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

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

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

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

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

 

MAKING UNEVENNESS EVEN: LONDON SNOW

It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.

Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.

At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.

In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.

(Written 1890)

LONDON SNOW

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.

It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell slowly, softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings.  One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does.  It fills in gaps and evens horizontal outlines.

All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled — marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.

Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’

The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.


With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.

David

SNOW AND SELFLESSNESS

In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created largely through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku.  Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana

David

NO SKY, NO EARTH…

A repeat of one of my favorite old winter hokku, by Hashin — clear, direct, simple, and very effective:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

For those who may not have experienced a good snowstorm, this hokku is an excellent description. The boundaries of sky and ground disappear, and one feels as though standing in the midst of a vast, cold universe of falling snow. One even has the sensation of floating upward while standing still, due to the motion of the snow.

Often people try to use too many words in writing hokku, try to say too much when, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Remember that one of the characteristics of hokku is simplicity.

Here is the transliterated original and a rather literal translation:


Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikeri

Heaven too earth too are-not at snow’s falling-incessantly

David

ANCIENT LAKE? OLD POND? AND HOW MANY DUCKS?

I often mention how the verses of Masaoka Shiki, paradoxically considered the “founder” of modern haiku, were actually for the most part just the old hokku under a different name. They certainly bear little resemblance to much that is written as “modern haiku” today in English and European languages.

Modern haiku (except for some conservative writers) has largely abandoned the connection to Nature and the seasons so essential to hokku. But Shiki not only kept the old traditional “season words,” but also, for the most part (though he stretched the envelope now and then) kept the link with Nature. Modern haiku is definitely not Shiki’s notion of haiku.

Shiki’s “Nature” verses tend to be pleasant, though they also tend to be “illustrations,” not surprising, given that he was strongly influenced by the open-air sketches and paintings popular in European art of his day. One could say that in essence Shiki’s approach to hokku was to regard it as “sketches from Nature.” That is why I always say that his better verses remind us of the woodblock illustrations of such Japanese artists as Hasui and Yoshida.

Today’s verse demonstrates the difficulty sometimes encountered in translating Japanese verses into acceptable English. Here is Shiki’s verse literally translated:

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

Old-pond ‘s mandarin-ducks on snow falls evening kana

As you can see, the meaning is quite simple and straightforward. It is:

On the mandarin ducks on the old pond, snow falls; evening.

It is easy to see why I say that many of Shiki’s verses are largely illustrations, if pleasant illustrations. One can easily imagine a woodblock print of mandarin ducks on a lake in falling snow.

Kana is just the “filler” word that Shiki used (one might say over-used) repeatedly in his verses.

The difficulty, of course, is that English, in this case, requires more space than the form of the hokku ordinarily permits. So if we want to say what Shiki is saying, but in English hokku, we end up either with something with an overlong line, like this:

Snow falling
On the old pond’s mandarin ducks;
Evening.

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;
Evening.

Of course we have left out that they are specifically “mandarin” ducks, and we have left out that the pond is “old,” so much has been lost, and it is hardly a satisfactory rendering.

R. H. Blyth (that clever fellow) used the content of Shiki’s verse, but presented it quite differently, thus managing to come up with a very acceptable alternative (I have changed his internal punctuation mark), but it still feels a bit overlong:

Evening snow falling;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On an ancient lake.

He does not say, as Shiki does, that the snow is falling on the ducks. He simply tells us that evening snow is falling, and then presents us with the scene of mandarin ducks on an ancient lake. The mind of the reader automatically connects this with the falling snow, so the reader sees the snow falling on the mandarin ducks on the ancient lake, as Shiki intended.

Blyth thought it better in this case to use “ancient lake” instead of “old pond,” even though Shiki employs the same furu-ike term used in Bashō’s famous “Old Pond” hokku). He also specifies the number of mandarin ducks (a pair), which Shiki did not. However in Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to mate for life, and are naturally thought of in male-female pairs.

I would simplify Blyth’s rendering slightly, like this:

Evening snow;
A pair of mandarin ducks
On the old pond.

