WINTER SOLITUDE

A loose translation of yet another old Japanese winter waka:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

The first part of the waka is:

My dwelling;
In the fallen snow
The path is gone.

The “turning point” that joins the first and second parts is “The path is gone”; so the second segment is:

The path is gone;
Forging through to visit me
Comes no one at all.

 

 

David

 

SO COLD THE WINTER….

Here is a loose translation of another old Japanese waka for the season of winter:

So cold the winter!
The wind never ceases
In the mountain village.
Still the sleet is falling
Ever more heavily.

As previously mentioned, a waka in form is like a hokku with two extra lines.  It has a “turning point” in the middle that acts both as the last line of the hokku portion and as the first line of the second (originally 5/7/7/ phonetic units) part.  In this verse it is “In the mountain village.”

We can separate them like this:

So cold the winter!
The Wind never ceases
In the mountain village.

In the mountain village,
Still the sleet is falling
Every more heavily.

 

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

FIRE AND ICE: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In hokku, as said many times here, one looks for a harmony of the elements included.  But the technique used to create it varies.  Two main types are:

1.  Harmony of Similarity:
We find this in Chiyo-ni’s excellent verse that lets us feel the desolation and silence of winter:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

The snow, the stillness — both express the deep Yin (cold and inactivity here) of the season.

2.  Harmony of contrast:
There is a verse by Issa that gives us the contrast between extreme cold (Yin) and extreme heat (Yang):

Scattering out
On the morning frost —
The blacksmith’s sparks.

The frost and the sparks are quite opposite, yet when joined in this winter verse they form a harmonious unity — fire and ice.  The blacksmith in the original is a nokaji (野鍛冶 )literally a “field” blacksmith — but the term means one who makes agricultural tools like scythes and hoes, etc.  That is too specific to convey in an English language hokku, and it is not really necessary to be so specific in translation.  We get the essential meaning of the verse as it stands in English.

There is a hokku by Buson from the opposite season — summer — that shows us a similar contrast of Yin and Yang, yet it has quite a different feeling because of the seasonal difference:

Clear water;
The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it.

The metal chisel becomes hot from the friction of cutting stone, so the mason places it in the flowing water to cool it.

The hokku of summer and those of winter have this in common — that those using harmony of contrast correctly often give a strong sensory impression, which in hokku is good.  It is a common effect that we all easily recognize, like coming in out of winter’s finger-numbing frost to a hot bowl of soup.

David

ARRANGING A HOKKU: SHIKI’S GATE

I often say that in spite of his reputation as the “founder” of haiku, Shiki really wrote hokku, though he tended toward verses that were like sketches in words.  Perhaps you have come across Blyth’s translation of one of his verses:

Only the gate
Of the abbey is left,
On the winter moor.

We would not write hokku that way in English (we should not write hokku as run-on sentences, and the comma at the end of the second line is hardly necessary).  But again as I often say, Blyth did not begin his series of books to tell people how to write hokku in English, but rather to convey the meaning and spirit.  And in that he did quite a good job on the whole, though when I read his translation of this verse, I tend to picture a ruined stone English abbey gate, rather than what Shiki had in mind — which would have been a massive, roofed wooden gate in decayed condition.

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

Mon bakari nokoru fuyu no no garan kana
Gate alone   remains winter field’s  monastery kana

A garan is a temple or monastery.

Every hokku we write is an exercise in arranging elements.  In Shiki’s verse we have the gate, the monastery, and the winter fields.  And as already mentioned, Blyth’s arrangement — while conveying the meaning — is not a good model for writing.  To put it into good hokku form, we could arrange it like this:

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

That does a very good job not only of conveying the meaning, but of putting it into correct English-language hokku form.  It is not hard to see that it is just a variation on the Setting/Subject/Action pattern:

The setting is:  The winter fields.
The subject is:  the gate / Of the monastery.
And the action is:  Only…remains.

We could make that clear by putting it into this alternate arrangement:

The gate of the monastery (setting)
Alone remains; (action)
The winter fields. (subject)

That, however, is not as pleasing an arrangement as beginning with Only the gate….

When composing hokku, it is a good idea to try arranging the elements in different ways.  The goal of this is to not only convey the meaning well, but to convey it in a euphonious — a “good-sounding” phrasing.

Here is the hokku again, in full English-language form:

(Winter)

Only the gate
Of the monastery remains;
The winter fields.

It is worth looking at the Yin-Yang implications of that (if you don’t remember the significance of Yin and Yang in hokku, look in the archives).  You will recall that in the year, winter is the most yin time.  And that corresponds to very old age and death.

So in Shiki’s hokku, we have the winter fields, which are dead, and we have the monastery of which only the gate remains, again “dead.”  So Shiki has used harmony of similarity here — the putting of similar things together, with the character of one reflected in the other.

Now a blog note:  Perhaps you have noticed that the font in this and the previous posting is larger than usual.    For some the larger font is easier to read, particularly on small screens.  But if you find it gives you problems, please let me know.

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GLAD YULE: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!

 

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

BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

DESERT PLACES

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

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

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

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

HALLOWEEN

Well, tonight being HALLOWEEN — Samhain — the ancient beginning of winter, I have my pumpkin carved, lit, and ready to ward off any evil spirits or wicked witches that may be abroad tonight:

jackolantern

Somehow its face reminds me of Calcifer, the fire demon in Diana Wynne Jones’ wonderful fantasy story, Howl’s Moving Castle.  If you have not yet gotten to know Calcifer, Howl, and the enduring Sophie, you have missed out on a great deal of fun.  Perhaps you know it as the Hayao Miyazaki animated film.  The film is very good, but the story is not quite the same, nor with the captivating detail one finds in the book — though both are pleasing in their own ways.

Now we enter the season when the Yin energies become dominant, the season of cold and of long, dark nights — the season when we become very aware of the importance of things we ordinarily do not notice, such as a warm blanket or a hot cup of fragrant tea.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, EVERYONE!

 

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

 

 

SNOW CROW

Today I will briefly discuss a rather well-known hokku that I talked about in an earlier posting.  My feeble excuse for this is that it is snowing where I am this morning, and there are crows out in it.

Bashō wrote:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usually detested crow too snow ‘s morning kana

The usually detested crow too?  What does that mean?  The crow also is what?  As I mentioned in the earlier posting, Bashō leaves out a word that one is supposed to intuit, and that word in English could be “beautiful,” “attractive”  “appealing,” “striking,” etc. etc.

Though he was probably just expressing general public feelings in his time, I have never cared for calling the crow “detested,” or “hated,” or “hateful” as some translations have it.  There is something about the “detested” combined with implied “beautiful” (“beautiful” is actually used in some translations) that just does not seem quite right, though something detested can also be beautiful.

I think that what Bashō was feeling was something more like

A snowy morning;
Even the common crow

Becomes interesting.

Interesting, of course, because of the striking contrast between the whiteness of the snow and the deep black of the crow.  One could call that “beautiful,” but it seems like saying too much — which is perhaps why Bashō left an unspoken adjective up to the mind of the reader.

 

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

 

 

MAKING HOKKU FROM A FROZEN SLOUGH

wintercattails

Today a reader (Christine from Tree Top Haiku) sent me a verse, and kindly gave me permission to use it in explaining the difference between English-language hokku and “haiku.”

There is so much variation in modern haiku that one generally has to use a particular example to show how it differs from hokku. So Christine’s original is only one example out of a very variable and wide umbrella category, but nonetheless it should prove useful to readers for some general “rules of thumb.”

Here is the original verse:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

The basic subject is good — cattails in a frozen slough with snow. Like hokku, it has Nature as its subject and it is obviously a seasonal verse, which in hokku we would classify as winter.

There are two aspects to hokku — the form and the content. Unlike haiku, in hokku each line begins with a capital letter, and the whole verse ends with a punctuation mark. But there is also the very important punctuation mark that separates the two parts of a hokku — the longer and the shorter.

If we look again at the original, we can see that it has no such clear separation, in fact it does not have two distinct parts as does hokku:

cat-tails shiver
in the frozen slough
collect drifting snow

There is also a content problem. The word “shiver” can give the impression that the cattails behave like humans and “shiver” in the cold. In hokku we try to avoid words that make things like cattails appear to behave like humans, dogs, etc. It is also not quite clear what is meant by “collect” drifting snow. It appears to refer to the cattails, but just how they “collect” snow is vague. Does it gather on the tops? Does it gather at the base? Or both?

In hokku it helps to avoid vagueness, because a hokku is in essence a sensory experience in the mind, created by reading the verse. If the verse is not clear, it makes it difficult for the reader to “get it,” to have the experience.

The problem with this verse then, from the hokku perspective, is not in the subject but in the presentation. If we were to make a hokku from the same basic subject, there are a number of possibilities. Let’s look at one, so that we may see how a hokku differs from the “haiku” original:

The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

As you can see, the verse is now in hokku format. Each line begins with a capital letter. It ends with a period. And the very important punctuation mark that separates the longer and shorter part of the hokku is there.

It is easy now to see that the shorter part is The frozen slough. And that the longer part is Snow blows in drifts Among the cattails. This enables the reader to more vividly and clearly experience the verse.

If we consider the often helpful “setting, subject, action” formula in composing the hokku, we can say this:

The setting is: The frozen slough;
The subject is: Snow;
And the action is: blows in drifts among the cattails.

That gives us a feeling of unity and harmony missing in the original, and makes it easy for the reader to assimilate.

If we want to put the emphasis in a slightly different place, we might try another version, like this:

Cattails bending
In the snowy wind;
The frozen slough.

This time the longer part of the hokku comes first, and the shorter part second, and the punctuation mark (a semicolon) is there to separate them.  An important purpose of the separating mark is to give the reader a meditative moment in which to experience the first part of the hokku before moving on to the second.

You can see that the way we use the elements in the second example has also changed.

The setting now is: The frozen slough (but it comes last this time);
The subject is: Cattails;
And the action is: bending in the snowy wind.

So that is how to take the basic elements and make a hokku of them, rather than a “haiku.” But keep in mind that it is only possible because the original, though not a hokku, had two necessary characterics that allow one to make a hokku:  It had Nature as its subject matter, and it had a seasonal context, winter in this case.

