CHOMPING

A winter hokku by Kiūkoku:

The horse
Chomping and chomping straw;
A snowy night.

The loud chomping noises only emphasize the stillness of the night of snow, so we can say this is a hokku with harmony of contrast — two very different things put together that nonetheless come out as harmonious instead of discordant.

Best wishes to everyone on this New Year’s Eve for a far better and happier coming year than the last has been.

David

IN ALL THE WHITENESS

Here is my rather loose translation of a winter hokku by Yasui:

In all the whiteness,
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

Perhaps it reminds you of another winter hokku by Chiy0-ni:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

In two days comes the Midwinter Solstice and the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  Then the days will slowly begin to grow longer. and the new cycle will begin.

 

David

WHERE THEY SLEEP

There is already snow in the high mountains.

Here is another objective “daoku” verse from A Year of Japanese Epigrams, this time by Rimei — in my translation:

Snow falling
On the pines where they sleep —
The crows.

Ne-dokoro no matsu ni yuki    furu    karasu kana
Sleep-place  pine   on  snow falling  crows  kana

Largely visual, this hokku evokes an interesting contrast in the mind between the whiteness of the gently-falling snow and the black crows.

 

David

 

RAIN ON FALLEN LEAVES

It has rained on and off — and very heavily when on — here for many days now.  Most of the colorful autumn leaves have fallen.

Here is a verse by Kaen from the old book A Year of Japanese Epigrams, but in my loose translation.  You will notice that it has a dash of “thinking,” so in our system it is a shinku (hokku with a bit of thinking added) rather than a daoku (completely objective hokku):

Loneliness:
The pattering of rain
On fallen leaves.

Hara-hara to oto       shite       sabishi ame ochiba
Falling       to  sound making   lonely  rain  fallen-leaves

It of course reminds us of a similar well-known verse by  Gyōdai that qualifies as daoku, being completely objective:  It is one of the simplest and best old hokku:

Ochiba ochikasanarite ame ame wo utsu

Falling-leaves fall-pile up rain rain wo beats

Leaves fall
And pile up;
Rain beats on rain.

R. H. Blyth translated it in a particularly appealing way, because of the consonance (repetition) of the letter “l”:

Leaves falling,
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.

When we compare Kaen’s verse with that of Gyōdai, we can easily see it is the addition of “loneliness” that makes it a shinku instead of a daoku.  That “loneliness” is the adding of the writer’s personal interpretation of the sound of the rain pattering on the fallen leaves.  Gyōdai, however, simply presents us with the leaves falling and piling up and the rain beating on the rain, and we feel what is openly stated in Kaen’s verse without the need to say it.  It is the old maxim we heard so often in school — “Show, don’t tell.”

There is no single English word that exactly corresponds to sabishi.  It combines elements of being alone and solitary with a kind of profound, wistful, existential sadness.  It does not have so much of the implications of “deprived of human company” that we sense in the English word “loneliness.”

 

David

HOKKU IS NOT WRITING “POETRY”

A major difference between the kind of hokku I teach and the verses of modern haiku lies in a fundamental divergence in what one considers the verse form to be.  In modern haiku, verses written are considered “poetry,” and the writers “poets.”

Now this brings with it all kinds of cultural and literary baggage, because writing “poetry” puts the emphasis on the writer as well as on the cleverness of what is written.  That is a long-standing tradition in Western poetry, and it is precisely why — in my view — so many people never gain an understanding of hokku.  At its best, hokku is something quite different than “poetry.”  It is a momentary experience of the fundamental unity of humans and Nature.

If one is to experience that unity, then Nature must be allowed to speak through the writer — instead of the writer manipulating Nature in words — or even manipulating words while ignoring Nature entirely, which is often the case now with modern haiku.

If one regards hokku as poetry created by a poet, then an obstacle is put in place preventing a direct experience of Nature.  In writing hokku, ideally the writer should disappear, so that the reader may become one with the experience, with no poet or poetic cleverness getting between the reader and the experience.