That leaves it up to the reader to see the snow falling, and it eliminates some of the awkwardness of length.

I discuss this today not so much to present the difficulties encountered at times in translating old verses as to demonstrate the usefulness of moving the elements of a hokku around, of re-arranging their order and of trying different possibilities, so that one might get the best “fit” when writing original hokku in English.

David

EVEN THE CROW…

Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.

David

UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

sntr

Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.

David

WOLVES HOWLING: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

Per Jōsō:

Lupos ululante
Omnes insimul;
Le vespere nivee.

By Jōsō:

Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy evening.

In hokku habemus harmonia de similaritate, ma anque harmonia de contrasto.  Iste verso per Jōsō nobis mostra le harmonia de contrasto.  Como?

In hokku we have harmony of similarity, but also harmony of constrast.  This verse by Jōsō shows us harmony of contrast.  How?

Prime, iste es un hokku del hiberno; le hiberno es Yin.
Secunde, le vespere es un Yin tempore del die.
Tertie, le nive es anque Yin.

First, this is a hokku of winter; the winter is Yin.
Second, evening is a Yin time of day.
Third, the snow is also Yin.

Ma in medio de tote de iste Yin, videmus le lupos, qui son multe Yang.  E le lupos ululanten, e le sono de lor critos es anque Yang.

But amid all this Yin, we see the wolves, who are very Yang.  And the wolves howl, and the sound of their cries is also Yang.

Quando usamus harmonio de similaritate, nos accentuamos le character Yin del hiberno.  Le vespere e le nive — siente ambes Yin — nobis mostran similaritate.  Ma quando usamus harmonio de contrasto, nos exprimemus como le Yang accentua le Yin, e simultaneemente, le Yang accentua le Yin.  

When we use harmony of similarity, we accentuate the Yin character of winter.  The evening and the snow — both being Yin — show us similarity.  But when we use harmony of contrast, we express how Yang accentuates Yin, and simultaneously, Yang accentuates Yin.

In le frigor nivee e le obscuritate crescente del vespere, le Yang ululante de le lupos es, in consequentia, plus impressionante.

In the snowy cold and growing darkness of the evening, the Yang howling of the wolves is, in consequence, more striking.

David

LE MATINO NIVEE DE CHIYO-NI / THE SNOWY MORNING OF CHIYO-NI

Un de le hokku hibernales le plus bones es iste, de Chiyo-ni:

In campo e montesmornpd
Nihil mova;
Le matino nivee.

Iste verso nobis mostra le character Yin del hiberno (movimento es Yang, immobilitate es Yin). Videmus anque le Yin de hiberno in le nive que copera le campos e montes (le nive frigide es anque Yin).

In iste hokku trovamus le silentio e frigor que si ben exprimen le natura del hiberno.

(Iste es un experimento.  Si tu eres un parlator de un lingua romance, potes leger lo?)

*

One of the best winter hokku is this, by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

This verse shows us the Yin character of winter (movement is Yang, stillness is Yin).  We see also the Yin of winter in the snow that covers the fields and mountains (the cold snow is also Yin).

In this hokku we find the silence and cold that so well express the nature of winter.

David

(As you can see, I am still experimenting with an auxiliary language that might enable more people to read this site.  I began some time ago with Interlingua, and have adopted some modifications to it from David Stark’s “Latino Moderne,” which seems to loosen it up a bit and give it greater poetic possibilities.  Of course I am a novice at this, so bear with me.

DAY DARKENS; FORGETTING THE WORDS

English: Snow falling in the early evening

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

One familiar with conventional Western poetry is likely to ask, “What does it mean?”  That is a question inappropriate for hokku.  Archibald MacLeish once wrote in his Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) that a poem “should not mean but be.”  I doubt that MacLeish really understood that statement himself, but it applies to hokku, which does not mean, but only is, just as the darkening of day is, just as the falling snow is.

As I said in my previous posting, what is important in hokku is an experience; seeing the day darken, and with it seeing the snow once more beginning to fall.  That is all.  We need not look for anything we can put into words beyond that.

