SOLITUDE

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

Sabishisa wa
Sono iro to shi mo
Nakarikeri

Maki tatsu yama no
Aki no yūgure
.

Solitude;
The color of it
Has no name.

Pines rise on the mountain
In the autumn dusk.

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

 

David

BRIEF INTERVAL

Another loose translation of a very old Chinese poem, this time by Chen Zi’ang (661-702)

A Song on Climbing Youzhou Tower

Unseen are those who came before;
Unseen are those to come after.
Thinking how endless are heaven and earth,
Alone and disconsolate, the tears drip down.

前不見古人

後不見來者

念天地之悠悠

獨愴然而涕下

Qián bù jiàn gǔ rén
hòu bù jiàn lái zhě
Niàn tiān dì zhī yōu yōu
dú chuàng rán ér tì xià

We cannot see the people of old times who came before us, nor can we see those who will come after we are gone.  On thinking of the vastness of time, the endlessness of heaven and earth and the brief interval of our short lives, the poet is filled with sadness and cannot hold back the tears.

REFLECTION

The old year has departed.  Here is a loose translation of a waka by Ki No Tsurayuki (c.  872-945).  You will recall that a waka, in form, is like a hokku — but with two extra lines added.  In Japanese the number of phonetic units was:
5/7/5/7/7.

Waka was considered a “high-class,” aristocratic form of verse, and unlike hokku, it often deals either openly or subtly with romance.  It is thus in general a more personal and emotion-centered verse than hokku.

Regrets
At the ending year —
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

As you see, we can take this as a combination of two verses, sharing “a mirror” as the link that joins them:

1.
Regrets
At year’s end;
A mirror.

2.
A mirror;
Seeing the reflection —
Reminded of transience….

We picture someone — whether man or woman depends on the individual — looking into a mirror, and feeling sadness at the face reflected there.  It shows signs of age, and is not as it once was.  That, of course, reminds us of our own impermanence, of how all things in life are transient and passing — including youth and beauty.

As Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote,

Quant’e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!

How beautiful is youth,
Which nonetheless is fleeting!

We see in the waka a kind of internal reflection similar to that in hokku:  the passing of the year  is reflected in the passing of beauty and youth.

 

NOT LONG TO STAY: HOUSMAN’S LENTEN LILY

If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily


’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

wildprimrose

The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) about the “hollow ground,” one can find wild primroses growing.  “Hollow ground” is an old term for a narrow dale or valley, though it can also mean a cemetery — “hallowed/hollow ground.”

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

anemonenemorosa

In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.

David

FOREVER AUTUMN: THOMAS HARDY’S DURING WIND AND RAIN

Today we shall take a look at Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain.

It might be puzzling at first glance, but one quickly notices that the first five lines of each stanza depict a pleasant scene of middle-class family life in rural England roughly at the beginning of the Edwardian period, while the last two lines of each stanza consist of a ballad-like lament (repeated in two different forms) followed by an image of transience. These latter images, when combined, show us the coming and arrival of a storm, quite in contrast to the bright and happy scenes, but nonetheless, we shall see, related.

This odd combination of pleasant family vignettes combined with images of storm have, as their point, very much the same as that of the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. In the latter we are shown the happy childhood of a boy quite unaware that even as he is enjoying his simple pleasures, time is already gradually killing him. In Hardy’s poem the family similarly are engaged in their domestic pleasures, quite unaware that a storm is arriving. The storm is time and death.

So that is Hardy’s point, very close to that of Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

You will find it helpful, I think, to read my posting on Fern Hill in the archives of this site.

This notion of humans heedlessly going about their little pleasures, unaware that time is engaged in killing them, is found also in the very old Buddhist parable of the children playing in a house. They are so absorbed in their play that they fail to notice that the house is aflame. In Fern Hill these children are the boy Dylan Thomas; in During Wind and Rain they are the happy middle-class family.

Here is the poem:

They sing their dearest songs–
He, she, all of them–yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss–
Elders and juniors–aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all–
Men and maidens–yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

The first stanza shows us a group, likely a family, father, mother, children and perhaps some friends, gathered together and happily singing familiar songs, something that was very common in the days before radio and television and the Internet. They sing in harmonious parts, high voices, medium voices, and low voices, and the candlelight shines on their faces, making them glow like moons in the shadowy pre-electrified room. One person plays accompaniment on a musical instrument, perhaps an upright cottage piano with its two candleholders placed above the music rack, to left and right, and the candles lit.

This cheerful scene is followed by the first lament:

Ah, no; the years O!

— like the repeated refrain of a song.

Next comes the second stanza, another pleasant scene. We see them, some older, some younger, tidying up a garden, removing moss, cleaning the paths, building a pleasant seat for conversation or contemplation in the shade of a vine or beneath the boughs of a tree. But that is followed by the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

Then comes a third pleasant scene. Here both males and females are lightheartedly having their breakfast outdoors beneath a tree. The waters of the bay glitter in the distance, and wandering pet chickens approach the legs of the sitters curiously, hoping for some stray bit of food to eat. And after it the first lament is repeated:

Ah, no; the years O!

Finally we see the last pleasant scene. The family has come up in the world; it is the day of their moving into a larger and more commodious house, a big event for a rising middle-class family. All the furniture and bright belongings are placed outside the door on the lawn, the sunlight shining on it and warming it all, clocks and carpets and chairs, as the interior of the house is gradually tidied and arranged and things are brought in piece by piece to be placed in their new locations. And then comes a repetition of the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

In each case, in each stanza, the ballad-like lament is followed by a scene contrasting with the happy family scenes. If we put all four together, we can see that they gradually build up a storm, a sense of impending unpleasantness, to a final climax:

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

First we see a multitude of leaves falling from the trees, and next “storm-birds” — birds flying across the sky ahead of the coming storm; a wind rips an aged but decayed rose stalk from the wall against which it had been growing for years; and finally we see tombstones in the beating rain, the drops streaming down and through the grooves of the carved names of the same family we have seen in the preceding happy times.

Notice that Hardy connects this rising storm with autumn. That is because autumn, as in hokku, is the time of withering, decay, and ultimate death. It is also because in England storms tend to come from the West, off the Atlantic. That also gives us the connection with the wind in the poem, which likely was the wind from the West. We see that autumn/wind connection expressed in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which begins,

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

And that, of course, gives us the beginning autumn image Hardy uses in the last line of the first stanza — leaves blown from the trees.

