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

SAFFLOWER DEW

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

(Autumn)

Spilt,
It is only water;
Safflower dew.

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

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

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

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

(Summer)

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

And Aon’s:

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

 

David

THE SMELLS OF THINGS: CHARACTERISTICS OF HOKKU

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

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

That is the form in English.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

naka  (center)  Chinese character

は wa   (grammatical particle) phonetic symbol

mono (thing) Chinese character

no possessive word;  phonetic symbol

に ni-  phonetic symbol

 o-    phonetic symbol

 -i   ni-0-i = nioi (smell)

ya  cutting mark

夏  natsu  (summer) Chinese character

no possessive word; phonetic symbol

tsuki (moon) Chinese character

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

Let’s look again at the verse in transliteration:

ichinaka wa mono no nioi ya natsu no tsuki

Ichinaka is actually two words written in Chinese characters:

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

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

Or we might want to rearrange it as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most modern haiku avoid capitalization at the beginning of lines.

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

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

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

 

David

 

WHITE ON WHITE: A HOKKU BY KYOROKU

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

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

(Summer)

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

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

Here is the transliterated original:

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

David

CLOUD SHADOWS

A hokku by Kyoroku:

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

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

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

Here is the transliterated Japanese:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David

May Winds

May Day;
The warm wind fills
with whirling seeds.

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

Happy May Day!

 

David

GREAT HEAT: SUMMER’S MAXIMUM

A hokku by Chinshi:

(Summer)

The snail moves round
To the underside of the leaf;
The heat!

If you reach back in your memory to previous postings about the Hokku Calendar — the Hokku Year — you may recall that the actual effect of an astronomical event such as Midsummer’s Day (the Summer Solstice) is felt about a month later than the event itself.

We look on Midsummer’s Day as the time when the Yang energies reach their maximum and then begin to decline according to the position of the sun; but because the actual  effect is not felt until a month later, we do not immediately experience the manifestation of that event in our lives.

All of this is leading up to reminding you that July 22nd is nearing.  That is about a month after Midsummer’s Day, and what it means for us is that the Yang energy of summer — “fire” energy –will manifest at its highest point.

Because of this, it is traditionally believed that people should not exert themselves too much at that time, should not go on trips, and should not go outdoors in the middle of the day.  It has to do with the effects of this “extreme Yang” energy on the body.

This time even has its own name in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars:  it is called “Great Heat,” and it takes place approximately July 22-24th.

Of course that means we are closer to the traditional end of summer and the very old holiday of “Harvest Home” — Lammas, also called Lugnasadh (LOO-nuh-suh), which is usually celebrated on or close to August 1st.

 

David

MEETING THE GOD: BUSON’S SUMMER GROVE

There is a hokku by Buson that may easily be misunderstood.  R. H. Blyth presents it as

(Summer)

Not a leaf stirring:
How awesometrees
The summer grove!

The problem is the word rendered as “awesome.” We might think it means “very pleasant” or something similar. But using “awesome” in that sense is very recent in English. Buson’s term osoroshiki, which has the underlying sense of “fear-inspiring” — is much like the older usage of “awesome,” which similarly included an undertone of fear and dread.

The vast grove of old trees, completely still and silent on a summer’s day, with not one leaf moving, was experienced as overwhelming and intimidating.

That may initially seem odd, but it makes sense to me because of an experience I had when I was a very young boy.

In those days, my best friend and I liked to go hiking and roaming all over the rural countryside.  One day we went beyond our usual territory, and came to the edge of an old forest.  In retrospect, it was likely the first untouched old-growth forest I had ever seen.

We left the sunny field that bordered it, and entered the wood.  At once everything changed.  We were surrounded by huge trees whose tops we could not see, and haphazardly lying among them were massive fallen and decaying logs.  Everything — ground and fallen trees — was covered in a thick layer of soft, green moss several inches deep, and the light of the wood about us was a shadowy green.

We had gone some distance into this ancient, silent and still wood when we stopped and looked all around.  Then suddenly, inexplicably, we were both seized with panic, and hurriedly turned and rushed out of the forest as quickly as we could, back into the sunlight.  We never returned there again.

If you had asked either of us what in that ancient wood had filled us with sudden dread, I doubt we could have answered.  It was only later that I learned our fear was nothing new, that the ancient Greeks had felt it too.

Their explanation was Pan, the god of forests and shepherds.  They said that if a wanderer were suddenly to stumble across Pan, the embodiment of everything wild and natural, the god would fill him with an immediate, irrational, overwhelming fear —panic — a word derived from the god’s name.  It seems my friend and I, coming upon that untouched primeval forest for the first time, were so struck by its sense of otherness — of tremendous wildness — that we too were overwhelmed with panic.

masque_1

As for the hokku itself, I don’t think it works very well because it is so easy to misunderstand.  One would have to experience it, as I did, to “get” it.  So it does not make a good model for writing in English, and I include it here only because it helps to show both the difficulty in translating some hokku and the role experience plays in reading them.

 

David

 

HOT THINGS: THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

I often emphasize the importance, in writing hokku, of seeing something in a new way.  It is not that we constantly have to look for quite new subjects; it is just that when we see an ordinary thing in a new way, we perceive it differently; we have what Blyth used to call a “little enlightenment.”  We suddenly realize that the experience is telling us something we already knew, but did not know that we knew, until it was shown to us in a different way.

The seasonal context of a thing changes it.  We experience the same thing differently in different seasons.  Here is a good example, a “little enlightenment” of Buson:

(Summer)

Spider webs
Are hot things!
The summer grove.

Ordinarily we think of such webs as light and airy, open to the wind.  But in the heat of summer, entering and walking through a dry and windless grove of trees, we feel spider webs sticking to our face and hands, and suddenly we realize

Spider webs
Are hot things!

Like the verses in the two preceding postings, the bothersomeness of the spider webs on our skin in the windless grove only magnifies the heat.  One uncomfortable thing added to another uncomfortable thing makes both worse, with each bringing out the nature of the other.  And in doing so, they help to give the verse unity; the parts all work together as one experience, which in hokku is very good.

Suddenly realizing that spider webs are “hot things” is seeing something ordinary in a new way.  That is an opportunity we should use in writing.  Of course without the context of summer and heat, it would not be so.  In a different season and context, the nature of the spider webs — how we experience them — would also be different.

 

David

 

 

 

HEAT ON HEAT: A KNOCK AT THE DOOR

Here is a “westernized” variation on a hokku by Yayū that borders on senryu:

(Summer)

Hurriedly dressing
At a knock on the door;
The heat!

It is a very hot day, and the writer has been lying around nearly naked in the shadowy house interior, trying to cool off.  Suddenly there is a knock at the door, and he/she gets up with a start and hurriedly throws some clothes on, which, with the sudden activity of the body at the knock, make the heat of the day feel even more intense.