There is something in the verse, however, that is beyond words, and that is typical of hokku.  In good hokku we always have the feeling that there is a deeper significance, but we cannot — and should not try — to say what that significance is.  That feeling of an unexpressed significance is one of the characteristics of hokku.  It is somewhat like the persistent feeling one gets that there is something he or she is forgetting to do that is important, but one simply cannot remember what it is; the feeling is just there and will not go away.  Similarly, when we read this verse by Gyōdai, we sense a deeper significance that lies just beyond the ability of the intellect to express.  As in Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by T’ao Ch’ien,

In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail. 

In conventional poetry, words can express everything, if only one uses enough of them.  But hokku recognizes something that lies deeper than thought, deeper than intellection, something words cannot reach, and makes that an essential part of its unique approach to verse.

David

 

THE SOUND OF BRANCHES; the Simplicity of Hokku

There is a hokku by Buson, translated thus by R. H. Blyth:

Snow-break also
Can be heard,
This dark night.

I think many reading the verse without his explanation would fail to understand it, and that is always a problem.  A hokku should be able to stand on its own — to be effective — without a commentary.  If we modify it slightly, I think it will be more accessible:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

Now everyone should be able to get it — to experience it — without any added explanation.

But look how the revised version does what a hokku should do:  It is a manifestation of the season, winter.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  And it does it all very simply, presenting the experience only in sound (the branches breaking under the weight of the snow) and sight (the dark night), and of course the third element that we all feel without it even being mentioned, which is the deep cold of winter.

This is how hokku — the best hokku — differ from what we ordinarily think of as poetry.  Hokku is primarily an experience of the senses, not an intellectual experience.

Notice that the verse — as hokku should be — is divided into two parts, one long, one short.  And the two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  I often mention one type of hokku called the standard hokku, which consists of a setting, a subject and an action.  But keep in mind that these are not always strictly separated in a verse.

Let’s look at it again:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

The setting in a hokku is the wider environment in which something occurs.  Here the setting is “the dark night.”  The subject is “the sound of branches,” and the action is “breaking with snow.”  But note that the sound is not really separable from the action — “the sound of branches breaking with snow.”

Some people accustomed to Western poetry might find it difficult to understand how these three lines can be poetry too.  The answer is that the poetry of hokku is in the experience, not in the words, and if the reader experiences being in a dark night in which the sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow is heard, then that reader is experiencing the poetry of hokku, which is something quite different than the English-language poetry to which we are accustomed.

Hokku says only what is necessary, and stops before saying too much.  That is why it is so brief, and why two of its chief characteristics are poverty and simplicity.  By poverty we mean that it is reduced to its bare minimum of elements, just as a life of poverty reduces one to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.  When the elements are few, we have a greater appreciation for each one; its meaning, its significance, is magnified for us.

Simplicity means that a hokku uses few words and ordinary words, and does not try to impress the reader with verbal pyrotechnics.  Hokku should be as simple as a drink of warm tea from a stoneware mug.

Notice also the contrasts we feel in reading these few words.  We have the darkness of night and the mention of snow, which we know to be white; so there is an inherent contrast.  And we have the background of silence against which the breaking of branches is heard.  There is a sudden and loud crack out in the night, the sound of a branch falling with its load of snow, and then all returns to silence and darkness.

That is why this hokku is very effective, why it “works” as I always say.

David

 

 

CONTEMPLATIVE HOKKU IN WINTER

Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

David

SNOW AND THE POETRY OF NO POETRY

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst.  Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here.  But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity.  In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry.  That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now.  All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme.  Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far.  In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:

No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

It is almost a hokku.  In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:

No sky nor earth,
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.”  Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.

I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:

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

Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about.   In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.

For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow.  Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two.  There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer.  That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.

I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.