What is the meaning of all this? It is that human joys and human lives are fleeting, that even while we are in the midst of our pleasures there are unheeded signs that it will not last. Hardy’s method was to show us those hints of coming distress after each happy scene, preceded always by a lament of the swift passage of the years, of inexorable time:

Ah, no; the years O!
Ah, no; the years, the years;

It is the years, it is time that is the destroyer of temporary human joys, the taker of brief human lives. It is the same view, untinted by romanticism, that we find in Hardy’s remarkable novels, a view exemplified by his statement “… my sober opinion — so far as I have any definite one — of the Cause of Things, has been defined in scores of places, and is that of a great many ordinary thinkers: that the said Cause is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: ‘loveless and hateless’ I have called it, ‘which neither good nor evil knows’” Hardy considered himself “a harmless agnostic.”

This poem achieves its end, its point, by mixing happy scenes of the dead past with the result of it all, rain streaming down tombstones. The pleasant scenes are all counterbalanced by scenes of autumn and storm. Hardy is saying that in spite of its superficial spring-summer appearance, life is really forever autumn. As Omar Khayyam says in Fitzgerald’s version,

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The meaning of Hardy’s poem is, in one word, impermanence — the same theme that underlies all good hokku.

The old Japanese writer of hokku, Rōka, wrote a verse which, though it long precedes Hardy’s, nonetheless expresses the same sentiment more subtly by concentrating only on the present moment:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the grave-stone.

Here is the original and a very literal translation:

Kanashisa ya
Shigure ni somaru
Haka no moji.

Sadness ya
Rain in is-dyed
Gravestone ‘s writing

You will recall, if you are a regular reader here, that ya is an untranslatable particle indicating a meditative pause, indicated in English here by a semicolon.

The word shigure means the cold rain of late autumn to early winter. Traditionally this is considered a winter hokku, but remember that according to the Hokku Calendar, winter begins about the time of Halloween.

Regarding this stanza of Hardy’s poem —

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

— you may have read the interpretation that “a high new house” means the family has died and has moved to heaven, and the furniture placed out upon the lawn signifies the sale of their belongings. I do not think that is a legitimate or reasonable understanding. Hardy the self-declared agnostic was not a believer in a heaven. His view as we have seen, was that the tiny, brief lives of humans take place on the vast stage of a universe neither moral nor immoral, but “un-moral.”

Some see the “pleasant parts” of the four stanzas as representing the four seasons, beginning with winter, progressing to a spring garden cleaning, then to a summer breakfast, and finally autumn, but I do not think there is enough evidence for that. Instead it would appear that aside from the last line of each stanza, all can be placed in a spring through summer setting, thus contrasting with the “forever autumn” theme of the poem as a whole.

That theme also explains the title of the poem, During Wind and Rain. The family going about their domestic pleasures are quite unaware that their actions are all happening as an “autumn” storm (time) is rising that will sweep all away.

David

UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

sntr

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

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

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

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

A Patch of Old Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I ever read it.

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

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

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

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

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

David

AUTUMN AND THE MORNING GLORY

asag

Today I would like to talk about morning glory hokku.

Why?  Because I happened to pass a blooming morning glory vine this morning, as you can see from the above photo.  Also, in old Japanese hokku, the morning glory was generally considered an autumn flower.  They called it asagao, “morning face,” — asa = morning, gao = face.

The morning glory is particularly appropriate for autumn hokku because it is so ephemeral, so transient, with blossoms that appear in the morning and are gone by afternoon.  That made a deep impression on the old hokku writers, because transience — the impermanence of things, was one of the main underlying aesthetic principles of old hokku, as it is of modern hokku.  That came from watching Nature and life, and it came also from the fundamental principal of Buddhism that all things change and eventually pass away, and we cannot really keep anything, least of all our own lives.

Moritake, an early writer of hokku, wrote this:

Asagai ni                     kyō wa miyuran        waga yo kana
Morning-glory as     today wa may seem   my    life  kana

Like the morning glory
It may seem today —
My life.

It is not very good as a hokku, but it makes an interesting point about the brevity of life.

Issa wrote:

Asagao no            hana de           fuitaru iori kana
Morning glory’s flowers by       covered  hut kana

Covered over
By morning glory flowers —
The hermitage.

That one always reminds me of my college years, when I too lived in a tiny cottage, its roof covered with blooming blue morning glories.

Taigi wrote:

Chirizuka ni   asagao sakinu                 kure no aki
Dust-heap on  morning glory blooms  end ‘s autumn

Out of the trash heap
A morning glory has bloomed;
Autumn’s end.

Autumn, you will recall, is the season when we particularly feel the transience of life, because it is the time of year when things begin to wither and return to the root.  It corresponds, in human life, to the early to mid “senior” years, and in the day it corresponds to evening.  So the morning glory, enjoyed in the dawn but gone by evening, is very appropriate for early autumn hokku where I live.

David

ALAS, THAT SPRING SHOULD VANISH WITH THE ROSE

Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.

fadros

To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.

David

ENTERING AUTUMN

Blue morning glory  (asagao) flowers, Gifu, Japan
(Photo credit: Joel Abroad)

Here is a timely repeat of an earlier posting:

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

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

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn. So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.  Morning glories are also associated with impermanence because the flowers bloom and die so quickly.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind; it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling. That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it. That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event. The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing. That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement. It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day. All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them. That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn. We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic. The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes. Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect. All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude. To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts? We know already, because the autumn wind tells us. They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory. For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry. We do not have to ask.

We know.

 

David

THE BASICS OF HOKKU AESTHETICS

In a previous posting, you will recall, I said that one may have a verse in the outward form of a hokku, with everything in it correct, and still not have a hokku.  That is because to be a real hokku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of hokku.

Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in Peb...

