SOLITUDE

Here is a waka by Jakuren (died 1202).  It is out of season, but it tells us something significant:

Sabishisa wa
Sono iro to shi mo
Nakarikeri

Maki tatsu yama no
Aki no yūgure
.

Solitude;
The color of it
Has no name.

Pines rise on the mountain
In the autumn dusk.

Some translate sabishisa as “loneliness,” but it is not quite that.  It is more the feeling of solitude amid a world of transience.  This transience — this impermanence of all things — ourselves included — is particularly felt in autumn, and we feel it most when alone.  So if you see sabishisa in that context, you will better understand it.

 

David

OLD AND MODERN HOKKU

What would a Japanese of Bashōs  time think of modern hokku?

First, he or she would no doubt be surprised to find it written in a language other than Japanese.

Second, he would probably also be surprised to find us writing hokku only as independent verses, and not, at times, as the first verse in a linked verse sequence.  In his day it could have been both.

Third, in indicating the season of a verse, he would note the change from the complicated and unwieldy old “season word” system to a simple seasonal heading preceding the verse.

Fourth, he might notice the significant absence of the allegorical in hokku, because old hokku, particularly when used as the first of a series of linked verses, were often used in an allegorical way to greet the host or hostess of a gathering for writing “communal” linked verse, or for other purposes.  And with this, he might notice the significant  prevalence of objectivity in modern hokku rather than subjectivity, which was more prevalent in old hokku — particularly those written by women in those days.

Fifth, he might notice that modern hokku are written in three lines rather than one, though that would not be entirely new to him, because old hokku were often separated into two or three lines when they were written on fans, etc.

Sixth, he would probably note the paucity of allusions in modern hokku, given that old hokku frequently alluded to lines from other literature, from historical or mythological events, and so on.

An additional difference is that modern hokku places a stronger emphasis on hokku written from actual experience of an event, rather than from composition “out of one’s head,” which was very common in old hokku when it was taught largely as the beginning part of the more complicated and communal practice of haikai no renga — the composing lined verses.

Modern hokku does differ in these respects from old Japanese hokku, but there is a good reason for all the differences.

The writing of modern “independent” hokku means that it is no longer a kind of poetry game or social composition event, as it was when practiced as linked verse.  The “season word” system was done away with because it made hokku too complex, and violates the principle of simplicity.  The allegorical or “double meaning” often found in old hokku was also dropped, because it lessens the focus by creating a second object in the mind.  Three lines are used because they provide an excellent format for hokku in English, making it not only visually pleasant but practical.  Allusion in hokku has generally been dropped because it requires not only a thorough literary knowledge but also complicates hokku, taking us away from its simplicity.

Writing from actual experience keeps us closer to Nature and its changes, and requires us to pay attention to things we might not ordinarily notice.

All of these differences return us to the essence of good hokku, which is to simply convey an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing context of the seasons.  Consequently needless complexities that obscure that simplicity and that clear purpose have been dropped, giving us modern hokku in English.

In old hokku, we might find such subjective verses as this one by Chiyo-ni (a female writer in the 1700s):

Plum blossom fragrance;
Where has she blown to —
The Snow Woman?

A “Snow Woman,” (Yuki Onna), in Japanese folklore, was a kind of uncanny spirit who appeared when it was snowing — somewhat like the “Snow Queen” in the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  If you have seen the Japanese movie Kwaidan, it has a segment with a Snow Woman.  As we can see,  Chiyo-ni’s verse takes us away from reality and into the imagination.  Chiyo-ni’s verse was intended to show us the transition from winter to spring.  Now that the plum is blossoming, she asks, what happened to the Snow Woman/the cold of winter?

But by contrast, this hokku by Chiyo-ni  would be acceptable as a very good modern hokku:

Everything
Picked up is moving;
Ebb tide.

That is also a spring verse, but here there is no imagination to distract from reality.  When the tide goes out and one picks up tiny shells, they begin to move, because the creatures in them are still alive.  This hokku gives us a strong impression of the experience, re-creating it within us.  We can see and feel the things moving in our hand.  It also conveys the sense of the growing active energy of spring.

By our standards, the first verse about the Snow Woman would not be acceptable as hokku, though it would fit the very loose and indistinct boundaries of modern haiku.  The second verse, however, makes a quite good example for teaching modern hokku.  Hokku should take us out of intellection and imagination and into Nature — to the experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  That is hokku at its best.

 

David

 

 

BUBBLES ON A STREAM

Within the past two weeks, I have learned of deaths of two different people I once knew.

Here are some phrases from the beginning of the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chomei:

The river flows ceaselessly, but its waters are never the same.  In pools the bubbles appear and are gone, pausing not a moment.   So it is with humans and their dwellings in this world.

Though people are many, of those I knew, few remain.  Where once were twenty or thirty, now only one or two.  At morning some die, at evening others are born — bubbles on the water.

A verse from the Diamond Sutra — a Mahayana Buddhist scripture — tells us that all component things are impermanent.  Someone put the verse loosely into rhyming English:

Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

And paradoxically, spring is here.  Crocuses and daffodils are blooming outside my dwelling.  While some things die, others are born.

Impermance, as I have said from the beginning, is behind all hokku.  It is inseparable from the world we see, as well as from the seer.  That is why anyone who writes about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, also writes about impermanence.

Here is a very loose translation of a hokku by Bonchō:

On the brushwood
Cut to burn —
Sprouting buds!

 

 

THE SPIRIT OF HOKKU

The most difficult aspect of hokku to teach is also the most important — the “spirit” or “atmosphere” or “aesthetic” of hokku.

The form of hokku is very easy and can be quickly learned.  But without the right spirit, the results — even if in perfect hokku form — will not really be a hokku.

Why do so many have trouble in learning the spirit of haiku?  Part of it is cultural.  We live in a society based heavily around the ego and the satisfaction of its whims, and consequently a very material culture.  We also live in a society increasingly separated from the natural world — from Nature and the seasons.

Hokku aesthetics, by contrast, are based on a spirit of poverty and simplicity.  In  hokku, poverty does not mean having no money or resources at all.  It means a life not based on acquisition of objects nor the endless accumulation of material wealth.  To write hokku, you should learn to be “poor in spirit.”  To be “poor in spirit” means to learn the value of living simply and without the need for many possessions.    And because hokku is all about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it is important to re-establish our connection with the natural world and the seasons — the seasons that our double-paned windows and central heating and air conditioning carefully keep out.

The fundamental principle of hokku is transience — impermanence — the inescapable fact that everything around us and within us is constantly changing.  Nothing in the world or in the universe remains the same.  We cannot hold on to any experience or to any moment of time because time will not stand still.  And we and everything around us are not so much nouns as verbs, because all is in a state of perpetual change and transformation.

That is not just the condition of Nature;  it is also the human condition — birth, growth, old age, and death.

Hokku sees everything as a part of this cycle.  We see the changes of human life reflected in the day, from morning to noon to afternoon, evening, and night.  We see the same changes in the seasons, from spring to summer to autumn and winter.

Because we live in constant change, we also know the feeling this impermanence gives us.  It is not exactly sadness, though sometimes it can be that.  It is the feeling we get on realizing that no pleasure will last, that because of impermanence all happiness is temporary, and cannot be grasped and held.  It is the feeling we get when spring passes, the feeling we get when an old friend moves to a distant town, or perhaps suddenly dies.  Everything and everyone we “have” in life will eventually be gone — and ourselves along with them.