David

MORNING FROST AND MELTING SNOW

Is is unfortunate that Onitsura had no students to carry on his approach to hokku, which was really quite good.  But Bashō was the one with all the followers, so he is the one remembered, though Onitsura was writing in the same period and is along with Bashō a co-patriarch of our kind of hokku.  Onitsura’s verses often have a kind of spare and aesthetic elegance, like this:

Akebono ya   mugi no hazue no   haru no shimo
Dawn      ya   barley ‘s  leaf-tip  ‘s spring ‘s frost

Dawn;
On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

That is Onitsura’s austere way of sharing with us the period of seasonal transition when the last traces of the cold winter must give way to spring.

I keep repeating the principle of reflection in hokku, because it is so important to hokku aesthetics.  Remember that hokku use different techniques; they sometimes combine things that are similar, at other times things that are different.  In this hokku we have a mixture.

“Dawn” reflects the time of year, which is spring.  Spring is the beginning of the year just as dawn is the beginning of day.  So in this verse we see spring reflected in the dawn, and dawn reflected in the spring.  Both have a feeling of freshness and youth and newness.  But we also find the contrast between the “growing yang” dawn (reflected in “spring”) and the cold yin frost on the leaf of the barley.  This shows us directly the interplay between the forces of Yin and Yang in Nature.  Early spring is a time when those two forces seem to contend for dominance, but being a spring verse, we know which will win, because spring means growing yang and diminishing yin, just as dawn means the same.

So again, we see in this verse both the principle of reflection and the principle of contrast.  Someone who understands reflection will not mistake it for metaphor in hokku, something done all too often by Western writers and readers of modern haiku who have never learned the aesthetic principles and techniques of hokku.

Regular readers here know that I often caution novices about Issa.  Some of his verses are good, others too personal and reflective of the psychological wounds of his childhood.  Westerners usually flock to his “cute” verses like flies to honey, and have to be taught to appreciate those that are deeper in order to overcome that defect.

In any case, here is a spring hokku by him:

Yuki tokete   mura ip-pai no kodomo kana
Snow melted  village one-cup ‘s children kana

Snow having melted,
The village is filled
With children.

The Japanese original says the village is ip-pai with children.  Ip-pai means literally one cup, but here we are to take it in its secondary sense of something filled to the brim, or even filled to overflowing, like a cup of tea.

Henderson actually gives a quite good translation into English by saying the village is “overflowing” with children.

In any case, what we are to understand is that the snow has just melted (yin becoming yang) and this event is reflected in the fact that suddenly the village seems full of active children (also yang replacing yin). To say the melting snow that fills the village with running pools and puddles also fills it with running children is perhaps to explain too much, but really that is the sense we are to get from it.

So again we see the movement from the yin of winter to the growing yang of early spring presented through use of certain elements that have these qualities.  And just as spring is the beginning of the year, children are the beginning of life.  But always keep in mind that in hokku this is reflection (we can be more formal and call it “internal reflection”), not metaphor.

Issa also wrote another hokku of very early spring, touched with his characteristic quirky “psychological” approach:

Korekiri to   miete dossari   haru no yuki
That’s-it to looked very-much  spring ‘s snow

That appeared
To be all of it!
The big spring snowfall.

Korekiri (kore-giri) means “that’s all,” “that’s it.” Dossari means a “great deal” of something, a “big amount.”

This is Issa’s brand of humor.  In this verse we are right on the edge of ending winter and beginning spring, though obviously just across the spring boundary of the lunar calendar.   And there has been a sudden, huge snowfall.  Seeing that, Issa says, “Well that looks like all of it now!” meaning that the winter has ended in one last big snowfall that used up all remaining in the season, and spring begins.

Issa’s last hokku is light-hearted and humorous and child-like in reflecting the winter-spring transition, but Onitsura’s is more perceptive and deep.  Each has its place in hokku.  Yet if one goes no deeper than Issa’s approach, one will miss a lot.

David

WINTER LIGHT

Michihiko, who lived in the time of Issa, wrote:

Kare-ashi ya             yuki no chirakutsuku   kaze no ato
Withered-reeds ya snow’s  flitting              wind ‘s after

Withered reeds;
The snow flutters down
After the wind.