To do that, a writer of hokku must — at least momentarily — become selfless; by doing so, all that remains is the experience, without poetic ornamentation, without cleverness:

A winter hokku by Jōsō:

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is pure experience.  In it, there is no overt poetry.  The poetry is in the experience — beyond the words.  When it is read, there is no “poet,” no “poetry” — just

Wolves howling

All together;

The snowy evening.

That is the selflessness of hokku, with the writer disappearing so that Nature may speak.

 

David

 

DEEPENING

Here is a loose translation of an old winter hokku by Issa:

Deepening
The loneliness —
Frost on the window.

There is something about the cold and clear austerity of winter that makes us feel our solitude even more deeply.

 

David

AN ICY NIGHT

I have discussed this winter hokku by Bashō previously, but I would like to go over it again because it is such a strong verse.  It can be translated in a number of similar ways.  Here is one:

A water jar breaks;
Awakened from sleep
On an icy night.

Or we could be more loose and direct, and say:

Jolted awake;
A water jar broke
In the icy night.

Either  way, the point of the verse is the cracking of the water jug broken by the water expanding in it as it froze.  And the sudden splitting of the jug in the darkness is so loud that it woke the writer — making him one with the splitting jug, its sound, and the icy night.  Everything is unified.  It gives the reader a very strong sensory perception, which often makes for good hokku.

It is a very wintery hokku and expresses the season well, and in fact is one of those hokku actually given a title (yes, sometimes it was done).  Bashō called it in Chinese characters 寒 夜, meaning “Cold Night.”

David

 

MARKS OF RAT TEETH

In a long-ago previous posting, I talked about Richard Wright, and how — like most people in the West in the 20th century — he did not quite understand hokku.

I wrote of him,

“The more one reads Wright’s “haiku,” the more one has the feeling that here was a man with the poetic sensibility to write excellent hokku, but because of the lack of suitable instruction he got lost in the early student phase, becoming mired there.  He never grasped sufficiently the importance of separating the two parts of a verse, nor of learning the underlying aesthetics:

I used this verse by Wright as an example:

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

I said of it:

The hokku perception is obviously there, but again Wright’s reading of Blyth failed to provide him with the necessary technique that would have enabled him to reduce this  5-7-5 wordiness to its essentials….”

As we can see, Wright’s verse reads as a sentence with no pause in it.  But in hokku, the pause is important; it lets the reader experience the first part of the hokku fully, before moving on to the second part.

Wright’s “rat” verse has in its subject matter the simplicity and directness of hokku, but he has cluttered it a bit by making it too general.

Instead of the general and plural “winter mornings”  — which covers a long span of time — hokku prefers the specific:

A winter morning;

That gives us the first line of a hokku, and it has the pause allowing the reader to take a moment to be in that winter morning and experience its cold and silence and austerity.  And then we continue.  But instead of the rather roundabout phrasing

The candle shows
Faint markings of the teeth of rats

— we can again simplify it to

Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

By doing so, we have changed Wright’s

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

to

A winter morning;
Marks of rat teeth
On the candle.

That makes it a real hokku, set in the season of winter.

Wright’s “wordiness” was due to the preconception — common in the latter half of the 20th century — that a hokku (which was not the term generally used at the time) should consist of three lines arranged in a pattern of five, seven, and five syllables, making seventeen in all.  That preconception arose from a mistaken attempt to translate Japanese phonetic units into English syllables, which is not an accurate equation.  And in any case, English being so different grammatically from Japanese, it is not wise to simply try to transfer the characteristics of one language to the other.

But let me pause here to again praise Wright’s choice of subject, which fits hokku precisely.   When simplified and put into hokku form, his “rat” verse so obviously has the hokku spirit that it seems translated into English from a Japanese original written by a Japanese master of earlier centuries.

We live in such different times now than even the 1950s were, and many people today know candles only as something one sees on birthday cakes or as scented decorations for a home.  But only a few decades ago, candles were important to have when the electricity went out.  And a century earlier they were even more important as a source of pre-electric light.

