DEFINING HOKKU

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

DEFINING HOKKU

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

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

ANCIENT LAKE? OLD POND? AND HOW MANY DUCKS?

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

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

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

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

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;
Evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

HOKKU IS NOT THE SAME AS “HAIKU”

New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):

(Winter)

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

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.

David

WHAT IS A FROG DOING IN AUTUMN?

As long-time readers here know, hokku is seasonal verse.  Every verse is an event set in the context of a particular season.

Photograph of a Green Frog en ( Rana clamitans...

In old hokku (which was Japanese), this became too systematized, so that if one wrote about frogs, it was automatically assumed that such a verse was a “spring” verse.  But in modern hokku, a frog verse can be for any season in which a frog appears.  For us in the temperate zone, that would be in spring, summer, or early autumn.

Ordinarily we do not write or read hokku that are out of season, but an exception is made for general instruction, and that is why today, on a very chilly and wet day in autumn, I am going to briefly discuss a couple of “frog” hokku.

The kind of language used in writing Japanese hokku was telegraphic, which means a translation of such a verse is often likely to come out longer in English.  Here is an example by Wakyu:

Hitotsu tobu   oto ni mina tobu   kawazu kana

That literally reads, “One jumps sound at, all jump; frogs….

Put into ordinary English, we would say,

At the sound of one jumping, they all jump; frogs.

But of course in English that is not as clear as we would like it, because English tends to be more definite than Japanese.  We would want it to say,

At the sound of one frog jumping in, they all jump in; frogs.” That way it is clear that they are not jumping on land, but jumping into water.

R. H. Blyth translated the verse very much like that, only he took the very last word — “frogs” — and moved it into the main body of the verse, like this:

At the sound of one jumping in,
All the frogs
Jumped in.

That comes out top-heavy and a bit awkward visually, though it makes sense and is clear. That kind of out-of balance verse often results from trying to translate everything in an original into English.  But we could achieve essentially the same thing and gain the brevity so helpful in hokku by leaving out the word oto — “sound,” like this:

The frogs;
When one jumps in,
They all jump. 

That is better balanced, and it is very close to the sense of the original without being overly long.

We could do the same for another “frog” hokku (by Ryōto) that Blyth places right after that one in his anthology.  In the original, it is:

Hashi wateru hito ni shizumaru kawazu kana

Bridge cross person at quieten frogs kana

Blyth again makes it too top-heavy in his translation.  That is acceptable when one is trying to  convey the meaning of the original, which was what Blyth was doing and doing well, but it is not good in writing hokku in Engish.  Blyth has:

Someone passed over the bridge,
And all the frogs
Were quiet.

An additional problem is that the translation reads a little to much like a single run-on sentence. We could achieve the same effect by putting it into better form:

Crossing the bridge;
All the frogs
Go silent.

There are multiple ways of translating the same verse, and multiple ways of writing such hokku in English.  The trick is not to go too far, not to try to put too much into a verse.  Keep it simple and direct.  Did you notice in that last verse that even though the first line looks considerably longer than the other two, it is still only three words, just like the second line?

Just an additional remark, and that will be it for now.  You probably saw the untranslated word kana at the end of each Japanese hokku.  The Japanese used it as a kind of meditative pause at the end, but they also, quite honestly, often used it just to pad out the required seventeen phonetic units standard in Japanese hokku.  In English, punctuation does the trick when a sense of pause is needed, but actually in many cases it does not need to be reflected in the translation at all, given that in so many cases it is just “filler.”

David

THROUGH THE BARLEY

Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.

David

THE LAST OF HOKKU HERE?

I have long made no secret of the fact that in my view, the hokku tradition of Japan was greatly distorted when it was introduced to the West as “haiku.”  Instead of paying attention to R. H. Blyth, Westerners instead listened to the the haiku societies and self-made authorities that were busy re-making the hokku in their own image.  Consequently hokku was never really successfully transmitted to the West, but instead fell into the hands of those who used it for their own purposes, greatly changing it in the process.

That has been the situation since the middle of the 20th century, and if anything, that situation has become even worse today, as do-it-yourselfers continue to turn the hokku — misrepresented as “haiku” — into just another ill-defined kind of Western brief verse, with the only thing left of hokku being, in most cases, its brevity, and sometimes not even that.  Even when modern haiku enthusiasts claim to keep such elements of hokku as the focus on Nature and an emphasis on season, one finds that in practice they have no understanding of the aesthetic principles behind these elements.  It shows immediately in their writing.