That leads us to the next step in hokku — the de-emphasis of the “self,” the lack of importance of the ego.  In hokku we do not generally write about ourselves, our wishes, or our desires.  Instead, hokku is a very “selfless” form of verse.  When we do mention ourselves, we do it in the same objective way we would write about a crow on a trembling branch, or snow falling into a stream.  This gives us a perspective that takes us out of the everyday ego.

In everything I have said here, we can see that hokku is just an expression of the nature of existence as it was and is expressed in Buddhism, out of which hokku grew.  Buddhism teaches the three marks of existence — in Pali, Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta — loosely meaning unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no permanent self.

The impermanence of all things means that existence will inevitably bring dissatisfaction.  We cannot hold on to anything that pleases us, and too often we are in contact with things or events that do not please us at all.  In addition, this “self” that is our constant obsession is just as impermanent as everything else.  It does not last.  We are not who we were as children, nor are we as we shall be in old age.  And whether one accepts the notion of rebirth or assumes consciousness ends in death, in either case the end of this life is the end of the person we think of as ourselves.  So the illusory “self” is just a process, an ongoing transformation like everything else in Nature.

When you begin to understand all of this — to see how inseparable one is from the rest of the ever-changing universe — one begins to get the spirit that is behind hokku.  Then one sees it is not just another form of poetry.  It is a kind of seeing into the nature of existence.  Hokku shows us the depth behind the most ordinary things and events.

Buson wrote:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

That simple verse is like an explosion of the growing Yang energy of spring, because all of those seeds — each one containing a minute life force — will begin to sprout with the warmth and wetness of spring.  In that verse we see the nature of spring — its character of fresh beginning of activity, of growth, of vitality — of change.   Note that all of that is not explained in the verse, which gives us only the essentials to light the fuse of feeling.  A hokku is the raw material of experience, and when we read it, that experience “explodes” into being within us.

 

David

 

LIGHT AT CANDLEMAS

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and again it is Candlemas.  The Germans call it Lichtmess — “Lightmas.”  And in Nature, we see that the light has indeed increased.  We are halfway between the longest night — the Winter Solstice — and the Spring Equinox, when day and night will be of equal length.   It is a joy to see the lengthening days at Candlemas — the receding of the night, and the growing of the light.

It also brings the first signs of the annual awakening of Nature.  In some places it is blooming snowdrops, or crocuses.  Beside my dwelling there are little banks of blooming wild violets trembling on their stems.  That is why in the hokku calendar, Candlemas — also sometimes called Imbolc — is the beginning of spring.

It is good to celebrate these holidays of the solar year.  Some people like to light candles on Candlemas to honor the coming of spring, and have a little feast.  And some like to think of the old Greek myth of Persephone.

Here is a repeat of something I posted for Candlemas a couple of years ago:

ANCIENT CANDLEMAS: THE BEGINNING OF SPRING

To our ancestors, the forces of Nature and the urges within humans were personified as gods and goddesses both major and minor.  So changes in Nature and the changes in humans were represented as events relating to the deities.

In spring and summer, all of Nature grows and is fruitful, but in autumn things wither, and seem to vanish in the barrenness and cold of winter.

To the ancient Greeks, the abundance of the earth in the seasons of growth and harvest was represented in the joy of the goddess Demeter.  And when plants began to wither and leaves to fall, they saw this season of dying and death as the mourning of Demeter.

She was said to mourn for her daughter Persephone, who one day,while out picking flowers, was abducted by Hades, the god of the realm of death.

Demeter had no idea what had happened, and searched the earth for her missing daughter, and as she searched, the earth lost its fruitfulness and crops no longer grew.   The ruler of the gods, Zeus, knew this intolerable situation could not continue, so he commanded Hades to return Persephone to the upper world and to her mother.

Unfortunately, however, Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds while in the Underworld.  And as we all know from old myths and legends — including the stories of abduction by the Sidhe — the fairies — one should eat nothing while in the Other Realm.

So Persephone was brought back to Demeter, but because she had eaten food from the Land of the Dead, she had to spend part of each year there, and while she was gone the world withered and the fields became barren.

This of course signifies that Demeter is in a sense “Mother Nature,” and her daughter Persephone is the plant life that sprouts out of the earth — out of the “Underworld” each spring, and flourishes through summer and harvest, after which it once more returns to the earth.

All of this is a rather lengthy introduction to reminding you that the beginning of February marks the ancient beginning of spring.  It happens at February 1 – 2nd.  This corresponds with the holiday called Candlemas, celebrated on the 2nd of February.

Though Candlemas in Christian times came to be a commemoration of Mary’s purification in the Temple, it was in reality a Christian substitution intended to take over a pre-Christian rite, as celebrated in Rome.  The Roman Catholic Pope Innocent XII said:

Why do we carry candles in this feast? Because the Gentiles [meaning non-Christians here] dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods; and as at the beginning of it Pluto [Hades] stole Proserpine [Persephone], and her mother Ceres [Demeter] searched for her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not wipe out this custom, they ordered that Christians should carry around candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres  [Demeter] is now done to the honor of the Virgin.

So that was the old Candlemas — a pre-Christian festival centered on the myth explaining why vegetation dies in autumn and returns again in spring.  By searching for Proserpine/Persephone with candles or torches, one symbolically enacted the desire of humanity for spring to return to the earth.  And so Candlemas is the beginning of Spring in the Wheel of the Year.  The candles are now a reminder that the light and warmth of spring are slowly returning, though of course how soon it becomes obvious depends on where one lives.

Candlemas — a more ancient name is Imbolc —  marks the beginning of spring in the West, and in the East (where hokku originated), this time of Candlemas — give or take a few days depending on the lunar calendar — marks the New Year.

So as I always say, the old Western “natural” calendar and the Hokku Calendar are very close to one another, which makes it very convenient for those of us who like to maintain the old “nature” traditions such as the celebration of the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes (the “Quarter Days”) and the “Cross-Quarter Days” of the year such as Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and Halloween.

 

WINTER SOLITUDE

A loose translation of yet another old Japanese winter waka:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

The first part of the waka is:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone.

The “turning point” that joins the first and second parts is “The path is gone”; so the second segment is:

The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

 

 

David

 

SO COLD THE WINTER….

Here is a loose translation of another old Japanese waka for the season of winter:

So cold the winter!
The wind never ceases
In the mountain village.
Still the sleet is falling
Ever more heavily.

As previously mentioned, a waka in form is like a hokku with two extra lines.  It has a “turning point” in the middle that acts both as the last line of the hokku portion and as the first line of the second (originally 5/7/7/ phonetic units) part.  In this verse it is “In the mountain village.”

We can separate them like this:

So cold the winter!
The Wind never ceases
In the mountain village.

In the mountain village,
Still the sleet is falling
Every more heavily.

 

WINTER SIMPLICITY

Another winter hokku by Issa:

Evening snow;
People passing by
In silence.

It is not difficult to see how the elements of this harmonize.  The evening and the snow are both Yin, and though there is movement, that movement takes place in silence — which is also Yin.