 

Davidhokku

HAIR AND HEAT: SONO-JO’S CHILD

The unseasonably hot days continue here.  It brings to mind a hokku by Sono-jo, a female writer.

As you know, summer and winter are the two “extreme” seasons; summer for its heat, winter for its cold.  Consequently it is effective in hokku to put opposites together — a cool river on a hot day, a warm quilt on a freezing day.  That helps to bring out and express the nature of the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

There is another useful method, however, for expressing the nature of an extreme such as heat or cold.  That is by combining it with something similar in some way, so as to add emphasis.

Here is how Sono-jo did it (Blyth’s translation, which can hardly be bettered):

(Summer)

The child on my back
Playing with my hair —
The heat!

Not only is the day unbearably hot, but the heat is only magnified by the sweaty heat of the little body against her back, and the hot little fingers tangling and tugging her hair.

Photo:  Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis
Photo: Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis

So it is the “bothersomeness” of the child carried on her back and playing with her hair, that magnifies and emphasizes the last line:

The heat!

We feel the uncomfortableness of the heat in the uncomfortableness of having the little child on her back.  It is not that she does not like the child; it is just that in this case, at this particular time, the child has become a living manifestation of the heat and its troublesomeness.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recognize this as just another variation on the writing method known as “harmony of similarity.”

It is good to keep such correspondences in mind as possible techniques to use when writing hokku, as well as in reading them.

 

David

 

 

 

 

COOL, CLEAR WATER

 

With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:

(Summer)

At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:

(Summer)

Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:

(Summer)

Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.

 

David

 

 

SENSATION AND UNITY IN HOKKU

Here we are on Midsummer’s Day, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

Photo: Anna Langova
Photo: Anna Langova

In the previous posting, I said that for a hokku to create a poetic-sensory experience in the mind, the writer has to create the right conditions.  When that is done, that experience will involuntarily arise in the reader’s mind.

Those right conditions are what make interesting hokku as opposed to boring hokku, meaning unsuccessful, failed hokku.

One does not need extraordinary subject matter for good hokku.  Most use very ordinary things.

As an example, here is a slight variation on a hokku by Genshi:

(Summer)

Looking to see
If the leaves are moving;
The heat!

That verse has great unity, meaning everything in it works together to create the experience in the mind.  We feel the intensity of the summer heat in the urge to find even the slightest breath of wind stirring the leaves on the trees.

Summer (like winter) is a season when contrasts become very important — heat and coolness.

Here is another slight variation, this time on a verse by Ganshitsu:

(Summer)

Evening heat;
Listening to the sound
Of distant thunder.

That too creates a sensation in the mind.  We feel the oppressive heat of the evening, and we hear it in the sound of the far-off thunder.

Remember two qualities that tend to make for good hokku:  strong sensation (meaning it creates a strong sensory experience in the reader) and seeing something from a different perspective.

Regarding the latter, we ordinarily think of leaves as green and cool and pleasant.  But in the following variation on a hokku by Kooku, we see them from a different perspective, meaning we see them presented in a way that gives US a different perspective:

All the leaves
Are covered in dust;
The heat!

It is a day so hot and windless that the dry dust that has settled on the leaves of the trees remains there, and we see the heat in it.

You can see heat in unmoving leaves and in dust; you can hear it in thunder.  That is a sign of a verse with good unity, and that unity helps to make good hokku.

As an example of a verse without unity, a verse that fails, look at this:

(Summer)

A robin
Walks across the lawn;
The hot day.

What is the relationship between the robin and the hot day?  None.  Two unrelated things, the day and the bird, have just been randomly put together.  There is nothing in it to make us feel a strong  poetic-sensory experience; there is nothing allowing us to see something from a different perspective; and there is nothing that unifies the robin and the day.  Keep those faults in mind, and it will help you to avoid writing bad hokku.

 

David

 

HOKKU: DON’T THINK, JUST EXPERIENCE

In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:

(Summer)

So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:

(Summer)

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.

 

David

*
Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana

 

 

THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE: A VERSE BY SHIKI

Masaoka Shiki wrote a summer verse that, like many hokku, creates both an image and a mood in the mind of the reader:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;emptyhouse
The evening sun.

The point of this verse lies in the combination of the monotonous, ongoing drone of the unseen cicada with the feeling of emptiness and absence and the passage of time given by the vacant residence.  Even though it is a summer verse, it gives us a feeling akin to that of autumn.

I have mentioned before that the absence of things can be just as significant, or even more significant in some cases, than their presence.  Hokku often make use of this.

David

The original transliterated:

Aki-ie no    mon ni semi naku    yū-bi kana

Vacant-house ‘s    gate at cicada cries    evening sun kana

TOUCHING THE MOON

As you could tell from the previous posting, we have entered the time of summer hokku.  There is an interesting verse written by the Buddhist nun Chiyo-ni:

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This verse gives us a good lesson in how to read hokku.  As we know already, hokku deal with sensory experiences, not with surrealism.  So when Chiyo-ni tells us that the fishing line touches the moon, we use the “intuitive leap” that is often necessary in hokku to tell us that the moon is a reflection in the water.  There is the moon in the evening sky and the moon in the water, but in this hokku we are focused on the moon in the water.

moonreflection

Chiyo-ni’s verse mixes the “real” world — the world of fishing lines — with the illusory world — the moon that is only a reflection, and where the line touches the moon the two worlds meet.  It is that odd feeling of the intermingling of reality and illusion that helps give the poem its effect. It is something like the old tale of the Daoist Chuang-tsu’s awakening from dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  It raises the whole issue of what is reality and what is illusion, but of course the hokku does not go that far.  It merely gives us the “seed” experience that turns to poetry in the mind.

 

David

For those who like to see the Japanese original transliterated:

Tsurizao no ito ni sawaru ya natsu no tsuki

Fishing-pole’s line at touching ya summer ‘s moon

HOKKU MADE SIMPLE: SEEDS OF POETRY

The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated.  It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku.  All of that can be a bit confusing at first.

The difference, essentially, is this:  modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less.  If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku.  It may be about any subject.

That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards.  It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.

Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations.  First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku:  Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer).  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared.  Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season.  In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.

So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.  R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows.  The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku.  The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.

 

David

 

For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:

Yūdachi ni  hitori soto miru  onna kana

Shower at alone outside looking woman kana 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A LOAD OF WIND

Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana

David

HOKUSHI’S CRACKED BELL: A SUMMER HOKKU

Even the “bong”
Of the cracked bell is hot;
The summer moon.

The functioning of this hokku by Hokushi lies in the use of the perceived similarity of the uncomfortable summer heat — so oppressive that it is felt even in the evening — and the oddly “off” bong of the large, cracked bell, a discordant sound that is also felt to be uncomfortable, and only adds to the discomfort of the evening. One bothers the skin, the other bothers the hearing, and so they are akin, with the sound of the bell manifesting audibly the discomfort felt in the evening heat.

