LANTERNS, WIND, AND DARKNESS

Shiki wrote this autumn verse:

Tōro kiete bashō ni kaze no wataru oto
Lantern gone-out banana at wind ‘s pass-through sound

I don’t much like verses that need background explanations, but in this case, perhaps what is learned will be helpful

To understand the verse, we need to know first that the kind of lantern mentioned — a tōrō — is generally an outdoor lantern, commonly used in gardens and along pathways.  So this verse happens outside rather than inside.

Second, you probably recognized the word bashō in the transliterated Japanese.  Yes, it is the word Bashō took as his literary name.  A bashō is a hardy kind of banana plant that under the right circumstances produces quite small and inedible bananas, so it is grown primarily for its fibers, from which a number of things can be made, and for its appearance — with its pleasant long and wide green leaves.

In plant nurseries you will see it as Musa basjooMusa — scientifically speaking — is its genus, and basjoo is the species.  Basjoo really should be pronounced as bah-syo-oh –which is close enough to bashō — but I am sure most people will end up saying something like “bass-joo” — which is not at all correct, and obscures the connection with Bashō.

Now that we have gotten through all of that, we can translate the verse with understanding — but we will also see the problems in translation.  A rather literal rendering would be:

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana.

Now when Westerners hear “banana,” they think first of the yellow, edible fruit of the tropical banana, instead of the hardy Musa basjoo that can grow even where winters are freezing, though it dies back to the ground and shoots up again in the spring, unless given winter protection.  So “the sound of wind passing /Through the banana” gives us a rather odd picture.

Also, there is the problem of “lantern,” which as we have seen, means a kind of outdoor or garden lantern in this case — not an indoor lantern of the old days.  So to clearly translate the verse, we would need to say something like

The stone lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind passing
Though the banana leaves.

Most tōrō were stone lanterns, though they could also be of metal or wood, or even be hanging instead of on the ground — or, in some cases, be formal lanterns in temples.

What all of this bothersome explanation tells us is that this verse “does not travel well,” which is a phrase I use to describe those verses that are so tied to a particular culture that it is difficult for those in another culture to understand them without explanation — and of course explaining a hokku is rather like explaining a joke; the strength just goes out of both the hokku and the joke.

That is why we don’t write hokku in English that require a lot of explanation to be understood.

We could rewrite the verse, perhaps like this;

The lantern goes out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That is probably about as close as one can get in English without being excessively wordy — and the reader will likely still not realize at first that the lantern is an outdoor lantern.  It could easily be a lantern indoors, and when it goes out, one’s attention is drawn from the now-extinguished light to the other main sensory impression — the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Perhaps we could get closer to the original meaning with something like this:

The lantern blows out;
The sound of the wind
Through the banana leaves.

That makes the connection that just “The lantern goes out” does not make — that the night wind has blown out the flame in the lantern, and when the light is gone, we hear the sound of that same wind as it blows through the leaves of the banana plant.

None of these, however is an ideal translation of the original, as you can see from this long discussion of all that is involved.  The reader who intuits that the lantern is outdoors is likely to see it as a lantern held in the hand of someone walking down a path at night, rather than a fixed garden lantern.  In spite of that, however,  either of our attempts will make good hokku in English — if we forget about saying exactly what Shiki meant:

So when we read

The lantern goes out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

— it is all right if we understand the lantern to be indoors, and we are hearing through an open window the sound of the wind through the banana leaves.

Or if we prefer the outdoor version, we can hope for the reader’s best intuition, and give it as

The lantern blows out;
The sound of wind
Through the banana leaves.

It is noteworthy that in both versions, the point is that when we lose one sensory impression — in this case sight, from the light of the lantern — the remaining sensory impression — the sound of the wind — becomes all the stronger.

We can see the same effect — the same technique of composition — used in another verse by Shiki:

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone fireworks ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

We could render it as:

Everyone gone;
After the fireworks —
The darkness.

or we could change the sequence:

With everyone gone,
The darkness
After the fireworks.

In both cases, the “point” is the same — now that the sensory input of the bright fireworks and their noise is gone along with all those who watched them, we are left only with silence and darkness  — a darkness which is felt to be even deeper because of the absence of the fireworks and people.

As I have said before, the absence of something in hokku can have a very strong effect, as strong or even stronger than presence.