It calls to mind a winter verse by Yaha, this time with greater contrast:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here it is the contrast between the voices and the midnight cold.  Inside in the chilly darkness, one does not see the people passing; just the voices are heard briefly, then all returns to silence.

Note the simplicity of these verses, which is an important quality of hokku.  In English, each requires only seven common words, yet each is quite effective.

 

 

David

WINTER VACANCY

We have seen a version of this hokku by Issa before:

Snow falling;
A “House for Rent” sign
That wasn’t there yesterday.

There is something rather Dickensian about this.  People don’t like to move in winter — and particularly not in very cold weather.  The sudden appearance of the sign raises unanswered questions, and in hokku, unanswered questions are deliberately never answered.  Did the tenant/tenants leave because they could not pay rent or were evicted?  Did someone die?  There are different possibilities, but the path of hokku is not to tell stories, but rather to create a kind of physical-psychological effect in the reader.   The point of the verse lies in the sudden and unexpected emptiness of the house in the falling snow.  The emptiness (Yin) of the house is in keeping with the chill and emptiness (Yin) of winter, and both in keeping with the “absence of knowing” — the unanswered question.

In reading this, we should keep in mind the “poverty” of hokku, and from that, know the vacant house is not at all in a fashionable or well-to-do neighborhood, which makes it all the more significant.

David

SOLITUDE

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

(Winter)

Solitude;
The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.

David

FIRE AND ICE: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.

David

WINTER BEGINS

Winter begins;
The last leaves fall
Into the rushing river.

Yes, according to the old Hokku Calendar, winter has begun.  Where I live, it is time for the first frosts to begin — though this November that has not happened yet — just lots of rain for now.

 

David

AUTUMN GUSTS

Autumn gusts;
Leaves blow along with me
As I walk.

It is a very windy morning here on the day before Halloween.

As you know, Halloween is the ending of autumn and the beginning of winter in the Hokku Calendar.  It is one of the cross-quarter days, which means it falls halfway between an equinox and a solstice, in this case between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.

Halloween marks the beginning of the long darkness of winter nights, when the days are at their shortest.  So in the hokku calendar,  it is the entry to the most Yin time of the year — Yin being associated with cold and darkness and the withdrawing of the energies of Nature.

The full moon after Halloween — the Frost/Frosty Moon or Beaver Moon — will be on November 4th this year.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David

 

FOG AND FALLEN LEAVES: NEW HOKKU, OLD PATTERNS

This is from my morning walk:

The autumn morning;
Fog and fallen leaves
And wild geese crying.   

Perhaps you noticed (it would be good if you did) that this — in its pattern — is much like that of the old hokku by Suiō:

The autumn night;
Dreams and snores
And crickets chirping.

The original of Suiō’s verse just said “crickets,” but in his translation, R. H. Blyth added the implied “chirping,” which indeed is better in English.

The various patterns possible in hokku make handy containers into which any appropriate content may be poured to make new hokku.  That is why I emphasize the importance of patterns — the study of how old hokku are assembled —  to those learning hokku.

 

David

 

AUTUMN SUNLIGHT

The autumn sun;
The chill when it goes
Behind a tree.

The sunlight of the shortening autumn days is so weak that in a shadow, the air is cold.  In that, we feel the weakening of the Yang active energy and the growing of the cold, inactive Yin energy of the waning year.

 

David

HOKKU MISCONCEPTIONS, HOKKU FACTS

 

Anyone teaching hokku today is faced with the very pervasive and glaring misconceptions fostered by modern haiku enthusiasts about it over about the last half century.  Chief among them are these:

1.  The notion that Bashō, Taigi, Issa, and those like them before the 20th  century wrote “haiku”: 
They did not.  The term “haiku” came into popular use only near the end of the 19th century under the influence of the Japanese journalist Masaoka Noboru, whose pen name was Shiki.  Prior to Shiki (and after, for traditionalists), the verse form was (and is) known as hokku.  To call it “haiku” is an error and an anachronism, not to mention historically and stylistically confusing.  So Bashō and all the writers of the verse form in the previous centuries called what they wrote hokku, not “haiku.” “Haiku” today is a vague umbrella term that covers a wide range of greatly differing styles and forms of brief verse that developed in the 20th century and often have little or nothing to do with the traditional hokku.

2.  The notion that the hokku is only the opening verse of a sequence of linked verses (renga).
It is not.  
The hokku, since at least the 1600s, could be written either as the first of a series of linked verses or as an independent verse.  Today we tend to concentrate our interest on the latter. 

The fact is that now — as I have said many times — hokku and modern haiku are generally two very different things, with quite different aesthetics and principles.  Hokku today preserves the essential traditional aesthetics of the old Japanese hokku, though of course adapted to an English-language context.  Modern haiku generally does not, having been heavily influenced by 20th-century Western ideas about poets and poetry — becoming a kind of hybrid verse.

Modern haiku criticisms of hokku often include the following:

  1.  Hokku is formulaic.
    That view arises because hokku has specific aesthetics and principles that must be learned and followed for the verse to actually be a hokku.  The modern haiku movement never had a foundation in these, preferring the “anything a writer calls a haiku is a haiku” principle.  So of course a verse form with understandable principles and techniques would be thought of as formulaic by those who follow no traditional or stable system of aesthetics.  But in hokku, a verse that does not have the traditional aesthetic — the most important element being that it is based on Nature and humans within and as a part of Nature — will not be a hokku.

2.  In hokku one cannot just write about anything one wishes.
That is quite true.  Hokku does limit its subject matter, because to go beyond that is to violate the aesthetic principles of the verse form, which again makes the result not a hokku.  For example, hokku generally avoid topics that disturb and agitate the mind, such as war, romance, and sex.  Hokku also avoids “preaching” one’s views, whether in religion or other matters such as politics.  That is because, again, the subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Consequently hokku generally takes an objective approach to verse, rather than the subjective approach so common in most “I, me, my” -centered Western verse.  That is the result of the long history and deep roots of hokku, which was heavily influenced by the “selflessness” of Buddhist and Daoist culture.  Consequently, we can think of hokku as a more contemplative verse form.

What this all means, of course, is that hokku appeals to a certain kind of person, one who is more introspective, less self-centered, more aware of the natural world — or at least aspires to be so.  Hokku requires a certain discipline of mind and practice, while modern haiku is very whim-driven, very free-form, very “do your own thing.”  It is entirely up to the individual which form of verse to practice.

In my view, hokku is the more challenging path because it requires learning its traditional principles and aesthetics.  By contrast, anyone can write modern haiku without any aesthetic foundation or preparation at all.  It is the “quick and easy” choice.   However, it is precisely the very old aesthetic tradition in hokku, combined with its selfless, rather than self-centered approach, which makes it ultimately far more rewarding.

 

David

AUTUMN BEGINS: DUST AND RAIN

Autumn begins;
Rain spatters the dust
On the stones.

We feel here the transition from the heat and dryness of summer ( seen in the dust on the stones) to the cool damp of autumn (the rain beginning to fall, turning the dust to mud).

It is a new hokku made from the same image used by the sometimes too wordy late 19th-mid 20th century Japanese writer Kyoshi.

Here is his original:

Ishi no ue no hokori ni furu ya aki no ame
Stone on ‘s dust on falling ya autumn’s rain.

