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

 

WINTER RAIN

Here is a hokku that happened yesterday:

Winter rain;
A crow on the fence
Shakes it off his feathers.

 

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