The wind has ceased, and the snow flutters softly down over the withered reeds.

The setting is “withered reeds.”  The subject is “the snow.”  The action is “flutters down after the wind.”  So this is another standard hokku, consisting of setting, subject and action.

“Withered reeds” is in keeping with the deathly yin of winter.  And of course the snow is yin.  And the ceasing of the wind is also yin — the change from motion to stillness.  And in that stillness, over the withered reeds, the cold snow flutters downward — a yin direction.

Sōchō wrote:

Yuki akari    akaruki neya wa    mata samushi
Snow light    bright   bedroom wa moreover cold

Snow-lit,
The bedroom is bright
But cold!

The brightness comes from the snow outside, but it is a winter brightness, meaning very chilly. This shows us the relativity of Nature — how there are no absolutes in Yin and Yang, but rather one thing is yin in comparison to another.  Light is conventionally thought of as yang, but being the light of winter, it is very yin in comparison to the light of summer — so very cold!

David

NOT DIVIDING THE ATTENTION

Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.

David


WINDY SNOW

We have seen that hokku avoids the use of the words “I,” “me,” and “my” unless it is awkward to do so.  That means there is no emphasis on the “I” as ego, but that does not mean those words are never used in hokku.  They are used when they are needed and when it fits the aesthetics of hokku.

We find such a use in this winter hokku by Chora:

Kaze no yuki   tatazumu ware wo   furimeguru
Wind ‘s  snow  standing me wo
blows-around

The windy snow,
Blowing about me
As I stand.

In English that has both “me” and “I,” but they are used in keeping with the spirit of hokku.  Chora writes about himself the same way he would write about the snow blowing about a rock or a tree — objectively.

Hokushi wrote a verse that is very satisfying, yet it applies far more to Japan than to America:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure
Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

One sees the paper umbrellas held up as the snow falls delicately onto and around them — a very Japanese scene.  But in the United States, people use umbrellas when it rains, not when it snows.  Somehow it just does not seem right to Americans to obstruct the falling snow with an umbrella as one walks through it.

Old hands here will recognize the simple structure of this verse, a standard hokku having setting (the snowy evening), subject (many umbrellas) and action (passing by).  It is not only one of the best forms for those beginning to learn hokku, but also one of the best forms no matter how advanced one happens to be.

David

RED ON WHITE, CROW ON SNOW

We all know that Shiki was the individual who began the revisionism that has proved so disastrous for hokku — so damaging, in fact, that in the 20th century most people did not even realize that Bashō and all the others up to Shiki wrote hokku, not haiku, let alone having any inkling of the aesthetic principles necessary for the reading and writing of hokku.

And keep in mind, revisionist though he was, Shiki was still on the conservative end of things, if we look at the history of haiku overall.  Most haiku written today have as little in common with what Shiki called haiku as they do with hokku, and are in fact quite new kinds of verse.

But let’s go back to the beginning of the trouble.  Shiki had a predilection for art, which is no doubt what attracted him so to Buson; Buson was the most painterly of hokku writers, and his verses often show his “artistic” intent, usually not for the better.  Then too, Shiki was influenced by Western open-air painting, and he came up with the notion that a “haiku” — his revisionist version of hokku — should be a kind of nature sketch in words.

We can see that in one of his “winter” verses (remember that Shiki, unlike most Western haiku enthusiasts, still held season to be an essential element):

Akaki mi    hitotsu koborenu   shimo no niwa
Red   berry   single  fallen         frost    ‘s    garden

A red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

I often talk about how Shiki’s verse tends toward mere illustration, and this is an excellent example.  We could, in fact, turn it into a block print using only two kinds of ink — red and white.  A red berry seen against the white frost background.  One could make it of construction paper, a red dot on a white page.

It is, in a way, an experience abstracted from nature.  It reminds one inevitably of William Carlos Williams’

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Aside from the extraneous “so much depends upon,” that too is essentially just a color assemblage, though slightly more advanced than that of Shiki.

