AUTUMN SUNLIGHT

The autumn sun;
The chill when it goes
Behind a tree.

The sunlight of the shortening autumn days is so weak that in a shadow, the air is cold.  In that, we feel the weakening of the Yang active energy and the growing of the cold, inactive Yin energy of the waning year.

 

David

GREAT HEAT: SUMMER’S MAXIMUM

A hokku by Chinshi:

(Summer)

The snail moves round
To the underside of the leaf;
The heat!

If you reach back in your memory to previous postings about the Hokku Calendar — the Hokku Year — you may recall that the actual effect of an astronomical event such as Midsummer’s Day (the Summer Solstice) is felt about a month later than the event itself.

We look on Midsummer’s Day as the time when the Yang energies reach their maximum and then begin to decline according to the position of the sun; but because the actual  effect is not felt until a month later, we do not immediately experience the manifestation of that event in our lives.

All of this is leading up to reminding you that July 22nd is nearing.  That is about a month after Midsummer’s Day, and what it means for us is that the Yang energy of summer — “fire” energy –will manifest at its highest point.

Because of this, it is traditionally believed that people should not exert themselves too much at that time, should not go on trips, and should not go outdoors in the middle of the day.  It has to do with the effects of this “extreme Yang” energy on the body.

This time even has its own name in the old Chinese and Japanese calendars:  it is called “Great Heat,” and it takes place approximately July 22-24th.

Of course that means we are closer to the traditional end of summer and the very old holiday of “Harvest Home” — Lammas, also called Lugnasadh (LOO-nuh-suh), which is usually celebrated on or close to August 1st.

 

David

TWO VIEWS OF AN AUTUMN DANCE — AND OF OLD HOKKU

Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

The woman Sogetsu-ni wrote:

(Autumn)

After the dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

This is a good example of two things.  First, it shows us the very old hokku technique of using two things united by a third.  The two things here are the wind in the pines and the cries of insects, and the uniting third element is “after the dance.”

Second, it shows us is how a hokku can take on quite a different meaning in the West than it originally had.  When we read this hokku, we perhaps picture an outdoor dance in the open air, with strings of lights and lots of couples having a good time, with perhaps a hint of young romance.  There is a sense of nostalgia that the dance has ended, that people have dispersed, and after all that rhythmic human sound and activity, one is left with the vastness of the evening, the sound of wind through the pines, and here and there the cries of crickets.

Originally, however, what is translated here as “the dance” was Bon Odori, which refers to an annual folk form of circle dance — not in couples — that was part of the celebration to welcome back the spirits of the dead.  We would think of it as rhythmic walking in a circle with hands thrown alternately up to one side and down to the other in time to the music.

Bon odori ato wa       matsu-kaze mushi no koe
Bon Dance after wa    pine-wind   insect  ‘s   voice

So literally, the hokku is:

After the Bon Dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

Given its connection with the dead and the fact that this dance began very early in autumn by the old hokku calendar (which placed the beginning of autumn in August), we can think of it as a ceremony recognizing that the coming of autumn meant a waning of the Yang energies of life and the coming of the Yin energies of the dying of the year.  The living are Yang; the dead are Yin.  So the dance is one welcoming the other.

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primar...

That is something no one would even imagine by reading the verse in English, in the West, and without its original cultural background.

That raises the whole matter of the reading of old hokku by Westerners who generally have no notion of their intended cultural context.  Sometimes such old hokku can take on a meaning quite different from that originally intended.

If one is studying old hokku and its original significance in the cultural and literary traditions of Japan, knowing the actual context is very important.  But if, on the other hand, one is looking at what an old hokku can mean to Westerners today, in a European, Australian, New Zealand, or American cultural context, then we must just take the hokku as it stands, without its old cultural context, and see what it means to us now.  Many old hokku will have no meaning at all, because they are too closely linked to the old Japanese culture.  But many will take on quite a different context when read in the West, and that is as it should be, because we want to write new hokku in a Western cultural context.

There are two approaches to hokku, then.  One is to see it only in its old Japanese context.  The other is to take it, read it, and see what it means to us in a Western context, without necessarily any reference to what it meant originally.  In doing so, we may feel free to modify the text to allow it to become Western instead of Japanese.  We could even make it:

After the barn dance,
The wind in the pines —
The crickets chirping.

Of course a Bon dance and a barn dance are two completely different things, but again, we are using the original to learn to write hokku in English, not trying to translate literally now.

My view of the matter is that if old hokku are to be read and appreciated only in their original cultural context, then they become literary museum pieces, interesting for what they are (or rather, were), but of little use to people writing verse today.  But if, on the other hand, they are used, sometimes with appropriate modifications, as examples to show us how to write new hokku today, in the English language and in a Western cultural context, then they still have a purpose in the world beyond simply being curious antique literary artifacts.