Unlike Christine’s example, many modern haiku do not have Nature or the place of humans as a part of Nature as their subject; nor are they set in a particular season. Without those essentials, one cannot make a hokku.

This is probably a good place to remind everyone that though modern English-language “haiku” was inspired by old Japanese hokku, it was created largely as a misunderstanding of the nature of hokku — a misunderstanding and misperception that really got under way in the 1960s, even though it began earlier. Since then much “haiku” has moved even farther away from hokku, so far in fact that now a “haiku” is most any kind of brief verse that its writer chooses to give that name.

Modern hokku, by contrast, still retains the basic essentials of the old hokku — its subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Its context is a given season. And as you see, it has a definite form — a longer part separated from a shorter part by appropriate punctuation. And the first letter of each line is capitalized in English-language hokku, and the verse ends with an appropriate punctuation mark.

As you know from earlier postings, when a hokku is written, it is always classified by season, and that classification goes with it when shared. That enables the verse to be read in the correct season, and it also enables a verse to be placed in the correct season when included in an anthology with other verses. In old Japanese hokku, verses were classified according to season by the use of certain topics in the verse. That system became gradually more and more complex and unwieldy — and thus un-hokku-like in its complexity — so today we simply head the hokku with the appropriate seasonal classification when shared, like this:

(Winter)

The frozen slough;
Snow blows in drifts
Among the cattails.

It is important to note that the same principles used here to make a hokku from Christine’s original apply also, of course, to making a hokku from any original experience of Nature. So when you have an experience that moves you, you can just reduce it to its essentials, as I did here. We started with:

A frozen slough
Cattails
Snow

We added the wind to those ingredients. In the first hokku we indicated the wind by the word “blows,” and in the second hokku we actually wrote “wind.”

You can apply this principle to any original hokku experience in Nature.  First, reduce it to its basic elements, and then all you need do is arrange those elements in a way that creates a sense of unity and harmony, putting them into the hokku form as you do so.

Writing hokku is not difficult. It just requires one to learn the principles of form and content, and to absorb the proper “spirit,” the right atmosphere for a hokku, which is often very different from that found in modern haiku. Fortunately, Christine’s example (thanks, Christine!) had a good subject base with which to begin — a strong experience of Nature in a seasonal context — one that really expresses the character of the season. All that was needed was to harmonize and unify the content by putting it into the hokku format.

By the way, if you are American you will commonly hear “slough” pronounced as sloo (rhymes with “boo”) while in Britain the usual pronunciation is slau (rhymes with plow).

David

WITHERED LOTUSES: A WINTER HOKKU BY BUSON

withlotus

Today it is grey and cold and raining where I am, so this slight variation on a winter hokku by Buson seems appropriate.  I can omit the seasonal heading because it is in the verse itself:

Lotuses withered,
The pond is bleak;
Winter rain.

The original is:

Hasu karete ike asamashiki shigure kana

Lotus withered pond miserable winter-rain kana

You may recall that kana was largely a kind of filler word used to pad out the 17 sound units customary in old hokku.  With punctuation and the greater freedom of English language hokku, we no longer need such padding.

 

David

 

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

 

HEAPS OF TIME

Tomorrow evening is Halloween — Samhain in the old agricultural calendar.  It is a very ancient holiday.  Traditionally, it is the beginning of winter, and the time when the spirits of the Dead return.  So it reminds us of all that is withering in Nature, and of our own mortality.

Buson wrote a hokku very much in keeping with this time of year.  You will recall that in traditional Japanese hokku, fallen leaves relate to winter, and winter corresponds to the latter part of old age and to death:

(Winter)

Heaped up
Around the old man’s shack — 
Fallen leaves.

The very old man is in keeping with winter, as are the fallen leaves piled up around his dwelling.  Being so old, he does nothing to sweep them away, and in the leaves that have fallen on one another, we feel the accumulation of the many years of the old man’s life.

frostyleaves

Where I have “old man,” the original has “long-life [person]”

 

David

 

 

WINTER ISOLATION: THE HOKKU OF MONOTONY

snowypath

Fuyugomori.

It is a Japanese word, one of the fixed expressions used in old hokku to indicate the season. As most of you know (I hope), old Japanese hokku used “season words” to indicate the season in which a hokku was written and to be read. Of course now we just head each hokku with the appropriate season to do this, but old hokku was more complicated in that respect.

Fuyugomori is derived from two elements. The first is the borrowed Chinese character read here as fuyu (冬) –“winter.” The second comes from the verb komoru (籠る), combining a Chinese character with the Japanese phonetic element -ru (る); in its noun form it becomes komori (籠り), which in the combination changes its initial “k” sound to “g.” Together they mean to “shut one’s self up,” to “seclude one’s self,” in winter. It is the isolation that comes when outside there is too much cold rain or freezing weather or snow, and all one can do is to wait it out patiently — hour after hour, day after day — indoors. That is the way life used to be. As Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins wrote in his winter poem,

when pools are black and trees are bare,
’tis evil in the Wild to fare.

A term used in America for this kind of seclusion is “holing up.” One “holes up” on freezing winter days, trying one’s best to keep warm, as an animal hibernates in its burrow.

Being stuck indoors meant that the subject matter for hokku was very limited, only what was inside the dwelling or what outside was visible from it, so most “winter seclusion” verses reflect the monotony of the circumstances. That is why many “winter seclusion” hokku turn, of necessity, from outer things to the silent “innerscape” of the mind. We should note that in doing this, hokku keep the same kind of objectivity as in outward-turning hokku, the same kind of selflessness.

Buson, for example, wrote:

Winter seclusion;
In the innermost mind,
The hills of Yoshino.

Fuyugomori kokoro no oku no yoshinoyama

Even in hokku dealing with close-by outward things there is the same objective stillness, as in this hokku by Yaha;

The lamp flame,
Unmoving and round;
Winter seclusion.

Tomoshibi mo ugokade marushi fuyugomori

It is all too easy, as one can imagine, for “winter seclusion” hokku to turn trite and dull, but the best of them express the nature of both the long isolation indoors and through it of the season.

Here is a slight variation on a hokku by Issa, changed to make it more immediate:

Winter seclusion;
Listening all night long
To mountain rain.

David

COMMENTS:

TranslationCraft writes:

One of my favorite books is Howard Rheingold’s “They Have a Word for It,” a lexicon of pithy foreign terms that express notions English speakers may experience but for which they lack precise words. I nominate “fuyugomori” for the revised version of his book, if and when it is ever updated.
Fuyugomori — what a precious word! Your explanation and hokku examples have brought home to me, perhaps more forcefully than ever before, how season-bound our experience of reading each hokku is. I could never sense the full weight of the fuyugomori hokku you offer if I were to read them in summer, just like I find it impossible to shop for winter clothing during pre-season discount sales. But reading them now, with your gentle guidance, in front of my double-paned window looking out over a snow-covered brook, resonates so deeply within that I can feel something physical shift inside, some kind of release or “ah-ha!” that lets me breathe a bit deeper.
I think I’m finally getting it….
As always, thank you for your generosity in sharing your insights with us.

MAKING UNEVENNESS EVEN: LONDON SNOW

It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.

Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.

At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.

In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.

(Written 1890)

LONDON SNOW

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.

It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell slowly, softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings.  One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does.  It fills in gaps and evens horizontal outlines.

All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled — marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.

Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’

The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.


With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.

David

SNOW AND SELFLESSNESS

In the previous posting I mentioned the “selflessness” of hokku — how the emphasis is generally (as it should be in hokku) on the experience, not on the writer. In hokku the writer does not draw attention to himself or herself. To do so is felt, by those who have absorbed hokku aesthetics, as too blatant, a failure of taste.

Here is an example — a winter verse by Etsujin:

The first snow;
After seeing it,
I washed my face.

The point of the verse is that the purity of the snow made the writer feel unclean, so he washed his face. R. H. Blyth quite correctly says of this verse, “This is one of those things that should not be said, like Chiyo and her borrowed water.”

For those of you who may not recall that verse, here it is (and notice that it feels a bit odd reading it out of season):

The morning glory
Has seized the well bucket;
Borrowing water.

The point of this verse is that the writer, seeing that a morning glory vine has twined around the handle of the well bucket, decides to borrow water from a neighbor instead of removing the vine from the bucket. People may say this shows both the writer’s tender heart and her aesthetic nature, and it may be true; but in revealing that, the writer takes us away from the morning glory to her “self.” It is not really about a well bucket seized by a morning glory, it is about the writer’s personal psychology in reaction to that, just as Etsujin’s verse is not about the first snow, it is about his personal psychology in reaction to it. Blyth points out that the problem here is that there is no “poetical” connection between the first part of the verse (the morning glory on the well-bucket) and the second (the writer’s reaction and her going to borrow water).

We can say the same of Etsujin’s verse. There is no “poetical connection” between seeing the first snow and going to wash one’s face. We jump from an experience of Nature to the writer’s personal psychology, just as we do in Chiyo-ni’s verse. This is a very subtle but also very important point.

In short, when a hokku moves from Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature to a writer’s personal psychology, we are leaving the proper realm of hokku.

To help you grasp this aesthetic point, here is a “selfless” winter verse by Bashō:

Waking suddenly;
Ice burst the water jug
In the night.

It would be better in English if rendered more simply and smoothly, for example:

Suddenly waking;
The water jug burst
In the icy night.

It is the writer’s personal experience, but because he does not move the focus from the event to his “poetically-unrelated” personal psychology, we not only become the experiencer of waking at the sudden bursting of a frozen water jug, but we also feel no bad taste in the mouth from “too much self” in the verse. The waking at the sudden noise happens naturally and has an immediate natural connection to the breaking of the pot, whereas Etsujin’s decision to go wash his face and Chiyo’s decision to leave the vine alone and go borrow water from a neighbor do not have that intimate, natural connection. We could say that any human would be likely to waken when startled by the crack of frozen water breaking a pot in the night, but not any human would decide to wash the face after seeing a first snowfall or would decide to go borrow water on finding one’s well bucket tangled with morning glory vine.