One could translate it as:

On the dust
On the stones it falls —
Autumn rain.

 

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

Sunrise

 

(Autumn)

Sunrise;
My very long shadow
Walking in front.

Sometimes the simplest things seem meaningful, like the lengthened shadow we see stretching ahead from our feet when walking westward on a morning in the beginning of autumn.

As you know, in hokku we generally avoid the use of  “I,” “me,” and “my.”  The reason for this is that hokku takes the focus away from the ego.  Unlike much modern verse, it is not all about the “I” and its likes, dislikes, and whims.  But there is also an additional reason.  If hokku become too personal  — too particular — that is, too particularly focused on one person’s life — then it is difficult for others to relate to such a verse.  But if the hokku event is a more general human experience, then many people can relate to it — can have the sensory experience presented in the verse.

That is why this verse — even though it uses the word “my” — is still not an “ego problem.”  It is a verse people in general can relate to.  It is an ordinary experience, but that a hokku can be made of it just reminds us that hokku are often about things we already know, but don’t know that we know.  So the “my very long shadow” easily becomes the shadow of whoever reads the verse.  That means it is possible to use “I,” “me,” or “my” in hokku without an undue focus on the self.  Even though we generally avoid them, if we understand the reasons behind that avoidance, we are free to use them when appropriate.

 

David

HOKKU AND A BIT BEYOND

The three-line hokku is a very useful format for expressing Nature.  But now and then, there are experiences that we may wish to extend slightly.


The following experience, for example, can be written in a longer or shorter form, with the difference here being only one word:

(Summer)

Morning:
Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

Or it could be simply:

(Summer)

Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

The second version is a hokku, the first is not, though both have much the same spirit.  The first just adds a specific time of day, which gives the verse a further layer or tone.  We can writer either way of course, depending on individual preference and which version we think best conveys the sensory experience without becoming too “wordy.”

 

David

THE SUMMER BEAMING FORTH: JOHN CLARE’S “SONNET”

This morning I was reading through old summer poems in English — a rather disappointing experience, because most are so heavy-laden with personification that they fail to adequately express the season.  It is refreshing to turn from them to the clarity and directness of hokku that present the experience of summer to us directly.

Nonetheless, here and there one finds works of Western poetry that “stick to the subject,” without a burdensome overlay of of personification and metaphor — among them, John Clare’s pleasant “Sonnet.”  Its only ornamentation lies in the subjective use of “I love,” and “I like,” and in the use of simile:

I love to see the summer beaming forth
And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north
I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain
And water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood
Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes
I like the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore
I love the hay grass when the flower head swings
To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day
And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

It expresses Clare’s joy in seeing the shining light of summer.  The scene he depicts seems to be set near the beginning of summer, which you will recall begins in May in the old calendar.

He speaks of white clouds floating in the blue sky as “white wool sack clouds sailing to the north” — reminiscent of the later words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”:

what lovely behaviour /Of silk-sack clouds!

Only Clare — being more rustic — likens to wool rather than silk.

He then turns his eyes from sky to earth:

I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

He joys in the warm-weather return of wild flowers, and looks to where golden flowers fill the ditch that drains water from the meadow.  They are “mare blobs” in common speech — Caltha palustris — the marsh marigold.

Clare tells us that

water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

By “floods” he means here simply “waters” (rivers, ponds, lakes); and on them the water lilies grow white.  Here is Nymphaea alba, the white water lily native to Britain:

There, where the water lilies bloom, the clumps of tall reeds rustle “like a wind shook wood” — that is, like trees shaken by the wind.

There too,

from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

The moor hen — Gallinula chloropus — pushes out of her hiding place among the reeds.

The nest the moor hen seeks is a “flag nest” that is, a nest made of the leaves of the common water flag, Iris pseudacorus:

The yellow water flag is also known as the “gladden,” which accounts for the “Gladden Fields”  the  marshlands where Isildur was slain in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and where the “One Ring” was lost in the river.

Clare likes to see

the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore.

And he loves

the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day

“Hay grass” is the grass left to grow tall and luxuriant so that it may be cut with the scythe and stored in the barns as hay for beasts.  Clare likes to see the blossoms of wild flowers as they move to and fro in the tall grasses in the summer wind, and the insects flitting about in the sunshine.

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

His gaze is drawn to the water beetles scuttling about in the bright water.

John Clare (1793-1864) was an English poet born of poor and illiterate country workers, and though he managed to get some of his work published and received a small annuity, it was never enough to support his family, so he also had to work as a farm laborer.  The many difficulties of life eventually became too much for him, and he began to have mental problems and delusions that caused him to be placed in an asylum.

John Clare, by William Hilton: 1820, National Portrait Gallery

We do not know why this poem by Clare is not punctuated.  It is known only from a copy transcribed by W. F. Knight, the steward at the asylum where John Clare spent over two decades of the latter part of his life.

 

David

 

CANDLEMAS AND CONTROVERSY

Yes, today is Candlemas — Imbolc — the beginning of spring in the old calendar.  It hardly seems like it, waking to a freezing wind and the likelihood of snow, but nonetheless the Wheel of the Year has turned, and warmer weather is not far off.

The traditional flower of Candlemas is the white and green snowdrop, but the winter has been so unusually cold here that there is not a snowdrop blossom in sight.

There is much to be appalled by in the world as spring begins.  One has only to turn to the news.  But this morning came the particularly disturbing report that protestors at the University of California at Berkeley managed, through violent action, to prevent a presentation by a right-wing speaker with whom they disagreed.

According to the news, the protests began peacefully with people carrying signs reading “Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech.”  Well, they are wrong.  Aside from the issue of whether the intended speaker at the University was promulgating “hate speech” or not, there is still the fact that whether a speech contains supposed “hate” or not makes no difference.  Free speech is free speech, and when one limits what can be said, it is no longer free.  But violence is not free speech.  Violence is intimidation and the death of free speech.

Free speech follows the dictum of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (wrongfully attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Refusing people the right to say that of which we do not approve also denies free speech, no matter how hateful we may find their words to be.

I particularly dislike the modern term “hate speech.”  It can be used to stigmatize and silence the views of most anyone who disagrees with one’s own opinions.  There is, of course, real hate in speech that has as its intent the physical or mental harm of a person or a group of people, and there are justifiably laws to prevent the incitement of such violence.  But to merely express one’s views about a political system or a religious system, or any kind of system or body of people, even if those views are strongly negative and found quite offensive by some, is not necessarily “hate speech,”  and the term is all too frequently loosely and inaccurately used.  Accusing someone of “hate speech” can be a very effective form of intimidation and an attempt to deny someone the right of free speech.  The best antidote to genuine “hate speech” is not denial of the right of the speaker to express opinions, but rather obvious and public non-violent disapproval based on factual evidence countering the position of the one doing the supposed “hating.”  In my view, using the term “hate speech” has become a convenient and irrational way of stereotyping views with which we do not agree, without offering a rational challenge.  We may detest those views, but in countering them, one should use reason and facts, not simply a dismissive catchphrase.

We must always remember that with free speech, one does not have the right not to be offended.  But one does have the right to speak in active opposition to views one finds through reason and evidence to be wrong or harmful — and in many cases, not only the right, but also the responsibility.