That Wright mentions a candle could set the verse in the 1950s or it could set it  centuries earlier.  But that he uses it at all makes one think of a rather poor room in which there is a candle to provide light.  And waking on a winter morning to find marks of rat teeth on the candle tells us that this is a house where one is not likely to be surprised by finding a rat.  That again indicates a poorer dwelling.  It gives us the poverty of hokku.

Remember Blyth’s saying that to write hokku, one should either live in house with a leaky roof or one with the potential of leaking.  At least then we would not always be so cut off from Nature and its changes.

Further, finding marks of rat teeth on the candle means the rat was looking for food.  That makes us feel the harshness and severity of winter.  Candles in earlier years were often made of tallow — an animal product — and even after the introduction of paraffin, stearic acid — also an animal product — was generally added in candles.  So a rat would naturally be drawn to something that seemed a food source, which accounts for the tooth marks on the candle.  We feel in that the hunger of the rat, and the poverty of the house in which the candle stands on a cold winter morning.

Winter, as we know, is the season when we most feel the lack of food, so a rat gnawing a candle reflects the season — and such internal reflection is often used in hokku.

It is unfortunate that Wright did not have the guidance he needed to mature his hokku potential.  For many people that is still the case today.  The principles of hokku are still little known in the early 21st century, and in its place people substitute easy and “instant” forms of short verse that were loosely inspired by the hokku but are without its substance,  having little in common with hokku but brevity.  Generally in our time the hokku spirit has been lost, and people do not even know what they have missed.

MUNCHING YOUR WAY TO HOKKU

Here is a winter hokku by Kyūkoku.  I have altered Blyth’s translation of the last line, but have kept his rendering of the first two lines, which one could hardly better:

Crunch, Crunch —
The horse munching straw;
A snowy evening.

That is hardly something one would find in English poetry, but English poetry is not hokku, and approaches things from a very different perspective.

In hokku, we look for an event to happen in our minds when we read a verse — and not in the “thinking” part of our minds, but rather in the sensing.  That is why I so often emphasize sensation in hokku — the experiencing of things through tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, or smelling.

In Kyūkoku’s hokku, we are first given the loud crunching sounds of a horse munching straw.  They are made all the more effective by Blyth’s use of the words “crunch” — “crunch” — “munching” — which make us actually hear the horse chewing (and see how much more effective “crunch” and “munching” are than “chewing” here).  That accounts for why this verse is actually better in English than in Japanese.

Kyūkoku began with the sounds, then moved to the horse itself, and then opened up the wider setting — a snowy evening.  There is also the striking contrast between the loudness of the horse and the softness of the snowy evening.

By placing the horse crunching straw against the snowy evening, he has not only given us the season, but he has also introduced the sensations of cold and silence.  That gives a sense of stillness, in which the munching of the horse becomes even more magnified.  So in this hokku we have sound and sight, and in the cold we have the sense of touch.  All in all, this is a very simple hokku with lots of sensation.

Someone who sees this verse and recognizes its merits is likely to be able to understand the reasons for the aesthetics of hokku and appreciate them.  If all one sees is a chewing horse and some snow, then the outlook is not promising.

 

 

 

David

THE FROSTY NIGHT

A loosely translated winter hokku by Yasui:

In the whiteness
Not one thing moves;
The frosty night.

 

It calls to mind two other winter hokku we have already seen; this one by Chiyo-ni —

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

And this by Bashō:

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

 

 

David

SNOW FALLING

Here is a winter verse by Rimei, which I re-translated from an old book of Japanese hokku printed by the Oxford University Press in 1911:

Snow falling
On the pines where they sleep —
The crows.

 

 

 

 

David

OH — OBJECTIVE HOKKU

Let’s look again at some good winter hokku:

The daikon puller;
He points the way
With a daikon.