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere of hokku.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every aspect of hokku aesthetics must be seen or included in every hokku.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of hokku aesthetics as the “taste” or the “fragrance” of a hokku.  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single hokku or a collection of hokku.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall hokku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of hokku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of hokku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The hokku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a hokku does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Hokku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, hokku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A hokku should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this hokku the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in the verse.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I have talked about Yin and Yang in relation to hokku in other postings, and I will talk about them again in future postings, because they are something I often mention in my teaching of hokku. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in hokku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  That means the writer should not “stand out” in a hokku.  Hokku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of hokku aesthetics is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice of hokku there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives hokku another characteristic, which is something that is almost loneliness, but not quite, something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of hokku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse,

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience, please remember, is a sense of time passing.  That is why in hokku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience of hokku is also why every hokku is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of hokku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of hokku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every hokku, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of hokku.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really hokku and not some other kind of short verse.

Hokku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in hokku aesthetics is the overall subject matter of hokku, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing hokku.  So even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write hokku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.

David

HARMONY OF CONTRAST: PLUM BLOSSOMS AND CHARCOAL DUST

Plum blossoms;
They scatter on an empty sack
Of charcoal.                  

Blossoming plum, by Chinese artist Wang Mian. ...

That is a rewriting of a hokku by Yayū. It is of course a spring hokku.

There are, as I have mentioned many times, two kinds of harmony in hokku: harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast. This verse has the latter. It shows us the pinkish-white blossoms of the plum drifting down through air and falling on an empty charcoal sack, which is black with dust from the charcoal and filthy-looking. The whole point of the verse is in the visual contrast and the feeling of “high” beauty in the plum blossoms contrasting with “low” in the empty charcoal sack.

This mixture of conventionally poetic subjects with “earthy” subjects is characteristic of hokku, quite different than the earlier and longer waka (essentially a hokku plus two extra lines in form), which used only poetic and “elegant” subjects.

This reminds us of three main aesthetic characteristics of the hokku — poverty, simplicity, and transience. All are seen in this verse.

David

TO SEE THE CHERRY HUNG WITH SNOW

I have always been very fond of the poetry of Alfred Edward Housman.  He is not a verbal fireworks poet like Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He is more straightforward, with a sense of transience remarkably like that of the Japanese hokku writers.

Housman told the truth.  Unlike Mary Carolyn Davies, who tells us that “pain rusts to beauty,” Housman had a more realistic view of things.  He would not say that like iron, pain rusts to beauty.  He would say that as the blade of a knife is dulled by time and wear, so the sorrows of life may be dulled by the passage of  days and years.  In his poem The Rain it Streams on Stone and Hillock, he says to someone who has died,

Tomorrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And he adds,

Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

But the dulling of sorrow by time does not lessen the pain of the human condition:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

So Housman knows life; he knows the brevity of youth; he knows that what is will alter, whether it be joy or pain.  And that leads us to one of his best-known poems, Loveliest of Trees:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

 Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

First, let’s go though the poem part by part, so that we may be certain we understand the poet’s phrasing and vocabulary:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman tells us the cherry is the loveliest of trees; the cherry trees stand all along the woodland road, and they are covered in (“wearing”) white (white blossoms) for Eastertide.  White, for those who have lost touch with religious custom, was associated with Easter.  “Eastertide” means here Easter time — the time of year when Easter happens. “Tide” is an old word meaning “time.”

Many Americans misunderstand “woodland ride” as meaning that Housman must have been astride a horse or sitting in a carriage, but in British usage, a woodland ride was just a rural road, a reasonably wide and worn pathway through a wood.  It comes from the days before cars, when a path broad enough for horse riding was called a “ride.”  But riding is not actually intended by the term.  So we may assume that the poet is walking leisurely and thoughtfully along a woodland road where many lovely cherry trees are in bloom at Easter time.

Next, Housman does something surprising in poetry: he talks mathematics, and his mathematics are based on what to “church folk” in those days was common knowledge gleaned from the Bible, from Psalm 90:10:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

So Housman reckons,

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

Housman (or rather the young man speaking through Housman) tells us that out of his life, out of his threescore (a score is twenty, so threescore is sixty) years plus ten years, meaning out of the seventy years allotted to him for his lifespan, twenty will not come again.  So we know he is a young man in his twentieth year, a young man of twenty.  For him, those twenty years are “past” — at least almost — and will never come again.  Subtract those twenty (a score) years from the seventy years of a man’s lifespan, and that leaves our fresh young man only fifty years of life.  He tells, us, with bittersweet good humor,

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Realizing that he only has fifty more years in which to live, our young man, who obviously loves things of beauty, knows nonetheless that they are transient, impermanent, as he himself is.  So he tells us that the fifty springs he has ahead of him are little enough time (“little room”) in which to look at such lovely things as the blossoms of spring; therefore he is going to take the time to walk through the woodlands while the cherries are covered in white bloom, to “see the cherry hung with snow” (the “snow,” of course, is the white blossoms).

There is a rather odd misunderstanding of the last line of the poem flitting about on the Internet, asserting that by “to see the cherry hung with snow,” Housman meant he would not only go in spring to see the blossoms, but also in winter to see snow on the cherry trees.  It should be obvious, however, that he was simply using a descriptive metaphor:  snow = white blossoms.  How do we know this?  First from the poem itself:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

The first line tells us: “And since to look at things in bloom….”  Winter snow is not “things in bloom,” and that is obviously the subject.  We may add that a cherry tree in winter does not hold snow on its bare limbs luxuriantly, as an evergreen tree does.  So a cherry in winter is not a stunning sight like a cherry covered with spring bloom.

We also know this from Housman’s use of the snow = white blossoms equation in the first verse of his poem #XXXIX from A Shropshire Lad:

‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

We may also turn to other English poets for similar usage — first to  Robert Bridges for the snow = white blossoms equation, in his poem Spring Goeth All in White:

Spring goeth all in white,
   Crowned with milk-white may:
In fleecy flocks of light
   O’er heaven the white clouds stray:

White butterflies in the air:
   White daisies prank the ground:
The cherry and hoary pear
   Scatter their snow around.

“Milk-white may” in the first line means white hawthorn blossoms.  “Prank” in the sixth line means “adorn,” “decorate,” “ornament.”

We may also take a quick look at the first lines of Springtime in Cookham Dean, by Cecil Roberts:

How marvellous and fair a thing
It is to see an English Spring,
He cannot know who has not seen
The cherry trees at Cookham Dean,
who has not seen the blossom lie
Like snowdrifts ‘gainst a cloudless sky
And found the beauty of the way
Through woodlands odorous with may…. 