In contrast to these, high above, serene and calm and flawless, floats the summer moon, perceived as cool and perfect but too distant to do more than represent a visual contrast to the dominance of the first two elements in the senses of touch and hearing. The first two elements of heat (touch) and sound (hearing) are disagreeable here, the moon is not, and in that simple fact lies the point of the poem.

Hokushi tells us how hot the evening is indirectly: ““Even the “bong” / Of the cracked bell is hot;

Of course one is just to feel this, and to explain it at length, as I have done, is like explaining a joke; inevitably something is lost. But I explain it nonetheless so that students may see how different hokku are constructed and how they work. And by learning that, students can then apply the same principles to the making of new hokku.

For readers who want the original Japanese (and I have one who always chides me if I don’t give it), literally the verse is:

Waregane no hibiki mo atsushi natsu no tsuki

cracked-bell ‘s sound too hot summer ‘s moon

David

YOU ABSENT AND PRESENT: TAIGI’S UNSPOKEN WORDS

In recent postings I have talked about how important unity is to hokku– how a relationship must be felt by the reader among the elements included in the verse.  And I have talked about how the reader must make a small intuitive leap in order to “put everything together,” to see how those elements relate.

Here is another basic example.  There are numbers of hokku which have to do with human psychology, and even use the words “I” or “me,” which ordinarily we avoid, but which treat these  (or should) objectively, the same way one would write about a buzzing fly or a croaking frog.

This summer example is by Taigi:

“There goes a firefly!”
I almost said;
Alone.

The key to this verse is the last line, which is really the setting in which the event happens.  You will recall that in hokku, the “setting” is the wider environment or context in which something occurs.  Here it is solitude, and in this solitude the writer suddenly sees a firefly flitting past.  In the childlike excitement of the moment, his first urge is to call it to the attention of someone.  But even before the words can escape his mouth, he remembers that there is no someone; he is alone, and so the words remain unspoken.

The focus in this verse should not be on any kind of emotionalism, not “Poor me!  Here I am all alone!”  Instead, it should be on the natural urge to share something exciting with someone else, a common human trait.

It is very easy for Westerners to wrongly focus on the personal aspect of such verses, because so much of Western poetry deals with the “I”  — “I think,” “I want,” “I like,” “I hate,” “I love,” but in hokku, humans are just a part of Nature, and their emotions are not to be exalted above it.  Hokku is more like the rarer Western poetry that treats human psychology objectively.

In that regard, Taigi’s hokku is a shorter and eastern version of the objective sentiments found in Robert Frost’s poem The Pasture, only in Taigi the “you” is present only by its absence:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

David

A LEADING DOG: DETERMINING QUALITY IN HOKKU

Context makes a huge difference in hokku, even if one uses the same subject.

Let’s talk about dogs.

Issa wrote two hokku — one a summer hokku, one autumn — in which a dog is leading someone somewhere.  But one is a rather mediocre hokku, while the other is quite good.

Here they are.  First, summer:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

When issa says “hermitage dog,” he really just means the dog from his own poor little dwelling.

The verse lacks unity and harmony.  In anyone educated in hokku, there will be the question as to what relationship exists between the dog going ahead, and the looking for a place to view fireflies?  The answer is that there is no apparent relationship, or an unclear relationship, or at least none that arouses a sufficiently suggestive feeling in a reader that might make this a worthwhile verse.

Now let’s look at an autumn verse by the same author, also with a leading/guiding dog:

Visiting the graves;
The old dog
Leads the way.

That is Blyth’s translation, and it can hardly be bettered.  In this there is a world of difference from the first example.  It is the season of autumn, the time of weakening Yin forces, of Nature dying and returning to the root.  That is in harmony not only with the graves, but also with the old dog himself.  And as I have said before about this particular verse, we have the feeling that the old dog has made this trip to the graves with the family many times in many years, and that gives us the feeling of the passage of time, of aging.  All of this gives the verse depth, and that is why it is much superior to the “firefly viewing” example, which seems quite flat and uninteresting:

Acting as guide
To firefly viewing —
The hermitage dog.

Now if Issa had said instead for his summer hokku something like:

Letting the dog
Choose the way;
Firefly viewing.

That would make at least some improvement.  It would indicate that, like the haphazard appearance of the lights of fireflies, the writer is in keeping with that randomness, letting the dog choose which way to go, while the writer follows after, accepting whatever comes.

No doubt there are many other ways one might improve on Issa’s summer verse, but my point here is just to show how one judges quality in a hokku.  As you can see, suggestiveness and a feeling of unity are good guides.  Without these, a hokku tends to be flat and tasteless.

David

OLD POND, OLD WELL

As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

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

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

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

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.

David

HOW TO READ A HOKKU: ONE MAN, ONE FLY, ONE ROOM

People often forget that in learning hokku, one does not just learn how to write them, but also how to read them. The same principles that apply to writing apply also to reading, and both are important.  If one does not know how to read a hokku, it will fail just as miserably as if it were the creation of a person who does not know how to write hokku.

One very significant characteristic of hokku is unity. That means, as I have said before, that a hokku is not just a random assemblage of things tossed together into a brief verse. For example, I could write

The dog barks;
A bouquet of dried flowers
In a window.

That would not be a hokku, in spite of the fact that it is in three lines, and despite correctly having a longer and a shorter part separated by punctuation (which also ends the verse). So merely having the correct “format” does not make a hokku, just a poor imitation.

What is wrong with it? It has no unity. There is a barking dog, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a window, but there is no relationship felt between them. They are just things and events thrown together. It does not matter that in the “real world” these may have actually been experienced. The fact remains that for the reader, there is no perceived relationship, no sense of unity, and that is why it fails as hokku.

This is something that people new to hokku, particularly those coming to it from other kinds of brief verse, tend not to grasp until it is pointed out to them.

Issa wrote a hokku that is a very basic lesson in unity, because we can easily see in it how the parts of the verse must relate to one another for it to make sense. If the reader does not make that connection, there is no hokku. That means the reader must trust that there is a connection, and the writer must know the aesthetics and principles of hokku well enough to make sure that the connection is there. If either writer or reader fails in this, the hokku will also be a failure.

English: Housefly

So here is Issa’s verse — only eight words in English. It is a summer hokku (remember that a hokku should always be marked with the season):

One man
And one fly;
The big room.

Knowing that in hokku things relate to one another, a reader familiar with this principle will intuit that the man and the fly are IN the big room. It does not need to be stated in words. And further, from his or her own experience, the reader will immediately feel the bothersomeness of that tiny fly to the one man in the very large room. We do not have to be told that the fly will keep lighting on the man’s forehead, or on his book, and the man will swat at it with his hand and it will fly away, only to be back again to trouble him repeatedly. And all of this is only made more bothersome by the fact that it is a summer day. One can even hear the buzzing of the fly in the  warm silence of the room.