In modern haiku — a kind of mutated contemporary offshoot of the old hokku, created largely through a misperception of it in the 20th century — it is common for a writer to dwell on personal psychology. But that is modern haiku with its shotgun blast of widely varying standards, not hokku.  Hokku aesthetics are more subtle, more profound.

It is worth noting that the presence of the words “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine” are not always a guide to the too-obvious presence of “self” in hokku. It all depends on where the focus of the verse lies, and whether the reaction of the writer to an event is “poetically connected” to the event, or whether it takes us off into the writer’s personal psychology and so away from a “universal” (or nearly so) connection with the event.

This is all something you may not have given thought to previously, but it is very significant in the aesthetics of hokku. The concept may seem difficult at first, but if you read enough hokku, it becomes second nature to notice when there is too much “self,” too much personal psychology in a verse.

Here are the originals for those who like to see them:

Hatsuyuki wo mite kara kao wo arai-keri
First-snow wo seeing after face wo washed

Asagao ni tsurube torarete morai-mizu

Morning-glory by well-bucket seized borrow-water

Kame wareru yoru no kōri no nezame kana
Jug broken night’s ice ‘s waking kana

David

NO SKY, NO EARTH…

A repeat of one of my favorite old winter hokku, by Hashin — clear, direct, simple, and very effective:

No sky, no earth;
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

For those who may not have experienced a good snowstorm, this hokku is an excellent description. The boundaries of sky and ground disappear, and one feels as though standing in the midst of a vast, cold universe of falling snow. One even has the sensation of floating upward while standing still, due to the motion of the snow.

Often people try to use too many words in writing hokku, try to say too much when, as the saying goes, “less is more.” Remember that one of the characteristics of hokku is simplicity.

Here is the transliterated original and a rather literal translation:


Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikeri

Heaven too earth too are-not at snow’s falling-incessantly

David

ANCIENT LAKE? OLD POND? AND HOW MANY DUCKS?

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

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

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

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

Furuike no oshidori ni yuki furu yūbe kana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or with an abbreviation like this:

Snow falls
On the ducks in the pond;
Evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

SANTA’S LITTLE HELPERS…OR NOT SO LITTLE

It is that time of the year again. Nederland (the Netherlands) is having its annual controversy over Zwarte Piet, the very black fellow with bright clothing, ruffed collar, brilliant red smile and golden earrings who follows St. Nicholas around and does his dirty work. Or rather who once did his dirty work, leaving coals in the stockings of misbehaving children on St. Nicholas day, or threatening to pop them in his sack and take them back to Spain or to Turkey, where St. Nicholas was originally from. Now he is more likely to dance happily around with numbers of Zwarte Piet clones, dispensing pepernoten (a kind of cookie) to children and being a jolly and charming figure. Zwarte Piet has grown soft.

I don’t want to get involved in the controversy over whether Zwarte Piet (“Black Piet”) is a racist figure. As with many things, it is in the eye of the beholder. He is racist to those who see him as such, and a beloved folk character to those who do not — de geliefde helper van Sinterklaas — “the beloved helper of St. Nicholas.” Perceptions differ, and the outcome is up to the Dutch. In one form or another, he will likely survive.

Zwarte Piet, however, is just one manifestation of the “helper” characters who appear in the calendar period from mid November into the Yuletide season, and they reveal how the celebrations of this time of year have picked up all kinds of accretions over the centuries.

St. Nicholas — through his more secular incarnation as Santa Claus — has become intimately associated with the Christmas celebration in the United States and a number of other countries. Originally, however, he had nothing to do with Christmas. He was a popular saint who was believed to multitask in helping everyone from sailors to merchants, and in Russia one could consider him THE most prominent religious figure after Jesus and Mary.

Oddly enough, almost all of his biography is fictional. He may well have been a 4th century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), but everything else about him is highly to obviously dubious. Nonetheless, as we have seen, he became a prominent saint in the days when the veneration of saints and prayers to them were an accepted practice.

In the Netherlands he made his annual appearance on December 6th, arriving from Spain (a detail that entered the story due to the previous Spanish — and Catholic — invasion of the Netherlands). In spite of the fact that the Dutch became largely Calvinist Protestant, the St. Nicholas celebration was retained, and on St. Nicholas Eve he visited houses to stand in judgment on which children had been good and which bad. The good were rewarded, and the bad might receive a coal instead of a gift, or be threatened with abduction by Zwarte Piet.

Go southeast however, into places like Austria and the Czech Republic, and the helper of St. Nicholas takes on a different guise. He is no longer a “moor” like Zwarte Piet; instead he is a large and frightening hairy, bestial figure with long, goat-like horns on his head, and a very long and red tongue; he is the terrifying Krampus, sometimes with one foot a hoof and the other like a clawed bear paw. He carries switches and chains, but sometimes also a basket with fruits for well-behaved children.

Here is an illustration of Krampus menacing an obviously worried child, from a 1900 Austrian postcard. The inscription reads “GREETINGS FROM THE KRAMPUS.”

The Krampus traditionally appears on the 5th of December, which you will recall is the old St. Nicholas Eve. In some regions large numbers of Krampuses wander the streets and byways, jingling with cowbells, striking at those they encounter with their switches. Some even carry wooden tubs like a grape-picker’s tub on their backs, just the right size to fill with a naughty child to be carried off. Their procession through the streets is called the Krampuslauf. Just what the Krampus looks like varies from place to place.

Now if all this sounds like the Perchten, the wild spirits of the mountains that come down into alpine villages in winter, clanging with cowbells and making their Perchtenlauf through the streets while threatening and punishing passers-by, it is because the Krampus is very akin to them. Both go back in spirit to pre-Christian times, and a more animistic way of thinking. The Perchten, however, come during the “Raw Nights,” between December 25th and January 6th.

In some regions the Krampus is called a “devil,” but of course devil figures are traditionally given animal (and pre-Christian) characteristics such as horns and hooves, and the Christians decided early on to relegate the gods of the non-Christians to demon/devil status.

In other places, the figure who comes is Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), a bearded man dressed in brown robe and hood and carrying a staff or long bundle of twigs, and sometimes belled like Krampus and the Perchten. His job is, like theirs, to scare and punish disobedient children, though like the modern Zwarte Piet, he has softened a bit.

In any case, in contemporary times Zwarte Piet and elsewhere the Krampus may show up as early as middle to late November.

It is interesting that the old animistic “scary” figures like the Krampus are making a comeback, and have begun appearing in places where they were not previously known, like the United States. Yesterday I was in the big local bookshop, which had already put out its holiday cards. Among them was a bright and obvious box of Krampus cards.

David

EVEN THE CROW…

Bashō wrote two very similar winter hokku, using a different technique in each.

You will recall that in winter, hokku using opposites are often effective (as they are in summer) by presenting us with contrasting elements. Bashō does that in the first verse, which I will give in a very literal form:

Usually hateful,snowcrow
Even a crow…
The snowy morning.

That is rather cryptic to a Western reader, because we are unaccustomed to having to fill in the blanks. Many hokku, however, rely on implying something without stating it directly, and the reader is expected to make that intuitive leap. In some verses it it easy, but in others no one is quite sure what the writer intended, so demanding excessive intuitiveness of the reader can ruin a verse. And in any case, Westerners generally prefer “plain talk” and things stated clearly and simply. It is a cultural difference.

That is why R.H. Blyth, in translating this verse, added to the original, making it:

How beautiful
The usually hateful crow,
This morn of snow!

But as you see, the original does not say “how beautiful.” I think I would go with a more understated rendering:

Usually hateful,
Even the crow is appealing —
The snowy morning.

The setting is the snowy morning. The subject is, of course, the usually hateful crow, and the action is “appealing.” We are using “action” very loosely here. You will recall that in the standard setting/subject/action hokku, the action is something moving or changing. Here the change is that the crow has gone from being hateful to being appealing.

It is probably obvious to you that the reason this hokku is somewhat successful is that it contrasts the blackness of the crow with the whiteness of the snow, so we have a Yin (black) Yang (white) contrast here.

It is only a small step from that verse to one that does not use such a striking contrast, but is nonetheless based on the same notion — that a new snowfall makes ordinary things look different than usual:

We even
Look at horses —
The snowy morning.

Horses, in Bashō’s day, were very ordinary things, used for travel and for carrying loads. He is saying that in the context of snow, even the everyday horses take on an unexpected interest for us.

Bashō could have combined notions from the two verses like this, avoiding the “usually hateful” in the first example:

Even the crow
Becomes appealing;
The snowy morning.

As an English verse, I like that better than either of the originals. It not only eliminates the rather awkward and obvious “usually hateful,” but it also takes advantage of the “harmony of contrasts” that often makes for strong winter hokku.

If we want to avoid the repetition of the -ing sound that ends the second and third lines, we could make a more substantial change:

A snowy dawn;
Even the crow
Has become appealing.

In a verse as brief as hokku, every change gives a slightly different effect.

Did you notice that both of Bashō’s verses happen at morning? There is a reason for that. He wants to give the impression of a fresh snowfall, a new time when we see old things in a new way. And seeing ordinary things in a new way is, you will recall, one of the keys to writing effective hokku.

Here are the originals in transliteration and literal translation. I am putting this at the end so it can be easily skipped by those not interested in the linguistic details. It is important to remember that one need know nothing at all about Japanese to write hokku in English, but one must know the principles, techniques, and aesthetics of writing hokku in English:

Higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana
Usualy hateful crow even snow ‘s morning kana

Uma wo sae nagamuru yuki no ashita kana
Horse[s] wo even look snow ‘s morning kana

Keep in mind that Japanese does not specify number; so one can translate “crow” or “crows,” “horse” or “horses.” In most verses the singular is to be preferred, but now and then the plural. The principle in hokku is that one thing is generally felt to be more significant than many things, because it focuses the attention. One thing is often used when looking at an event closely, and more than one when looking from farther away.

David

ETSUJIN’S GREY HAIR: SUBTLETY IN HOKKU

It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow —
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow —
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it —
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid

David

MORE THAN JUST A PICTURE: ADDING INTEREST TO HOKKU

I usually avoid presenting hokku here that are specifically Japanese in location, in favor of more general subject matter. But today I want to talk about a such a verse because it is helpful in learning how to bring interest into one’s hokku.

