COOL, CLEAR WATER

 

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

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

(Summer)

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

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

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

(Summer)

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

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

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

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

We could re-write it like this:

(Summer)

Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.

 

David

 

 

HOKKU ROOTS: BAI JUYI’S SIXTY-SIX

Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.

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 CLEAR WATER

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

Buson

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

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

David

THE CLEAR WATER

A pleasant and simple summer hokku by Kitō:

Little fish
Are carried backwards;
The clear water.

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

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

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

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

David

THE RAIN IS RAINING ALL AROUND

The fundamental principle of hokku is that it is about Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature — set in the context of the seasons.  Here is a hokku by Shōha emphasizing the human part of that.  It is particularly appropriate to the last few weeks of weather where I am:

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

This verse is not about a boy or a kite or the rain.  It is about a-boy-and-a-kite-and-the-rain, all as one thing.  Full of impatient and frustrated hope, the poor little guy waits and waits for the rain to stop so he may fly his kite.  And his parents feel his pain, the suffering of childhood.

Without the rain there would be no hokku; without the kite there would be no hokku; and without the child there would be no hokku.  It takes them all together to present us with this verse, a verse that shows us “humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.”

Shiki wrote:

In the water jug
A frog is floating;
Summer rain.

This is a very watery, Yin verse — water in the jug, water in the rain, and a watery frog.  It makes one think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s verse,

The rain is raining all around,
It falls on field and tree,

It rains on the umbrellas here,

And on the ships at sea.

David

A WILLOWY WALDEN

Not long ago I introduced two short-verse “alternative” forms.  Both were intended for those times when a hokku is too small in space for what needs to be said.

We find such an example in English translations of one of Buson’s spring verses about the willow.  Blyth gives it as:

Unwilling to throw it away,
I stuck the willow branch in the ground;
The sound of water.

This is really too long for hokku in English, though Blyth conveys the meaning of the Japanese rather well.  Let’s suppose for a moment that we are the writers of this verse, that we are writing it in English and we can see its content is too extensive for a hokku.  The next step would be to go to a longer “short verse” form, in this case the walden, which is the English-language aesthetic equivalent of “hokku-ized” waka:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

As you can see, that has a short/long/short/long/long form.  It is  kind of extended hokku, and it is really remarkably handy.  Just because something fits into a hokku in Japanese does not mean it will do so in English.  Similarly, many experiences take just too many English words to fit the hokku form, and in those cases we may also use the walden (or the slightly briefer loren).

Let’s look again at Buson’s verse in walden form:

Not wanting
To throw the willow away,
I stuck it
Deep in the earth;
The sound of rain.

The writer has been walking along, holding a long branch of a willow that has newly leafed out in the fresh green of spring.  Suddenly he realizes that it is not something to keep, but what is he to do with it?  He feels it not right to just discard it, but instead pushes it deep into the spring earth.  Some time later he hears the sound of rain falling.

With this verse Buson too is part of the spring, the greening willow, the rooting and growing of things.  The willow and its watery nature and ease of sprouting in moist soil are in harmony with the sound of falling rain.

David