For almost fifteen years I have been presenting a different view of hokku, one that restores what to me are its unique virtues as a kind of spiritual verse.  Over the years I have carefully explained everything from the form and punctuation of hokku in English to its aesthetics, including how it fits into the cycle of the seasons and how its focus is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Some fifteen years of presenting hokku should be sufficient.  If those reading about it here have not gotten the point in that time, one has reason to suspect they never will.  But of course new readers are always appearing, and one never knows when one among them will suddenly “get” what hokku is all about, in spite of all the baggage people may carry from exposure to modern haiku.

And if the times are unpropitious to hokku and its Nature-based aesthetic, one must simply not try to hasten the process; one must be patient and hope that once again humans will begin to recognize that Nature is their mother and father and their home, and that those who harm Nature harm themselves.

What does all this mean for this site?  It means simply that after discussing hokku and all its methods, techniques, and implications for such a long period of years, the time has come to relax a bit and to include discussion of other things — things beyond but still related in some way to the spirit of the hokku.  One might think that after years of writing on the topic, the hokku has been more than sufficiently discussed and explained in all I have presented here since I first began so many years ago, long before anyone else was teaching either hokku or haiku on the Internet.  But once one has developed a great interest in hokku, it just becomes a part of one’s life, and comes up naturally now and then in whatever one thinks and does.

Hokku is significant as a manifestation of a way of life and action, but there are other manifestations as well, other things I hope to discuss here — many of them not too far afield from the hokku and its atmosphere of poverty and simplicity and focus on Nature and the seasons.

We have just passed Halloween — Samhain in the old calendar — the end of the ancient year.  Now we go into the darkness and the cold of winter — the Yin time, the time of returning to the root —  out of which a new year will eventually be born.  The old cycle of the seasons continues, and this site will continue too, even though it is sure to change in one way or another over time, just as all things in Nature change in keeping with the workings of Yin and Yang.

Those of you who have studied hokku with me over the years really should now be on your own.  I have given you the knowledge, but if you are unable to provide skill and the right spirit, that knowledge will come to nothing.  I have done what I could.  And though I shall continue to talk about hokku, as time goes by it will increasingly be up to others to keep the hokku alive or to let it fall into decay and be forgotten.  I can only do what I can do, and all else is beyond my control.

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

Travelers —
One by one they disappear
Into the falling snow.

That is life.  Things come and go, people come and go, and though I continue to talk about hokku here, I shall not be around forever to teach and explain it.  Whether or not the hokku falls into obscurity and is forgotten under the overwhelming deluge of mediocrity exhibited in modern haiku will be up to all readers of this site.  One hopes they will not let it happen, even though past experience with human notions of responsibility does not give great encouragement.

David

EPIGRAMS AND SENRYU

It is typical of the misunderstanding that has dogged the steps of hokku in the West that when it first began to appear there, it was sometimes referred to as “epigrams,” when it is not epigrammatical at all.

What is an epigram?  Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us in rhyme:

What is an epigram?  A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

In the West there are comical as well as serious epigrams, and they go back to ancient times.  One finds them in the Greek Anthology, that venerable collection of classical verse.  Here are some renditions:

First, the satirical:

The sculptor carved Menodotis with love.
It is — how very odd it is —
A noble, speaking likeness.  But not of
Menodotis.

And Matthew Prior had a much later one:

Sir, I admit your general rule
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

And then, leaving satire aside, there is the stunningly noble ancient Greek epigram written on the tomb of the hero Leonidas, over whose remains a carved stone lion was placed:

I am a lion.  Stranger pause
As you pass lightly by;
I guard the tomb of one who was
More lion-like than I.

But today I want to talk about the satirical, because when it comes to the definition of an epigram, paradoxically, the “evil twin” of hokku — senryu — fits the description precisely; it is very small and brief, “its body brevity, and wit its soul.”

The man
Afraid of his wife
Makes money.

The husband is afraid not to make money, because his wife will nag him mercilessly.

In spite of its superficial resemblance to hokku, that is obviously a senryu, not a hokku.  It has no relation to Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and it has no season.  Instead, its whole focus is on revealing the quirks of human nature.  And that is what senryu are about.

Turning
To the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.

The teacher does not want the students to see that he too finds the lesson boring.

Senryu shows us what people don’t want us to know, showing what humans are really like behind the “image.”

Here is a modified and  “updated” rendering of an old one that seems at first more hokku-like:

The plastic flowers
On the table are dusty;
An out-of-the-way motel.

The isolated motel gets few guests, so the “management” does not pay much attention to appearances.

What makes this senryū rather than hokku?  It is the look into human nature that it gives us.   And of course we would not be using plastic flowers in hokku.

Older than he,
The wife applies her face cream
Desperately.

She is worried that her husband will lose interest and perhaps look elsewhere for romance.

 

And having raised, with that last verse, the issue of the ravages of time, I shall complete the circle by returning again to an ancient Greek epigram, of which the first three lines are sufficient:

Now that I grow old, alas,
And the light of youth must pass,
Venus, take my looking glass.