Again, “may” in the last line means hawthorn blossoms, not the month.

But back to Housman.  There is, as I said, a kind of bittersweet humor in this verse.  One might call the poem a young man’s “apology for his use of time,” his response to someone accusing him of “slacking.”  But Housman knew that what would really be wasted was the all-too-brief beauty of the cherry trees in blossom along the woodland road (the woodland ride), and so knowing that life is brief, he gives us this little argument for appreciating things of beauty, for seizing the day, complete with the mathematics to back it up.

Housman was a classicist, a scholar of Greek and particularly a professor of Latin.  One might therefore think him dry as dust, all endless conjugations and grammar and “Mr. Arbuthnot, please translate line three on page 37,” but obviously he had poetry in his soul and he understood the brevity of life and the sweetness of spring.

There is an odd kinship between this poem and Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  But we have the feeling that the latter is a mature man’s poem, while Loveliest of Trees is a young man’s poem.

David


A CAMELLIA FLOWER

A spring hokku by Bashō:

In falling,
It spilled its water —
The camellia flower.

Camellias are flowers of the cold and wet beginning of spring.  As they age, they fall with a “plop.”  This one, in falling, has spilled the rain water that has collected in it when it was still on the bough.

Bashō gives us a simple image of transience, showing us that even in Spring — the time of youth and beginnings — time and aging are already at work.  A sense of transience is always an important element of hokku, which never allow us to forget that all things are changing and impermanent.

This hokku, like all the rest written over the centuries, is not “great poetry.”  Hokku do not try to be either “poetry” (in the conventional understanding) or “great.”  They simply present us with a sensory experience of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, showing us how the season manifests its character in what happens within it.  This camellia flower dropping its water is Spring.

It is when we try to make “poetry” of hokku that we run into trouble.  That has been the unfortunate fate of the 20th century offshoot of hokku, the haiku.  In the West the hokku came to the attention of people brought up on western notions of poetry, people who unconsciously read those Western notions into their experience of hokku, and then re-made it as the haiku, which is a kind of peculiar hybrid of the brevity of the hokku with a substance composed of what people in the West were accustomed to think of as “poetry.”

When that happened, of course, the whole point of the hokku was lost.

David

BEYOND THE HILLS: MORE PRACTICE IN CHINESE-STYLE VERSE

Here is some more on writing five-word Chinese-style quatrains.  For this exercise I have chosen a verse by Li Pin, called “Crossing the Han River.”  I have adjusted the five words of each line to fit English better, but the essential concept is the same.

You will remember that to begin to write five-word verse (five-character verse in Chinese), we need to compose a poem using only nouns, verbs, and occasionally prepositions.  We can leave out articles like “the,” “a,” and “an,” and we need not worry too much about tense or grammar or singular or plural as we lay out the basic framework, like this:

Beyond mountains news letters vanish
Winters pass again come springs
Near town feel more afraid
Not dare ask coming person

Now let’s put that into ordinary English:

Beyond the hills there was no news, no letters;
Winters passed, and spring followed spring.
Now nearing home, I find myself afraid,
And dare not ask the man who comes my way.

As you can see, the “essential words” of the basic framework are just that — a framework we use in composing the final, “fully-English” verse.  We need not fear changing things somewhat, because that is exactly what translators of Chinese verse have traditionally done when putting them into English.

Why then, bother with the framework?  Because it gives us the basic ideas of the poem, which we can then work over to put them into more flowing and smooth English.  It really does work well, though at first it may seem an odd way to compose.

And now the meaning of the verse, which is essentially the same in the Chinese original and the English verse: A man has gone beyond the mountains into far-off lands to work or serve.  He spends years there, as the seasons come and go.  While there no news reaches him, no letters.  Now, at last returning home, he is afraid to ask about his family and friends — afraid of what he might hear after so much time has passed.

And that is how we write “Chinese-style” five-word verses.  As I mentioned earlier, it is a very useful way to write Nature-based verses, because it provides a structure, a framework on which to “hang” the poem.

Give it a try.  Be patient, and once you get it, you will find it not only easy but pleasant and very useful.

David

SO?

The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?”  It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”

That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.

Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.

Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.

Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku.  What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice?  Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.

Why?  Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.”  We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.

We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.

And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write.  That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.

That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse.  If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not.  Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.

The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.”  Our practice of hokku is self-validating.  It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well.  That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.

So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we  can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”

ALL BOUGHT AGE

As I mention repeatedly, a sense of transience is very important in hokku, because it is not only all around us, but within us as well.  The writers of hokku express it very simply.  Western poets have a more elaborate way of dealing with it, as in this poem by Louise Driscoll (1875-1957).  It is a good reminder.  No matter what we think we are buying in life, what we are really getting is age:

BARGAIN

With his unspent youth
Like a penny in his hand,
See him stand!
There’s a look on his face
Like a child that comes
To the market-place
After tops and drums.

With his youth—his youth
As a thing that he can spend—
See him run!
And what will he have for
His bargain at the end
When it’s done?

I have asked old men
With their empty purses,
I have heard the tale
Each one rehearses,
And on the last page
They have all bought age.
They have all bought age.

When youth is spent
A penny at a fair,
The old men tell
Of the bargains there.
There was this and that
For a price and a wage,
But when they came away
They had all bought age.

THE SCENT SOAKS INTO YOUR GARMENTS

What I like to call the “old style” hokku — meaning the best hokku in the period before Onitsura and Bashō — often, as we have seen in the hokku of Sōgi, combine two things and then add a third to unite them all in harmony.

Here is such a verse by Sōgi:

The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.

The later technique however — which we most often use — is somewhat different.  Instead of three rather equal-seeming things, as in Sōgi, we get more of a sense of two things combined, or rather a subject-action and then another subject that completes, as in this verse by Shōha:

A boy
Getting a dog to run;
The summer moon.

This kind of hokku is quite familiar to us.  We know it as the “standard” hokku, which uses the setting, subject, action pattern.  In Shōha’s verse it manifests like this:

A boy (subject)
Getting a dog to run; (action)
The summer moon. (setting)

Remember that the setting is usually the “large” or “encompassing” part of the hokku.