That has always been my approach to hokku — that old hokku can provide us with good models for writing new hokku, if we use them for learning rather than regarding them merely as interesting relics of the past.  By doing so, we keep the old hokku tradition alive, along with its very important connection to Nature and the seasons, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

David

HOKKU SEASON WORDS: OLD AND NEW

A noteworthy difference between hokku as it was practiced in old Japan and hokku as it is practiced today in English is the method of dealing with season.

The seasons are essential to hokku, one of its defining characteristics.  Every hokku is set in a particular season, whether it is an old Japanese hokku or a new English-language hokku.

The difference in method between old and new is this:

In old Japanese hokku, season was indicated by a “season word” that automatically indicated a particular seasonal setting.  Unfortunately, this system, over time, became very artificial and cumbersome, requiring elaborately long lists of words and the seasons they indicate, as well as years of study on the part of writers and educated readers, in order to use and understand those words correctly.

In modern English-language hokku, we keep the all-important connection of a hokku with a particular season, but we no longer use long lists of often artificial-seeming season words.  Instead, each hokku is marked with the season in which it is written.  Then when it is shared with others or published, that seasonal categorization goes along with it.

What that means, in practical use, is that instead of the whole book of season words and their meanings required for old hokku, the writer and reader of modern hokku now only has to know the standard four seasons:  spring, summer, autumn/fall, and winter.  It takes away the artificiality and the cumbersomeness and the years of study necessary for writing and reading old hokku, and makes it all very free and practical, yet it is still completely in keeping with the spirit of old hokku that requires it be connected to a season.

Perhaps you have noticed that generally, when I discuss old hokku here, I mention the seasons to which they belong.  And perhaps you have noticed that I usually discuss spring hokku in the springtime, summer hokku in summer, autumn hokku in autumn, and winter hokku in winter.  That too is a part of the old hokku tradition.  So hokku are to be both written and read in their appropriate seasons.  The only common exception is when out-of-season hokku are used for educational purposes.  The rest of the time we read and write a hokku within its correct season.  The aesthetic principle behind that practice is that it keeps us in harmony with what is happening in Nature.  It also prevents the awkwardness and inappropriateness an aesthetically-educated hokku enthusiast senses on reading an out-of-season verse, the same kind of awkwardness one feels when one sees Christmas lights up in July, or Halloween decorations in the spring.

Our modern practice also, I may add, is often an aid in translating old hokku without awkwardness.  For example, here is a spring hokku by Shōha:

Asa kochi ni   tako uru mise wo  hiraki keri
Morning east-wind at/ kite sell shop wo /open has

If we try to put that in English, we find a problem.  A ko-chi is literally an “east wind.”  But kochi — “east wind” — is also a season word indicating spring.  So under the “old” system we would have to include all of the following as the setting of the hokku in translation:

A morning spring wind

R. H. Blyth, in his translation of Shōha, includes all of that in this order:

A spring breeze this morning:

That makes the first line of the hokku awkwardly long, even though Blyth accurately conveyed the overall meaning (avoiding the literalness of “east wind,” which Western readers would not recognize as a spring season word).

Flying Kites at Cesar Chavez Park.
(Photo credit: adhocbot)

In modern English-language hokku, however, our categorization of each hokku avoids that problem, because Shōha’s verse would appear under its seasonal heading, like this:

Spring

The morning breeze;
A shop selling kites
Has opened.

The seasonal indication, which must be included within the old hokku, is instead present as the seasonal categorization preceding the hokku in the new system.

A sequence of several spring hokku by the same or various authors would have the seasonal categorization at the beginning of the sequence, so that readers would know automatically that all the hokku in the sequence are set in spring.

As for the significance of Shōha’s “Morning breeze” hokku, it indicates a unity between Nature and human activity.  It is somewhat the opposite of the “If you build it, they will come” used in the movie Field of Dreams.  In this case, it is, “If the spring wind blows, a kite shop will open.”  It is like “When the weather warms in spring, flowers will bloom.”  The combination of the breeze and the shop opening gives us a feeling of the activity of spring — of the Yang (active) aspect of Nature increasing, as yin (passive) decreases.

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

HOKKU ROOTS: BAI JUYI’S SIXTY-SIX

Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.

David

MELTING SNOW

As regular readers here know, I treat many of the verses of Shiki as hokku because they are hokku in form and content, in spite of his use of the revisionist term “haiku” for what he wrote.

Melting Snow On the flank of Catstye Cam

Knowing that, we are in a position to examine one of his verses of early spring:

With snow melting,
The village  releases
The horses.

If you have been a diligent reader of hokku postings here, you will recognize right away that this verse exhibits two techniques found in hokku:

1.  Expression of season through the interplay of Yin and Yang;

2.  Internal reflection.

We find Yin and Yang in the melting of the snow, which shows us that the Yang energies (light, warmth, activity) are in the ascendant and the Yin energies (darkness, cold, inactivity) are diminishing.  That is obvious in the melting of the snow.