If I were to present a hokku about Oneonta Gorge or the Columbia palisades, it might mean something to people in my area, but it would mean little to people in other parts of the country or of the world, because they would not know the sites and so no clear corresponding image would arise in their minds. That is why I generally counsel that it is often best to avoid naming specific places in hokku; it is then easier for people in other regions to relate to a verse.

Jōsō wrote a hokku about the once-famous long bridge at Seta in Japan, or rather I should say that he wrote a hokku set at that bridge. His hokku is really about more, and that is what makes it interesting.

Suppose we just give the reader a subject, like this:

Seta Bridge;

If the reader is familiar with that bridge (and most educated Japanese would have been), it would evoke an image in the mind, but it would do little more. So how does one make such a subject interesting?

Two ways to do this are:

1. See the subject in a “new” way, a way different from what is ordinary.
2. Add action.

Beginning with the second, what exactly is action in hokku? It is how we bring something to life and make it more interesting. Action is something moving or changing — even if it is changing slowly. Of course the more rapid the action, the more striking it tends to be.

In writing today’s hokku, Jōsō used three basic elements: Seta Bridge, rain, and people.

If we use only the first, we get just a rather static image of the bridge in the mind, as we have already seen.

If we use the first and second, that adds something, but not a lot:

Seta Bridge;
Many people
are on it.

It is common for beginners to write hokku like that, not realizing that two such elements are not enough in themselves to create interest in the mind of the reader. So how did Jōsō do it? To the bridge and the people he added movement, in fact very strong movement, by adding rain and not just people, but scurrying people. Here is his verse:

(Winter)

So many people
Running across in the rain —
Seta Bridge.

We have the bridge, we have the people, we have the rain, and we have the action of running. That makes it interesting because it now has life and movement.

The bridge at Seta was an unusually long wooden bridge across water. This was in the pre-auto days when traffic across it would have been mostly by foot. So this is the scene:

Being on the bridge, those crossing are openly exposed to the elements, and when a cold winter shower begins to pour down upon them, they dash and scurry all the way across the long bridge, hurrying to the get to the end and to some possible shelter.

Now let’s see what the verse would have been without the strong action added by the rain and the running:

So many people
Crossing over
Seta Bridge.

That kind of verse, again, is dull. It has some action in the crossing people, but not enough to make it worthwhile. It is very ordinary, and does not enable us to see crossing the bridge in a new way. And it is also important to note that even though we know it is set in (early) winter, there is not a connection to the season in the verse that makes us really feel it. That connection is added by the rain, which at that time of year would have been cold and strong and unpleasant, thus the hurrying to get out of it in Jōsō’s original.

Remember that if a hokku merely shows us a common, everyday scene, it is likely to be uninteresting. How do we change that?

We have seen that one can add interest by using strong action, but also very important is the second way of adding interest mentioned earlier, and it is a basic principle: to make a subject interesting, we should show it in a new way, show it differently than we usually see and experience it. And that is what Jōsō has done with the subject of the long bridge at Seta.

That is, in fact, what the block print artist Hiroshige did with his visual rendering of that same bridge. Instead of depicting it on a pleasant spring or summer day, he rendered it in rain. His version, however, is a bit more placid than Jōsō’s verse, and though pleasant, it does not have quite the strong effect of the hokku, as you can see. That is partly because we do not find in it such an emphasis on scurrying crowds as we find in the hokku.

HiroshigeSeta

For those interested in the Japanese version, it is:

Ikutari ka shigure kakenuku seta no hashi

how-many people ? cold-rain running across Seta ‘s bridge

Shigure is the cold rain that falls in late autumn-winter; kakenuku means to run all the way across or to something.

David

CRIES OF WILD GEESE: A HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF WINTER

A foggy morning;
From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

This is the time of year when I am often pleasantly surprised, when out walking in the morning, by the cries of migrating flocks of geese and ducks passing high overhead. It is also a time of frequent fog.

I often wonder how many out there are learning or practicing hokku. I know that still, comparatively speaking, few people even know what it is.

As I often repeat, hokku are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Unlike modern haiku, the hokku accepts certain boundaries. It does not include violence or sex or romance or other such things that disturb the mind, because hokku is a “contemplative” kind of verse. It also avoids emphasis on the writer, and tends to use the words “I” “me” and “my” seldom. When talking about one’s self, it is treated in the same objective way one would talk about a tree, a stone, or a fox.

Hokku at times has a subtle humor, but never the “milk spurting out the nose” kind of intentionally funny poetry such as limericks.

Underlying all of the practice of hokku, all its verses, is a sense of transience, of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. Impermanence is the character of everything in the universe, from the life of a mayfly to that of stars. Being set in the seasons, hokku has an inherent sense of time and its movements, and that is why we pay attention to the Hokku Calendar, which approximates very closely the old agricultural calendar of the British Isles and elsewhere.

Hokku also keeps us aware, in this impermanence, of the interplay of the two cosmic forces, Yin and Yang, and how they manifest in the changing seasons.

Now we have entered the last phase in the declining of Yang energies from their height in summer. We are moving into the increasing Yin of winter.

All hokku have a longer part and a shorter part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. The longer part may come first or second, whatever works best.

A hokku in English begins each line with a capital letter, and ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

In today’s hokku the short part comes at the beginning:

A foggy morning;

Then follows the longer part:

From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

Notice that even though the two parts of the hokku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, there may be more than one punctuation mark in the body of the verse. Only one of them, however, functions as the separating mark or “cut” between the longer and shorter parts of the verse.

Hokku is not difficult to write. It does, however, require one to follow certain aesthetic guidelines, such as those already mentioned. Once one gets the spirit of these, then hokku becomes quite easy.

It is a very important verse form for these times in which there are so many threats to Nature and to world climate, and in which people are increasingly alienated from Nature and from the cycle of the seasons. It takes us away from materialism and back to the basic and important things in life.

David

WINTER BEGINS: THE SEASON

Winter begins;
The hilltop trees
Vanish in fog.

Yes, according to the Hokku calendar and the old European agricultural calendar, now that we have passed Halloween, winter has begun. It certainly seems like it where I am, because the skies are dim and grey, clouds are low, and now and then a cold rain falls.

Winter, in the Hokku Year, is the time when one turns inward, a time for introspection. That is so because in Nature, winter is the time when people were (and still are, to some extent) often secluded because of bad weather, cold and snow.

It is a time when contrasts become very obvious — the warmth of an indoor fire when frost laces the windowpanes with icy ferns, a warm cup of something on a cold morning, stars shining in the long, dark nights.

Winter becomes the bleakest time in the year, spare and austere, and so it is the time when small comforts are most highly appreciated — good food and helpful friends and warm blankets.

In the daily cycle, winter corresponds to the middle of the night;
In human life, winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the time when we see the plants advanced in withering or standing dead and dry in the frosty fields. It is the time when the sap of life has fallen in the trees, when life and energy have left leaves and branches and return to the root.

So that is winter, a time of turning inward, of returning to the root. In writing hokku, it is a good time to notice opposites, warmth versus cold, light versus darkness, sounds versus silence, motion versus stillness, because such things are very much in keeping with the nature of the season. It is also a good time to write about solitude.

Winter brings the further lowering of the arc of the sun across the sky, a continued weakening of the Yang energies in Nature until they reach their lowest point. And then in midwinter a spark of Yang appears, the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, the arc of the sun slowly ascends again, and the cycle begins anew.

David

UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

sntr

Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.

David

PERCHTENLAUF: MOTHER NATURE IN WINTER’S HARSHNESS

I do not want to let another holiday season pass without talking a bit about the Perchtenlauf.

If you have never heard of it, that is because it is an old winter tradition kept in the mountains of southern Germany, Austria, and the Tyrol.  To understand it, you first of all have to know the meaning of the word “Perchten.”

Actually, we should look first at the form Perchta, also seen as Berchta, which was the name of a pre-Christian Nature deity, whom we can think of as being our “Mother Nature.”  Perchta, whose name means “Bright,” was a goddess who had two aspects.  In the warm and light days, such as in spring, she was a beautiful, shining maiden.  But in the cold, hard days of deep winter, she was a frightful old hag with a broom.  That shows us the two faces of Nature at two very different times of the year.

Perchten2
Perchta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perchta and her accompanying spirits of Nature and of animals came down out of the snowy hills to human habitations in the days between Christmas and Twelfth Night.  Like Santa Claus, who knew when you were good or bad, Perchta would come invisibly into homes to make sure the spinning was properly and diligently done, and that all was in tidy order.  If it was not, punishment would follow.

The frightful spirits who travelled with Perchta became known as Perchten themselves, and that is the origin of the name “Perchtenlauf.”  The “Lauf” part refers to the course upon which the Perchten travel to visit the mountain villages.

On the Internet you will find all kinds of interesting and entertaining photos and videos of the Perchtenlauf in various places in the Germanic-speaking mountains.  The Perchten today are often teams of young men who dress up in full and often very scary costumes, coming into the village sometimes with great racket and torches,  and with switches to “punish” various people they might meet along the way, not surprisingly often young women.

The interesting thing about the Perchtenlauf for me is that it shows the survival of the very ancient pre-Christian beliefs of the mountain people even into the age of computers and cell phones, and it also tells us something about ourselves and our relationship to Nature.

If you are a reader of the Brothers Grimm tales (if you are not, you should be), you may recall the old story of Frau Holle, “Mother Hulda,” in which two different girls, one diligent and one lazy, go at different times down a well and find themselves in a strange land where an old lady asks them to work in her house.  She tells the diligent girl to be careful to give the feather bed a good shaking so that the feathers fly, because when she does so, it snows in the world.   Frau Holle / Mother Hulda is just another and more northerly name for Perchta, and when it snowed in those parts of Germany, people could say that “Frau Holle” was making her bed.

The Perchtenlauf has become a popular and very anticipated event in mountain villages in Germanic Europe, and if anything it seems to be spreading even more widely than before.  Very elaborate horned masks are carved skillfully from wood, then painted, and there are whole hairy costumes that go with them.  American mountain towns could no doubt increase their winter tourism if they were to adopt the annual winter “Perchtenlauf.”