Bashō wrote

Octopus traps;
Fleeting dreams beneath
The summer moon.

In that verse the subject is the octopus traps.  The action is the fleeting dreams, and the setting, again, is the “large” or “encompassing” element, the summer moon.  One can see from this that we need not align setting, subject and action rigidly.  In hokku they are fluid, and can change position.

The female writer Chiyo-ni wrote,

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

This is one of those verses requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, who will see that the line of the fishing pole is touching the summer moon reflected in the water.  Speaking loosely, we could say that the summer moon is the setting, the line of the fishing pole is the subject, and “touched by” is the action.  But of course here the summer moon functions as both setting and as primary subject.  That again should alert the reader that in composing, we need not be too rigid in our categories and arrangements.

But there is a bit more to say about Chiyo-ni’s verse.  In hokku aesthetics, a sense of transience is very important.  Those who created and practiced hokku were very aware that life is short and all human endeavors fleeting.  And they were very aware that the world as we see it is transitory and uncertain, like the reflection of the moon in a summer river.  That feeling is very important to hokku because it is a part of life.

Its presence in hokku comes from the Buddhist teaching of anicca —impermanence.  The three “seals” of existence are dukkha — the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of things; anicca — the un-lastingness of things; and anatta — the lack of a real self in what we customarily regard as our “self.”  In spiritual literature life is often compared to a dream from which only those who sincerely devote themselves to the practice of spiritual “cultivation” — meditation and right action — are likely to awake.  The moon in Buddhist literature is often a symbol for enlightenment.  But in hokku things are not symbols or metaphors for other things.  Instead all of these associations “soak into” hokku and influence how they affect us.

It is all in keeping with the old lines from the Forest of Zen Sayings:

Scoop up water, and the moon is in your hands;
Handle flowers, and the scent soaks into your garments.

That is exactly what gave rise to hokku originally.  The culture of Japan was permeated with Buddhist thought, and just as the scent of flowers soaks into one’s garments, so the fragrance of Buddhist spirituality soaked into hokku.  And that was true even in writers of hokku who were not particularly spiritual.  It is this underlying spiritual attitude toward life that made and still makes hokku what it was and is.

David


INEVITABLE CHERRY BLOSSOMS

In old hokku cherry blossoms were so prominent that they were often not even called cherry blossoms in writing.  Just the word hana — “blossoms” — by itself came to mean cherry blossoms.

Conversely, the word cherry (sakura) used to describe the tree was also simply interpreted as a cherry tree in blossom.  Those were two of the important conventions of old hokku.

We could add to that the deep significance of the brief blooming period of the cherry trees, which caused the mention of cherry blossoms alone to evoke a feeling of brevity and transience in the reader — the brevity of youth and beauty, the transience of life.  So even though the subject “cherry blossoms” is a spring subject, associated with youth and freshness and beginnings, inherent in it is also the knowledge of the transience of such things, the impermanence and fragility of life and happiness.

In the gap
Between rough windy rains —
The first cherry blossoms.

This — by Chora — is a study in contrasts — the strong, blowing rain, and the delicacy of the opening cherry blossoms in the pause between storms.  One cannot help being reminded of Shakespeare’s famous lines from Sonnet 18:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May….

Huge crowds would come out to view the cherry blossoms, walking among the blooming trees, as Chora also wrote:

All the people,
Going into blossoms,
Coming out of blossoms.

In that verse, the abundance of people is in keeping with the abundance of the blossoms.  The people are dressed in their finery, as the trees are clothed in beautiful blossoms.

Even Issa has this reverent attitude:

Having bathed in hot water
And reverenced the Buddha —
Cherry blossoms!

Issa has prepared himself for the viewing by bathing his body and by purifying his mind.

Bashō is known for his practice of mixing traditional “high” subjects found in the more “poetic” waka with “low” and earthy subjects to make hokku, as here:

Beneath the trees,
Even in the soup and fish salad —
Cherry blossoms.

This kind of verse is a counterbalance to over-romanticizing.

Chora also has a remarkably peaceful verse:

Stillness;
The sound of petals falling
Through the trees.

Literally, he says “of falling petals rubbing.”  We could also translate it like this:

Stillness;
The rustle of falling
Cherry blossoms.

Here again we see the importance of contrasting combinations in hokku.  The silence is only enhanced by the almost imperceptible rustling of the falling blossoms.

David


DEEP OR MEDIOCRE?

Depth in hokku depends on both writer and reader.  We can see that on examining two verses of Bashō written in two different years, both winter hokku.  Here is the first:

Byōbu ni wa    yama o egaite    fuyugomori
Screen on wa mountain o painted   winter-seclusion

On the screen,
A mountain is painted;
Winter seclusion.

On the surface this is a really mediocre verse.  Remember, not everything Bashō wrote was worth keeping — in fact only a fraction of his verses are memorable.  But this is where season and context come in, so let’s look closer.

Imagine that you are forced to stay indoors because of icy or snowy winter weather, day after day.  In that case, your eyes turn to the painted mountain on the folding screen, because you cannot go out to see the hills or mountains.  The stillness of the painting is in keeping with the stillness of your seclusion and isolation.  In such a case, suddenly the verse becomes significant.  The painted mountain reflects your winter seclusion, your isolation from the world outside.  Without this, the verse is a waste of time.

Now we must ask ourselves, was this in fact what Bashō intended, or is it something we are reading into the hokku?  That is a matter of concern only to academics.  We, as readers, have found the meaning in the verse, whether Bashō consciously put it there or not.  But if we do not have the perception to see the meaning, the verse remains flat and tasteless.  So a great deal in hokku depends not only on the writer but on the reader.

That is the explanation for the peculiar fact that sometimes people who are just beginning hokku will come up with a really significant verse, and then their other verses will simply be wasted ink.  It is often the case that a reader will perceive a meaning there that the writer was completely unaware of, creating a good hokku quite by accident.  Of course one cannot find significance in any verse.  There must be something there to trigger the aesthetic perception of the reader of hokku.

One can see from this that the aesthetic perception of the reader plays a great part in the evaluation of any hokku.  A good writer of hokku will be able to write more good hokku than simply one fortunate accident, but a good reader of hokku may sometimes transform a lack on the writer’s part into something significant.