Now that she is losing her looks, she no longer wants to look in a mirror.

 

David


BASICS OF FORM AND PUNCTUATION

One cannot compose hokku without a form, and the form of English-language hokku is simple and practical.  One need not worry about what it is to be because it already exists and serves quite well.

A hokku in English consists of three lines, the center often (but not always) a little longer than the other two, which are approximately equal in length.

As a guide for length, hokku in English has as its standard a sequence of 2, 3, and 2 “essential words.”  Essential words, as the term is used in hokku, means those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar.  That means we need not count articles such as “the,” “a,” or “an.”  Nor need we often count prepositions such as “to,” “from,” “under,” “in,” and “on.”  That leaves us largely with nouns, verbs and an occasional personal pronoun.

There is a hokku by Bonchō:

The razor,
Rusted in one night;
The summer rains.

The essential words in that verse would be:

razor
rusted one night
summer rains

That gives us a pattern of 1-3-2 essential words, which is close enough to the standard.  We may also go slightly over the standard, and often we will use precisely the standard of 2-3-2.  One need not be too rigid about it, because the purpose of the standard is merely to ensure that we do not begin adding needless words, putting too much into a hokku and violating the principle of poverty.

Punctuation is very important in English-language hokku.  It has two related purposes:  It indicates the length of pause and the nature of separation or connection between two lines — working in a somewhat “musical” sense, and equally important, it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without confusion.  Both of these are significant in how a reader experiences a verse.

Punctuation, like the overall form, is something already determined in English-language hokku.  Once one knows the significance of each mark, it really becomes quite easy:

To understand hokku punctuation, we first must know that every verse consists of two parts, a longer and a shorter.  There is always a punctuation mark separating them, and there is always a punctuation mark at the end of the verse.

The two parts of a hokku may be separated by:

1.  A semicolon (;) — this gives a definite, strong meditative pause.
2.  A comma (,) — this gives a brief connective pause.
3.  A question mark (?) — which of course indicates a question.
4.  A dash ( — ) indicating a long connective pause.

A hokku usually ends with a period (.), more rarely with an exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?)  and occasionally ellipses (….)

Finally, hokku in English have the first letter of each line capitalized, and of course the first letter of any proper noun (a name, such as “Spirit Lake”) is capitalized as well.

This form — this system of lines, of punctuation, of capitalization — works extremely well and does everything we need to do in a hokku.  Because it is all settled and standardized, there is nothing to excite quibbles.  It works and it works well, requiring no change.

Knowing all this, if one sees a verse that looks vaguely like hokku but is not capitalized or punctuated, or has merely a hyphen as a separating mark, we know it is not a hokku, but some other kind of brief verse.  I am speaking in all cases here of hokku written in English, of course, though the same general principles apply to other European languages.

I have already said that every hokku consists of two parts — a longer part and a shorter part — and that these are separated by a punctuation mark.  We see that in a verse by Kikaku:

Lightning!
Yesterday in the East,
Today in the West.

Notice that each line begins with a capital letter;
Notice that the internal separation mark in this verse is an exclamation point, which indicates something unusual or unexpected;
Notice that the verse ends with a period;
And finally, note that the hokku consists of a pattern of 1-2-2 essential words, quite close enough to our 2-3-2 standard.

That is a quick summary of the hokku form in English.  Yet a verse can be correctly punctuated and capitalized, and be the right general length, and still fail as a hokku.  That is why without knowing the aesthetics and techniques, there is really no hokku.  The outer form is the shell, like the shell of a walnut.  And as with a walnut, it is what is inside that makes it worthwhile.  That means to practice hokku, one must devote considerable time to its aesthetics and techniques, to learning its overall spirit and how it is applied when one writes.  Having covered the form of the hokku, we are now ready to go on to that deeper topic, to what really makes a hokku a hokku and not something else.

David

HOKKU AND THE “TEN THOUSAND THINGS”

In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
or
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Coolness;
Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.

David

THE HOKKU OF SUMMER

All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.

WHAT AM I DOING HERE?

“Old” readers here will quickly notice the change in appearance of this site.  I hope it may aid eyes wearied by the computer screen.

With this change of “look” and of season, I want to take a few moments for a general review of this site and its subject matter for new readers.

First, of course, this is a site for instruction in how to write the hokku — that remarkably condensed form of brief verse, set in the context of Nature and the seasons — that flourished before the 20th century cast it aside as inappropriate to the speed and goals and materialism of “modern” life — as though life could somehow exist outside Nature and the changing seasons.