Shiki’s verse is a tiny, circular spot of bright red set on a field of white.  It could be simply an abstract painting  — “Red Dot on White Field.”  It has its virtues for what it is, but it is a step away from what hokku should be.

Shiki takes the first step toward abstraction by not telling us what kind of berry it was.  That leaves us with the spot of red.  Thoreau would not have done such a thing.  To Thoreau a berry was not a mere spot of red; it was a winterberry, or perhaps a tree cranberry, or some other specific thing.  To Thoreau, as for hokku in general, Nature was not in the abstraction but in the specific particular.  So in hokku, when we write about a red berry, we want to know specifically what kind of berry, because then it will immediately appear before our inner vision as itself, not as an abstraction.

Bashō wrote:

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

Usually hateful,
The crow too
This snowy mornin
g.

That is a bit cryptic in English, because in Japanese one was expected to “intuit” what the writer meant, which was simply

The usually hateful crow is also something pleasant this snowy morning.

And of course one was to know automatically the reason for this, which is that the crow, being so black, looks quite pleasant when seen against the pure white background of snow.

Now we can see that Bashō’s hokku too would make an interesting block print — simply a black crow against a white background — but Bashō has not abstracted the crow into a generic black bird, as Shiki has done with the berry, and of course with the crow there is life; one sees it stalking about in the cold whiteness, turning its head.

Such differences seem small, but it is by failing to understand such things that one fails to grasp the essential nature of hokku as different from other kinds of verse, including much of haiku.

David




NO SKY, NO EARTH

Hashin wrote a winter hokku that has always been a favorite:

Ten mo chi mo    nashi ni yuki no     furishikiri
Sky too  earth too    are-not at snow ‘s    falling-ceaselessly

No sky, no earth;
The ceaseless falling
Of snow.

Or we could translate it like this:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

The latter inserts a word (as does Blyth) not found in the original — “only,” but it conveys the meaning well and is very euphonic.

Rather literally, the verse reads:

With no heaven and earth being, snow falls ceaselessly.

That means the writer sees no sky, no earth, only snow falling ceaselessly all around.  Looking up there is falling snow; looking down there is falling snow.  The writer is in a falling-snow universe where sky and earth have disappeared.  This is a a remarkably effective, wintry verse.

Jōso wrote a hokku about sleet.  Sleet traditionally is a mixture of snow and snow that has melted into rain.  It is not the “ice pellets” of American weathermen, which ordinarily we would just call frozen rain.  Jōso’s verse is impossible to translate literally into English, and we must look at it to see why:

Sabishisa no  soko     nukete   furu mizore kana
loneliness ‘s  bottom  fallen-out  falling sleet kana

Soko nukete, “bottom fallen out”  is an expression used in Zen of a moment of enlightenment.  Imagine a bucket filled with water.  Suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gives way, and all the water falls out.  That is the moment when customary conceptions and illusions and attachments, the fixed ways of seeing the world, suddenly fall away and there is direct perception with no distinction between perceiver and perceived, no intellection obstructing.

But “bottom fallen out” means nothing in the context of the rest of this hokku if translated into English, so we must find some other way of transmitting its effect.  This is problematic, because simply using a single word like “profound” leaves us with a rather skimpy attempt at hokku:

Profound loneliness;
Sleet falling.

Not only is that too short, it is also remarkably bland, so we shall have to do better.

Let’s look at how Blyth translated it:

Sleet falling:
Fathomless, infinite
Loneliness.

A very brave attempt!   But to really understand what Jōsō is saying, we have to turn to the principles of hokku.  Regular readers here will recall that hokku do not use metaphors. You will sometimes find modern haiku writers saying they do, but that is simply because they know nothing about hokku aesthetics, and misinterpret what they are seeing.  Instead, hokku use the more subtle technique of mutual reflection, in which the condition or character of one thing is reflected in the condition or character of another.  This too must not be misunderstood, however.