But for us, the Perchtenlauf reminds us that Nature is not always bright and sunny, but has a cold and chill and difficult side as well, which we feel most in the frost and ice and snow of winter.  Imagine, then, how winter must have seemed to people centuries ago, isolated in their mountain villages and trying to make it through that time of hardship with enough food and enough firewood so that they might survive to see Perchta’s more shining and favorable aspect with the coming of spring.  In terms of hokku and its spiritual foundations, the bright and beautiful and young side of Perchta in the spring is her Yang aspect, but in the winter we see her cold and aged Yin aspect, as frightening for us as winter for our ancestors.

Frau-Holle

David

HOKKU IS NOT THE SAME AS “HAIKU”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Winter)

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

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

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

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

David

WOLVES HOWLING: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

Per Jōsō:

Lupos ululante
Omnes insimul;
Le vespere nivee.

By Jōsō:

Wolves howling
All together;
The snowy evening.

In hokku habemus harmonia de similaritate, ma anque harmonia de contrasto.  Iste verso per Jōsō nobis mostra le harmonia de contrasto.  Como?

In hokku we have harmony of similarity, but also harmony of constrast.  This verse by Jōsō shows us harmony of contrast.  How?

Prime, iste es un hokku del hiberno; le hiberno es Yin.
Secunde, le vespere es un Yin tempore del die.
Tertie, le nive es anque Yin.

First, this is a hokku of winter; the winter is Yin.
Second, evening is a Yin time of day.
Third, the snow is also Yin.

Ma in medio de tote de iste Yin, videmus le lupos, qui son multe Yang.  E le lupos ululanten, e le sono de lor critos es anque Yang.

But amid all this Yin, we see the wolves, who are very Yang.  And the wolves howl, and the sound of their cries is also Yang.

Quando usamus harmonio de similaritate, nos accentuamos le character Yin del hiberno.  Le vespere e le nive — siente ambes Yin — nobis mostran similaritate.  Ma quando usamus harmonio de contrasto, nos exprimemus como le Yang accentua le Yin, e simultaneemente, le Yang accentua le Yin.  

When we use harmony of similarity, we accentuate the Yin character of winter.  The evening and the snow — both being Yin — show us similarity.  But when we use harmony of contrast, we express how Yang accentuates Yin, and simultaneously, Yang accentuates Yin.

In le frigor nivee e le obscuritate crescente del vespere, le Yang ululante de le lupos es, in consequentia, plus impressionante.

In the snowy cold and growing darkness of the evening, the Yang howling of the wolves is, in consequence, more striking.

David

LE MATINO NIVEE DE CHIYO-NI / THE SNOWY MORNING OF CHIYO-NI

Un de le hokku hibernales le plus bones es iste, de Chiyo-ni:

In campo e montesmornpd
Nihil mova;
Le matino nivee.

Iste verso nobis mostra le character Yin del hiberno (movimento es Yang, immobilitate es Yin). Videmus anque le Yin de hiberno in le nive que copera le campos e montes (le nive frigide es anque Yin).

In iste hokku trovamus le silentio e frigor que si ben exprimen le natura del hiberno.

(Iste es un experimento.  Si tu eres un parlator de un lingua romance, potes leger lo?)

*

One of the best winter hokku is this, by Chiyo-ni:

In field and mountain
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

This verse shows us the Yin character of winter (movement is Yang, stillness is Yin).  We see also the Yin of winter in the snow that covers the fields and mountains (the cold snow is also Yin).

In this hokku we find the silence and cold that so well express the nature of winter.

David

(As you can see, I am still experimenting with an auxiliary language that might enable more people to read this site.  I began some time ago with Interlingua, and have adopted some modifications to it from David Stark’s “Latino Moderne,” which seems to loosen it up a bit and give it greater poetic possibilities.  Of course I am a novice at this, so bear with me.

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: AUTUMN AND JOURNEYING

I have always had the feeling, when autumn has arrived, that it is time to begin reading Tolkien’s works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  And that in spite of the fact that the first book in the series, The Hobbit, begins its adventure “one fine morning, just before May.”

Then I realized that it is the “journey” aspect of the story that connects it to autumn, which in hokku is a time of journeys and migrations.  The birds begin flying southward overhead, as cold weather arrives.   In the old days, Native Americans would be coming out of the high mountains to avoid the harshness of winter there, going down to winter in the lowlands.  In the winter, the high mountains of Europe were considered the abode of spirits, which is the origin of the Germanic custom of the Perchtenlauf, when the mountain spirits come down into the villages and show themselves to the people.  I will talk more about that when winter comes.

We see the connection between autumn and travel in verses such as Issa’s

The autumn evening;
A traveling man
Mending his clothes.

The original says “a traveling man’s sewing” (harishigoto) but that is too vague for English.  What we see is a poor man on a journey, pausing at an inn in the evening, taking advantage of the time off his feet to mend his worn clothes.

This is a very good verse because it combines the sense of migration that is a part of autumn with the sense of the passage of time, which we feel in his worn clothes that need mending.  The passage of time — aging — is very much a part of the feeling of autumn.  In addition, the hokku exhibits the sense of poverty that has always been such a significant part of hokku.  And there is also that hokku sense of loneliness  of — “aloneness” — in the verse; the man has no one to mend his clothes for him, so he does it himself.

Of course spring too is a time for journeys, but they have a different feeling than those of autumn.  Spring is a returning, a growing.  Autumn is a leaving, a diminishing.  That is why it leads us gradually into the silence and inwardness and hibernation of winter.

By the old hokku calendar, autumn is already past.  By the new calendar, it is coming gradually to an end.  I hope that all of you may find a secure place as autumn ends where you are, and the chill silence of winter begins.

David

THE ESSENTIAL IMPORTANCE OF YIN AND YANG IN HOKKU

I often talk about Yin and Yang in hokku.  In fact I talk about them so much that another name for the kind of hokku I teach might be “Yin-Yang” hokku.  That is how important it is — so important that one cannot fully understand hokku without it.

In old Asia and in hokku, it was something people grew up with.  It was even the principle upon which old traditional Asian medicine and philosophy were based.  But it has to be actually taught to Western students, because they generally are not familiar with it.

I will try to make it brief, so this posting will condense a lot of information that the student should absorb and then observe in daily life and in the reading and practice of hokku.

You have probably seen the old Yin-Yang Chinese symbol.  It is an easy, shorthand way to remember how Yin and Yang work:

300px-yin_yang-1-svg

Yin and Yang are the two opposite, yet complementary forces comprising all things in the universe.  They are found in every aspect of Nature, so you can understand why they are so important in hokku.  Even though Yin and Yang are opposites, they interact with one another in an ever-changing relationship and harmony.  So we should think of the universe as not being just divided into two — Yin and Yang.  In fact, it is not divided at all, as we see from the circle of the symbol, and Yin and Yang mix together and change together.  When Yang increases, Yin decreases; when Yin increases, Yang decreases.

What exactly are Yin and Yang in practical terms?  This is very ancient knowledge.

Yang is bright, Yin is dark;
Yang is warm, Yin is cool;
Yang is rising, Yin is sinking;
Yang is expanding, Yin is shrinking;
Yang is growing, Yin is withering;
Yang is dry, Yin is moist;
Yang is high, Yin is low;
Yang is motion, Yin is stillness;
Yang is activity, Yin is rest;
Yang is strength, Yin is weakness;
Yang is male, Yin is female;
Yang is full, Yin is empty;
Yang is sharp, Yin is smooth;
Yang is hard, Yin is soft;
Yang is flavorful, Yin is bland;
Yang is active, Yin is passive;
Yang advances, Yin recedes;
Yang multiplies, Yin dwindles;

That should give you some idea of Yin and Yang seen as absolutes, though they are not really absolutes.  Yang contains within it a tiny seed of Yin; Yin contains within it a tiny seed of Yang.  You see that in the Yin-Yang symbol on this page:  the light Yang side contains a tiny spot of dark Yin; the dark Yin side contains a tiny spot of light Yang.  When Yang increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yin;  when Yin increases and reaches its ultimate, it changes to Yang.

As already mentioned, everything in the universe is — at any moment — in some stage of the ever-changing interplay of Yin and Yang.

In hokku this is significant not only because it is how the universe works, but also because of the principle of internal reflection.  In hokku the nature or character of one thing is often reflected in the nature or character of another.  In addition, in hokku there are two kinds of harmony:  there is harmony of similarity, and harmony of contrast.  Both of these important aspects of hokku relate to Yin and Yang.

We already know that time and the seasons are essential to hokku.  Here is how Yin and Yang manifest in time:

Let’s start with deepest winter.  Winter is cold, so from the list above, we know that winter is very Yin.  And we recall that when Yin reaches its ultimate, it changes into Yang.  That is exactly what happens.  In the cold Yin of deep winter, a tiny seed of Yang begins to grow.  We call that “increasing Yang” or “growing Yang.”  It grows and spring begins.  So spring is increasing Yang.  Yang continues to increase, and spring grows warmer, ice and snow melt, things sprout, blossoms appear, trees leaf out — all these are signs of growing Yang.  Yang continues to grow, and we have already seen that when Yang increases, Yin decreases.  That is what is happening in spring.  Finally, Yang grows to such a point that things dry out, the weather begins to get very warm, and we find ourselves in summer, which, being the opposite of Yin winter, is a Yang season.  The Yang of summer increases gradually until it reaches its height, and then — as we might expect — it begins to change into Yin.  A seed of Yin starts to grow within it.  Now the year, instead of growing as in spring, is declining.  Yin continues to increase as Yang decreases, and we come to autumn, a time when the increase of Yin is very obvious as things begin to wither; the trees drop their leaves, annual plants die, and the energy of perennial plants sinks from the leaves into the root.  We know that in spring, for example in sugar maples, sap rises — Yang.  But in autumn it falls — Yin.

Yin increases as Yang decreases, things grow colder, things increasingly die, and finally we are in winter again, the Yin season.  Then the whole cycle begins anew.

This same principle applies to human life, and here again we touch on the hokku principle of internal reflection:

Birth and infancy are early spring; growth, childhood, and adolescence match the increasing Yang of spring.  Adulthood is summer; when one is fully adult, the aging process begins.  One grows gradually older — the autumn of life.  And as Yang decreases in the human body and Yin increases, we grow even older and weaker, we lose our hair, we loose teeth and muscle, and finally Yin reaches its ultimate, and we die — deep winter.