In addition to unity —  the relationship between room, man, and fly — this hokku demonstrates rather obvious humor, which we feel in the “big” man in the much bigger room at the mercy of a tiny fly.

That does not mean all hokku should have this kind of psychological humor that is really very close to senryu. That is not the lesson of this verse for us. What we should learn from it is that everything in a hokku should be felt to relate to everything else in a meaningful way, so that we see the underlying unity and harmony of life that we so often do not notice in the apparent disparateness of things.

Today, for example, it is pouring rain where I am, even though it is the middle of June. I am staying indoors, quietly writing this posting. My remaining indoors relates to the rain, because when it rains, particularly when it pours, people tend to react by staying under shelter. And the rain seems to encourage quiet in us rather than action, which is precisely why I am sitting here tapping these keys to tell you about it instead of occupying myself with something else.

So please keep in mind, as you begin to learn hokku, that things should relate to one another in a verse, and that when a verse is read, the reader should be able to see that relationship. Otherwise, if the writer does not understand this principle of hokku, there will be nothing for the reader to “put together,” no threads uniting everything in the verse. That leaves us with just a three-line brief verse, a random assemblage of unrelated things. Whatever one may call it, it cannot be legitimately called a hokku.

David

MORNING MELONS MUDDIED AND COOL, MINUS “THINKING”

Bashō wrote:

In the morning dew,
Muddied and cool —
The melons.

Just one look at that should tell readers that hokku is nothing at all like what we think of as “poetry” in the West, which is why I generally do not refer to hokku as “poems.”  To think of them as “poems” or “poetry” just confuses the reader unfamiliar with hokku.

This is a particularly stark example.  It just presents the reader with four elements — morning dew, mud, coolness, and melons, but those all combine to form one harmonious unity, one sensory impression.

R. H. Blyth used this verse (but in his own translation) as an example of verses that “baffle the commentator.”  He then says,

All he might say is legs to the snake, horns to the rabbit, for these lines bring us as close to the thing-in-itself as possible.”

What he means is that such a hokku is so very close to the primary sensory experience that anything added would take away from or distort it needlessly, like trying to add legs to a snake or put horns on a rabbit.

This verse is a primordial sensory experience, and it is the kind of verse that would come from the mind of child, from the early years when sensory experience is so important — the taste of a thing, its feel when touched, its sound, its visual appearance, its smell — before we grow older and begin adding our own mental elaboration and ornamentation to everything we see.  Or as we say in hokku, “Before thinking and commentary are added.”

The hardest thing, of course, is to be aware enough to note a subject like this, one that is so completely simple yet nonetheless has an inexpressible sense of significance to it.  Move away from that ever so slightly, and it is all lost.

If we were to analyze this verse structurally, it breaks down like this:

Setting: In the morning dew
Subject: The melons
Action: Muddied and cool

Now you may say that technically, “muddied and cool” are descriptive words, not literally “action.”  But remember that in hokku “action” is just a reminder word that hokku should have something moving or changing.

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t see anything moving or changing in this.”  Technically you would be right, but intuitionally we feel the change that early morning brings, with its cool dewdrops that turn the dust on the melons to mud.  And so that is our “action” in this verse.

David

THE YIN AND YANG OF SUMMER

sstream

If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know how important an understanding of Yin and Yang are to the practice of hokku.  And you will know that speaking very broadly, Yin is cold and passive, while Yang is warm and active.

We are now entering the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means we are entering the most Yang season of the year.

We must remember, however, that Yin and Yang are relative terms.  So even though summer is, overall the “Yangest” of months (well, that word seems to work in English) nonetheless it too has its stages; and here they are:

Early summer is increasing Yang and decreasing Yin, so we may say that it is a “Yin” time of summer, but note that “decreasing Yin.”

The height of summer is the most Yang time, but as you will recall, when Yang reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite; so just when summer Yang gets to its highest point, that bit of Yin begins to grow in it, which takes us to late summer.

Late summer is decreasing Yang and increasing Yin, which you can see is just the opposite of spring.  So to summarize (should I say “summerize” in this case?), for convenience we can divide summer into three parts:

Early summer is growing/increasing Yang, the height of summer is maximum Yang, and late summer is decreasing Yang.

Those descriptions should call to mind the “set phrases” for the three phases of a season in hokku — “begins,” “deepens,” and “departs” (or their equivalents), that may be used for the setting of a hokku,  for example:

Summer begins;
Summer deepens;
Summer departs;

Now, having gotten through that background, we can take a look at what all this means in practical terms for hokku.

It applies to the two kinds of harmony in hokku — harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast.  Harmony of similarity means using elements in a hokku that are similar in some way.  Harmony of contrast means using elements that we tend to think of as “opposites” in some way.

To make that plain, a hot cup of tea and a hot summer day are “similar,” so if we put them both in a hokku, we have harmony of similarity.

A cold block of ice and a hot summer day are contrasts/opposites, so if we put them together we have harmony of contrast.

You may be wondering why we speak of opposite or contrasting things put together in a hokku as  still having harmony — why aren’t they inharmonious?  It is because we tend to feel that such opposites naturally go together, therefore harmony.

Now a very important part of Yin and Yang is that each calls forth its opposite.  What does that mean?  It is easy to understand once I tell you about it, and you are already aware of it, though you may have never thought of it in these terms.  It is simply that living things react to strong Yang in a Yin way, and they react to strong Yin in a Yang way.

That is why, on a hot summer day (Yang), you want to jump in a lake or river (Yin); similarly, on a cold winter’s night (Yin) you want a blazing fire on the hearth and a warm blanket (Yang).  It also explains why people in very sunny climates (Yang) tend to develop darker skin (Yin) as protection, and why people in very cloudy climates (Yin) tend to develop lighter skin (Yang), such as is found in Ireland, for example.  Of course that is something that happens over thousands of years, but it happens nonetheless.

So now you know what is behind this summer hokku by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is the middle of a hot summer day, and that calls forth a Yin reaction, which in this case is to take a nap — to become inactive.  And we see that through the gradual slowing and eventual motionlessness in sleep of the hand that was fanning the drowsy subject of the verse.  It is a Yin reaction to a Yang environment.

We see a similar, though less obvious example, in a summer hokku by Buson (I translate loosely here):

What joy!
Striding through a stream,
Sandals in hand.

Now that would lose its significance if we did not know it as a summer hokku, because it is the contrast between the warmth of the day and the coolness of the stream on his bare feet that gives the writer such delight.

So now you have a basic understanding of the Yin and Yang of summer, and how it applies to hokku.  Of course there is more to be said on that subject, but for now I will just close with the last words from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen:

Der sad de begge To Voxne og dog Børn, Børn i Hjertet, og det var Sommer, den varme, velsignede Sommer.

“There sat the two of them, grown up yet still children, children at heart, and it was summer, the warm, blessed summer.”