We see internal reflection in the harmony between the melting of the snow (increasing Yang, water freed from its ice state) and the freeing of the horses (from an inactive to an active state) — in fact they are the same thing, expressed on the one hand in snow melting to running water, on the other in horses, kept largely inactive in winter, freed to run and leap about in the fields and newly appearing grass.  The verse shows us the growing Yang of spring.

Onitsura’s hokku is more simple and subtle, particularly in a literal translation of the original:

Spring’s water — here and there is seen….

What Onitsura really means to convey would, in English, be more like this:

The waters of spring,
Seen here, there,
And everywhere. 

Early spring is a very wet time, with the snow melting and running all over in little rivulets, and spring showers just increasing the flow.  But the water is not the same, psychologically, as that of autumn or winter — it is the water of spring, and in it we feel growing Yang and increasing activity.

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

BASIC HOKKU PRINCIPLES: HARMONY OF SIMILARITY

Aspen Forest

THIS IS A BILINGUAL POSTING IN ENGLISH AND INTERLINGUA
ISTE ES UN ARTICULO BILINGUE IN INTERLINGUA E IN ANGLESE

Il ha un hokku interessante del comenciamento de autumno:

Le autumno comencia;
Depost un banio,
Le lassitude. 

Iste nos monstra harmonia de similaritate.  In le autumno, le energias de Natura se cambia; le energia Yang (active) decresce, e le energia Yin (passive) cresce.

Proque in iste hokku le autor — Taigi — nos relate que le autumno comencia, e anque que depost del banio ille se senta lasse?  Iste es simple quando nos apprehende le principio del harmonia de similaritate.

in le autumno, le energias del Natura decresce; depost del banio, le energia del corpore de Taigi anque decresce — ita, harmonia de similaritate.

Quando nos apprehende tal cosas, nos pote e scribe e comprehende hokku.  Assi scriber hokku no es como scriber le haiku; le hokku require plus del scriptor, e anque plus del lector.

Si tu pote comprehende lo que io scribe in Interlingua, dice me lo, si il tu place.

 English Version

There is an interesting hokku about the beginning of autumn:

Autumn begins;
The feeling of weakness
After the bath.

This shows us harmony of similarity.  In autumn, the energies of Nature change.  The Yang (active) energy decreases, the Yin (passive) energy grows.

Why does the author of this hokku — Taigi — tell us that autumn is beginning, and also that after the bath he feels weak?  This is simple when we understand the principle of harmony of similarity.

In the autumn, the energy of Nature decreases.   After the bath, the energy of the body of Taigi also decreases.  Thus, harmony of similarity.

When we understand such things, we can write and understand hokku.  So to write hokku is not like writing the haiku; the hokku requires more of the writer, and also more of the reader.

David

JOHN KEATS AND HOKKU?

Do you remember the key to writing and understanding hokku?

Reeds

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.

There is a poem by John Keats titled La Belle Dame sans Merci — “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy.”  It is a romantic poem, but it is not the poem as a whole that I want to speak of now — only these lines:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

In fact we can omit the first two lines, because I want to concentrate on the last part:

The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

The significance of these lines in relation to hokku — in fact to contemplative Nature verse in general — is that they manifest the character of late autumn very well.

First, we can look at them in terms of Yin and Yang.  Autumn is a time of increasing Yin.  Yin means the passive element, the cold, the retiring, the weakening, the waning, the quiet.  We see that easily in these lines:

The sedge has withered from the lake…

That shows us how Autumn is the time when Yang energies are draining out of visible Nature, “returning to the root,” as the old saying goes.  It shows us the waning of the life forces.

And no birds sing…

The air is silent, quiet.  That shows us the absence of the Yang forces of life and energy.

We could take those two lines and make another little poem of them about late autumn:

The sky is chill,
The trees all bare;
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. 

Or we could make a hokku:

The sedge
Has withered from the lake;
No bird sings. 

The important thing is that we are manifesting the character of the season, of late autumn.  Both of our new verses do that, even though only the second is hokku.  To understand how that works, here is a brief review of the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, and, as I have said, in all contemplative Nature verse:

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 (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), 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 begins to change into 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.

Now let’s return to the original excerpt from La Belle Dame sans Merci, and we will see that even Keats had some understanding — intuitively — of the effects of Yin and Yang and the season:

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 
Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has withered from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

Well, of course we would not want the first line in Nature verse — it is from the Romantic school of poetry — but nonetheless we can see the effect of the whole in combination with the significant last two lines.

What can ail thee, knight-at-arms?”  That is in keeping with the declining Yang of the season.  It shows us that the knight is weakened, not in his full health and strength.