The same thing applies to each day:

The middle of night is deep Yin.  Dawn nears and Yang increases.  We see that in the light, and in the morning chorus of the birds.  Then the sun rises higher in the sky and Yang increases even more, as Yin decreases.  Finally, at midday, the sun reaches its highest point, and the seed of Yin begins to grow within it.  The sun begins its afternoon decline and Yang declines as Yin grows.  Then we reach late afternoon, dusk, and finally the Yin darkness of night comes again.

So, just to repeat, in only these three things there are these correspondences, very useful for internal reflection:

Birth-youth = spring = morning;
Adulthood-nearing middle age =summer = noon;
Past middle age-growing old = autumn = afternoon;
Very old-death = winter = night;

We see Yin and Yang in a landscape painting.  Mountains rise up and are high, so they are Yang; valleys are low and receptive, so they are Yin.  And of course we see Yin also in the falling of waterfalls from a high place to a low place.  And we see Yin in rivers, lakes and pools.

In fact so all-pervasive is the Yin-Yang process in Nature that one cannot really understand fully how hokku work without it.  In some verses it is very obvious, in others less obvious, but it is always there, whether seen or not.

We can see it subtly in this pleasant verse by Onitsura:

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

Now you know how to read that verse in terms of Yin and Yang:
Dawn is early in the process of growing Yang;
A barley leaf is young and green, so it too is growing Yang;
Spring frost is Yin, which shows us that in this process Yang (seen in the dawn and the green blade) is increasing, yet Yin (what remains of winter) has not yet disappeared.
To this we add our poetic hokku intuition, by means of which we automatically intuit what is not actually written in the poem — that the Yang dawn and rising sun will soon melt the Yin frost, and it will evaporate and vanish — Yang overcoming Yin.  So this poem shows us a stage in the interaction of Yin and Yang that takes place in early spring, and in doing so, it manifests the character of the season and of that particular period in the season, which of course is very “hokku.”

You can see from all of that what a very excellent spring poem this hokku of Onitsura is.  And if you did not have your new understanding of Yin and Yang, you would not see that at all.  That is why the Yin-Yang principle is so essential to hokku as I teach it — because not only was it essential to old hokku, but it also is essential to understanding the interplay of these forces in everything that exists — in every time and place and life.

If you have “been around the block,” as the saying goes — if you are familiar with books written on all kinds of short verse that are descended in one way or another from the hokku,  and familiar with journals and internet sites, you will realize suddenly that I am the only person teaching this relationship of Yin and Yang in old and modern hokku.  You will not find this teaching of how it relates to hokku in practice anywhere else.  Why?  Because other kinds of brief modern verse — modern haiku in particular — have largely abandoned the aesthetic principles and standards of the old hokku.  Most never knew them to begin with.  I am sure that one of these days someone will see what I have written on this subject and will begin presenting it on some modern haiku site as a novelty, but for us in the actual practice of hokku it is not just a novelty; it is essential knowledge.

I hope you can see from what I have written here how much more there is to the hokku than superficially meets the eye, how one must have an understanding of its aesthetics in order to really “get” how hokku works and why it works, and how to apply these principles in practice.

Once one knows about and begins to understand the Yin-Yang principle, one sees it everywhere — because it is everywhere, from deep in our bodies to the farthest galaxies, and in every aspect of life and time.   That is why it is essential knowledge to the serious student of hokku.

I should add that for the old writers of hokku, Yin and Yang were not a recipe for writing. They did not consciously think, “Now I must write a poem incorporating Yin and Yang in order to get a certain effect.”  Yin and Yang were just a part of their cultural and aesthetic background, so they did not have to consciously consider their interactions in writing, for the most part.  For us in the West, however, the interactions of Yin and Yang are not a part of our cultural background — at least not since a very long time — so the best way to deal with Yin and Yang is to learn the basic interactions I have given here; then practice recognizing the Yin – Yang processes in Nature and the seasons, as well as in old hokku.  That way Yin and Yang will gradually become part of your hokku practice — your personal background — but not in any forced and rigid way.

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

 

 

CONTEMPLATIVE HOKKU IN WINTER

Contemplative hokku are those which best exemplify the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that are the chief virtues of hokku.  And these, along with the appreciation of the inherent poetry in a simple thing-event, set in the context of the seasons and dealing with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, show us hokku at its highest.  That is the most important discovery of the old writers of haikai — the discovery of those elements which, as Blyth says, “enable us to seize the inner essence of any commonplace, everyday occurance, to touch that inner nerve of life, of existence, that runs through the dullest and most unmeaning fact.”

That discovery was that if we simply reveal a sensory experience in which an unspoken significance is felt, presenting it plain and bare and unornamented by all our attempts at “poetry” and elaboration and commentary, we touch the very essence of poetry.  But to do this we must abandon the desire to be poets; we must simply become a mirror reflecting, so that Nature may speak through us.

One might think that Shiki, whose changes and ideas began the destruction of the hokku, might have done away with all that.  But even among Shiki’s verses — which are often hokku in all but name — we still find examples manifesting poverty and simplicity and selflessness.  Such verses are high points in Shiki’s writing, as they are in the hokku tradition that preceded him.

An example:

It bounces about
In the abandoned boat —
The hail.

In that verse there is no writer, no poet, no ornamentation or commentary — only hail bouncing about in an old, weathered wooden boat.  We feel the coldness and hardness of the hail and hear the sound of it as it strikes the wood.  That is sensory experience.  It is unfortunate that not all of Shiki’s attempts live up to the qualities present here.  That is because the virtues obvious in this verse were not those around which Shiki built his life.

Hokushi wrote:

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

That is a softer verse.  The wide umbrellas — which we see instead of the heads of the passers by — reflect the snow-covered landscape, and the multiplicity of the falling snowflakes are reflected in the plural number of umbrellas on which the white flakes near-silently fall.

But see what Yaha wrote, by contrast:

One umbrella
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

Yaha has chosen to show us the solitude and inwardness of winter, of cold, of the snow that covers everything in a blanket of silence.  Both verses are good, but that of Yaha is more expressive simply because one thing is generally felt, in hokku, to be more significant than many.  That is not only a basic principle of the aesthetics that underlie the hokku, but it is also a basic principle of traditional flower arranging (Ikebana) in Japanese culture, the culture out of which the hokku grew.  But as with all things that are best in hokku, it is a universal principle, though not always recognized.

Note that the writer in all of these verses is invisible.  In the first there is only the bouncing hail and the abandoned boat; in the other two, there is only the falling snow and either a number of umbrellas or only one.  The writer has become a clear mirror reflecting Nature and humans as a part of Nature, and that is a fundamental principle of hokku.  There is generally no need for “I”, “me,” or “my,” though of course we use these words in hokku when it is awkward not to do so.  Nonetheless when they are used, there is no emphasis on an “I” as separate from everything else, and we treat that “I” just as we would a bird pecking in the snow or an old wagon being covered up by falling snow.  That is part of the selflessness of contemplative hokku.

This kind of verse appeals to a certain kind of person.  Obviously it does not appeal to everyone, or everyone would be writing and reading contemplative hokku.  Nonetheless, it is something very rare and special and world literature, and as I often say, hokku — particularly contemplative hokku — is not for everyone, because everyone is not for hokku.  It depends on the character and spirit of the individual.

There is also the obvious fact that writing and appreciating contemplative hokku runs completely counter to the general tenor of modern society, which puts great emphasis on “me,” on what “I” want, and very little emphasis on the giving up of the ego and the adoption of a selfless attitude.  There is very little appreciation of the poverty, simplicity, and selflessness that characterize contemplative hokku.

Nonetheless, for those who do appreciate it and feel comfortable in it, this attitude demonstrates what a remarkable thing was revealed by the old hokku writers of Japan, who sometimes managed to achieve the poetry of no-poetry in ordinary thing-events of Nature set in the cycle of the seasons.  Contemplative hokku is the result — and to me, as I have said before, it represents the best of old hokku as well as the best of hokku written today — verses with the same tradition of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.

David

SNOW AND THE POETRY OF NO POETRY

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst.  Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here.  But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:

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.

One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity.  In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry.  That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now.  All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme.  Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far.  In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:

No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

It is almost a hokku.  In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:

No sky nor earth,
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:

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

That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.”  Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.

I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:

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

Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about.   In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.

For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow.  Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two.  There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer.  That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.

I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.

David

MORE ON USING “CHINESE” TECHNIQUE IN ENGLISH POETRY

In looking over past statistics for this site, I noticed that one of the most frequented postings was on writing “Chinese poetry” in English.  Of course what is meant by that is poetry written in English, but using the form of old Chinese Nature poetry as a framework on which a poem may be constructed.

Readers here will recall that I previously discussed Chinese poems of five and of seven characters, and how those structures may be transposed into English.

To write such poetry in English we must think in terms of “essential words,” by which is meant words essential to meaning.  If I write, “Tomorrow I shall go to the book shop to look for a book on poetry,” then the essential words in that are simply “Tomorrow I go to book shop look for poetry book.”  The latter sentence is not at all good English, but it is completely clear and understandable.  And that is the way we write “Chinese” poetry in English — we use such essential words as a structure.

So the first thing one must know to write a “Chinese” poem in English is that it uses a framework of essential words, usually either five per line or seven per line.

The second thing one must know is that Chinese poems are written in couplets, meaning in pairs of lines.  So a finished verse will have an even number of lines, not an odd number  A poem is constructed by using a given number of essential words for each line in the couplet, and one adds further couplets until the desired number of verses is achieved.  It is just that simple.

It will not work precisely, but as an example we may use an old verse translated by Arthur Waley.  Then we can “reverse-engineer” that line to see how it fits into this way of writing verse.

Here is the poem — by Tao Qian — the “Q” being pronounced like “ch,” only farther forward in the mouth than in English:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

There are four more lines, but I shall leave them off because they are a bit too culture-limited, and these are enough for my purpose.