David

SHIKI, SUMMER, AND A SINGLE STONE

 

Translating Japanese verses is not always a simple matter.  Some translate easily and well, others present problems.  For example, I might translate a verse by Shiki as

People keep resting
On the one stone there;
The summer fields.

R. H. Blyth, however, translates the same verse as

One after another,
People rest on this stone
On the summer moor.

The truth is that both translations are compromises, because Shiki wrote it in very telegraphic syntax which reads literally

Consecutive persons repose summer fields’ stone single

In my verse, I chose to emphasize the presence of only one stone.  That is why travelers through the fields keep stopping to rest on it.  It is their only chance.  Blyth, however, chose instead to emphasize the “consecutiveness” of the stopping people, which is why he says “one after another.”  He ignores the singularity of the stone.

Blyth even gives an extended commentary on the verse, in which he tells us that “the stone is under a tree, in the shade, and it is just the right height and shape, so that it seems to invite everyone to sit on it.”

Well, as readers here know, I have great admiration for Blyth, and so I understand why he  mentions — creatively adds, really — a tree and its shade over the stone, even though there is not a word about them in the original.   Blyth is intuiting why everyone would stop and sit on that stone, and a tree and its shade would certainly make it more inviting on a hot summer day in the fields.

In my translation, however, I am perhaps more of a cruel realist, more like Thomas Hardy.  The passers-by sit on that stone not because there is a tree shading it (there is not), but simply because it is the only big rock in all the wide fields, their last and only chance to sit and rest their weary feet, whether the sun has heated the stone to a summery temperature or not.

I cannot bring myself, in translation, to add a tree and its shade that are not in the original, but I must admit that to really convey all that is found in the original verse, one has to break out of the hokku form, perhaps

One after another,
People stop to sit on it —
The single stone
In the summer fields.

So there is another way of writing Nature verse for you, a kind of combination of the hokku and the quatrain.  Should I call it a “quakku”?

 

David

 

 

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF HERON LEGS: GRASPING THE ESSENCE OF AN EVENT

Buson wrote a pleasant summer hokku:

An evening breeze;
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

R. H. Blyth made a very pertinent comment on this verse, a remark precisely in keeping the principles of modern hokku:

English: Adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia...

Buson’s intuitions are strong and clear and quick enough to avoid the colouring of his mind by emotion, or its distortion by intellection.”

Blyth is, of course, talking about just what we practice in modern hokku. We write our verses without any “coloring of the mind” — without using them as symbols or metaphors or allegories — presenting them in all their simplicity and purity. And we present them without “thinking” added, which Blyth here terms intellection. That means we do not use hokku to preach, or to advocate political or social change, nor do we use them to make some abstract point.

Of course there will be people who will say, “This is not poetry! It is just an event with nothing added!”

Precisely. That event with nothing added is the point. If you take pleasure in it without all the obvious frills of poetry, without the clever additions of a “poet,” then it is likely you have the kind of mind that appreciates hokku for what it is.

I always say we should not think of hokku as poetry, because if we do, we automatically haul in all the baggage one has grown up associating with poetry in the West. But hokku is nothing like the bulk of Western poetry. In hokku the poetry lies in the event itself, not in anything a poet may say about it.  That is why the writer of hokku must be quick in grasping only that essential event, before the mind begins to add all kinds of thoughts about it, before it begins to decorate it with mental ornaments.

It is always helpful to ask why a particular hokku is effective.  In this one, not only do we have the absence of the coloring of the imagination and the absence of “thinking,” we also have a very straightforward harmony of similarity.  It lies in the movement of the evening breeze combined with the movement of the water lapping against the heron’s legs.  That is all we need when these two elements are united by the heron, who stands in them both.

David

BIG ANT, BIG HEAT: INTERNAL REFLECTION IN HOKKU

IMG_1303 Big Ant
Big Ant (Photo credit: kainr)

If one does not have an understanding of the basic principles of hokku, it is often difficult to appreciate a verse because one simply does not “get” it.  This was a major factor in the rise of modern haiku in the west, which began largely as a misunderstanding and misperception of the hokku.

I often talk about this or that principle of hokku here, because without an understanding of those principles it is difficult to fully appreciate hokku.

One of those principles is internal reflection.  Internal reflection means that the quality or character of one thing in a hokku is reflected in the quality or character of another thing.  Internal reflection is very common in hokku, and gives it a certain depth.

Take for example this summer verse by Shirō:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

This is a very obvious example of internal reflection, so obvious that some people are likely to “get” it without realizing just why.

Put very simply, the magnitude of the present heat is reflected in the hugeness of the ant. The writer (and the understanding reader) perceives the “bigness” of the oppressive heat in the “bigness” of the ant.

R. H. Blyth attempted to to explain this by saying,

It will do no harm to say that the ant is a symbol of the heat, provided we remember that it is so because it is felt to be so, and in as much as it has no rationally explicable connection with that heat.”

Well, it can do harm.  Blyth obviously knew, even while writing the sentence, that the ant is not really a symbol of the heat, and that his attempt to explain the matter is potentially misleading.  And there is a connection that can be explained rationally and simply, and without the potential confusion inherent in Blyth’s attempt.

In hokku one thing does not symbolize another.   Each thing has its own value and significance, but that value or significance can be enhanced or deepened through internal reflection, which is actually what happens in this verse.  The unusual size of the ant reflects the unusual “size” of the heat.  The quality or character of one thing is reflected in the quality or character of another.

While Blyth was without question the most perceptive of the writers on hokku, unfortunately he did not present the nature and fundamentals of writing hokku in a simple and systematic fashion, which has led to much of what he had to say being either overlooked or ignored or forgotten today.  And of course there is his regrettable anachronistic use of the term “haiku” for what was and is really hokku.  Nonetheless, there is still much to be learned from Blyth, though one must work at it, and few are willing to put forth the effort.

But we need not go into all of that.  What we do need to remember is the principle of internal reflection and how it works in hokku, because it is very often used.

And by the way, in the original verse, what I have translated as “floor” is tatami — those woven mats of grass on a wooden framework that together formed the floor in the traditional Japanese home.  But for us, in English, “floor” does the job.

David

ABSENCE AND PRESENCE AND SUMMER HEAT

The windbell silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

This summer hokku by Yayū is somewhat unusual, first because it includes a clock.  We already know that “modern technology” is not a part of hokku, and if we allow ourselves to become very literalistic about that limitation, instead of understanding its spirit, we might think that Yayū made a mistake in including a clock.  But clocks are very old, and belong to a kind of simpler technology that preceded the Industrial Revolution and is still within the realm of things worked and molded and cast, like iron pots and door hinges, in spite of a clock being somewhat more complex.  So they are not entirely out of place in hokku, and as we shall see, Yayū included a clock for a specific reason.