Alone and palely loitering…”  The paleness of the knight and his inactivity show us the draining of the Yang energies again — and his aloneness shows us the sense of solitude that is so much a part of autumn.

Of course Keats did not write hokku, and Nature verse was not his intent here either — but we can see that he had the intuition and the materials — just not the incentive.  He had other goals in this poem.

Nonetheless, this brief look at an excerpt from Keats can teach us a lot about how to write autumn hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season.

David

THROUGH THE BARLEY

Mokudō wrote a very simple yet very effective spring hokku:

Harukaze ya   mugi no naka yuku   mizu no oto
Spring wind ya barley ‘s center goes water ‘s sound

I give the Japanese transliteration only to show how very faithful English can be to the sense of the original:

The spring wind;
Through the barley goes
The sound of water.

This verse uses internal reflection to great effect.  There is movement in the spring wind; there is movement in the sound of water passing through the field of barley.  And of course there is movement in the bending leaves of the green barley.

This is a verse showing us growing yang, which is appropriate to spring.  We see that in the movement of the spring wind, in the movement of the water, and in the rippling young barley, grown just tall enough to hide the water that flows through it.  That is why the writer mentions only “the sound of water” flowing.

There is no writer apparent in this verse, no “poet.”  There is only the wind and the barley and the sound of water.  Mokudo has managed to write a hokku that works exceedingly well without falling into mere illustration.  It is an excellent manifestation of spring.

David

GROWING YANG IN ONITSURA

I have discussed this early spring hokku by Onitsura previously, but I would like to deepen what was already said a bit:

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

It is obvious that this is an early spring hokku from the frost on the barley.  It is like the weather where I am now — nights with temperatures dropping to the point of frost, but mornings that bring bright sunlight.

This poem is an excellent expression of beginning spring.  In fact if we were to put it more fully into English according to the principles of English-language hokku, we could rephrase it thus:

Dawn:
Frost on the tip
Of the barley leaf.

In English hokku we do not need the word “spring,” because each verse being marked with the season, we need not repeat it.

More important, however, is understanding how this verse works, and for this we go back to the fundamentals of hokku, the basic knowledge of the elements of Yin and Yang.

Cold — frost — is Yin, and it is representative of winter.  But the sprout of barley is young growth, which is growing Yang.  Also, the dawn — the beginning of the day — is growing Yang, which is overcoming the Yin of night.  So what we see in this verse is the first appearance of growing Yang both in the barley leaf and in the dawn, and the last lingering of Yin in the frost on the tip of the leaf that will soon be melted by the rising sun.  In short, this is all about growing Yang overcoming Yin, which is precisely what spring is.  And so this verse by Onitsura does precisely what it was intended to do — it manifests spring.

Compare such a verse, which is like a representation from the Book of Changes, with the mediocrity and self-centeredness of much of modern haiku, which has lost the spirit of old hokku and has forgotten the principles on which it was based.

It is important to remember, however, that when we read the hokku initially, we do not pause to analyze the elements; we just understand them instinctively, which is why the hokku is both simple and effective.  But it is important both for writers and for readers of hokku to understand WHY it is effective, thus the need for explanation.

David

SPRING BEGINS

It may seem odd to some readers that I have begun to write of Spring, but where I live that is what is happening.

Spring begins with the very weakest of Yang energies that melt snow and ice and sprout forth from the ground and from the enclosed buds of bare trees.  It is the change from the still and silent to the fluid and audible, as we can sense in this spring verse by Onitsura:

The waters of spring —
Seen here
And seen there.

Everything seems suddenly to be thawing, melting, and in motion trickles run out of the forest, across paths and into streams, little rivulets pool up an hollows and flow onward.

It may also seem odd to some readers that I include examples of verses by Shiki — the originator of the “haiku,” but as I have said many times before, much of what Shiki wrote was still hokku in all but the name he chose to give it.  He kept the connection with Nature and with the seasons.  I sometimes say that his verses tend to be “illustrations,” but that is very much in keeping with his theory of verse, which resulted in two-dimensional “paper” hokku at its worst, and pleasant if not deep verses at its best.  So we need not disdain what is good in Shiki simply because of what the world and his successors did to his “haiku,” which were generally just hokku.

The lake ice —
It is melted
By the ripples.

The little ripples of water created by wind and current lap against the constantly thinning edges of the remaining ice on the lake.  This is a verse of very early spring, and do not forget that both in Japan and in the ancient Western calendar of the British Isles, spring begins in early February.  So here we are seeing the gradual effect of the “yang” motion of the warming, moving water against the “yin” solidity and cold of the ice.

The snow —
Melted on one shoulder
Of the Great Buddha.

This is often the effect of sun and shadow.  Where the light strikes, the statue will warm and the snow will melt.  But it will linger on the shadow side — the Yin side, just as snow lingers in the Yin shadows of the forest floor, beneath trees with branches free of snow.