 

David

 

 

CLOUD SHADOWS

A hokku by Kyoroku:

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

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

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

Here is the transliterated Japanese:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

David

SEEN FROM THE HOKKU MIND

I hope that readers here have begun to realize from my postings that the hokku is quite different from the modern haiku.  In general, a modern haiku is just a verse of some kind written in three lines.  It might have something to do with Nature or it might not; it might have something to do with the seasons or it might not.  Hokku, however, are always about Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, and each hokku expresses a particular season.

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In modern haiku we are likely to find verses like:

July –
I woke up
with my headache gone

I actually saw a verse quite like that in a recent book purporting to teach people how to write.   A verse like that is just a statement with no real substance.  It has no depth, and none is added even by mention of the month.  That superficiality is unfortunately characteristic of most modern haiku.

Hokku, however, has the depth of Nature and the seasons if written correctly, the depth of time and change.  The student of hokku gradually learns to expect this and to recognize it, so that even a simple-looking verse, when approached from the hokku perspective, contains more than is on the surface.  For example, here is a slight variation on a Meiji period verse:

The iron windbell
Tinkling and tinkling;
Autumn. 

To understand this verse as hokku rather than haiku, one must realize that the same thing can mean very different things in different seasons.  A windbell in the spring is not the same as a windbell in autumn.  Autumn is a time when the weather worsens, when rain and storms and winds increase.  So the repeated tinkling of the windbell is noticed by the writer precisely because it manifests the nature of autumn.  We feel the coming of something in the constant tinkling, and that something is the increasing decline of the year into coldness and darkness and rain.  We hear autumn in the tinkling of the windbell.

In addition, it is significant that the windbell is of iron.  We may picture it in our minds either as dark and black — a Yin color in keeping with the shortening of the days in autumn — or we may see it as brown and rusty, which also is in keeping with autumn — when things lose their color and decay and age.   Do not forget that one of the pleasures of hokku and one of the things that adds greatly to their feeling of significance is the way elements in a verse  “reflect” one another in this way.  That, again, is called “internal reflection,” and it is very important to hokku.

It should be obvious from these few remarks that one of the major differences between hokku and modern haiku is that hokku has an aesthetic framework in which a verse is to be understood and appreciated.  Modern haiku merely has a verse without such a background, which is why so many modern haiku lack a sense of depth and unspoken significance.  A hokku, then, requires a kind of “hokku mind” in the reader, one that recognizes the interrelationship of all things in Nature, one that sees how the elements of a verse work together to manifest the nature of a season.

Those in modern haiku are generally completely unfamiliar with these things, because modern haiku has lost its spiritual roots.  That is why if they notice the presence of internal reflection at all — which is very seldom — they do not know what it is or what it means, and completely misinterpret it in Western poetic terms as “metaphor,” failing to understand its nature and purpose.

David

AUTUMN SCARECROWS

Autumn has begun.

Autumn is the declining of the life energies in Nature.  We see it in the withering of grasses and plants, in the yellowing and coloring and, eventually, the falling of the leaves.  In America our “native” name for the season is the Fall, and that is what it is — the fall of the leaves.  It is also the fall of the turning wheel of the year from the Yang height of summer to the deep Yin of winter.

In hokku it is very important that things reflect one another, that they are harmonious even in difference.  The declining of vital energy in the autumn is in keeping with late afternoon in the day.  In human life, it corresponds to the time when a person grows old, the “autumn of life,” as people say.  Autumn is a time of the calming of the energies of summer, a time when Nature prepares to go inward, to “return to the root” as we see in plants whose upper leaves wither as the energy to survive winter begins to concentrate in their roots.

Autumn is a time of change, of preparation for the harshness and stillness and poverty of winter.  Animals store their food or prepare for hibernation; birds, as the air cools, begin their great journeys southward across the skies.  Even humans like to find, when possible, a secure place to spend the coming winter.

Autumn, then, is the declining of Yang energy and the increasing of Yin, a movement toward the predominance of stillness and silence over activity and sound.  It manifests all through the season, for example in the cries of migrating wild geese high overhead that quickly pass and disappear in the distance, and in sudden storms that fade eventually to silence.

We see autumn, then, in things that are aging and things that are old; in fading leaves, in bleached boards, in withering plants, and old people with grey hair and slowing step.  We see it in the chilling of the air and the return of the rains, and of course in the decline of the path of the sun in the sky and the shortening of the day.

Scarecrows are a favorite subject for hokku in autumn because they manifest the character of the season so well — its aging, its frailty, its deepening poverty, its weakness:

Kyoroku wrote:

First,
The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm
.