Most hokku are about things that are present — rain, sunlight, a spider, the wind.  But it is an important characteristic of hokku that things NOT present are just as important.  Things not present are absent, so we may speak of two kinds of hokku:  hokku of presence and hokku of absence.

Yayū’s hokku is again unusual in that it is a hokku of both absence and presence.  When Yayū writes:

The windbell silent;

what he is really presenting to us is the absence of sound.  The windbell is not moving, not making its customary, pleasant sound.  That means there is no wind.  The absence of sound equals the absence of wind here.  So what this first line is actually telling us is that it is a hot, completely windless day in summer.  That is the “absence” part of the hokku.

wind bell
(Photo credit: koizumi)

Now for the presence:  In that absence of the sound of the windbell that would indicate a cooling breeze, there is instead another sound — the regular, dry, mechanical ticking of a clock.  But Yayū, just as he presented us with the absence of wind indirectly by making us notice the silence of the windbell, now presents us with something else through this ticking:

The heat
Of the clock.

Now of course rationally we may ask what is hot about a clock?  But then we should remember that in hokku, perception is what counts.  The world is not viewed as an accumulation of isolated objects and events.  Instead, everything relates to everything else.

We have already seen that demonstrated in the silence of the windbell, which means not simply silence but also the absence of wind.  Now we see another relationship in the ticking of the clock on a summer’s day.  That ticking — like the absence of wind — is not mentioned at all, yet just as we know the wind is absent because the windbell is silent, we also know the clock is ticking because of the heat.

When Yayu speaks of the heat of the clock, we hear the dry, mechanical, regular ticking, and in that metallic regularity, so unlike the randomness of a windbell moved by a breath of air, we feel the oppressive heat of the day, and we feel it magnified by the absent ringing of the windbell:

The heat
Of the clock.

It really is a remarkable hokku, and if one did not understand how hokku work (and most do not, until someone tells them), it would be very easy to overlook or dismiss such a verse.

When a hokku is read, it must be with the premise of the universe as many things all interrelated. So in this verse, the silence of the windbell and the absence of a breeze are one thing; the clock and that heat and the ticking are one thing; and when we have finished the verse, what is absent and what is present together become one experience, each element giving significance to the other.

David

THE ESSENTIAL IMPORTANCE OF YIN AND YANG IN HOKKU

I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

300px-yin_yang-1-svg

Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

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

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.

David

THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

Every year I like to post this article again to mark that time when one feels the change in the air that marks the beginning of summer’s wane into autumn.  It is a day when one palpably feels that suddenly the energies of the season have weakened, that the active Yang energy of summer has begun to give way to the growing Yin energies that will take us first into Autumn, then Winter.  It happens at different times in different places.  I never know ahead of time on what day in August it will come here, but I certainly felt it this morning.  The Wheel of the Year has turned; the decline into Fall has begun.

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

 

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

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

When you read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in his book The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma MèreMy Mother’s Castle:

Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

 

David

 

 

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY

Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

SPRING:
Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

SUMMER 
begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

AUTUMN/FALL
For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

WINTER:
Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.

David

SNAILS, LOCKS, AND BRUSHWOOD GATES

In Japan, Issa’s hokku have always been remarkably popular.  And they are popular in the West as well — at least the better known verses, among which one finds this:

The brushwood gate;
Instead of a lock,
A snail.

But of course that is not the popular translation, which is, following Blyth,

A brushwood gate;
For a lock,
This snail.

There is a subtle distinction between the two, and for me it makes the difference between an acceptable verse and one that is just “too cute for words.”  It is the difference between “acting as” and “instead of.”

To say,

For a lock,
This snail.

is to put the verse into the childish mind — which we do indeed often find in Issa — but in an adult it comes off as mawkish.  This is all the more dangerous in hokku because in the West, people eat “mawkish” with a spoon.  They cannot get enough of it, and as I discovered long ago, one of the worst failings of some beginning students of hokku is that they go for the “cute” and sentimental like flies to dead flesh, particularly female writers, but males too are not immune.

The difference can be seen in the two translations of this verse.  We can put that difference into prose like this, so that it may better be understood:

In the first translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate — a gate made of roughly cut sticks, the bark left on.  And he tells us that there is no lock on the gate, and that where one would expect to find one, there is only — at the moment — a snail.  A snail instead of a lock.

In the second translation, the writer shows us a brushwood gate, and says that he has a snail acting as a lock; the snail takes the place of and serves the function of a lock.  That, of course, is just childish fancy; a snail cannot serve the purpose of a lock.  It is in this incongruity that we find the “cuteness” of the verse.  It reminds one of children playing “bank” with leaves as money.  But what is cute in children is just sentimentality in an adult’s hokku.

Now in his commentary on this verse, Blyth remarks that “The snail is used both as an absurd-looking creature and to point to the ridiculousness of all locks and bolts and gates and doors.”

It is a brave effort, but I do not quite buy it.  To me, as good hokku,  the verse is simply expressing the writer’s poverty — that he really has nothing worth stealing, so a snail where one would expect a lock really does not much matter.  If one understands the verse that way, it loses some of its sentimentality, but it is hard to read it that way in the second translation, which tends instead to fall into mere sentimentality.

That is why I prefer the first translation, which prevents us from confusing lock and snail, and tells us quite plainly that there is no lock on the gate — just a snail where a lock would ordinarily be.  “Instead of” rather than “acting as.”

Now as to what Issa actually intended, we can only say that either translation is possible.  I suspect, however, that Issa intended the more mawkish reading, knowing Issa’s way of thinking and reacting, which is why I seldom use his verses as models, and when I do, it is only those free of such personal peculiarities.

David

THE HEAT!

R. H. Blyth remarks that “only in Japan can we find hundreds of ‘poems’ written on the subject of heat.”  That he puts “poems” in quotes is significant, and indicates — as I always tell students — that we should not confuse what we are accustomed to think of as poetry with hokku.  For the most part, hokku is nothing at all like conventional Western poetry.   We may accurately describe hokku — following Blyth — as “poetry-sensation, the sensation perceived poetically.”

Now sensation means simply an experience of one or more of the five senses — taste, touch, smell hearing, and seeing.  Heat and cold fall under touch, given that they are our contact with the presence or absence of heat.  So please note, dear readers, that there is a poetry of the sensations, and that poetry is precisely as Blyth describes it — “the sensation perceived poetically.” And that is what we find in hokku.

Now it should be obvious to those with some knowledge of English poetry that there is precious little in it that can in any way equate with this notion — that sensation is in itself poetic.  Yet there is poetry in cold, and poetry in heat.  Not the poetry of playing with words, of being clever in verse, but in the sensation itself when perceived by a human.

It was the genius of the Japanese — of the writers of hokku — that they realized this, thus the large numbers of hokku on heat and cold, on each separately, and on the meeting of the two.

There is a woman’s poetry of heat (Sono-jo):

The child on my back,
Playing with my hair;
The heat!