Let’s look at the poem, turning it into essential words:

Chill and harsh the year draws to its close:
In my cotton dress I seek sunlight on the porch.
in the southern orchard all the leaves are gone:
In the north garden rotting boughs lie heaped.
I empty my cup and drink it down to the dregs:
I look toward the kitchen, but no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair:
But the light is going and I shall not have time to read them.

If we now extract the “essential” words in bold type, we get the essence of the poem:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Southern orchard all leaves gone:
North garden rotting boughs heaped.
Empty cup drink to dregs:
Look kitchen no smoke rises.
Poems books piled beside chair:
Light going not time read.

There you have it.  We have stripped to poem down to its basic elements, and this gives us a structure to use in writing the poem in “normal” English.  In doing this, we must be neither too literalistic nor too rigid.  There are many words in English that are synonyms, so we need not use precisely the words used in our “framework” version, and of course we need to add those words essential to good, standard English, meaning words like “the,” “a,” “an,” as well as the correct grammatical forms.

If that sounds a bit difficult, it is not.  It simply means to use the essential words as the structure of the poem, like the wirework upon which a sculptor molds the clay that forms the visible statue.  So taking our sample structure — the translation by Waley reduced to its essentials — we can now write the poem anew, like this.  I shall put the structure words in light italics, and my rewriting in bold type:

Chill harsh year draws close:
Cold and harsh the year nears its end;

Cotton dress seek sunlight porch.
Dressed in cotton I seek the sunlit porch.

Southern orchard all leaves gone:
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;

North garden rotting boughs heaped.
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.

Empty cup drink to dregs:
I empty my cup drinking to the dregs.

Look kitchen no smoke rises.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.

Poems books piled beside chair:
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;

Light going not time read.
The light is going, no time to read.

Let’s see what we have at this point:

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Dressed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
In the southern orchard all the leaves are gone;
In the northern garden rotting boughs are heaped.
I empty the cup, drinking to the dregs.
I look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books are piled beside my chair;
The light is going, no time to read.

That will do, but there is yet another step that we should take — minimally one, but possibily more.  We want the poem to comfortably “settle into” normal English, and that means again that we must avoid rigidity in moving from the framework to the finished poem.  So here is the poem taken just one step farther.

Cold and harsh, the year nears its end;
Clothed in cotton, I seek the sunlit porch.
South, the orchard trees are bare —
North, the garden heaped with rotting boughs.
I drink my cup down to the dregs
And look to the kitchen, where no smoke rises.
Poems and books lie piled beside my chair
But the light is fading — no time left.

As long as we have the basic elements of a poem, we have something to work on, and that is what this technique does — it gives us a structure.  If you use it to write new poems, it will of course seem silly to call them “Chinese” poems because they will be written in English — but we are using the Chinese poetry technique to give us the structure that enables us to write such poems easily.

One may easily see that the last stage of the poem given here could not only be worked further if desired, but it could also be used as a jumping-off point for writing quite different lines.  And of course the fundamental notion behind all this is that one can use the five or seven “essential words” structure in composing completely new Nature poems.  Try it, and you may be surprised how easily you can now write poetry — if you have an inherent poetic sense.

David



THE LAST OF HOKKU HERE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a variation on a winter hokku by Katsuri:

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

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

David

COLD MIDNIGHT RAIN

R. H. Blyth makes a significant point regarding the order of elements in hokku.  To do so, he uses a verse by Ryōta, which I shall give here in my translation:

Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?
Cold midnight rain.

And then Blyth gives us a different arrangement for comparison, here again in my translation:

Cold midnight rain;
Who is awake,
The lamp still lit?

In the first, we are first presented with an unanswered question followed by the wider setting — “cold midnight rain.”

In the second, we begin with the cold midnight rain, but are left with the question and the image of the burning light in the mind.

We learn from this that how we order a hokku determines how we perceive it, and how we perceive it determines its effect.

The preferable version, of course, is the first, because it leaves us with the sound of the midnight rain, which only deepens the preceding question and its feeling of loneliness — Who is it awake, / The lamp still lit?

And the answer is precisely this:

Cold rain at midnight.

Of course it is an answer that is a no-answer, because to answer a question asked in hokku is to spoil that empty feeling of not-knowing, an emptiness in which the cold rain of midnight ceaselessly falls.

David

COLD RAIN

I hope many of you paid close attention to the recent articles here about the hokku calendar.  Here is where we are now as we move toward autumn’s end:

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.

Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.

End:  The evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

As you can see, in the formal “Western” hokku calendar, Halloween marks the end of autumn.  And the next day, Samhain — the first day of November — is the beginning of the winter season in the wheel of the year:

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.

Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  — Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.

End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

This year — at least where I live — things seem very much on schedule.  The leaves of the trees at present are yellow and gold and deep red.  But tomorrow, if the weather report proves correct, begin at least five days of rain.

The old Japanese writers of hokku would have called such a rain shigure, their term for the cold rains that fall in late autumn and early winter — precisely the period we shall soon enter.  We will call those rains simply “cold rain” in the verses translated here:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

When we write about an emotion in hokku, there are two ways of doing so.  First, we can present a thing-event that evokes the emotion and leave the emotion itself unmentioned; or second, we can simply mention the emotion, treating as we would something we see in the external world — treating it, in other words, objectively, as Rōka does in the verse just given.

Those of you who have been paying attention for some time here (how many of you are there, I wonder?) will readily note what this verse is in terms of Yin and Yang:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Sadness is a very yin emotion.  Rain (water) is also yin.  And cold rain is even more yin.  And of course a tombstone is associated with death, which is very yin.  So altogether, this is a very yin verse, quite different from a verse which has elements of Yang, such as joy or heat and warmth and light.  When one piles such yin elements together like this, it makes for a very yin verse, in keeping with the season.

Late autumn and early winter, you will recall, are the times when Yang is steadily declining toward its weakest period, and Yin increasingly predominates.

Here is a verse very similar in feeling by Bashō:

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

Here again we have the yin of cold rain.  Added to that is the cut stubble left in the fields, withered and dead — Yin.  And now with the cold rain that stubble begins to decay and darken.  That too is a yin event.  So everything in this verse, as in the first, shows the nature of late autumn and early winter.

These are verses for the time when the bright leaves of autumn have fallen, the skies are grey, and the cold rain falls.  And that time is very near.

David

IT’S STILL THE SAME OLD STORY

Yesterday I discussed three “Western” calendar systems relevant to hokku — the traditional calendar, the meteorological calendar, and the “natural” calendar.  The first is astronomical, and depends on the relationship between the sun and the earth; the second shows us the times of the actual affects of the solar-earth relationship; and the third is based on observation of what is happening in Nature and when it is happening — the sprouting of things, their growth and maturing, their withering, their dying.

After reading that article, some of you may have found the astronomical traditional calendar interesting, but perhaps you thought it a bit irrelevant to hokku.  But it is not.  Let’s take a look for a moment at the calendar actually used by those who originally wrote hokku in old Japan, and simultaneously I shall show you how it relates to our old and traditional Western calendar with its “quarter days” and “cross-quarter” days.

On comparing our old traditional calendar with the old calendar of Japanese hokku, we find something very interesting.  They go together very well, like this:

SPRING:
Our calendar begins with  Candlemas on February 1/2; speaking more generally, spring begins the 1st week of February.
In the Japan of old hokku writers, spring similarly begins on February 4th, and these are its divisions:

Risshun, (立春): February 4 — Spring begins;
Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water;
Keichitsu(啓蟄): March 5—Insects awake;

The spring Midpoint in our traditional calendar is the Spring Equinox:  March 21 /22.  In the Japanese hokku calendar it was similarly:
Shunbun (春分): March 20— the Spring Equinox, the middle of spring;
Seimei (清明): April 5—Clear and bright;
Kokuu (穀雨): April 20—Grain rain;

Our traditional spring Ends on the evening before May 1st; then comes May 1st, which is May Day (Bealtaine) and the first day of our summer:

SUMMER 
begins for us on:  May Day, May 1st, 1st week in May.  Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, summer began thus:

Rikka (立夏): May 5—Summer begins;
Shōman (小満): May 21—Grain sprouts;
Bōshu (芒種): June 6—Grain in ear;

Our summer Midpoint happens on  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20 /21.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint happened on:

Geshi (夏至): June 21—Summer Solstice, the middle of summer.
Shōsho (小暑): July 7—Small heat;
Taisho (大暑): July 23—Great heat;

The End of our summer happens on the Evening before Lammas; then comes Lammas — Harvest Home — Lughnasa, August 1st, 1st week in August.  On Lammas our autumn begins.

AUTUMN/FALL
For us it begins with Lammas — Harvest Home (Lughnasa), August 1st.  1st week in August.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers it took place thus:

Risshū (立秋): August 7—Autumn begins;
Shosho (処暑): August 23—Heat finishes;
Hakuro (白露): September 7—White dew;

Our Midpoint is the Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
The old Japanese hokku Midpoint was:

Shūbun (秋分): September 23— the Autumn Equinox, the middle of autumn.
Kanro (寒露): October 8—Cold dew;
Sōkō (霜降): October 23—Frost descends;

Our autumn has its End at the Evening before Samhain, November 1st.  1st week in November.  Then on Samhain our winter begins.

WINTER:
Our winter begins with Samhain, November 1st, the 1st week in November.
Similarly, for old Japanese hokku writers, winter began thus:

Rittō (立冬): November 7—Winter begins.
Shōsetsu (小雪): November 22—Small snow;
Taisetsu (大雪): December 7—Great snow;

Our winter Midpoint is Midwinter’s Day — the Winter Solstice — Great Yule, December 21 / 22.
Similarly, the old Japanese Midpoint was:

Tōji (冬至): December, the Winter Solstice — the middle of winter.
Shōkan (小寒): January 5 — Small Cold—also called 寒の入り (Kan no iri) The Entrance of the Cold’
Daikan (大寒): January 20—Great Cold;

Our winter had its End on the evening before Candlemas, February 1st, 1st week in February.
Similarly, as we have seen, for the old Japanese hokku writers, winter ended on February 3rd.

And here for us the cycle begins again with Candlemas (Imbolc) February 1st.
For the old writers of Japanese hokku, it began again similarly with Risshun (Beginning of Spring) on February 4th.