That shows us the frailty and weakness that are in keeping with the season, in spite of the strength of the storm.  And of course we can say of the scarecrow — as Nyōfu does here,

It is old
From the day it is made —
The scarecrow.

That is what makes it such an expressive manifestation of the autumn — its poverty, its weakness, its inherent frailty.

The scarecrow, we must note, is not a metaphor for anything; it does not symbolize or represent anything.  But of course because of the principle of reflection, we cannot help feeling ourselves in the scarecrow, and in fact, feeling all of Nature at autumn in the scarecrow.  It is said that a single falling leaf is all of autumn, and the same may be said of a scarecrow, which we feel in this verse of Chōi:

The autumn wind
Goes right through its bones —
The scarecrow.

The scarecrow shows us the transience and impermanence inherent in Nature, inherent in all things.

Shōha gives us the harmony of two similar things in this verse:

The evening sun;
The shadow of the scarecrow
Reaches the road.

The scarecrow is old as the day is old, and the sun declines as the year declines into silence and darkness.

The scarecrow is the ultimate of humility and selflessness.  It is no respecter of persons.  It removes its hat before no one, and it is unmoved alike by beauty and ugliness, as Issa points out:

A full moon;
It stands there indifferent —
The scarecrow.

Of course there is a bit of animism in that, the tendency of people to see “life” in things that are not alive in the usual sense.  The birds of autumn, however, are not fooled, as Sazanami shows us:

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

It reminds us of the words of Jesus in the New Testament in that most poetic of translations, the “King James” version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The scarecrow, however, is above such sermons, unimpressed by status and position and wealth, unmoved by glory or shame, just a manifestation of elements that come together temporarily to make a form, and then disperse again into nothingness.

Impermanence.

David



THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

I like to repeat this posting each year at this time:

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

A COOL WIND: OBJECTIVITY IN HOKKU

In my last posting, I discussed the distinction between subjective and objective hokku.  We can think of it this way:

An objective hokku is a thing-event.

A subjective hokku is generally a thing-event plus the “thinking” of the writer.

Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
Through the window of the stone lantern —
The sea.

There is just the coolness, the stone lantern, the sea.

However at another time Shiki wrote:

Coolness;
The defeat of the Heike
In the sound of the waves.

The Heike were an ancient clan defeated in a naval battle.  So what we see here is a bit of objectivity — “coolness” and “the sound of the waves” — but added to and overwhelming that is the subjectivity of Shiki’s historical allusion, his “coloring of the imagination” added when he “hears” the defeat of the Heike in the sound of the waves.  But what he hears comes not from the waves, but from his own imagination.  What he really hears is just the sound of waves.  But he did not let that be enough.  He has added “thinking” to the objective elements, and has made the verse subjective.

Now why is this distinction important, given that historically there were virtually always both subjective and objective hokku?  It is important because in the kind of hokku I teach, we prefer hokku without “thinking” because they give us the pure thing-event, with nothing added.

Subjective hokku are “poetical,” meaning “fancifully depicted or embellished.”  When Shiki adds the defeat of the Heike to the plain sound of the waves, he is adding his own imagination, his own fancy, and is embellishing the sound of the waves by adding that “coloring of the imagination” to them.

Subjective hokku are often very popular in the West, because as I wrote earlier, Western poetry is traditionally highly subjective.  In fact the degree to which Western poetry was and is subjective is rather astonishing when one begins to look for objectivity in traditional poetry.

We can say that in subjective verse, the writer has a “poetic” intent.  He cannot just give us the thing-event itself and let it be.  He has to add his own thoughts, his own view, his own interpretation.  Very rarely is Nature just allowed to be Nature, as Onitsura allows it to be in this objective hokku:

A cool wind;
The sky is filled
With the sound of pines.

In that verse there is no attempt to be “poetical,” no addition of the thinking of the writer.  There is only the cool wind, only the sound of the pines filling the sky.

Of course our preference for objectivity in hokku can be traced to the spiritual roots of hokku.  In the Bahiya Sutta we read,

“In the seen, there should be only the seen.  In the heard, there should be only the heard.”

So there is a very close connection between the preference for objective hokku here and the practice of a meditative, contemplative life.

David

WORKING WITH MODELS

The very old practice of using models to learn hokku is, as I have mentioned earlier, also a very good one.  One should not think of it as simplistic or elementary, because if offers the opportunity to fix these models in one’s head and to understand how hokku works structurally, and ultimately aesthetically.