There is a crabby man’s poetry of heat (Shingi):

He says nothing
To anyone who comes;
The heat!

There is the unfortunate woman’s poetry of heat (Yayū):

The prostitute
Sells her sweaty body;
The heat!

There is the laborer’s poetry of heat (Shiki):

In the fisherman’s hut,
The smell of dried fish;
The heat!

There is the (mistreated) animal’s poetry of heat (Chōsō):

Dressing him,
The monkey gets sulky;
The heat!

One could go on and on, but I will stop with Hyakuri’s

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

How very different in method from the similar English excerpt from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge):

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Let’s look again at Hyakuri’s hokku:

At ebb tide,
The heat
Of the unmoving ship.

Heat is yang.  The ebbing of the tide is yin.  Something unmoving, in this case the ship, is also yin.  In nature we find that paradoxically, yang tends to create yin.  In the desert we find cacti, which are watery and yin on the inside, just as fruits in the heat of Hawai’i are also yin.  That is the effect we get in this verse.  The great heat is manifesting itself in the unmoving yin of the immobile ship, and we feel it also in the ebb tide — not as a cause-effect occurrence, but just because of the “weak” yin feeling in the tide.

One of the most important realizations the beginning student of hokku can make is that the distinctiveness of hokku is in its “poetry-sensation,” as it enables us to experience “the sensation perceived poetically.”

David

IS HOKKU DIFFICULT?

Is hokku difficult?  The simple answer is no.

The only difficulty in hokku comes from what we add to it from our own minds.  Really, a hokku is just a meaningful experience of the senses expressed in the context of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

One can, of course, find old Japanese hokku that were difficult, because old hokku had not lost its literary connections.  So often an old hokku cannot be fully understood without knowing that it used a phrase from this or that Chinese poem, or an allusion to an historical or literary event.  I have no interest in such hokku, because they are not hokku at its best.  They are just another form of hokku as a game.  To some it was a word game, to others a literary game —
“Guess the puzzle.”

What was worthwhile in old hokku was its expression of an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.  And there is nothing difficult about that beyond the willingness to give up our “thinking” and attachment to the notion of “self” for a while, and to just go with actual experience.

Yes, one has to learn how to punctuate, one has to learn that a hokku has a “cut” between the shorter and longer parts, one has to learn how to create internal harmony in a hokku, but really these are easy things.  It is Nature that does all the work — Nature that creates an experience we feel to be significant.

Some people like to give the impression that hokku is difficult and mysterious, but it is not that at all.  The best hokku are straightforward and direct, like this summer verse by Taigi:

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

That could have been written about most any place in America on a hot day.

Our modern hokku has none of the excessive characteristics that did sometimes make old hokku difficult, because modern hokku takes what was best in old hokku and sets that as the standard.  We can cheerfully forget all the rest and leave it to scholars and academics, because it is just the chaff of the history of hokku.

David

THE ONE-FOOT WATERFALL

Issa wrote:

The one-foot waterfall
Also makes sounds;
The evening cool.

This is Issa’s version of “The morning glory that lives but a day differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.”  A one-foot waterfall, like a greater waterfall, also has the pleasant, soothing and cooling “sound of water.”

Like many of Issa’s hokku, this example is subjective; it adds “thinking,” seen in the word “also.”

SEEN IN THE SHALLOWS

Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

Evening;
The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.

David

THE WINDBELL IS SILENT

You will recall that very old hokku often used two things joined by a third.  Yayu wrote an interesting hokku that uses two things also, but provides the third that unites them in an interesting way:

The windbell is silent;
The heat
Of the clock.

It is a very hot summer day without a breath of wind.  The windbell hangs unmoving and silent.  The only sound in the heavy heat is the steady, regular, dry, metallic tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock of the clock (obviously pre-digital days).  We feel the persistence of the summer heat in the ceaseless ticking that marks off the seconds and minutes and hours of the hot, oppressive day with the same weariness we feel in William Blake’s lines,

Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun….

In Yayu’s hokku, the third element that joins and harmonizes the silence of the windbell and the steady ticking of the clock is of course the heat!

David

THE CLEAR WATER

The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it —
The clear water.

Buson

While working stone, the metal chisel of the stonemason becomes too hot to hold — from the heat of the day and from the friction of repeated blows — so he holds it in the clear, cool water to take away the heat.

This is a hokku of harmony of opposites — the heat of the summer day (this is a summer hokku) and the heat of the chisel from working the stone are placed against the coolness of the water — Yang (heat) against Yin (coolness and water) — and in this case, Yin overcomes Yang, which makes for a very refreshing verse.

David

THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

Good hokku generally have strong sensation.  By sensation we mean an experience of the senses — seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing.

Those of you with an inquisitive bent of mind may think, “Well, if hokku is all about sensation, why not just present a sensation and be done with it?  Why not just say something like “heat” or “coolness” or “sticking my hand in icewater,” and have that as the entire verse?

The answer, of course, is that it does not make much of a verse.  The reason is that sensation without context has little significance for us.  There must be something that sets off the sensation, that acts as a foil.  By “as a foil” I am using the old meaning of the word, in which the “shine” or color of a gemstone was enhanced by backing it with metal foil.  A similar thing happens when we add context in hokku.

For example, here is a sensory experience of seeing:

A huge ant walks across the floor.

And the natural response would be, “OK, so what?”  That is because the ant crossing the floor has no context.  But when we add a meaningful context, then something interesting happens:

A huge ant
Walks across the floor;
The heat!

By Shirō’s just adding the context of the sensation of heat, the huge ant walking across the floor suddenly becomes meaningful, significant.  We cannot really say what its significance is, we just feel it to be significant.  One clue is that the “hugeness” of the ant is like the “hugeness” of the heat — so in a way this is a hokku of perceived harmony of similar things.  But I mention that only to help those who are new to hokku.  Really it is best just to feel the unspoken connection, and that leaves us with the feeling of a significance that cannot be put into words.

Hokku are not intended to be “pretty,” just interesting and significant, so we come across some earthy ones such as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!

Well, that has sensation, but it does not have enough context to “set it off.”  That missing context was added by Masafusa as:

In the horse market,
How their urine stinks!
The heat!

By simply adding the heat, the awful smell is “set off” and intensified, and when that happens, the sense of awful heat is also intensified.  So we see here again a hokku of harmony of similarity, in this case of “strong” things — the strong stink of the urine, the strong heat of the very hot, still summer day.

Now why am I telling you these things?  For one reason only — to help you to understand the aesthetics and techniques of the hokku, so that you may write new hokku and keep the old tradition alive.

David

A SUDDEN SHOWER

Readers will long ago have noticed that I use old hokku — including verses just beyond what is technically the old “hokku” period — quite often.  My purpose in doing so is not just to provide a collection of old verse, but rather to show through them how new verses may be written in English — new hokku.

Shiki wrote a verse about a shower and rain beating on the heads of carp.  There are several ways we can present it in English — and several ways we can write other hokku using the same patterns in English.