Here is the second of the two hokku by Bashō:

Kinbyō no    matsu no furusa yo    fuyugomori
Gold-screen ‘s  pine  ‘s  oldness yo winter-seclusion

On the gold screen,
The pine is ancient;
Winter seclusion.

We can easily see how close it is to the first.  But there are differences.  First, the screen is gold, and as a screen with gold ages, it takes on a slightly different cast.  Added to that is the aged pine painted upon it.  This combination makes us feel the slow passage of time through many long years.  That reflects the feeling when one is shut in and isolated for a long duration in the middle of the cold and frost and snow of winter.  So we have here a strong sense of time and transience, of time passing with almost painful slowness.

We can liken that to what I call “Coomler’s Theory of Relativity.”  It is simply that work time passes far more slowly than free time.  Any office worker may verify this experientially.  Compare two hours at work (work one does not particularly enjoy) to two hours of watching an interesting movie or talking with friends.

There is a variant of the verse that uses “aging” instead of “aged”:

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

I prefer this version.  The effect is like sitting in a room, hour after hour, with the slow tick of a grandfather clock in the background.  It gives us a remarkable sense of the drawn-out passage of time, unenlivened by television or music or chatter or any other distractions.  In such circumstances we begin to get a much clearer picture of what our minds are like, of how much they crave distraction.

All of this is a kind of lead-in to telling you that in the past, I have discussed hokku very much in the context of its history — of what this or that writer did to make a good verse.  From now on — to the extent that I post here — I will advocate simply my approach to hokku.

That takes us completely away from discussions of what Onitsura meant by sincerity, what Bashō meant by not imitating, and all the other things with which people interested in the history of hokku like to occupy their minds.

That does not mean the kind of hokku I present here will change much.  It just means that I will concentrate on the approach to hokku that is meaningful to me, and not waste time with anything else that may ever have been written as hokku — examples that may diverge from that approach in one way or another.  I will generally not bother with mediocre verses by any writer, no matter how famous, because my interest will not be in illustrating the range of old hokku.  I may, however, occasionally throw in a bad verse just to show what not to do.

What I am intending, of course, is defining a “school” of hokku, which again means a particular aesthetic approach to writing hokku, along with all others who share the same general aesthetic considerations and preferences.

Perceptive readers will perhaps think, well, isn’t that what he has been doing all along?  To a great extent it is.  But  a major difference will be that I will make no effort to justify this or that historically (though in most cases that can be done).  I will simply present what I think is the best way to read and write hokku.

In doing so, I will no doubt continue with old hokku used as models, because they do such a good job of conveying the matter.  But I will feel perfectly free to depart from conventional translation and understanding of such verses whenever doing so fits the needs of explaining the kind of hokku that really make the matter as a whole worthwhile for me.

Hokku must relate to life.  If it does not relate to life, it loses its value.  Yesterday I was thinking about Chinese brush painting, and how one can become proficient in it by learning to paint things one has never seen.  But does one really want paintings of  a stork by someone who has never seen a stork, paintings of a wild goose by someone who has never seen a wild goose, paintings of a water lily by someone who has never seen a water lily?  Such things are worse than imitation of life — they are simply imitations of imitations.  Our hokku should never be like that.  That is why we must write from our own experiences, constantly deepening and maturing as we walk the path of hokku.

I have often thought that I would like to write what I would call “American talks on Japanese hokku.”  Well, what I will do from now on — again to the extent that I am moved to do so and my time permits — will be pretty much that, except there will be no emphasis whatsoever on the “Japanese” part of it.  Instead, whether I am talking about hokku originally written in Japan or not, it will be simply one American’s talks on hokku.

I hope you will join me if what I have to say on the subject speaks to your condition.

David

BLOWING LEAVES

A hokku appropriate to late autumn, by the woman Sono-jo:

A dog barking
At the sound of the leaves;
The windstorm.

It is an odd fact in hokku that the simplest are often the best, and this is a very good hokku because it has very strong sensation.  By sensation we mean that it affects the senses strongly.  In this we hear the dog’s frantic barking and the sound of the blowing leaves, and we hear the wind and we feel its force.  Everything in this verse is in motion, and that is very much in keeping with the strength of the windstorm.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, by which we mean it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

Setting:  The windstorm
Subject:  A dog
Action: Barking at the sound of the leaves

In the original, the verse looks like this:

Ha no oto ni     inu hoe-kakaru     arashi kana
Leaves ‘ sound at   dog barking      gale      kana

The kana at the end is merely a word used sometimes for emphasis, but far more often in hokku merely to fill out the required number of phonetic units in Japanese, in this case the usual seventeen.

More important is the fact that by reading and pondering such verses and their structure, one will quickly learn how to write hokku in English and other languages today, but of course one must also understand the underlying aesthetics to avoid going astray.

I repeat again and again that the real subject of a hokku is the season in which it is written, that each hokku should express that season through something happening in it that shows the character of the season.  This verse of Sono-jo does that superbly.

By the way, I am tending to alternate between late autumn hokku and winter hokku in these few days before the beginning of December, because some readers live where it is already winter, others where autumn still lingers.  I am speaking of the Northern Hemisphere.  Readers in the Southern Hemisphere will be in quite another season!

David

AUTUMN COMINGS AND GOINGS

Gyōdai wrote:

Aki no yama   tokorodokoro ni   kemuri tatsu
Autumn’s mountains   here-there at   smoke rises

The autumn hills;
Here and there
Smoke rises.

It is a pleasant verse, and reminds one of Appalachia, of seeing smoke from cabins rising here and there among the gold and red leaves of autumn covering the hills.

But it is a verse of early to mid autumn, and now we are entering deep autumn, a more severe and chilly time that leads us directly on to winter.

There is a hokku by Shōhaku that can be understood as early or as late autumn, depending on whether we translate it by the old lunar calendar or by the newer calendar.  Under the new calendar it is:

October;
I go nowhere —
No one comes.

Read thus, it expresses the beginning of the pulling away from the activities of life that we find in autumn as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, as Nature begins to wither.  One thinks of a hermit life amid the coloring and falling leaves.