That is one of the best of Issa’s hokku.  A daikon is a very large, long, and white radish, much like a giant carrot in shape.  Here, when Issa stops by a field and asks directions, the daikon puller holds out a daikon, using it as a pointer to show the way.  It is like a part of his arm.  Knowing this is a winter hokku, we can feel the cold air, and see the mud adhering to the long white daikon.

In Japan, daikon is a staple winter food.  It is particularly good in winter cooking — such as in soups and stews — because it is beneficial for the lungs.  One finds it appearing more and more in American markets.

Here is a verse by Rankō:

Withered reeds;
Day by day they break off
And float away.

That hokku is notable not only for its austere simplicity, but also for the attention — the awareness shown by the writer, who noticed the poetry in the breaking and floating away of the withered reeds — something many would pass by without a glance.

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

As the light of day begins to fail, flakes of snow begin to fall — first only a few, then increasingly more and more.  We cannot help but sense there is some deep meaning in this because we feel it, but we are helpless to put it into words.  It is a meaning of the senses and not of the superficial intellect.

Wordsworth similarly said,

To me the meanest [most common or insignificant] flower that blows [blooms] can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
In hokku what we find is a sense of significance rather than intellectual thoughts — that lie too deep for any words of explanation.  It can only be felt, not explained.  But the interesting thing is that when we read the words of the hokku, which are not words of explanation, but simply present the experience, that feeling of some deep, unspoken significance arises within us.
That is the amazing thing about hokku — the thing so many miss who look on it as “poetry.”  But as I have often said, what we think of as poetry in the West is generally nothing at all like the hokku seen above.
Each of them is an experience of the senses, not of the “thinking” mind.  Because of that, the impact of each hokku — as was just said — lies too deep for words; it is below the level of thought.
Further each of these hokku — these experiences of the senses — is set in a particular season — the season of winter, in this case, which deepens the sensory experience.
And also — this is extremely important — each of these hokku is completely objective.  Each merely presents the experience in three lines of simple words.  There is no explanation, there is no symbolism nor simile nor metaphor.  When we read the hokku, we have a wordless experience, though it is transmitted through words.
It is this aspect of Japanese hokku — or modern hokku in English or other languages written in the same spirit — that I find most significant and important.  There were other kinds of hokku in old Japan, but I see objective hokku as the most significant contribution of Japanese hokku to posterity — a legacy valuable enough and universal enough to be continued in our modern world through the writing of new objective hokku.
So if you want an identifying abbreviation for this kind of hokku, we can call it OH — Objective Hokku.  In it there is no ego, no explanation; only the simple, sensory experience with a significance that lies too deep for words.
David

THE PERSISTENCE OF NATURE

Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.

 

David

 

SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

WINTER SIMPLICITY

Another winter hokku by Issa:

Evening snow;
People passing by
In silence.

It is not difficult to see how the elements of this harmonize.  The evening and the snow are both Yin, and though there is movement, that movement takes place in silence — which is also Yin.

It calls to mind a winter verse by Yaha, this time with greater contrast:

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Here it is the contrast between the voices and the midnight cold.  Inside in the chilly darkness, one does not see the people passing; just the voices are heard briefly, then all returns to silence.

Note the simplicity of these verses, which is an important quality of hokku.  In English, each requires only seven common words, yet each is quite effective.

 

 

David

WINTER VACANCY

We have seen a version of this hokku by Issa before:

Snow falling;
A “House for Rent” sign
That wasn’t there yesterday.

There is something rather Dickensian about this.  People don’t like to move in winter — and particularly not in very cold weather.  The sudden appearance of the sign raises unanswered questions, and in hokku, unanswered questions are deliberately never answered.  Did the tenant/tenants leave because they could not pay rent or were evicted?  Did someone die?  There are different possibilities, but the path of hokku is not to tell stories, but rather to create a kind of physical-psychological effect in the reader.   The point of the verse lies in the sudden and unexpected emptiness of the house in the falling snow.  The emptiness (Yin) of the house is in keeping with the chill and emptiness (Yin) of winter, and both in keeping with the “absence of knowing” — the unanswered question.