Now, what does all this mean to us today?  It means simply that if we follow the old and traditional Western calendar, we shall essentially and with only slight variation be following the same old calendar by which hokku was written in Japan.  And incidentally, that old Japanese calendar was actually borrowed from the Chinese, so the Japanese hokku calendar was the same as the Calendar used by Chinese poets.

So when we use the old and traditional Western calendar, we are, with little variation, following the same general calendar as the ancient poets of China and Japan.  The names vary from place to place, but the times are essentially nearly the same.

David

THE SEASONS OF HOKKU

When we talk about season in hokku, what do we mean exactly?

Well, everyone knows that in temperate climates we traditionally have four seasons — spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  Every hokku we write belongs to one of these seasons, which is why when we write a hokku we mark it with the name of the season, so its classification will not be lost.

However, in actual writing, we have more divisions than simply those four.  We really have:

1.  Spring comes;
2.  Early spring;
3.  Mid-spring;
4.  Late spring;
5.  Spring departs;
6.  Summer comes;
7.  Early summer;
8.  Mid-summer;
9.  Late summer;
10.  Summer departs
11.  Autumn comes;
12.  Early autumn;
13.  Mid-autumn;
14.  Late autumn;
15.  Autumn departs
16.  Winter comes;
17.  Early winter;
18.  Mid-winter;
19.  Late winter;
20.  Winter departs.

We often use these or very similar terms in hokku, so practically there are twenty seasonal divisions in our hokku, by which, when desired, we can focus not just on a particular season, but even on a particular time of season.

But getting back to the original four, these seasonal divisions are not arbitrary.  They depend on the relation of the axis of the earth to the sun.  Summer means maximum sun; winter means minimum sun.  Both autumn and spring mean moderate sun, one with the sun declining and the other with the sun increasing.

Now obviously this “declining sun” and “increasing sun” correspond exactly to our great friends in hokku, Yin and Yang.  Sunlight is Yang; darkness is Yin.  So the height of summer is maximum Yang, the depth of winter maximum Yin.  Spring is growing Yang and declining Yin, and autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang.

It is obvious, then, that the seasons are not artificial divisions.  Further, in hokku, our seasons do not change exactly in keeping with the calendar dates.  Some years spring may come early, or summer may arrive late.  That means our attitude toward season depends not just on calendar dates, but also on what is actually happening in Nature.

When hokku began to be replaced with other kinds of verse around the turn of the 20th century, gradually some abandoned the seasonal connection, considering it too bothersome or outdated.  In doing so, they were writing non-hokku verses, because season and hokku are indissolubly linked.  Just as in Nature everything takes place in a seasonal context, so it does also in hokku.

One of the greatest differences between old hokku and modern hokku is in how we keep the seasonal connection.  In modern hokku it is done by marking each verse with the season in which it is written, and also in some verses, as seen above, by using an actual seasonal “focus term” such as “early summer” within the verse.

In old hokku, however, the matter was far more complex.  Old hokku used “season words” — terms which could only signify a certain season.  “Clear water,” for example, signified a summer verse.  To learn such season indicators became a very complex and time-consuming matter, and whole dictionaries of such terms were compiled.  Often it took years to become familiar with the terms and to learn to use them well.

Of course in old hokku there was a secondary layer to the use of specific “season words” as well.  It became a cultural matter, a literary convention, and hokku developed a set of fixed subjects.  Whatever its advantages, all of this led to complexity and increasing artificiality, which is just the opposite of what we want the connection between a hokku and the season to be.

That is why in English we use simple seasonal classification.  It is more faithful to Nature, more faithful to the actual times and changes of the seasons.  Writing our verses in seasonal context keeps our thoughts in harmony with the seasons.  That is why in hokku we do not write a verse out of season.  We do not, for example, write a spring verse in autumn.  Similarly, we do not read an autumn verse in spring, or a winter verse in summer, and so on.  To do so would put our thoughts out of harmony with the season — and in keeping with the spiritual roots of hokku, we do not want to live in the past or in the future — we want to live in the present.  In fact that is the only place we can be — the ever-changing present.

So as other kinds of verse ignore or abandon a seasonal context, it is maintained as integral to hokku.  Without its connection to Nature and season, hokku would no longer be hokku, just another kind of brief verse.

To remind you of more aspects of the seasonal connection in hokku, I will continue here with an earlier posting on the subject.  It will repeat some of what I have already said, but perhaps that will help to fix the matter in your memory:

It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku.  It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.

Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.

The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked.  For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “Spring” hokku.  That was a great benefit.  But there was also a negative side.  The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.

That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words.  Instead we categorize every hokku by season.  Each verse — when written — is marked with the season.  And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.

There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.

The danger is precisely this:  Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.

This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.

The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.

This is not really as difficult as it first sounds.  We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn.  Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects.  BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.

Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang?  It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not, are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.

If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of  each season, of its inherent qualities.  One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things.  Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.

In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin.  That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature.  In the day, morning is growing Yang; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, and the middle of night is maximum Yin.  In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.

In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it changes to its opposite and gives way to growing Yin.

Summer, then, is extremely Yang.  That is manifested in its heat.  Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness.  Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows.  Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows.  The same applies to moisture, which is Yin.  In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.

Consider all of this carefully.  We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology.  But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.

I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress.  The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character.  And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.

I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.

Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku.  They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested.  Though it had its flaws and was complex and took a long time to learn, we could say that the system of specific season words is nonetheless in a sense the “easy” way;  what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.

But in modern hokku more is demanded of us.  We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse.  But as a consequence, we must become  far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season.  Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.

What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, plants, foods and cultural associations.

David

WINTER LIGHT

Michihiko, who lived in the time of Issa, wrote:

Kare-ashi ya             yuki no chirakutsuku   kaze no ato
Withered-reeds ya snow’s  flitting              wind ‘s after

Withered reeds;
The snow flutters down
After the wind.

The wind has ceased, and the snow flutters softly down over the withered reeds.

The setting is “withered reeds.”  The subject is “the snow.”  The action is “flutters down after the wind.”  So this is another standard hokku, consisting of setting, subject and action.

“Withered reeds” is in keeping with the deathly yin of winter.  And of course the snow is yin.  And the ceasing of the wind is also yin — the change from motion to stillness.  And in that stillness, over the withered reeds, the cold snow flutters downward — a yin direction.

Sōchō wrote:

Yuki akari    akaruki neya wa    mata samushi
Snow light    bright   bedroom wa moreover cold

Snow-lit,
The bedroom is bright
But cold!

The brightness comes from the snow outside, but it is a winter brightness, meaning very chilly. This shows us the relativity of Nature — how there are no absolutes in Yin and Yang, but rather one thing is yin in comparison to another.  Light is conventionally thought of as yang, but being the light of winter, it is very yin in comparison to the light of summer — so very cold!

David

PEOPLE’S VOICES

Here is my periodic disclaimer:

I do not teach modern haiku, which, as it exists today, has virtually nothing to do with the old hokku written by Bashō, Onitsura, Gyōdai, Taigi, and all the others who wrote up until the end of the 19th century.  It is inaccurate, anachronistic, and a mistake to confuse hokku with haiku, and the latter term should never be used to describe the former.

I have nothing to do with the modern haiku community, its practices or its goals, which are very different from those of the old writers of hokku.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s look at another verse by Yaha.

Yesterday we discussed the significance of one thing versus many in hokku, and we looked at two verses, the latter by Yaha:

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening
.

Yaha also wrote:

Hitogoe no   yowa wo suguru   samusa kana
Person-voice ‘s night-half wo pass  cold  kana

People’s voices
Passing at midnight;
The cold!

Yesterday I said that in hokku, one thing has more perceived significance than many things, and I used the “single” umbrella of Yaha in contrast to “many umbrellas” as an example.  Yet today there is this hokku in which I translate “people” and “voice” as a plural.

In hokku we must beware of rigid dogmatism.  Hokku reflects Nature, which is a living, changing thing, and our verses and our practice must be in keeping with that.

As I have said, Japanese had no distinction between plural and singular.  so when we see hitogoe (hito-koe), we could just as easily translate thus:

Someone’s voice
Passes at midnight;
The cold!

We must use common sense, however, combined with the aesthetics of hokku.  People generally do not wander about outside at midnight talking to themselves (well, they may in my city, but there are lots of strange people in cities!); further, the sense that there are at least two people passing outside, conversing in low tones, adds to the sense of contrast and solitude in the verse.  You will remember that Winter is a time of extremes, so verses that mix activity with passiveness, Yang with Yin, are particularly effective.

Having conversing people passing (Yang) outside at midnight (deep Yin), then, is effective precisely because of the contrast between the voices outside and the solitude of the writer and the time of night — and becoming, as readers, that person awake at midnight — listening to the voices passing by outside — we feel the cold all the more deeply in our solitude.

David

NOT DIVIDING THE ATTENTION

Yesterday we looked at this verse by Hokushi:

Karakasa no    ikutsu sugiyuku    yuki no kure

Umbrella  ‘s    many    pass-by      snow ‘s  evening

Many umbrellas
Passing by;
The snowy evening.

In contrast, Yaha wrote:

Karakasa no    hitotsu sugiyuku   yuki no kure
Umbrella ‘s      one         passes-by  snow ‘s evening

A single umbrella
Passes by;
The snowy evening.

This illustrates an important principle of hokku, related to its aspect of poverty.  The less we present in a hokku, the stronger the effect.  By “effect” we mean that all-important feeling of significance.  One umbrella passing on a snowy evening has more perceived significance than many umbrellas.  It has to do with the focus of attention, which is dispersed among many similar things in one case, but focused on a single thing in the second.  That is why in translating hokku, even though Japanese had no difference between singular and plural nouns, we nonetheless generally translate in the singular rather than the plural, except in the case of things that normally come in groups, such as clouds and raindrops.

To state the principle quite simply, one thing in hokku has a greater perceived significance than many things.  One can easily see that this relates to another principle of hokku, which is the avoidance of simile and metaphor.  Why?  Because they divide the attention between the “real” thing and the object with which it is being likened.  What underlies both of these — one thing instead of many, no metaphor or simile — is not dividing the attention of the reader.  The less divided the attention, the stronger the effect, the perceived significance, which is exactly what we see when looking at these two verses of Hokushi and Yaha.

David