The first line is literally “tenth month.”  It is like the old Quaker calendar, in which the months were numbered rather than named, but even more literally it is the “tenth moon.”

But what does “tenth month” mean?  Actually, two different things, depending on whether we read Shōhaku’s verse according to the modern calendar adopted in Japan during the Meiji period, or by the old lunar calendar of Shōhaku’s day.

We have seen that by the new calendar the “tenth month” is October.  But by the old calendar it is November.  So that gives us two different feelings expressed in the same verse, depending on which calendar we choose.

By the old calendar it becomes

November;
I go nowhere —
No one comes.

This gives the verse a darker feel.  The leaves have already been swept from the trees by the rains and cold winds.  The gold and crimson colors are gone, giving way to bare branches and dim, grey skies.  Here the verse expresses the inhospitableness of the weather through the actions — or rather the lack of actions — of the writer.  He visits no one, no one visits him.  But it also expresses a kind of late autumn of the soul, an isolation and apartness that those growing older notice as they see they are no longer of interest to young people, and those their own age either have their own affairs to deal with with or have left this world.

All too often, it is the story of the elderly in America.  I remember  a Korean fellow I met in college.  He was staying in a cheap, rundown apartment building in which numbers of old people also lived, because it was all they could afford.  Watching their poor lives from day to day, seeing their isolation and how they were treated, he remarked to me, “America is Hell for old people.”  I have never forgotten that “outside” perspective on how this country treats its elderly.

But getting back to hokku, this growing isolation of individuals in the late autumn makes “things to the contrary” matters of significance.  That is why Buson could write

A person came
To visit a person;
The autumn evening.

It is quite a bland verse until one reads it in the context of the season as explained above.  There is a significance to making a visit in autumn, a significance to receiving a visit, and this significance too is expressive of the season.

By the way, I rather consistently translate the common line aki no kure, found in large numbers of hokku, as “The autumn evening.”  Technically it could also be translated as “Autumn’s end,” and that should be kept in mind not for linguistic reasons, but because it gives us a very good line for many hokku of the deepest part of autumn that is just about to become winter.

So for those of you interested in technicalities, the line can be understood either as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   evening

or as:

Aki no kure
Autumn   ‘s   end

Shiki wrote this simple verse, which is a bit too interpretive for good hokku.  It is both true and not true:

I am leaving,
You are staying;
Two autumns.

Yuku ware ni    todomaru nare ni    aki futatsu
Go     I  at           remain      you   at    autumns two

One could loosely paraphrase it as:

With me going
And you staying,
There will be two autumns.

Shiki  is seeing the situation from a dualistic point of view:  When I am gone, we shall each experience our separate autumns.  But there is also the unitary point of view, in which you and I are both autumn, along with each reddening and falling leaf.  That is the wider perspective.

One must always keep in mind that when we are talking about weather and what is happening in Nature, a lot depends on where one is.  A month that is golden autumn for some is already icy winter for others.

David

 

WHAT COMES FROM THE READER

There are some hokku difficult for young people to understand — difficult not because of complexity, but because one must go through certain experiences to fully appreciate them.  One of the most obvious of these is Buson’s verse:

Chichi haha no    koto nomi omou    aki no kure
Dad      Mom  ‘s    matter only think   autumn ‘s evening

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.

At first this seems a rather bland hokku, but a great deal depends upon the reader knowing how hokku work.

We know that a hokku is an expression of a season, in this case the season of autumn.  Autumn is the time of aging and withering and eventually dying.  That is the key to understanding this verse.

When Buson says that he is thinking only of his parents, he means it in the sense that they keep coming into his thoughts for some reason — that even when he tries to think of other things, the faces of his parents keep returning.

Why is that?  It is because in the autumn, one realizes both what one is losing and what one has lost.  Autumn is the time of growing yin, the time of things — of life — returning to the root.  It is the time of withering plants and falling leaves and the diminishing of warmth and light and the increasing of cold.  All of these things combine to bring Buson’s mother and father constantly to mind.

He does not tell us if they are aged — in which case one has the sorrow and concern of seeing their lives fading — or if they have passed away, in which case one has the grief that never really goes away, the bittersweet memories easily evoked by the season of autumn.

One can see that the last line,

The autumn evening

is very important.

So there is a world of feeling in this verse.  It is at the same time very personal and very universal.  Buson thinks of his parents, but when we read it, it becomes a hokku about our own parents, whether we are near to losing them or have lost them.

Dante says in the Divine Comedy that there is

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria….

That there is

“No greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery.”

Time is the thief that steals all things — our childhood, our youth,  and leaves us

Thinking only
About my mom and dad;
The autumn evening.

David


WHITE DEW

Buson wrote this autumn hokku:

White dew —
A drop on each thorn
Of the bramble.

It is very simple.  There are only two elements — the dew and the bramble, but notice how they are presented.  A single drop hangs from each of the thorns on a branch of the bramble.  We see its cold transparence in the light of morning — the yin softness of water, the yang hardness of the bramble thorns.  One element is very transitory — soon gone when the sun rises higher — the other more permanent, but still as transient on its own time scale.

It is a good idea to have something that moves or changes in hokku.  Generally we see things that do so obviously — a branch moving in the wind, a fish swimming through the water.  But in this hokku the movement is only implied, and very subtle — the temporary nature of the dew, the knowledge not only that at any moment one of those drops could fall from a thorn, but that the dew itself will likely only last the morning.

Buson sometimes tended to spoil his hokku by making them too artificial, too contrived from literary sources, or too obviously intended to impress.  He was both a painter and a writer, and his writing is often influenced by his painting.  But in this hokku it is the simplicity and faithfulness to Nature that saves him.

David

 

CHRYSANTHEMUMS AND PERSIMMONS

Several times a week, I pass a public stairwell with a big flower arrangement on the landing.  This week the arrangement consists mostly of white, pink-tipped roses and pinkish gladioli.  The arranger obviously does not share the aesthetic that tells us flower arrangements should be made with materials in season, and so every time I pass it, I get a little sensation of inappropriateness.

An autumn arrangment should be made with autumn flowers and plants — seed pods, colored leaves, withered grass, chrysanthemums — things appropriate to the season.

Bashō wrote:

The scent of chrysanthemums,
The ancient Buddha images
At Nara.