In reading this, we should keep in mind the “poverty” of hokku, and from that, know the vacant house is not at all in a fashionable or well-to-do neighborhood, which makes it all the more significant.

David

SOLITUDE

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

(Winter)

Solitude;
The frost on the window
Only deepens it.

There is something about the icy cold of winter that really does increase the sense of aloneness.  This verse gives us the feeling of (spiritual) poverty that is so important to hokku, and the verse is all the more striking because of its stark simplicity — very much in keeping with the nature of winter cold.

David

HOKKU PATTERNS: SETTING/SUBJECT/ACTION AND SUBJECT/ACTION

There are many ways of arranging the elements of an experience to make a hokku.  We always think first of the common “Setting/Subject/Action” method, found in hokku such as this slight variant on one by Seibi:

(Winter)

The flame of the lamp
Does not move;
The freezing night.

In that example, the setting comes at the end:  The freezing night.
The subject is The flame of the lamp.
The action is Does not move.
Because of its simplicity, the Setting/Subject/Action pattern is very good for those beginning hokku, and it can result in very good hokku when the elements — together — make an interesting event.

Today we will look at another way of arranging the elements in a verse.  This one we can call the “Subject/Action” pattern, as in this verse by Rankō:

(Winter)

Withered reeds;
Day after day breaking off
And floating away.

The subject is Withered reeds.
The action is Day after day breaking off / And floating away.
We see the “Subject/Action” pattern also in such hokku as Chora’s

(Winter)

The windy snow —
Blowing about me
As I stand here.

The subject is The windy snow.
The action is Blowing about me / As I stand here.

There is also another way of writing Subject/Action pattern hokku — the little variation in technique called “Repeated Subject.”  In using that variant, the subject is first mentioned, then referred to again with a pronoun (it, they, he, she)  This is how it works with the two verses we have just seen:

Withered reeds  —
Day after day they break off
And float away.

And

The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand here.

Whether to use the regular Subject/Action pattern or the “Repeated Subject” variant depends on the effect the writer wishes to achieve.  Notice that with the regular Subject/Action pattern, an action verb used with it usually has the -ing ending (“breaking,” “floating,” “blowing).  But with the “Repeated Subject” variant, we find third-person (singular or plural) verb forms (“break,” “float,” “blows.”).

David

INTENTION AND TRANSLATION: BASHŌ’S ONE-COLOR WORLD

Bashō wrote an interesting winter hokku that is often found mistranslated.  It is, in Japanese:
冬  枯  れ  や   世は一色に 風の音
Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto

The mistranslation usually comes in the first line:

Fuyu-gare ya

You already know, if you are a regular reader here, that the particle ya indicates a meditative pause.

Fuyu means “winter.”
Gare (kare) means something that is “withered,” “dead.”  Kare is the same word used in Bashō‘s autumn hokku about the crow on the withered (kare) branch.

Robert Hass translates fuyu-gare as “winter solitude,” but it does not mean that.  It is the bleakness, the emptiness of the withered winter landscape.

Blyth more closely translates it as “winter desolation,” rendering the hokku thus:

Winter desolation:
In a world of one colour
The sound of the wind.

We can translate it very literally as:

Fuyu-gare ya  yo wa hito iro [isshoku] ni   kaze no oto
Winter-withering ya world wa one color in wind ‘s sound

Isshoku is just a variant pronunciation of hito iro — “one-color”

We could say,

Winter bleakness;
In a one-color world
The sound of the wind.

That would cover it rather well, because in English literature we already have Christina Rossetti’s remarkably similar lines,

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….

Oddly enough, while the version by Hass is bad as a translation (because it changes the meaning of fuyu-gare so drastically), it is not bad as a hokku.  “Winter solitude” would work as a first line with the rest of the verse.  But it is not what Bashō intended, and for that, we get closer with Blyth’s “winter desolation” or the similar “winter bleakness.”