As in the past, I shall continue to explain, through example, how the hokku is written in English, and what its aesthetics, so different from what we in the West know as “poetry,” are.  A diligent reader here will over time pick up the essential foundations for the practice of writing hokku, and if these basic elements are applied to actually taking up the verse form for one’s self, anyone with reasonable skill and innate taste should be able not only to write passable hokku, but occasionally quite good hokku.  Most important in this regard is understanding the spirit and the aesthetic behind hokku, and that is something one cultivates and develops over time through immersion in the subject and continued practice.

Beyond that, I often discuss here what is more commonly regarded as poetry in the English and other languages, verses that have kept (or should have kept) their appeal for one reason or another.  And I add to those excerpts from prose that often — sometimes unexpectedly — prove poetic in themselves.

I approach poetry here on an unaccustomed path, one in which it relates directly to daily life and to the kind of spirituality one finds in hokku — a spirituality in which the self of the writer and of the reader disappears in that which is written about.  And as Giacomo Leopardi wrote in his poem L’Infinito, “The Infinite,”

Così tra questa immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Thus through this immensity my thought is drowned;
and shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.

David

NO MODERN HAIKU, THANK YOU!

R. H. Blyth recognized even in his day that the hokku had fallen on hard times.  He speaks with favor of Bashō, of Buson, of Issa, and even speaks of the “objective dryness yet pregnancy of Shiki” (who began haiku as distinct from hokku), but he speaks also of  “the decadence of all later writers” (of haiku).

So much for the experimentation and change that came after Shiki in haiku — the experimentation and change that is also characteristic of modern haiku in English, which has continued, though in another language, the decadence of verse after Shiki.

Blyth tells us that Bashō’s “Way” can “hardly be said to exist now, for almost nobody walks on it.”  Certainly I have found no one in the modern haiku movement on that path.

In speaking of what came after hokku and the conservative haiku of Shiki that was often indistinguishable from hokku, Blyth says quite honestly and bluntly,

…I feel that very little would be lost if all the haiku of modern times were tacitly forgotten.”

I feel precisely the same about modern haiku in English and other European languages.  One would like to erase all the mistakes and misperceptions and misunderstandings and foolishness foisted on the English-speaking public by the modern haiku community in the entire second half of the 20th century, a period which unfortunately set the stage for the abysmal kinds of verse written today as “haiku,” a period in which the genuine hokku and its aesthetics were seemingly deliberately obscured by the Western founders of modern haiku, who, not understanding the real hokku, simply chose to re-make it  as they wished it to be, then foisted the result on the naïve general public. 

Blyth tells us precisely what he thinks of this abandonment of the Way of Bashō:

Its disuetude is a monument to the stupidity, vulgarity, sentimentality, and unpoeticality of human beings.”

Blyth summarized his two-volume History of Haiku by saying,

Haiku since Shiki [that is, since about the turn of the 20th century] has been, like the world itself, in a state of confusion.

That confusion is abundantly evident on modern haiku sites.  One need only read the advice given by the “poets” there to novice writers, and one quickly sees that they really have not the slightest idea what they are doing or why, but in any case the best one can say of the deplorable results is that they are mercifully brief excuses for verse.  The “learning” and “teaching” of “haiku” on such sites is simply a classic illustration of the blind leading the blind.

Everyone in modern haiku makes up his or her own mind as to what constitutes a haiku and how to write it.  Blyth foresaw that decades ago, because the attitude already existed in his time:

The confusion of our modern times seems greater than ever before because people speak by themselves only, not by humanity.

It is the “Me” Period in which we live, not just the “Me Generation.”  And nothing so exemplifies modern haiku as this confused and rootless emphasis on “me,” on the individual as “poet,” on the necessity for constant change in verse, the same kind of constant change demanded by the short attention span of a two-year-old child.

I have watched the low rise of the modern haiku and its near-immediate devolution over many decades, and I see no trace of hope for the arising of anything worthwhile within it at present.  Almost without exception, those who practice it are devoid of an inherent sense of poetry (paradoxically, because those who write “haiku” today seem more than ever obsessively concerned about being perceived as “poets.” and as writing “poetry”).

I can say with Blyth that very little would be lost if all the haiku and haiku Internet sites and fora and journals of modern times were tacitly forgotten.  Given how little they are noticed by the general public in any case, their absence would likely pass without comment, and modern haiku could go into the dustbin of history, forgotten and unmourned.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any one has any doubts about my attitude toward modern haiku, I think this brief posting should dispel them.  

I want to remind everyone that I do not teach or practice or advocate modern haiku; I do not belong to any “haiku” group of any kind; and I have nothing whatsoever to do with modern haiku, aside from deploring its accompanying nonsense and mediocrity and triviality, and how its self-made pundits have actively contributed to the obscurity and near disappearance of the real hokku as practiced from its beginnings to the time of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.

David