We unfortunately find ourselves living in interesting times.

David

ARRANGING A HOKKU: SHIKI’S GATE

I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:

(Winter)

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOKKU PATTERNS: SETTING/SUBJECT/ACTION AND SUBJECT/ACTION

There are many ways of arranging the elements of an experience to make a hokku.  We always think first of the common “Setting/Subject/Action” method, found in hokku such as this slight variant on one by Seibi:

(Winter)

The flame of the lamp
Does not move;
The freezing night.

In that example, the setting comes at the end:  The freezing night.
The subject is The flame of the lamp.
The action is Does not move.
Because of its simplicity, the Setting/Subject/Action pattern is very good for those beginning hokku, and it can result in very good hokku when the elements — together — make an interesting event.

Today we will look at another way of arranging the elements in a verse.  This one we can call the “Subject/Action” pattern, as in this verse by Rankō:

(Winter)

Withered reeds;
Day after day breaking off
And floating away.

The subject is Withered reeds.
The action is Day after day breaking off / And floating away.
We see the “Subject/Action” pattern also in such hokku as Chora’s

(Winter)

The windy snow —
Blowing about me
As I stand here.

The subject is The windy snow.
The action is Blowing about me / As I stand here.

There is also another way of writing Subject/Action pattern hokku — the little variation in technique called “Repeated Subject.”  In using that variant, the subject is first mentioned, then referred to again with a pronoun (it, they, he, she)  This is how it works with the two verses we have just seen:

Withered reeds  —
Day after day they break off
And float away.

And

The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand here.

Whether to use the regular Subject/Action pattern or the “Repeated Subject” variant depends on the effect the writer wishes to achieve.  Notice that with the regular Subject/Action pattern, an action verb used with it usually has the -ing ending (“breaking,” “floating,” “blowing).  But with the “Repeated Subject” variant, we find third-person (singular or plural) verb forms (“break,” “float,” “blows.”).

David

GLAD YULE: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!

 

David

INTENTION AND TRANSLATION: BASHŌ’S ONE-COLOR WORLD

Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”

David

BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

DESERT PLACES

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

David

AN EARLY WINTER HOKKU

Winter begins;
In the withered fields
No bird sings.

1holterberg

A friend in the Netherlands sent this photo taken by his wife on her walk through the Holterberg region.  She kindly gave her permission for me to use it.  It really expresses the feeling of this time of year.  I liked it so much that I am using part of it as the page header for now.

 

David

HALLOWEEN

Well, tonight being HALLOWEEN — Samhain — the ancient beginning of winter, I have my pumpkin carved, lit, and ready to ward off any evil spirits or wicked witches that may be abroad tonight:

jackolantern

Somehow its face reminds me of Calcifer, the fire demon in Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderful fantasy story, Howl’s Moving Castle.  If you have not yet gotten to know Calcifer, Howl, and the enduring Sophie, you have missed out on a great deal of fun.  Perhaps you know it as the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.  The film is very good, but the story is not quite the same, nor with the captivating detail one finds in the book — though both are pleasing in their own ways.

Now we enter the season when the Yin energies become dominant, the season of cold and of long, dark nights — the season when we become very aware of the importance of things we ordinarily do not notice, such as a warm blanket or a hot cup of fragrant tea.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYONE!

 

David

 

CHORA’S RISING MOON

brooklynmuseumutagawahiroshige

A hokku by Chora:

(Autumn)

A windstorm;
Rising from the grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

We could also present it like this:

Rising
From the windblown grasses —
Tonight’s moon.

Notice what a strong sensory impression is made by this hokku:  we feel the strong wind, hear the loud rustling of the dark grasses in wild movement,  and rising very slowly out of them is the silent moon of autumn.  This interplay between the blowing grasses and the moon exemplifies the hokku technique called “harmony of contrast.”  It is the placing of two contrasting elements together in a verse that when joined, paradoxically give us as sense of unity and harmony.  On the one hand we have darkness and violent movement and sound, and on the other stillness and brightness.

Here is the original in transliteration:

Arashi fuku kusa no naka yori kyō no tsuki
Tempest blows  grass  ‘s midst out-of today  ‘s moon

And now a question to regular readers here.  I would like to know how many of you actually write hokku in English — not haiku, but the kind of hokku I present here.  From time to time I think about reviving a kind of online interactive hokku class.  Of course one could learn hokku from all the information I give on this site, but often people need interaction with a teacher and correction of errors to write it successfully.  So if you are learning to write hokku as I present it here, send me a message and let me know.  To do that, just click on the “Leave a Comment” link at the end of this posting.  I will keep all messages responding to this  question private.

 

David

SAFFLOWER DEW

In traditional hokku, dew was a subject for autumn.  The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote:

(Autumn)

Spilt,
It is only water;
Safflower dew.

It looks one way when on the colorful safflower blossom with its “cosmetic” reputation, but when it spills from it, it goes back to being simply water.

I have noticed that a number of Internet sites seem confused about this verse — or rather about the flower involved.  When Blyth translated it, he did so as “rouge-flower,” and indeed that is technically correct.  In Japan the safflower has been used for centuries to make a red cosmetic.  But the word “rouge” has misled various people into thinking that it must be dew on a deep-red blossom, and that is not the case.  The safflower, in its natural state, is actually more yellow than red, though one may see ruddy hints near the base of the petals.  Through a special process, its 1% of red coloring is concentrated and made usable.

Because we in the West know the plant more through its use in cooking oil, we are likely to let that color the impression the verse makes on us, whereas in Japan the beni flower — benibana or beni no hana — has centuries of association with red dye and cosmetics valued by the upper classes.

Chiyo-ni’s verse is reminiscent of a verse from another season by Aon:

(Summer)

When night ends,
It becomes an insect —
The  firefly.

The essence of these verses is change.  In one circumstance the dew and the firely are one thing, but in another circumstance they are another, neither being better nor worse than the other.

Blyth emphasizes that from a “Zen” perspective, that is how to understand them.  One could read them as:

When it is spilled,
It becomes just plain water;
The dew on the safflower.

And

When night ends,
It becomes just an insect —
The firefly.

But the correct perspective — Blyth tells us — is to see things equally, whether the dew is on the safflower or off, whether the firefly is glowing by night or dull by day.

Was that the perspective of Chiyo-ni and Aon?  Perhaps not.

Here’s Chiyo-ni’s verse in transliteration:

koborete wa   tada no mizu nari   beni no tsuyu
Spilled wa ordinary’s water becomes safflower ‘s dew

And Aon’s:

Yo ga akete mushi ni naritaru hotaru kana
Night ga brightens insect to becomes firefly kana

 

David

THE SMELLS OF THINGS: CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

There is a very simple but highly suggestive hokku by Bonchō :

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

That is the form in English.

As you know, a hokku expresses a season, either spring, summer, fall (autumn) or winter.  It is not difficult to tell that this is a summer hokku, because the word “summer” is included.  But not all Japanese hokku are that simple.  Different seasons traditionally had their different topics, and these became so complicated that a kind of “season word” or topic guide called a saijiki was used, so writers and readers could make sure what topics were appropriate for a given season.  In modern English hokku, however, we make the seasonal connection by simply labeling a hokku with its season, thus avoiding the needless complexity of season words, which took years to properly learn.