David

AN EARLY WINTER HOKKU

Winter begins;
In the withered fields
No bird sings.

1holterberg

A friend in the Netherlands sent this photo taken by his wife on her walk through the Holterberg region.  She kindly gave her permission for me to use it.  It really expresses the feeling of this time of year.  I liked it so much that I am using part of it as the page header for now.

 

David

A BURSTING JUG, AND CHANGING THE SITE COMMENTS POLICY

A very effective hokku by Bashō:

(Winter)

Waking suddenly;
A water pot burst
In the icy night.

I have added the “suddenly” (as Blyth also does in his translation) because it is implied by the event.  The jug has burst because of the frozen water expanding within it.

The hokku is effective not only because of the sensory sound of the bursting pottery jug, but also because it so well expresses the deep cold of a winter night.

Here’s the original:

Kame wareru   yoru  no kōri no   nezame kana
Pot    has-burst night ‘s ice ‘s      waking kana

Now for some “blog business”:

I have tallied reader responses to my question whether comments on this site should be private unless otherwise requested (the long-time policy), or whether all comments should be public unless requested to be kept private by the sender.

The overwhelming consensus of reader opinion was for a change to all comments being made public unless otherwise requested (the exceptions, of course, being spam, irrelevant comments, obscenities, etc.).

So, as of today, that is the new comments policy on this site.  All comments made on any posting, new or old, will from now on be posted as public comments, accessible through the “comments” link at the bottom of the relevant posting.

There will usually be an interval before the comments appear, because they will still go through moderation to sort out the exceptions mentioned above, but they will be posted as soon as I see the incoming comments.

Those who want a comment to be seen by my eyes only need only put the word “private” at the beginning of the comment, and it will not be made public.

I hope we will all be pleased by the results.

 

David

 

 

NEW YEAR’S SUN

(Winter)

New Year’s Day;
A crow sips a puddle
Thawed by the sun.

 

This is probably a good time to again ask reader opinions about the comments policy on this site.  It has long been that comments are only made public if requested by the sender.  Do you prefer that, or would you like to see all comments made public except when the sender requests privacy?  If you have a preference one way or the other, please reply using the “leave a comment” link at the end of this message.  I will wait about a week before tallying the results.

A change would mean all comments would be visible by the public except those the sender specifically requests be kept private and visible only by me.  Except, of course, for spam, obscenity, and other irrelevant messages, which are deleted.

 

David

 

 

A FEW SNOWFLAKES

The hokku of Issa is a very mixed bag.  Often it is too emotional, or says too much.  There is, for example, this verse:

Snow sparsely falling;
A splendid
Moonlit night.

The problem here — aside from the rather awkward arrangement (it is not quite so awkward in Japanese) — is the word “splendid,” which brings up the old writing adage, “show, don’t say.”  That means we should just present the experience and let the reader experience it without telling him or her that it is “beautiful” or “splendid.”

There are many ways of re-writing this hokku to eliminate that problem, and this is only one:

(Winter)

Lightly, sparsely,
Snowflakes drift down;
The moonlit night.

What we want to convey is the cold night, with the moon shining on the snow, and a few flakes gently falling now and then, here and there.  The original Japanese just says yuki, meaning snow, is lightly falling (chirari chirari), but we want to emphasize the fewness of the random flakes that fall, because the snow has let up and the moon is shining between scattered clouds overhead.  It would not be shining if the snowfall were thicker and more regular.

The overall feeling is rather similar to the lines from Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below….

 

David

The original:

Yuki chirari chirari migoto na tsukiyo kana
Snow lightly-lightly-falls  splendid    moon-night kana

 

 

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE DOG SLEEPING?