When working with models, we may disregard our usual habit of only reading hokku that are in season.  You may recall that the exception to that habit is in hokku used for teaching and learning.  So one may use a model from any season for practice in any other season.

In model work, we need not pay attention to the Japanese version of a hokku.  The Japanese language is structurally very different than English.  When learning hokku in English, it is important to work from English models.

In the study of models, we quickly find that there are several types of common hokku.  By learning these different types, we expand our range.  Because it is so frequent and useful, I like to begin with the “standard” hokku.

A standard hokku consists of a setting, a subject, and an action, not always in that order.  Here is a standard hokku by Uejima Onitsura, whom we commonly know as just Onitsura:

A cool wind;
Filling the sky —
The sound of pines.

Working with such a model is simply a matter of changing the various elements in it and substituting others.  We can change one or two or all of them, and each will give a different result.  Some changes will be effective, some will not.  By doing this, we learn how to combine elements in hokku, and we also learn the overall structure.

Onitsura’s hokku consists of these elements:

A cool wind; (setting)
Filling the sky —  (action)
The sound of pines. (subject)

Here is how one begins to work with a model through changing elements:

The spring morning: (setting)
Filling the forest — (action)
The sound of birds.  (subject)

It is easy to see that we have substituted other elements in the same structure.  We can go on doing this, using a wide range of topics:

The morning sky;
Filling the meadows —
The gold of poppies

One can easily see that the possibilities are infinite, which is why there are great numbers of hokku just of the “standard” kind alone.  And that is only one of several kinds of hokku.

One must not think this method too basic.  It is remarkably useful, and it enables the diligent student to quickly learn the basic forms of hokku.  When one adds to this the knowledge of the aesthetics of hokku, it provides an excellent grounding in the writing of original verses.

Any of the good hokku in the archives of this site may be used as models.  The more one works with them, the more one will expand one’s knowledge.  A teacher can show how to work, but only the student can do the learning through repeated practice.

If anyone has questions about this or about anything else, feel free to ask me by clicking on the “comment” button at the end of this or any other article.  Your question will be seen only by me, and I will reply to your email address.

David

DECEMBER AND YULETIDE

December will soon begin, and with it comes the holiday season.

How does one deal with holidays in hokku?  The same way one deals with a season.  A holiday verse is like a miniature seasonal verse — in other words, it should express the character of the holiday, how it manifests — with emphasis always upon Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

The most important holidays of the year come in December — in the winter.  Why is that?  It is because in older times, when people lived closer to Nature and the seasons, December was the time when the days were at their shortest, and darkness seemed to threaten the world.  So people needed a time of hope and cheer and encouragement, and they began to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun in the darkest part of winter, telling themselves that light and warmth would come again to the world.

Some of us still celebrate the holidays in that old way — remembering and celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the wheel of the year when the days stop growing shorter and begin once more to grow longer — Wintersonnenwende, as it is called in German — the time when the sun “turns” in winter, and the light of day again begins to lengthen.  In English it is often called the Winter Solstice, from Latin solstitia, meaning the time when the sun “stands still” — that critical point when it seems to pause in the lowering of its arc across the southern sky before reversing.

There should be nothing new in this to students of hokku, who will remember that when either of the two elements — Yang or Yin — reaches its ultimate point, then it changes into its opposite.  That is exactly what happens at the Winter Solstice.  The growing yin of decreasing light changes into its opposite, and the “yang” day begins to grow longer again in comparison to the “yin” night.

I prefer the old term “Yule,” which is the word still used in Scandinavian countries for what others may call Christmas.  Have you ever thought that celebrating the birth of Christ near the time of the Solstice is just another symbolic way of celebrating the encouraging return of light and hope?  The early Christians just adapted the older holiday to their use, so “Christmas” is just Yule under another name — as we see in the line from the well-known seasonal song,

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

And of course the other line,

See the blazing Yule before us.

The “blazing Yule” is of course the Yule log, an old tradition of the holiday, obviously connected with light and warmth.

So the Winter Solstice is Yule, and the whole holiday period is Yuletide — the time of Yule.  I tend to think of it as the Twelve Days of Yule, beginning with the day of the Solstice and continuing on to New Year’s Day.  That whole period for me is Yuletide — a time to be happy and hopeful.