I hope it will be obvious to readers how very important the two elements of the universe — Yin and Yang — are in hokku.  Through hokku we see these two contrary forces in all stages of interaction.  But now, being at the very beginning of spring, Yin still predominates, though it must give way gradually to growing Yang.

Keep in mind all the internal harmonies of hokku involving Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is Yang first manifesting, such as we see in the gestation to birth of a child.  In the day it is the time between midnight and the first paling of the horizon sky before sunrise.  In plants it is the first sign of the swelling and opening of buds, the very first shoots that appear above ground.  One could go on an on, but we have already seen in the verses used as examples here that it is also seen in the melting of the ice at the spring thaw, and the beginning of the “Yang” flow of the waters.

Of course ordinarily we think of water as a Yin element, and it generally is; but remember that Yang and Yin are always relative, always changing in reaction to one another, so even cold as it is, the flowing water of spring is more Yang than the very Yin state and solidity of ice and snow.

Spring begins.

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

THE IMPORTANCE OF SEASON IN HOKKU

Here I have strung together some information on season in hokku, as well as a bit on the role of Yin and Yang:

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku,

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of Yang into Yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (Yang) to inactivity (Yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast – of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

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 a season — meaning what evokes its essential nature.

NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON.   And so of course, things that do not manifest that essential nature 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 (declining Yin); noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang (growing Yin), 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 begins to change into 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.

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, we could say that the system of specific season words is 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, foods and cultural associations.  That is why I have been posting recently about the traditional calendar and the flexible “hokku” calendar.

In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter.  Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.

It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves.  One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century.  We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.

Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live .  Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both.  And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults.  That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time.  The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.

In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons.  One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).

The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them.  But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku.  So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates.  This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku.  It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.

That is why in modern hokku, the old system of season words has been dropped.  It was, after all, only a means of linking hokku to the seasons, and when another and more convenient means is used, it is no longer necessary.  In modern hokku that new method is marking each verse with the season in which it is written.

The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season.  But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete.  To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just some kind of haiku or other brief verse — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.

As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.

Some topics are self-evident.  In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons.  That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.

Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:

The Season – the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”

The Sky and Elements – for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”

Gods and Buddhas – Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.

Fields and Mountains – withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.

Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school.  Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn.  And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Birds and Beasts – such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc.  And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.

Trees and Flowers – Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums,  withering flowers in the garden and other such things.

Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.

It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku.  To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction.  Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.

David

FALLING WILLOW LEAVES

People seem to prefer reading this site, so I am shelving the alternate Hokku Inn site for now, and will move the postings from that site here, so they will still be accessible.  Here is the first of those:

In spite of his unfortunate change of terminology, Shiki often wrote very passable hokku.  Here is one of his best:

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

This verse is interesting because it uses two settings and two actions, like two different focuses of a lens.  We see what is happening in the overall “far” environment.  We begin at a distance with

Falling willow leaves.

Then we move in closer and see

At the door of the empty house,

And what we see there is in the closest focus:

A dog asleep.

We could even reverse the English translation to fit that “big to small” format:

Falling willow leaves;
At the door of the empty house,
A dog asleep.

The Japanese original actually begins with line two (of the last example), then moves to line three, and ends with line one.  So we can see there are different ways of presenting the elements of a verse.

Those different ways are:

1.  Big to small — moving from the wider to the narrower view.

2.  Small to big — moving from the narrower to the wider view.

3.  Mixed, such as is used by Shiki in the Japanese original, when he begins with the second-closest view (at the door of the empty house), moves to the closest (the dog asleep) then moves out for the widest view (falling willow leaves).

Each of these gives us a different effect.

This hokku is an expanded form of the “standard” setting-subject-action hokku:

The setting is:  Falling willow leaves
The subject is:  A dog
The action is:  Asleep at the door of the empty house

“At the door of the empty house” functions essentially as a second setting, an expansion of the standard form.

Moving on to why this hokku “works,” we can say that it reflects the poverty and the growing Yin of autumn.  We see the poverty not only in the empty, abandoned house but also in the dog sleeping at its door, where there is no one to care for him.  The sleep of the dog is in keeping with the weakening of the vital energies in autumn, and this feeling is only made stronger by the falling leaves of the willow, which show us the same weakening of energy.

Though Shiki does not say so, one feels that the time is afternoon, when the declining sun gives a warm, drowsy color to the atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the sleeping dog and the languid falling of the yellow leaves of the willow.

Those of you who have been with me for some time will quickly recognize the principle of internal reflection in all of this.  Internal reflection is the putting together of elements in a hokku that are similar in nature or feeling, so that they subtly “reflect” one another within the poem.  The weak falling of the willow leaves, the sleep of the dog, the emptiness and silence of the abandoned house — all are in keeping with the increasing Yin and decreasing Yang of autumn.