I have mentioned before that in old Japanese hokku there is a term for staying shut up indoors during cold winter days.  It is fuyugomori, which R. H. Blyth translates as “winter seclusion.”  Yet Westerners may fail to grasp what is meant by that translation unless already familiar with hokku.  So it is rather an “in” term.

snowyboughs

Some hokku that are interesting in Japanese are a challenge to try to fit into the English language.  There is, for example, this verse about winter seclusion by Buson.  Here is the original transliterated, and with a rather literal translation:

To ni inu no negaeru oto ya fuyugomori

Door at dog ‘s turning-over sound; winter-seclusion

The tricky thing is that the Japanese verb implies the dog is turning over while sleeping.  So if we just say what is happening in this hokku, we get something rather awkward:

At the door,
The sound of the sleeping dog turning over;
Winter seclusion.

Now obviously the second line is excessively long for hokku in English.  What can be done?  Well, we have to take the hokku completely out of the Japanese form and make it thoroughly English, and we could even using a rather informal expression for “seclusion,” like this:

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Holed up in winter.

That way we give the sound instead of actually using the word “sound.”

Or if we prefer the traditional translation of fuyugomori — which one familiar with hokku understands, we can just present the verse as

Turning in sleep,
The dog bangs the door;
Winter seclusion.

That actually has a bit better rhythm.

The verse — whether in Japanese or English — is effective in giving us the sense of the boring, drowsy, long passage of time indoors in the cold of winter (minus the noise of television, of course).  The monotonous silence is suddenly broken by the banging of the sleeping dog against the door as he rolls over.

It is little moments like this — little events that express the nature of the season — that hokku delights in.  And this emphasis on such little but expressive things is what makes hokku so very different from other verse forms, as does its focus on Nature and the seasons.

 

David

 

HOKUSHI’S POND STARS

A winter verse by Hokushi:

Stars on the pond;
Again the patter
Of winter rain.

It is a chilly winter night. The rain has ceased, and one can see the silver stars reflected on the still dark surface of the pond. But suddenly there is the patter of rain again, and the stars on the water blur and fade as the rain increases.

Where is the writer in this? Of course rationally we know he had to be there to experience the event, but it is the great virtue of hokku that in such verses the writer disappears completely, replaced by the reader, who becomes the experiencer of the stars on the pond, the beginning patter of raindrops, the shaking and blurring of the pond stars.

Because of its lack of emphasis on “I” and “me,” hokku enables the reader to become the experience. One must make this adjustment to really enter into the spirit of hokku, to give up the obsession with “I saw,” “I heard,” “I felt.” That is why “selflessness” is an important part of hokku. Because of that, the writer must get out of the way, must disappear, and just let Nature speak.

In this de-emphasis on the writer, hokku is generally quite different than most Euro-American verse, which often focuses on “I,” “me,” and “my.” It does not mean hokku never uses these words, but they are used seldom, and when used are presented objectively, as one would discuss a leaf or a dog or the wind.

Here is the original transliterated and with a rather literal translation:

Ike no hoshi mata harahara to shigure kana
Pond ‘s stars again falls to winter-rain kana

You can see that the original does not use the sound word “patters,” but rather uses a word (harahara) that means to fall down in a sequence of drops, or of flakes in the case of snow.

We could translate:

Stars on the pond;
Again drops of rain
Begin to fall.

or

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

Why no “winter” in the second two options? Because each hokku in English comes with its seasonal classification, so from that we know that the rain is “winter” rain, without having to say so in the verse (though we can if we wish).

Remember that when sharing a verse, the seasonal classification goes with it, like this:

(Winter)

Stars on the pond;
Once more the rain
Begins to fall.

That enables a number of hokku to be easily classified by season when collecting or anthologizing them.

There are many possible variations in translating a hokku. My emphasis here, however, is on learning to write new hokku in English. So what we learn from this is that there are many, many different ways to arrange and present the elements of a hokku. When composing we can can move and change nouns and verbs and the order of things until we arrive at an arrangement that best conveys an experience. We should pay attention not only to meaning, but also to sound.

David

DAY DARKENS; FORGETTING THE WORDS

English: Snow falling in the early evening

Gyōdai wrote:

Day darkens;
Again the snow
Begins to fall.