So that is the first characteristic of a hokku: a seasonal context.

The second characteristic of a hokku is a separation between the two parts.  Every hokku has a long part and a short part.  The long part may be at the beginning or at the end.  The two parts in Japanese hokku are separated by a so-called “cutting word.”  If we look at Bonchō ‘s hokku in transliterated Japanese, we can see an example:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki
town-center wa thing ‘s smell YA summer’ s moon

The cutting word here is ya, which has no real meaning in itself, but instead emphasizes what precedes it, giving the reader time to experience it.  And what the reader is experiencing here is the town and its smells, which in this case form the longer part of the hokku.  Then comes the separating ya, what we call in English the “meditative pause.”  After seeing and smelling the first part of the hokku, we then see that it is all taking place under natsu no tsuki — under the summer moon.

In English-language hokku, our equivalent of a cutting word is a punctuation mark.  Punctuation indicates the length and nature of the meditative pause.  The most common separating mark in hokku is the semicolon (;),  but other marks are used when appropriate.

In the town,
The smells of things;
The summer moon.

Note that in English-language hokku, there may be several punctuation marks in a verse, but only one is the real separating mark between the two parts, in this case the semicolon.  Every English-language hokku ends with appropriate punctuation as well.  This was of course not the case in old Japanese hokku, which did not have punctuation, though modern everyday Japanese has adopted it.

The thing to remember, then, is that modern English-language hokku uses punctuation for the separating mark, as well as when helpful elsewhere in a hokku.  And all hokku end with a suitable punctuation mark.

You probably noticed that each line of the hokku in English begins with a capital letter.  This was not the case in Japanese hokku, because Japanese had no upper and lower case letters as we know them.  Instead, it was written in a mixture of characters borrowed from Chinese with Japanese phonetic symbols.  A Chinese character could have more than one syllable, like the word ichi (“town”) in Bonchō‘s hokku.  Japanese phonetic symbols made one phonetic unit each, like na, ka, wa, and so on.  In Japanese, n could also be considered a separate phonetic unit if it ended a word.  So these phonetic units are not precisely the same as syllables in English.

Given that the standard length of a hokku was seventeen phonetic units (though some were a bit more or less), people made the mistake of thinking that they should have seventeen syllables in English.  But that was impractical, because Japanese and English are very different languages.  In English-language hokku, we simply keep our verses brief and very simple, and that fits our language much better than a strict number of syllables.

A very obvious difference between old Japanese hokku and modern English-language hokku  is the lineation — how a verse is arranged in lines.  Old Japanese hokku were written and printed in one vertical line for general purposes.  But in English we separate them into three short lines.  This fits our horizontal writing system far better, and has a more pleasing appearance.

Here is what Bonchō‘s hokku would have looked like in printed Japanese.   I have added a transliteration and further information to the right of the characters and phonetic symbols.
ichi   (town) Chinese character

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

 o-    phonetic symbol

 -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

So that is a Japanese hokku.  As you see, there was a contrast between the borrowed Chinese characters, each one of which might be pronounced in Japanese with more than one syllable, and the Japanese phonetic symbols (hiragana), which could be joined in sequence to form multi-syllabic words.

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

ichi normally means “market.”  When followed by the character 中 naka (center) , it is generally understood to mean “town” — in a town, in the center of a town.  If we wanted to, we could use the “market” meaning, in which case we could read the verse as:

In the marketplace,
The smell of things;
The summer moon.

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

In the marketplace,
The smells of everything;
The summer moon.

I actually prefer the “marketplace” reading to the “town” reading.

Notice that in the first alternate translation, I wrote “smell,” but in the second it is “smells.”  Japanese hokku makes no such distinctions, because it did not have a plural form.  so nioi can be translated either “smell” or “smells,” whichever seems appropriate.

I constantly repeat here that hokku have as their subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  So in hokku, humans are found in the wider context of Nature.  In Bonchō‘s verse, we have the very human town or marketplace, but it is seen beneath “the summer moon,” which shows that the human activities are set in the context of Nature, even though we are in a town.  Keep in mind also that a town in Boncho’s day (he died in 1714) would have been free of the smell of car exhaust fumes.  Everything would have been much more natural smelling, a mixture of many kinds of faint and strong odors, whether pleasant or unpleasant.

Most people know about modern haiku, which developed out of hokku, largely as a Western misunderstanding of its nature and aesthetics.  As such, modern haiku is very recent.  I hope you have noticed the differences between hokku and most everything that is called “haiku” today.  Because haiku is often also written in three lines, many people think they are the same, but they are not.  Though many writers do it, it is important not to mislabel hokku “haiku.”  Haiku as it is practiced today is largely the result of Western writers misunderstanding the hokku in the middle of the 20th century, while hokku is centuries older.

Most modern haiku does not express a particular season (there are a few that still use a seasonal connection, but they are greatly in the minority).

Modern haiku does not necessarily have Nature and humans as a part of its subject matter.  Haiku can be written about anything, including modern technology, romance, sex, violence, strong emotions, personal thoughts and ideas, politics, etc.   Hokku, by contrast, avoids modern technology, violence, sex, romance, and in general things that disturb the mind.

Most modern haiku do not have a definite system of punctuation.  Some use a perfunctory hyphen, others use no punctuation at all.

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

Most modern haiku permit abstract thinking or intellectualization.  Hokku stays with things, rather than ideas about things or using things as symbols or metaphors.  In general one can say hokku prefers the concrete, while haiku permits the abstract.

Hokku in general is non-egocentric, avoiding emphasis on “I,” “my,” or “me.”  Modern haiku often emphasizes the individual — “my boyfriend,” “my girlfriend” — as well as personal emotions and views.  Hokku treats the individual the same way it treats a bird circling in the sky or a smooth stone in a river — objectively rather than subjectively.

Those are a few of the differences between hokku and modern haiku.  It is important to know the difference, because hokku has a definite aesthetic approach that one must follow if the verse is to be a hokku, while in modern haiku, the aesthetics vary greatly from individual to individual, with each person deciding what a haiku should be and how it should be written.  Consequently, “haiku” today is a vague umbrella term for many kinds of brief verse, while hokku describes a particular kind of verse in English, with a particular form and a definite aesthetic.  On this site I deal with hokku, mentioning modern haiku only to avoid confusion.

 

David

 

ON TO AUTUMN

About a week ago, we reached and passed Harvest Home — Lughnasa[dh] by its old Celtic name.  Harvest Home, the holiday which takes place on August 1, marks the beginning of Autumn.  And Autumn begins at approximately the same time in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars — the first week of August.

It always reminds me of  these lines from Natalie Babbit’s bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

In my region, Nature seems to closely follow that old calendar.  Right on time, the days have cooled and there is a sudden hint of Autumn in the air.  Of course it is just beginning, but one feels it nonetheless.

Autumn, in hokku, is the time when the active Yang energy of summer begins to wane.  One feels the first hints of the passive Yin energy that gradually replaces it until Yin becomes the dominant force in Winter.  So the Wheel of the Year continues to turn.

Autumn is a very good time for hokku experiences, because Autumn is the time when we most feel the transience, the impermanence, of life.  And impermanence is not only a fundamental principle of Buddhism, but also of hokku.  Everything changes, nothing remains the same.  That becomes very obvious as we see the plants begin to wither and watch the leaves turn color and start to fall from the trees.  Autumn is the time when the energies of Nature begin to withdraw, to “return to the root” as the old saying goes.

