism — is shorter than the first part.

Ryūshi wrote

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

That is the regular setting-subject-action hokku.

The setting is “stillness.”

The subject is “the sound of a bird.”

The action is “walking on fallen leaves.”

Many old hokku are about the sound of one thing or another.  You will recall that the best-known of all hokku — Bashō’s Old Pond verse (a spring hokku), has “the sound of water.”

I will end today with another good hokku by Taigi, very expressive of the autumn season and its changes:

Sweeping them up,
Then not sweeping them up —
Fallen leaves.

At first the falling leaves are few, and easily removed.  But as autumn deepens they fall in ever greater numbers, until finally one just gives up and lets the season follow its course.

From this we learn that hokku is not simply a “moment in time,” but rather an expression of time and change.

And do not overlook that Taigi’s hokku also fits the “what is it?” technique:  What is that that we first sweep up, then do not sweep up?  Fallen leaves.

David

JUMPING FROG, WALKING BIRD

The previous posting dealt with the correct translation of Bashō’s spring “Old Pond” hokku into English.  But what is significant for us is understanding the verse as an example of hokku.

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

Unlike most hokku, in English (not in Japanese) this one has a double pause, indicated by the punctuation at the ends of lines one and two.  This is usually not done, but it can be done when appropriate, as here.

You will recall that the sense of the verse — following the Japanese more literally — is:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

That, of course, needs only one pause.  But for the effect we want in English, it requires two:

First, the firm, strong pause at the end of line one, which enables the reader to see and experience the old pond without hurry, before moving on to the next line.

Second, the dash at the end of line two, which gives us a very quiet and smooth connective transition (note how a dash is more connective than a semicolon in feeling):

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

It is important to note that if we did not do this, the verse might be open to the same kind of peculiar misinterpretation that I corrected for a reader in yesterday’s posting, the notion that the frog is jumping into “the sound of water.”  So it is not:

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

Just that brief connective pause makes all the difference.  Punctuation is so endlessly useful in hokku!

You will recall that we introduced a second and structurally-similar verse, Ryūshi’s “Stillness” hokku, which in Japan is a winter verse, but more appropriate to late autumn in my region:

Stillness;
The sound of a bird walking
On fallen leaves.

It is not hard to see that this is very much the form of the “Old Pond” in a more literal translation:

The old pond;
The sound of a frog jumping
Into the water.

The structure in English, in fact, is virtually identical.

The lesson to be learned from this is that by using and varying appropriate patterns, hokku never becomes old-fashioned or out-of-date.  It can always be the vessel that holds a new experience, even if it is presented in a very old pattern.

And notice too the effect of both verses.  Each begins with something still and lasting:

The old pond;
Stillness;

And then in that “stable” setting something brief and more obviously transient happens:

The sound of a frog jumping into the water.
The sound of a bird walking on fallen leaves.

It is, as everyone can see and is shown by the fame of the “Old Pond” verse, a very effective approach.  Essentially what we see is:

Stillness;
Action;
Return to stillness.

That pattern has a very deep and unspoken — even un-speak-able — meaning.

David