If we speak, for example, of someone washing daikon radishes in winter, we find the “yin” nature of winter reflected in the whiteness of the radishes and the cold water.  This does not mean either radish or water is a metaphor for winter or a symbol of winter.  It means instead that the character of winter is manifested both in the whiteness of the radishes and the coldness of the water.  No one of the elements is greater or lesser than the other.  The daikon radish is winter, winter is the daikon radish.  The cold water is winter, winter is the cold water.  The coldness of the water is the whiteness of the radish.  The whiteness of the radish is the coldness of the water.  Each is reflected in the other.

Knowing this, we can see what Blyth intended in his translation.  It is not merely that sleet is falling, and this makes the writer very lonely.  Instead it is that there is infinite, bottomless loneliness in the writer; and outside there is the falling of the cold sleet.  We see the character of the the infinite, bottomless loneliness in the falling sleet, and we see the falling sleet in the infinite, bottomless loneliness.

It is a mistake, therefore, to understand this verse as meaning simply that Jōso is profoundly lonely, and sleet is falling through this loneliness.  Instead, what it means is that the inner state of the writer is reflected in the outer falling of the sleet, and the outer falling of the sleet is reflected in the inner state of the writer.  They are simultanously the same and yet different, they are simultaneously inside and outside and yet there is no inside or outside.  All are one experience.

One can see there is more to this verse than is apparent to someone who does not understand the aesthetics of hokku.  Personally, I would change Blyth’s translation slightly, like this:

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite
Solitude.

One can be alone without being lonely.  And one can be lonely without being alone.  But aloneness has a somewhat different significance, because it takes away the aspect of needing or desiring another presence.  Instead it accepts the fact of being alone for what it is, without emotional protest.  That pure aloneness is reflected in the falling of the sleet, and the falling of the sleet is reflected in that bottomless aloneness.

We should understand Jōsō’s verse, then, not as an expression of lonely, over-emotional “needyness,” but rather as a manifestation of the mind from which all accumulated concepts and desires have dropped away.

We see this concept reflected in a verse on one of the block prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.  It shows the female hokku writer Chiyo-ni.  The bottom has fallen out of her bucket, which lies on the ground with all the water that had been contained in it flowing away.  A full moon is in the sky.  The verse ends by telling us that with the water no longer in the the bucket, tsuki mo yadorazu — the moon has no place to dwell.

You will recall that I often speak of the hokku writer as one who must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may be reflected in the clear mirror of the mind.  This verse about Chiyo-ni goes beyond that to the stage reached by the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

Those of you who know the traditional history of Zen will recall that centuries ago, the master of a monastery in China, the Fifth Patriarch, said that he would pass his office on to whoever in the monastery showed the deepest understanding of “Ch’an,” which is the Chinese pronunciation of what the Japanese call “Zen.”  The most respected student wrote a verse by night — a gatha — where it would be seen by all.  In it he said that the mind is a clear mirror, and that one should be careful to wipe it all the time so that it may be free of dust.  That is quite true, and it is true of hokku as well.

But there was a rather shabby fellow working in the kitchen, an illiterate nobody named Hui Neng.  When someone read to him what the verse of the chief disciple said, he composed his own verse, and had someone write and post it for him by night, out where all could see it.

The next morning the monks were shocked to read a verse that seemed to directly contradict the first verse.  In it was said that there never was a clear mirror, and that from the beginning not one thing exists, so where is there dust to cling to such an illusory mirror?

That is what we see in Chiyo-ni and her bucket with its bottom fallen out.

David

HOKKU TO MAKE YOU COLD

An old winter hokku by Sōgi, who lived long before Bashō:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping
Of duck wings.

We can easily see its form.  It is:

Setting:  In the freezing night.
Subject: duck wings
Action:  the ceaseless flapping of

In other words, we have what is common to many hokku — a setting, a subject, and an action — a movement, something moving or changing.

Bashō wrote:

Shigururu ya   ta no arakabu no   kuromu hodo
Winter rain ya field ‘s stubble ‘s blacken up-to

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

We can see that the pattern of this is different.  “Winter rain” is both the setting and the subject.  First the writer presents it to us, so we can see and feel it, and then he expands on it it with a further qualification — “enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.”  It is a different approach, not the normal “standard” hokku with setting, subject and action, but it is very effective nonetheless.