Some five years ago I posted an article on the differences between hokku and the modern haiku — how the latter essentially began as a misunderstanding (see https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/bad-beginning-bad-ending/).

In it I wrote:

One of the most damaging aspects of this re-invention of the hokku as “modern haiku” was that many people thought the haiku should be a “personal expression,” which of course is another mistaken notion picked up from Western poetry and misapplied to the hokku. Consequently people began writing haiku about love affairs, emotional entanglements, sex, war, and various manifestations of violence.”

One should not be confused about this.  The purpose of hokku is not to “express yourself,” but rather to express Nature, and all things — you included — as a part of Nature.  Hokku expresses Nature through your experience of it, but that is not at all the same as expressing your “self.”

One gets a good idea of what it means to express Nature through your experience, rather than “expressing yourself,” by looking at this landscape painting by Fan Kuan (c. 960-1030), a Daoist artist of the Song Dynasty:

FanKuan

It depicts “mountains and water,” which two words together are actually the Chinese term for a landscape.  It is an impressive painting.  We see the massive, rocky hills and trees growing here and there, and a waterfall plunging from the heights.  But it is only when we look closely that we see a little group of travelers moving through the landscape at lower right:

FanKuan_1

There they are with their pack horses — a very small part of the landscape, and not really felt to be separate from it.

Compare that with our modern world of busy freeways, strip malls, traffic lights and omnipresent cars and trucks.  Our modern world is out of perspective, which is precisely why our climate and environment are now endangered.  Humans do not see themselves as only a small part of Nature any more, and that is at the root of many of the problems we face today.

Hokku, however, restores the proper balance.  Humans are placed in their appropriate context.  Hokku is about Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Modern haiku, by contrast, tends to put the emphasis on the “self,” which from the old hokku view is putting it in precisely the wrong place.

Do not misunderstand.  That does not mean hokku never talk about the writer, but when they do, it is within and as part of a larger context.  For example, Bashō wrote:

(Autumn)

Going out the gate,
I too become a traveler;
The autumn evening.

Kado wo dereba   ware mo yuku hito   aki no kure

Bashō, by placing himself in the context of the season, places himself also in the wider context of Nature, in which autumn is a time of migrations.  The wild geese fly south for the winter, deer seek lower elevations.  And Bashō mirrors this characteristic of Autumn by just going out his gate and becoming a traveler too.

Much of the modern haiku community has abandoned this essential connection between hokku and the seasons, and by doing so, they have created a different verse form outside the wider context so essential to hokku.  By simply mentioning the season of a hokku, all sorts of possible associations are raised in the mind (like the traveling wild geese), and these are essential to the way hokku works.  It works in a much wider context than that of modern haiku, and that is why a seasonal setting and a connection with Nature are essential to it.

 

David

 

 

WHITE ON WHITE: A HOKKU BY KYOROKU

Today is that very ancient holiday Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice.  It is the day when the sun reachest its highest point in its yearly arc across the sky, and it is the longest day of the year.  After this day, the hours of light begin to shorten.

Here is a hokku by Kyoroku that must be translated rather loosely:

(Summer)

Above white cloth
Spread out in the sun —
Billowing clouds.

If you are a long-time reader here, you will recognize the technique used in writing this.  It is harmony of similarity.  Two similar elements are combined, and the pleasure of the verse is in the combination.  Here the elements are very visual:  1.  white cloth; 2. billowing clouds.  The brightness of the sun brings out the whiteness of both, thus joining the two elements.

Here is the transliterated original:

Teritsukeru sarashi no ue kumo no mine
Sun-shining-down bleaching-cotton ‘s above cloud ‘s peaks

David

CLOUD SHADOWS

A hokku by Kyoroku:

A cool breeze;
Cloud shadows passing
Over the green fields.

This rather reminds one of a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki animated feature, with the wind blowing the grasses in waves.

Where I live, this would be a hokku for early summer, because later the fields turn yellow-brown.  But in the original, the fields are not fields of grass, but rather rice fields — rice paddies — which are green from irrigation.

Here is the transliterated Japanese:

Suzukaze ya aota no ue no kumo no kage
Cool-wind ya  green-field’s over ‘s cloud’s shadows

Given that there is no differentiation between singular and plural in the original, we might also translate it:

The cool wind;
A cloud shadow passes
Over the green field.

In either case, it gives us a pleasant sense of movement in wind and shadow, a harmony between the coolness of the wind and the coolness of the shadow.

In form, this is very much a setting/subject/action hokku:

Setting: The cool wind;
Subject: A cloud shadow
Action: passes over the green field

As I have said many times, that form is an easy way to write a hokku, and such hokku can be very effective.  This pleasant verse is good to read on a warm summer’s day.

There is a difference between the effect of the first and second translations given here.  The first — with multiple cloud shadows — gives us a stronger sense of the passing of time than the second translation.

 

David

May Winds

May Day;
The warm wind fills
with whirling seeds.

Today  — May Day — Bealtaine/Beltane by its old Celtic name, is the day in the old agricultural calendar when summer begins.  It certainly feels like summer has begun where I am.  The sky is a robin’s egg blue, and the air is warm and soft.

Happy May Day!

 

David

THE YELLOW WATERS OF SPRING OR THE SPRING’S YELLOW WATERS?

Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:

(Spring)

The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:

kerriasingle_1

Here is a closer view:

David

 

 

 

 

DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

A BURSTING JUG, AND CHANGING THE SITE COMMENTS POLICY

A very effective hokku by Bashō:

(Winter)

Waking suddenly;
A water pot burst
In the icy night.

I have added the “suddenly” (as Blyth also does in his translation) because it is implied by the event.  The jug has burst because of the frozen water expanding within it.

The hokku is effective not only because of the sensory sound of the bursting pottery jug, but also because it so well expresses the deep cold of a winter night.

Here’s the original:

Kame wareru   yoru  no kōri no   nezame kana
Pot    has-burst night ‘s ice ‘s      waking kana

Now for some “blog business”:

I have tallied reader responses to my question whether comments on this site should be private unless otherwise requested (the long-time policy), or whether all comments should be public unless requested to be kept private by the sender.

The overwhelming consensus of reader opinion was for a change to all comments being made public unless otherwise requested (the exceptions, of course, being spam, irrelevant comments, obscenities, etc.).

So, as of today, that is the new comments policy on this site.  All comments made on any posting, new or old, will from now on be posted as public comments, accessible through the “comments” link at the bottom of the relevant posting.

There will usually be an interval before the comments appear, because they will still go through moderation to sort out the exceptions mentioned above, but they will be posted as soon as I see the incoming comments.

Those who want a comment to be seen by my eyes only need only put the word “private” at the beginning of the comment, and it will not be made public.

I hope we will all be pleased by the results.

 

David

 

 

SNOW CROW

Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.

 

David

 

NEW YEAR’S SUN

(Winter)

New Year’s Day;
A crow sips a puddle
Thawed by the sun.