David

A BIT ABOUT MOONS

I recently posted information about the hokku calendar.  If nothing else from it sticks in your mind, remember these two things:

1.  Autumn /fall and winter are the two yin seasons; spring and summer are the two yang seasons.  In the yang seasons, yang is growing and will gain predominance over yin.  In the yin seasons, yin is growing and will gain predominance over yang.

2.  Each season, for the purposes of hokku, is divided into a beginning, a midpoint, and an end, which in hokku we describe as, for example:

Autumn begins;
Autumn deepens;
Autumn departs.

Now as to why we pay so much attention to these things, it is simply because in hokku we wish to remain constantly connected to and in harmony with the season, because hokku is essentially about the season and how it manifests itself.

The full moon of autumn, which old hokku referred to by the epithet “the bright moon,” is what we call the Harvest Moon, which is technically the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox.

Using traditional names, here are the “moons” of August through December — the moons of declining Yang and increasing Yin.  Keep in mind that the “moon” name is not only the lunar month name, but also the name of the full moon in that month, which I have given here corresponding to our regular calendar months:

August:  The Green Corn Moon
September:  The Corn Moon
The Harvest Moon is the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, which can occur in September or October.
October: The Falling Leaves Moon
November: The Frost Moon
December:  The Long Night Moon

August and September, the Green Corn Moon and the Corn Moon, have slightly different significance in Britain and America.  In Britain corn is grain; in America corn is maize.

Chora wrote:

From windy grasses
It rises —
Tonight’s moon.

We know that those will be withering or withered grasses, because that is in keeping with autumn — the time of withering.
David

AUTUMN SCARECROWS

Autumn has begun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyoroku wrote:

First,
The scarecrow is blown down;
The storm
.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From scarecrow
To scarecrow they fly —
The sparrows.

Otsuyū writes

Autumn deepens;
The scarecrow is clothed
In fallen leaves.

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

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

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

Impermanence.

David



SEEN IN THE SHALLOWS

Onitsura wrote this summer hokku:

Evening;
The bellies of trout seen
In the shallows.

This is a “standard” hokku, meaning it has setting, subject, and action.  The setting is the evening; the subject is the bellies of the trout; the action is “seen in the shallows.”  Of course the real action is the movement of the trout that shows their light underside.

This is a very “Yin” verse.  The evening is yin, the shallows are yin, the light bellies of the trout are a yin “color.”  The weaker Yang element is in the remaining light of day and in the movement of the fish.

David

THE CLEAR WATER

The stonemason
Cools his chisel in it —
The clear water.

Buson

While working stone, the metal chisel of the stonemason becomes too hot to hold — from the heat of the day and from the friction of repeated blows — so he holds it in the clear, cool water to take away the heat.

This is a hokku of harmony of opposites — the heat of the summer day (this is a summer hokku) and the heat of the chisel from working the stone are placed against the coolness of the water — Yang (heat) against Yin (coolness and water) — and in this case, Yin overcomes Yang, which makes for a very refreshing verse.

David

YIN-YANG HOKKU

In our practice of hokku, we must beware of using the entire body of existing old hokku and its related literature as a fundamentalist uses the Bible.  By this I mean that we should not say, for example, “Jōsō did this in that particular hokku, therefore we should do it in modern hokku” or “Bashō used what looks like metaphor in this verse, therefore we should use metaphor in writing hokku today.”  That is a very distorted way of understanding our practice of hokku.

Instead, we begin with what we want to achieve in hokku:  We want to write verses that emphasize sensory experience — experiences of seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling — having as our subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, and that set in the context of the changing seasons.

Further, we want to write verse exhibiting poverty, simplicity, and transience — verses that show us not only freshness and youth but also time and age.

And we also want “selfless” verses, a de-emphasis on the ego, treating the person — even the person of the writer — with the same objectivity with which we would write of a tree on a rocky hillside or a bird in the forest.  We want our verse to have an inexpressible significance that is felt through what it does present, but never overtly stated — because such significance is impossible to put into words.

In the practical matter of putting the words on the page, we already have the hokku form, which works superbly well, with punctuation used to guide the reader smoothly and to provide fine shades of pause and emphasis.

We want our hokku, further, to be free of intellection and abstraction, free of added commentary and explanation, free of unnecessary “poetic” frills and ornamentation.

If all of this is how we want to write hokku (and as taught on this site, it is), then we really need waste no time on the academic side of it all.  We need not learn Japanese; we need not learn Japanese history; we need not learn Japanese culture.  Above all, we need not search through old hokku literature, as the fundamentalist searches the scriptures, to see just what Bashō said about this or that, or whether this or that author wrote hokku from the imagination rather than from reality.  In fact we need no reference to old hokku at all beyond the simple fact that I like to use the best of old hokku, translated into English, as models when teaching how to write good hokku in English.

