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.

THE FALLOW WAY: MIDWINTER’S DAY

English: Winter frost 2

Now is the Winter Solstice — Midwinter’s Day — the coming of Great Yule.

This is the time when the Yin energies of the universe — which seemed to our ancestors to overwhelm the earth with dark and cold — suddenly reach the darkest point.  Then  the days, having reached their shortest, come to an apparent standstill.  That is when, in the darkness a tiny, bright spark of Yang appears and slowly grows, gradually bringing back the light and warmth.

Lines from the Judy Collins song “The Fallow Way” illustrate well the feeling of Mindwinter’s Day:

I’ll learn to love the fallow way
When winter draws the valley down
And stills the rivers in their storm
And freezes all the little brooks
Time when our steps slow to the song
Of falling flakes and crackling flames
When silver stars are high and still
Deep in the velvet of the night sky

The crystal time the silence times
I’ll learn to love their quietness
While deep beneath the glistening snow
The black earth dreams of violets
I’ll learn to love the fallow way

I’ll learn to love the fallow way
When all my colors fade to white
And flying birds fold back their wings
Upon my anxious wonderings
The sun has slanted all her rays
Across the vast and harvest plains
My memories mingle in the dawn
I dream a joyful vagabonds

As sure as time, as sure as snow
As sure as moonlight, wind and stars
The fallow time will fall away
The sun will bring an April day
And I will yield to Summer’s way

“Fallow” was a word well known to earlier generations.  It meant to plow a field but not to plant it; to leave it in inactivity; to leave it fallow.  Winter is our natural time of inactivity.  The old hokku writers of Japan called their fallow time “winter seclusion” — the confinement we feel in body and spirit when the bitter cold of winter keeps us indoors.

Yaha wrote such a verse, very appropriate for this time when the nights cease their lengthening and the universe seems, for a moment, to stand still in cold and silence:

The lamp flame
Is round and unmoving;
Winter seclusion.

Glad Yule to everyone, and thanks for your continued reading of my site.

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

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