 

This is probably a good time to again ask reader opinions about the comments policy on this site.  It has long been that comments are only made public if requested by the sender.  Do you prefer that, or would you like to see all comments made public except when the sender requests privacy?  If you have a preference one way or the other, please reply using the “leave a comment” link at the end of this message.  I will wait about a week before tallying the results.

A change would mean all comments would be visible by the public except those the sender specifically requests be kept private and visible only by me.  Except, of course, for spam, obscenity, and other irrelevant messages, which are deleted.

 

David

 

 

A FEW SNOWFLAKES

The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:

(Winter)

Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….

 

David

The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana

 

 

WITHERED LOTUSES: A WINTER HOKKU BY BUSON

withlotus

Today it is grey and cold and raining where I am, so this slight variation on a winter hokku by Buson seems appropriate.  I can omit the seasonal heading because it is in the verse itself:

Lotuses withered,
The pond is bleak;
Winter rain.

The original is:

Hasu karete ike asamashiki shigure kana

Lotus withered pond miserable winter-rain kana

You may recall that kana was largely a kind of filler word used to pad out the 17 sound units customary in old hokku.  With punctuation and the greater freedom of English language hokku, we no longer need such padding.

 

David

 

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE DOG SLEEPING?

I have mentioned before that in old Japanese hokku there is a term for staying shut up indoors during cold winter days.  It is fuyugomori, which R. H. Blyth translates as “winter seclusion.”  Yet Westerners may fail to grasp what is meant by that translation unless already familiar with hokku.  So it is rather an “in” term.

snowyboughs

Some hokku that are interesting in Japanese are a challenge to try to fit into the English language.  There is, for example, this verse about winter seclusion by Buson.  Here is the original transliterated, and with a rather literal translation:

To ni inu no negaeru oto ya fuyugomori

Door at dog ‘s turning-over sound; winter-seclusion

The tricky thing is that the Japanese verb implies the dog is turning over while sleeping.  So if we just say what is happening in this hokku, we get something rather awkward:

At the door,
The sound of the sleeping dog turning over;
Winter seclusion.

Now obviously the second line is excessively long for hokku in English.  What can be done?  Well, we have to take the hokku completely out of the Japanese form and make it thoroughly English, and we could even using a rather informal expression for “seclusion,” like this:

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Holed up in winter.

That way we give the sound instead of actually using the word “sound.”

Or if we prefer the traditional translation of fuyugomori — which one familiar with hokku understands, we can just present the verse as

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Winter seclusion.

That actually has a bit better rhythm.

The verse — whether in Japanese or English — is effective in giving us the sense of the boring, drowsy, long passage of time indoors in the cold of winter (minus the noise of television, of course).  The monotonous silence is suddenly broken by the banging of the sleeping dog against the door as he rolls over.

It is little moments like this — little events that express the nature of the season — that hokku delights in.  And this emphasis on such little but expressive things is what makes hokku so very different from other verse forms, as does its focus on Nature and the seasons.

 

David

 

NO HARM IN TRYING: HOUSMAN’S TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Those familiar with Alfred Edward Housman will know that a “sports” poem by him is not going to be simply a sports poem.  That is certainly the case with today’s example, which is poem XVII (#17) in his collection A Shropshire Lad.  We shall take it part by part.  It is titled:

TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

“Thorough” here is just an old spelling of “through.”  And “football” here is the British term for what Americans traditionally call “soccer,” though with the current spread of popularity for the game in the United States, the term “football” for it has become better known.

A man looks back to the youthful days of his life.  He is (at least in memory) on the playing field, and tells us that twice every week, all through the winter, he stood on this spot as goalkeeper (shortened to “goalie” or “keeper”).  But he was an unhappy young man, melancholy, and in those days football then was a way of fighting his sorrow, of keeping the sadness and depression out of mind.  It was a common belief in British schools of that time that sports were an important part of male education, helping to provide, as the Latin saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano — “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

footballgoalie

He does not tell us why he was sad.  Housman himself was homosexual, and there would have been reason enough for a person so inclined to sorrow in those days when it was spoken of in whispers, the so-called “love that dare not speak its name.”  Not only was there the possibility of being a social outcast if word got out, but also there were sobering legal penalties.  So Housman knew well what it meant to be “acquainted with grief,” as the biblical expression puts it.

But speaking more generally, there are many reasons why a young man might be given to sadness and depression, with the reasons varying as widely as the individuals.  And one thinks too of William Blake’s notion that some are just “born that way,” recalling these lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

So we know our young man was deeply unhappy, and used football as an escape all through the winter days.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

The season moves on to spring.  It is the month of May, and the seasonal sport now played is that quintessentially British game, cricket.  Our unhappy young man marches out to the rectangular “pitch,” that is, the playing area.  He has his flat cricket bat, and wears the customary knee pads.  He stands at the wicket.  In cricket there are two wickets, one at each end of the pitch, consisting of three short upright sticks in the ground topped with two loose crosspieces called “bails.”

So as he marches out with bat and pads to the wicket, he invites the reader to see him as he was then, a “son of grief,” that is, a very sad young man, trying again to keep his sorrow temporarily at bay, “trying to be glad.”

Housman uses the football season (approximately autumn to spring) and the cricket season (approximately spring to autumn) to show us how the speaker in the poem attempted to deal with his unhappiness throughout the year.

And now Housman comes to the summation of the matter, looking back on the youthful attempt of the lad to fight sorrow through sport:

Try I will; no harm in trying: 
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

As in those young days of playing sports, the speaker of the poem says, “Try I will.”  He will keep trying to keep sadness off, because trying certainly does no harm, though success may be limited.  Because after all, he says, it is a wonder how little mirth, how little enjoyment in life, keeps a person from just giving up on living entirely, and becoming merely dead bones lying in the earth.

Housman frequently turns to this kind of bittersweet paradox.  It takes but little pleasure in life to make a person want to keep living, and the speaker of the poem wonders that it takes so little — just the escape in a game of football, or in a game of cricket.  Or, of course, in any number of other things.

It reminds one of Woody Allen’s comments at the end of the movie Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

That is the “glass half empty” approach.  But there is also the “glass half full” approach that we find in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The Spirit of Christmas Past takes miserly Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a Christmas Party, small in cost, but rich in mirth, held by his kindly first employer, Mr. Fezziwig.  The Spirit comments on the party Fezziwig has provided, and thus evokes in Scrooge significant thoughts on the way Fezziwig treated his fellow humans:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I hope in this holiday season. as the Midwinter Solstice approaches, that we may all try, in whatever way, to make the burdens on our fellow humans a little lighter, at minimum no more severe.  And as Housman wrote, “…no harm in trying.”

Here again is the whole poem, at one go:

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

David

A POOR WAYFARING STRANGER

The autumn chill;
Every place I live in
Belongs to another.

We have entered the time for autumn hokku.  Autumn is when Nature withers, and the energies of life go inward.  It is also a time of migration for birds and animals, and so is connected to travel among humans as well.

This hokku gives us a sense that we are all transients on earth, just passing through.  Some people are able to own houses and “put down roots,” but for many, life is a sequence of rentals, always living in a building that belongs to someone else, always at the whim of circumstance.  But there is a truth in that; nothing here really belongs to us.  Nothing here can really be ours.  Nothing here will last.

The verse is based on a hokku by Issa that is usually translated differently; but this rendering is better, and has a deeper significance.

 

David