It is also a time to think of others, which is something that is particularly emphasized in the wonderful old black and white movie based on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.  In spite of the latest Hollywood effort, the absolute best and definitive version of this kindly story is that in which the British actor Alastair Sim is “Scrooge,” the stingy, “rational,” selfish part of all of us.  So do not bother with other versions — just go that unsurpassed old version — and be sure it is in the original black and white, not any “colorized” attempt.  It teaches us that the holiday time is not a time to focus on the “self,” but rather a time to focus on others.  That is a very “hokku-like” attitude, and very much in keeping with the spirituality of hokku.

So, whether we call it Yule or Christmas or Noël or something else, the holiday season of December can provide some interesting hokku if we pay close attention to it.

Take one of the most pleasant seasonal songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Regular readers know that I often lament the use of metaphor and simile in verse, but it is really just the misuse or poor use of it to which I object.  It is used very effectively in these lines.  We could make one or more hokku of it, of course dropping the similes:

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

That is a bit like the early hokku of Sōgi that present two things unified by a third, which in this case is the first line.  Making hokku like this does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the original verse, which had a different purpose.  And no matter which one likes better, we can still enjoy our own efforts based on an original, for example,

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow
.

We should generally only write hokku based on other verses if they also faithfully reflect the character of the season and our own experience.

So as the days of Yule approach, we can think about not only winter hokku, but also holiday hokku, a subcategory of their own.

“December” comes to us from Latin, in which it means simply “Tenth month.”  It reminds us of old Quaker reckoning, in which the months were numbered, as were the days of the week.  For the Quakers, December was “Twelfth Month”

Going a bit farther back, our ancestors were more expressive — “Yule Moon,” “Wolf Moon,” and “Winter Moon,” as well as “Holy Moon.”  “Moon” is the origin of our “month,” which was originally based on the phases of the moon.

So December, “Yule Month,” is the first “real” month of Winter.  As part of winter, it again raises the possibility for good hokku of contrast — light amid darkness, warmth amid cold, and other such things.  And it brings with it the possibility also for holiday hokku.

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

WINDBLOWN BANANAS

Once a student has a good foundation in the principles and practice of hokku, he or she is then free to explore and develop.  And in doing this, one learns to take what is helpful from the old teachers such as Bashō, but not to follow them slavishly.  If one thinks everything Bashō wrote is good hokku, then one does not understand hokku.

Bashō wrote this autumn verse:

Bashō nowaki shite tarai ni ame wo kiku yo kana

It is more condensed in Japanese than is possible in literal English, but what it means — put in a long way — is:

The banana plant blown by the late-autumn gusts —
A night of listening to rain dripping into the basin.

Not exactly the old 5-7-5, is it?  Even in Japanese it is 20 phonetic units rather than the standard 17, because the beginning is overly long — Bashō nowaki shite — “The banana plant blown by the late autumn wind,”  which means a banana plant blown by a “field divider,” a strong wind of late autumn.

But to get to the point, as an English-language hokku it is too long.  One would have difficulty using it as a model.  But it does contain some strong sensations, and one could make hokku from it, for example:

(Autumn)

A windy night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

We do not need the word “autumn” within the verse, because all hokku are classified by season when written.  We could make it

The long night;
Listening to rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or

A long night;
The sound of rain dripping
Into the basin.

Or we could try

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

Each changes the sensation and the feeling a bit, and that is exactly the way one composes hokku.  We do not want to say too much (Bashō says a bit too much in his overly-long verse), but we also do not want to say too little.

Notice that we have to choose, we have to be selective.  In Bashō’s original, there is the banana plant, the storm, the basin, the rain, the listening, and the night.  That is really too much for a hokku in English.   So we learn from the poverty of hokku not to use too many things.  But if we are careful, we can combine elements effectively in a small space, as in the last example above:

Autumn gusts;
Midnight rain dripping
Into the basin.

It has autumn, the wind, the night, the rain, the dripping, and the basin.

Do not misunderstand and think that I am writing about how to translate Bashō’s verse.  No, I am writing about how to write hokku in English — the process of composition, which is of necessity different in some respects from that in Japanese.

In Japanese, for example, one can say Bashō — which means a kind of hardy banana plant — but in English one cannot simply translate Bashō nowaki shite
as “the windblown banana,” because the reader will see a long yellow fruit instead of the torn, broad green leaves of a large banana plant.  One has to take into account the length and the shortness of this or that word in English when composing, in selecting how many elements one may use in a single verse, and in deciding how to combine them for strong effect.

And yes, for those of you who do not already know it, Bashō took for his pen name the Bashō — the hardy banana plant.

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


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