I do not and have never pretended that hokku as I teach it incorporates absolutely everything ever employed in the old Japanese literary practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse, of which the hokku was the first and starting verse.  Instead I teach what in my view is the distilled essence, the best, aesthetically, of the old hokku, as it applies to a spiritual and contemplative lifestyle.  Keep in mind that even in speaking of Bashō, only a small percentage of his verses are really worthwhile for us today.

In the past I have sometimes, perhaps, spent too much time on historical examination of the old practice of haikai, something that is entirely unnecessary for what I teach.  Such things are a matter for scholars and may be of interest to some, but they really need play no part in the living practice of hokku today, and in fact for the most part we are better off when just working on our practice of hokku, rather than dispersing our energies in historical and literary research.

All of this, you can probably tell, is leading up to something.  That something is simply a shift in approach on this blog.  From this point onward, I want to emphasize the practical approach to hokku, leaving most of the linguistic and historical aspects for those who want to spend the time on them.  Given the general goals in writing hokku mentioned earlier, there is really no reason at all for dwelling here on the history of hokku or all the minutiae of hokku as practiced more than a hundred years ago when it was part of the wider practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse.

That change in emphasis here means that I hope to be spending more time on the aesthetics of hokku specifically as we practice it here, and though I will no doubt continue to use old examples as models and bits of old literature to illustrate aesthetics, I really want to get away completely from anything that looks even remotely like the “proof-texting” attitude toward hokku.

As I said in a previous recent posting, we need not look to any aspect of old haikai practice to validate our practice of hokku today.  Our practice has its own body of aesthetics and principles and techniques, the essence of the best, as I have said, of the old hokku.  So from now on I would like to focus on that.

In practical terms, that means I am likely to lessen or omit entirely the use of transliteration and literal translation of Japanese hokku here, concentrating more on what the old hokku examples mean (or should mean) in English as models for our new verses.  I hope that will serve to make this site less “academic-appearing” and more practical and direct in serving those who want to understand how to write good hokku today.

I will continue, no doubt, to range rather widely in my subject matter, throwing in a non-hokku poem now and then when the mood strikes me, or a commentary on matters not obviously directly relating to hokku.  And I would like to spend some time discussing the “Chinese” influence on our hokku — specifically the effect of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, and Chinese Nature poetry.  But fear not, I will do this in a practical rather than academic manner — for example, I want to show how to write “Chinese-style” Nature verses in English, and how doing so differs somewhat, yet is nonetheless similar to, hokku.

I hope all of this will not be too disappointing for the Japanophiles and for those who like digging about in the literary and cultural history of hokku in Japan.  But modern hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, as I have said before, should not be a cultural outpost of Japan.  It should be a plant native to the soil in which it grows — Russian hokku in Russia, Welsh hokku in Wales, Brazilian hokku in Brazil, an expression of the environment and language in which it is written.

One more point.  I have said that from now on I want to emphasize hokku as we practice it here.   To do so, we need to distinguish that from everything else that may fall under the category of hokku, the good and the bad, the usable and the impractical.  So I am going to give hokku as taught here a distinguishing name — I will refer to hokku as I teach it as “Yin-Yang” hokku, because as frequent readers here know, I often use the universal elements of Yin and Yang to explain hokku, how it utilizes the changing combinations of those opposite yet complementary forces in Nature in creating verses that are harmonious and unified.  I think that distinguishing our practice of hokku here thus will prove helpful and practical in a number of ways.

One more point.  In the use of old models in the future, I will make no practical distinction between good examples that are chronologically correctly termed hokku and later examples — specifically the better verses of Shiki — that are not.  A good part of what Shiki wrote was, in all but name, hokku.  So I will use whatever serves to illustrate and improve our practice of hokku, regardless of chronology.

David

WHITE RAIN

Jōsō wrote a summer hokku:

In the white rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos

That is a very literal translation.  In English we would not be likely to say “white rain.”  Instead we would probably say,

In the clear rain,
Ants are running
Down the bamboos.

This, as you all know by now, shows “harmony of similarity.”  The rain falls, the ants run down.  “Down” is a Yin direction (up is Yang);  rain is Yin.  If the ants were going up the bamboos, there would be, of course, a contrast.  But here the harmony is in the falling rain, the downward-running ants.  And of course in English there is the subtle humor of ants running down the bamboos when we would think of rainwater running down the bamboos.

Blyth, in his translation, made an intuitive leap:  If the ants are all coming down the bamboos, he thought, it must be the end of the day — twilight or evening.  All the rest of the day the ants would be busily going up.  So he translated it:

An evening shower;
The ants are running
Down the bamboos.

Of course ants will run to escape rain, so we may choose which approach we prefer.