We could say:

A sudden shower;
Rain beats on the heads
Of the carp.

We could also write it using the “repeated subject” method, which works very well in English.  You will recall that the subject of the verse is named once, but also presented a second time using a pronoun — “he,” “she,” or “it.”  Here’s how it works with Shiki’s verse:

A sudden shower —
It beats on the heads
Of the carp.

Either method will work, though the second, “repeated subject” method avoids the repetition of a noun (shower – rain) in the first example, which is often useful.

This verse, though late, is nonetheless “internally” in all respects a hokku, and a rather good one.  This kind of objectivity is what we favor in hokku — no added thinking, no added commentary, not even a writer anywhere in sight.  There is only the unexpected, sudden summer shower, and the rain beating on the heads of the carp risen to the surface of the water.

In spite of being a summer verse, it is a very cooling, yin, watery verse.

Kikaku, one of Bashō’s students, wrote a verse using the same setting much earlier:

A sudden shower;
A solitary woman
Looks outside.

Blyth takes a slight bit of freedom with it, making it even more effective:

A summer shower;
A woman sits alone,
Gazing outside.

That gives us a somewhat different effect than the first, and shows us how small changes in a verse can alter the effect.

David

THE CLEAR WATER

A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

We see the tiny fish in the clear, sunlit water, swimming against the current, which nonetheless is so strong that, still facing upstream, they are carried  a bit backwards.

This is one of those hokku that is just a kind of rejoicing in the experience of seeing.  We feel the small strength and persistence of the little fish against the greater strength of the clear water.  There is the energy of the fish going in one direction, the energy of the water going in the other.

This is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.

The setting is “the clear water.”
The subject is “little fish.”
The action is “are carried backwards.”

David

IT WAS THE THIRD OF JUNE…

Today I am going to combine some things I have talked about lately:

First is the “Question” hokku, the whole point of which is to ask a question — or raise a question — that remains unanswered.

Shiki wrote a verse which I shall rearrange slightly to better fit English:

On the sandy beach,
Why is a fire being lit?
The summer moon.

Again, the whole point of such a verse is to have us experience — through the elements of the verse — a question that remains unanswered.  It is that feeling of not knowing that is the whole point of a “question” hokku.  To answer the question would ruin the verse.

The second recent topic is that of song lyrics as commonly unrecognized or undervalued poetry.  I have pointed out that song lyrics, which for convenience I call poems/songs, are often not even mentioned when the subject of poetry is raised, because they are somehow seen as “not real poetry.”  But in contrast to that, I also pointed out how in most cultures, poems that today are read silently or aloud were originally sung.  That combines the musicality — the sound and rhythm — of words in a poem with the music of the singing voice, often accompanied by one or more musical instruments.

There is a conflict then — something that makes no sense — when we read through hundreds of pages in an anthology of poetry and find that virtually none of the recent verses included are the poems that are song lyrics.  This is often simply unrealistic snobbery on the part of the compiler or compilers.

But back to the topic.  Just as we find the raising of an unanswered question significant in “question” hokku, we also find it significant in a good longer poem/song.  As an example, here is a rather remarkable poem — originally sung — called “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry:

It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton
and my brother was balin’ hay.
And at dinner time we stopped,
and we walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered at the back door “y’all remember to wipe your feet.”
And then she said she got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.
“Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge,
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billy Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right.
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge,
And now you tell me Billy Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today,
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way,
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe.
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything.
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Wow.  One could hardly find a verse more effective in setting mood, in raising questions that forever remain unanswered.  And the plain, southern “country” language of the writer is very effective.  The whole poem has a hot, weary air that is only heightened when sung.  And the phrasing is so true to life — no “fancy” language here:

Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite.”

and

There was a virus going ’round, papa caught it and he died last spring,
And now mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything
.

Look at the effective use of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and repetition of two-syllable words at the very beginning, in setting the tired, drowsy overall atmosphere of the poem:

It was the third of June,
Another sleepy, dusty delta day.

Is it any wonder that the general public has lost interest in much of what is offered in contemporary anthologies and journals as poetry today?  It has all too often become over-intellectualized, over-thought, and has frequently lost the “life” that we see, somewhat paradoxically, in poems such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”

David

ONE BIG, LAZY CAT IS ALL OF SUMMER

Issa wrote this summer hokku:

The big cat —
Flopped down on the fan
Asleep.

It is rather typical Issa, with his connection to animals and his kind of humor.

The point of the verse is that it is summer, which means heat.  Looking for his fan, Issa sees that a big, lazy, sleepy cat has flopped himself down right atop it, and is drowsing away.

So to understand the verse, we have to feel the heat; we have to feel the little frustration yet humor in seeing the cat lying atop the fan; and we have to feel the heaviness of the heat in the bigness of the cat.  The heat of summer has manifested itself in the bigness of the cat that is “keeping” the coolness of the fan.  That is perhaps saying too much, because we are just supposed to feel those connections, but when one is learning, these things occasionally have to be spelled out so that the beginner may know what to look for in hokku, and how they work.

This odd, unspoken connection between things is very common in hokku.  It helps bring us back out of our thoughts to the real world, in which everything and everyone is connected.  We see heat and summer in a big cat, but also in the potential coolness of the fan that we have to go to some bother to retrieve from the cat who has taken it over.  But we must not think the cat is a metaphor or a symbol.  The cat is a cat; the heat is the heat.  And yet the heat manifests in the big cat, the big cat manifests in the heat.  That is how things are “felt” in hokku.

You always read here that hokku should be something seen in a new way.  In Issa’s verse, the newness is in the connection between the summer heat, the big cat, the fan, and of course Issa himself, who is never mentioned at all in the verse.

When we read the hokku, there is no Issa; we become the experiencer.  So we cannot say the hokku is “about” Issa.  In hokku there should be no “fixed” writer visible.  That allows the reader to become the one to whom the hokku is happening.  And each time we read it, it happens anew.  But in hokku we must take one more step and say there is no experiencer.  There is just the experience.   That is why we say in hokku that the writer must get the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.

David

THE RED SUN

Sōseki wrote this summer hokku:

The red sun
Sinks down into the sea;
The heat!

The sun sinks into the sea every day, so what is different about this that makes it worthwhile and not just a commonplace?  It is the combination of the redness (very yang) of the sun combined with the intensity (we see it in the exclamation point) of the heat (also yang).  Both are unified by the flat horizon of the sea to give a very strong physical sensation, which is what we look for in hokku.

The heat of the day is already there as evening nears.  But it is the largeness, the redness of the setting sun that brings out its magnitude; we not only feel the heat, we see it in the redness.

The setting is “the heat.”
The subject is “the red sun.”
The action is “sinks down into the sea.”

As I have said before, we can write countless hokku on countless subjects using the combination of setting, subject, and action.

David