In all of these hokku we see again that a hokku is essentially two parts presented (in English) in three lines.  In Sogi’s verse the two parts are:

In the freezing night,
The ceaseless flapping of duck wings.

In Bashō’s verse the two parts are:

Winter rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble in the fields.

In both of these the shorter part functions as the setting, something very common in hokku.

Bashō’s verses were sometimes good, more often not so memorable.  We must remember that only a fraction of his hokku are really worthwhile.  He wrote another winter verse:

Fuyu no hi ya   bajō ni kōru    kagebōshi
Winter ‘s day ya horse on freezes  shadow

The winter day;
A shadow freezing
On the horse’s back.

We get what he was after, but it does not quite work.  What he really meant was that HE was freezing on the horse’s back, and when he transfers that sensory experience to a visual shadow, he is pulling us in two different directions, which does not work well in hokku.

We have to remember that Bashō was not any kind of Superman of hokku, he was just a writer who sometimes succeeded, sometimes not.  What Bashō did do was to live what he wrote about.

Kikaku, whose hokku are usually suspect, did write a rather good winter verse:

Kono kido ya   jō no sasarete   fuyu no tsuki
This brush-gate ya lock’s fixed   winter ‘s moon.

This brushwood gate,
Locked up tight;
The winter moon.

We feel the motionlessness, the stillness, the un-move-able-ness of the cold of winter, and the white light of the moon only adds to the chill.  Blyth translated the second line as “Is bolted and barred,” which not only emphasizes the effect but is also euphonic.

And last, for today, a verse by Tantan:

Hatsuyuki ya   nami no todakanu   iwa no ue
First-snow ya wave ‘s reach-not     rock ‘s on

We have to rearrange the elements to make it come out right in English:

On a rock
The waves cannot reach —
The first snow.

It is not a high rock, but just enough above the rough water so that the waves cannot wash away the first snow that has fallen upon the blackish mass of stone.

After reading these hokku, you will probably feel like putting on a sweater or heating a nice warm cup of herbal tea!  But I hope you will also pay attention to how each of these verses manages (or fails, in one case) to let Nature speak.

 

David

 

THE HOKKU OF WINTER

Winter is at the door.  In some places it has already come.  So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.

Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces.  Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness.  In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang.  Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum.  And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite.  So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline.  Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.

Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night.  Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin.  Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon.  This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.

Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night?  It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.

We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways.  In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period,  and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither.  We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day.  And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.

Snows are already falling in the high country.  Frost has come to many regions.  The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.

Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent.  That is a mistake.  Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme.  So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.

An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:

Akatsuki ya   kujira no hoeru   shimo no umi.
Dawn     ya whale  ‘s  roaring  frost ‘s sea.

Dawn;
Whales roaring
In the frosty sea.

That is a rather literal version — but effective.  In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so.  But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin.  We find that in the words the frosty sea.

The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible.  And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang.  But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold.  So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.  We could diagram it like this:

Dawn;  (setting)
Whales (subject)
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)

You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea.  Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.

Notice the selflessness of the verse.  There is no human anywhere in sight.  All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.

That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite.  That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale.  It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.

That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea.  Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy.  It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.

Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces.  In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:

No ni yama ni   ugoku mono nashi   yuki no asa
Field at  mountain at   moving thing is-not  snow ‘s morning

In fields and mountains
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is a very Yin verse.  We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving.  That is the stillness of winter.  We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse.  But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning.  In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.

It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin.  That is easy to see.  When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket?  In the Yin of winter.  And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire?  Again, in the cold of winter.

Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors.  Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood?  They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it.  Winter has great significance when we live close to it.  If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like.  We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.

It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.  That is really a kind of Jungian statement.  Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness.  Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?

Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

That is the Moby-Dick of hokku.  It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel.  Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote?  Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city?  Of course not.  How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?

I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic.  But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons.  Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.

Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us.  The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.

David