Well, it is 5-7-5 in Japanese, but it certainly does not come out like that in English, if translated at all literally.  The problem, of course, is that in Japanese, kiku is a short word of two English syllables, while “chrysanthemum” is twice that, and looks visually even longer.

We could say

Chrysanthemum scent —
And the ancient Buddha images
Of Nara.

That would help a bit,  but really what we need to do is take it all apart and put it back together again in English, perhaps like this:

At Nara,
The scent of chrysanthemums,
The Buddha images.

We have lost one thing — the word ancient — but anyone who knows anything about Nara will know that Nara is a very old city, and for a Japanese reader, that will supply the implication of “ancient.”

All of that means little to us, because we are not Japanese.  We want to write hokku in English.  So what we should remember from this is that a place can have implications of its own that add to a hokku, but of course the reader must know those implications.

Bashō is telling us — or rather allowing us to experience — that the slightly bitter scent of chrysanthemums at Nara is in keeping with the ancient feeling we get from the old city of Nara and its serene Buddha images in its temples.  Those who have been reading this site carefully will recognize that as an example of reflection in hokku, meaning that one element of the verse repeats the feeling or character of the season expressed by another element.  Knowing that, We know also that the chrysanthemums, the buddha images, the old city — all are in keeping with the character of autumn, which gives us a sense of age and time with which the peculiar scent of chrysanthemums is in harmony — and not only because of that austere scent, but also because chrysanthemums are a flower that blooms in the autumn.

We can think of this hokku by Bashō as a verse similar to a very old-fashioned form — the same kind of paradoxically pre-Bashō hokku that Sōgi wrote, in which two things in harmony with one another are joined by the addition of a third.  In this case the two things are:

1.  The scent of chrysanthemums
2.  The Buddha images

And joining them together is their location — the ancient city of Nara.

Readers have probably noticed that I do not use Issa much as a model for hokku.  The reason is that Issa’s hokku are often too psychological, because Issa — given his tragic childhood — was a rather scarred personality who saw the world in terms of what he had suffered.  Probably because what he writes is more “personal” and often seen as “cute,” he tends to be very popular today, but his hokku do not often make good models.  Sometimes they are even a bit like senryū, those verses that look like hokku but are really satires on human emotions and failings.

Issa wrote:

Taking a second look
At the chrysanthemums that lost;
The evening.

The day is ending, the chrysanthemum contest is over, and now this poor fellow looks at the chrysanthemums that formerly seemed so beautiful to him with different eyes.

It is not a very good hokku, but it is a good caution against the human tendency to be perpetually judging and comparing.  In hokku we should not compare things.  We should just let them be what they are.  But then I have just judged and compared, haven’t I?  Well, I have to, being a teacher of hokku.  But we should not compare things within a hokku when we write, as though a dandelion is somehow inferior to a rose (it is not).

Persimmons are very much in keeping with autumn.  They are that golden yellow, or gold-orange color that we feel is in harmony with the season, as is their “astringent” taste.  A persimmon tree covered with such fruits, with a few fallen on the ground, gives a very pleasant feeling of autumn.

Bashō wrote:

The old village;
Not a single house
Without a persimmon tree.

Some time — many long years earlier — one of the residents thought a persimmon tree would be nice to have.  Then a neighbor saw it in fruit, and thought he (or she) would like one as well.  And as the years passed, the urge for persimmons spread through the whole village, until not one house was left without the gold-orange persimmons to eat and to look at in autumn.  In the simple fact that all the houses have them, we feel how old the village is, how much time has passed.  And that, along with the autumn colors of the persimmons — is very much in keeping with the season of aging — autumn.

David

FALLING LEAVES

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

Ryōkan wrote:

The wind
Brings enough for a fire —
Fallen leaves.

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

Buson does the same thing in another hokku:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryūshi wrote

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

That is the regular setting-subject-action hokku.

The setting is “stillness.”

The subject is “the sound of a bird.”

The action is “walking on fallen leaves.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

ZEN AND HOKKU

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku.  And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began.   That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David

HOKKU IN AUTUMN

In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.

David

JUMPING FROG, WALKING BIRD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A frog jumps in —

And we finish with the final line and a period:

The sound of water.

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

A frog jumps in the sound of water

but rather

A frog jumps in — the sound of water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old pond;
Stillness;

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

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

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

Stillness;
Action;
Return to stillness.

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

David

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF HOKKU

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

 

David

AUTUMN BEGINS

In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.

David

WHAT COLOR IS THE BACK OF A MORNING GLORY?

As mentioned in an earlier posting, traditionally morning glories in old hokku are flowers of the last part of summer and beginning of autumn.

Kyoroku has an interesting verse:

It shows
The backs of the morning glories —
The windy autumn.

The reverse side of morning glories, as anyone who has grown them will know, is pale and whitish.  When they are blown by the wind of autumn, we see that less obvious side that ordinarily does not draw our attention.

R. H. Blyth remarks correctly of this verse that “the whitish backs of the flowers are in accord with the autumn and its loneliness and poverty.”  I often speak of internal harmony in hokku, and that is precisely the internal harmony in this one.

Kyoroku does present it in a somewhat different way, however.  The common Japanese expression in hokku is aki no kaze — “the wind of autumn.”  Kyoroku uses instead, kaze no aki, literally “wind’s autumn,” or “windy autumn,” making a unity of the wind and the autumn, which become one thing, and because of the harmony with the rest of the verse, it also unifies the whole.

Notice again the “repeated subject” form that comes in so handy with hokku in English.  “It” and “windy autumn” both refer to the same thing.  That is why we call it “repeated subject.”

David

ENTERING AUTUMN

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

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

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn.  So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind;  it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling.  That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it.  That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event.  The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing.  That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement.  It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day.  All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them.  That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn.  We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic.  The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes.  Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect.  All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude.  To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts?  We know already, because the autumn wind tells us.  They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory.   For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry.  We do not have to ask.  We know.

David


BEGINNING TO LEARN CONTENT IN HOKKU

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an Autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of yang into yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (yang) to inactivity (yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast — of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.  But I will discuss this more in another posting.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

David

THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

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.

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 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 Mère My 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