REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In recent review postings I discussed internal reflection in hokku — how similar things interact within a verse — and I discussed the technique of harmony of similarity. You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Today we will add to that another technique, harmony of contrast.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream — Yin — on a hot day — Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this hokku (I translate a bit loosely here):

Autumn

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a hokku using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

Autumn

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a hokku by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

Autumn

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old hokku by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

Autumn

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

Autumn

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a hokku. You should always remember that a good hokku is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a hokku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a hokku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All hokku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter hokku in summer or fall hokku in spring. And we ordinarily also read hokku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer hokku in winter or spring hokku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.

David

TWO VIEWS OF AN AUTUMN DANCE — AND OF OLD HOKKU

Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

The woman Sogetsu-ni wrote:

(Autumn)

After the dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

This is a good example of two things.  First, it shows us the very old hokku technique of using two things united by a third.  The two things here are the wind in the pines and the cries of insects, and the uniting third element is “after the dance.”

Second, it shows us is how a hokku can take on quite a different meaning in the West than it originally had.  When we read this hokku, we perhaps picture an outdoor dance in the open air, with strings of lights and lots of couples having a good time, with perhaps a hint of young romance.  There is a sense of nostalgia that the dance has ended, that people have dispersed, and after all that rhythmic human sound and activity, one is left with the vastness of the evening, the sound of wind through the pines, and here and there the cries of crickets.

Originally, however, what is translated here as “the dance” was Bon Odori, which refers to an annual folk form of circle dance — not in couples — that was part of the celebration to welcome back the spirits of the dead.  We would think of it as rhythmic walking in a circle with hands thrown alternately up to one side and down to the other in time to the music.

Bon odori ato wa       matsu-kaze mushi no koe
Bon Dance after wa    pine-wind   insect  ‘s   voice

So literally, the hokku is:

After the Bon Dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

Given its connection with the dead and the fact that this dance began very early in autumn by the old hokku calendar (which placed the beginning of autumn in August), we can think of it as a ceremony recognizing that the coming of autumn meant a waning of the Yang energies of life and the coming of the Yin energies of the dying of the year.  The living are Yang; the dead are Yin.  So the dance is one welcoming the other.

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primar...

That is something no one would even imagine by reading the verse in English, in the West, and without its original cultural background.

That raises the whole matter of the reading of old hokku by Westerners who generally have no notion of their intended cultural context.  Sometimes such old hokku can take on a meaning quite different from that originally intended.

If one is studying old hokku and its original significance in the cultural and literary traditions of Japan, knowing the actual context is very important.  But if, on the other hand, one is looking at what an old hokku can mean to Westerners today, in a European, Australian, New Zealand, or American cultural context, then we must just take the hokku as it stands, without its old cultural context, and see what it means to us now.  Many old hokku will have no meaning at all, because they are too closely linked to the old Japanese culture.  But many will take on quite a different context when read in the West, and that is as it should be, because we want to write new hokku in a Western cultural context.

There are two approaches to hokku, then.  One is to see it only in its old Japanese context.  The other is to take it, read it, and see what it means to us in a Western context, without necessarily any reference to what it meant originally.  In doing so, we may feel free to modify the text to allow it to become Western instead of Japanese.  We could even make it:

After the barn dance,
The wind in the pines —
The crickets chirping.

Of course a Bon dance and a barn dance are two completely different things, but again, we are using the original to learn to write hokku in English, not trying to translate literally now.

My view of the matter is that if old hokku are to be read and appreciated only in their original cultural context, then they become literary museum pieces, interesting for what they are (or rather, were), but of little use to people writing verse today.  But if, on the other hand, they are used, sometimes with appropriate modifications, as examples to show us how to write new hokku today, in the English language and in a Western cultural context, then they still have a purpose in the world beyond simply being curious antique literary artifacts.

That has always been my approach to hokku — that old hokku can provide us with good models for writing new hokku, if we use them for learning rather than regarding them merely as interesting relics of the past.  By doing so, we keep the old hokku tradition alive, along with its very important connection to Nature and the seasons, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

David