One familiar with conventional Western poetry is likely to ask, “What does it mean?”  That is a question inappropriate for hokku.  Archibald MacLeish once wrote in his Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”) that a poem “should not mean but be.”  I doubt that MacLeish really understood that statement himself, but it applies to hokku, which does not mean, but only is, just as the darkening of day is, just as the falling snow is.

As I said in my previous posting, what is important in hokku is an experience; seeing the day darken, and with it seeing the snow once more beginning to fall.  That is all.  We need not look for anything we can put into words beyond that.

There is something in the verse, however, that is beyond words, and that is typical of hokku.  In good hokku we always have the feeling that there is a deeper significance, but we cannot — and should not try — to say what that significance is.  That feeling of an unexpressed significance is one of the characteristics of hokku.  It is somewhat like the persistent feeling one gets that there is something he or she is forgetting to do that is important, but one simply cannot remember what it is; the feeling is just there and will not go away.  Similarly, when we read this verse by Gyōdai, we sense a deeper significance that lies just beyond the ability of the intellect to express.  As in Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by T’ao Ch’ien,

In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail. 

In conventional poetry, words can express everything, if only one uses enough of them.  But hokku recognizes something that lies deeper than thought, deeper than intellection, something words cannot reach, and makes that an essential part of its unique approach to verse.

David

 

THE SOUND OF BRANCHES; the Simplicity of Hokku

There is a hokku by Buson, translated thus by R. H. Blyth:

Snow-break also
Can be heard,
This dark night.

I think many reading the verse without his explanation would fail to understand it, and that is always a problem.  A hokku should be able to stand on its own — to be effective — without a commentary.  If we modify it slightly, I think it will be more accessible:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

Now everyone should be able to get it — to experience it — without any added explanation.

But look how the revised version does what a hokku should do:  It is a manifestation of the season, winter.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans within Nature.  And it does it all very simply, presenting the experience only in sound (the branches breaking under the weight of the snow) and sight (the dark night), and of course the third element that we all feel without it even being mentioned, which is the deep cold of winter.

This is how hokku — the best hokku — differ from what we ordinarily think of as poetry.  Hokku is primarily an experience of the senses, not an intellectual experience.

Notice that the verse — as hokku should be — is divided into two parts, one long, one short.  And the two parts are separated by appropriate punctuation.  I often mention one type of hokku called the standard hokku, which consists of a setting, a subject and an action.  But keep in mind that these are not always strictly separated in a verse.

Let’s look at it again:

The sound
Of branches breaking with snow;
The dark night.

The setting in a hokku is the wider environment in which something occurs.  Here the setting is “the dark night.”  The subject is “the sound of branches,” and the action is “breaking with snow.”  But note that the sound is not really separable from the action — “the sound of branches breaking with snow.”

Some people accustomed to Western poetry might find it difficult to understand how these three lines can be poetry too.  The answer is that the poetry of hokku is in the experience, not in the words, and if the reader experiences being in a dark night in which the sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow is heard, then that reader is experiencing the poetry of hokku, which is something quite different than the English-language poetry to which we are accustomed.

Hokku says only what is necessary, and stops before saying too much.  That is why it is so brief, and why two of its chief characteristics are poverty and simplicity.  By poverty we mean that it is reduced to its bare minimum of elements, just as a life of poverty reduces one to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.  When the elements are few, we have a greater appreciation for each one; its meaning, its significance, is magnified for us.

Simplicity means that a hokku uses few words and ordinary words, and does not try to impress the reader with verbal pyrotechnics.  Hokku should be as simple as a drink of warm tea from a stoneware mug.

Notice also the contrasts we feel in reading these few words.  We have the darkness of night and the mention of snow, which we know to be white; so there is an inherent contrast.  And we have the background of silence against which the breaking of branches is heard.  There is a sudden and loud crack out in the night, the sound of a branch falling with its load of snow, and then all returns to silence and darkness.

That is why this hokku is very effective, why it “works” as I always say.

David