In any case, it makes an effective hokku, with the clear rain falling and trickling down the stalks of bamboo as the dark ants come rushing downward.  It has a lot of movement, and that gives it life.

David

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE

Today was beautiful where I am.  After days and days of pouring rain and cool temperatures, the sky cleared, the sun shone, and the temperature rose into the low 80s.

It made me think of the old lines from the Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

How much more poetic that is in “King James” English than in modern versions.  And I like the humor of people today having forgotten that “turtle” at the time of translation meant a turtle dove — and consequently wondering what the voice of a turtle might sound like.

There are the words attributed to Jesus in the King James Version:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

How far more beautiful that is than the modern

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

But I digress.

The sudden warmth reminds me of what is in store for us, the kind of heat of which Buson wrote:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

That, of course, is a “statement” hokku, which I just discussed in a recent posting.  You will recall that a “statement” hokku makes a statement that is simply true.  But in making it the writer tells us something that we did not realize we knew — until we read the hokku.

The “something seen in a new way” in this verse is the combination of the spiderwebs and the heat in the silent, heavy air of the grove of trees.  Ordinarily we think of a web as light and airy, but walking through a hot grove of trees on a hot day, with spiderwebs sticking to one’s face and hands, one has a “little enlightenment”:

Spiderwebs
Are hot things;
The summer grove.

This verse shows the Yang nature of summer with its heat.  Even things we ordinarily think of in cool or airy Yin terms — a grove of trees — spiderwebs — have here become Yang.

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

THE INTERACTIONS OF YIN AND YANG

Kitō wrote:

A summer shower;
The exhausted horse
Comes back to life
.

I always see the muscles of the fatigued horse begin twitching with life shortly after the first drops of cool rain strike it.

We feel the sudden energy of the falling summer rain in the sudden renewed energy of the horse — activity in the rain, activity in the horse, so superficially one might think this verse exhibits harmony of “likeness.”  Well, superficially, it does.

However, there is something more to it.  Things exposed to a Yin environment over time tend to be Yang in nature; things exposed to a Yang environment over time tend to be Yin in nature.

Take, for example, the climate of Hawai’i, which is very warm, very Yang.  The fruits that grow there are very Yin, very sweet and cooling.  And people who live in a very Yang environment over countless centuries, such as Africa or the South Pacific, tend to develop “Yin”- colored skin, that is, dark skin, while those people who live in a very “Yin” environment such as Norway or Ireland tend to develop “Yang” -colored skin — that is, light skin (dark is Yin, light is Yang)

The best quality ginseng — a tonic root that is very “Yang” in herbal medicine — grows in the coldest mountains of North Korea, a very “Yin” environment.

How does all of that apply to Kitō’s verse?  Well, the horse is exhausted by the Yang heat of summer and activity.  The Yin rain refreshes the creature, and as a consequence he returns to his Yang, energetic state.  So we can see that though the initial appearance of this verse is one of harmony of similarity, it is really showing us harmony of difference as the Yin rain brings about a Yang reaction in the horse.

We also learn from this that Yin and Yang are not absolutes; they are always working in relation to one another, always causing changing states and effects in their countless interactions.

David

HORSES AND HEAT WAVES

Those who read a posting here only now and then will learn little or nothing.  Those who read here regularly, with attention, will gain over time a good understanding of the basic principles of hokku.

For example, I recently discussed the two kinds of harmony in hokku, and I discussed the importance of Yin and Yang.

Let’s take a look at a verse by Kyoroku:

The sun shines
On white cotton cloth;
Cloud peaks above.

If you have been reading with diligence here, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh, that is harmony of similarity!  The sun is bright, the cotton cloth is white, and the clouds above are also white.  And you are likely to also add, “The sunlight is Yang, the white color of the cotton cloth is Yang, and the white of the clouds is also Yang!

That was an easy one, a rather obvious example.

But here is a hokku by Tohō:

Heat waves;
The sand of the cliff falls
Grain by grain.

Eventually one will realize that the heat waves are something temporary, transitory.  But paradoxically so is the sandy cliff, which is falling grain by grain.  So in spite of the vastly different time scale, this too is a hokku with harmony of similarity.

In a way, the latter verse is like the old saying,

The morning glory differs not at heart from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.

In other words, both are transitory, passing — just on a different time scale.

Incidentally, readers of Blyth’s translations — particularly American readers — are likely to be misled by his translation of Tohō’s verse:

Summer colts;
The sand of the cliff
Falls grain by grain.

Americans are likely to see young horses frolicking about in sunshine near the sandy cliff.  But “summer colts” is a largely British term that means simply the undulating air near the ground on a warm day — or in plain “American,” heat waves.  The Japanese term — for those who are interested — is kagerō.

HOKKU AND THE “TEN THOUSAND THINGS”

In the last posting we reviewed Yin and Yang in hokku, and introduced the two kinds of contrast.  This latter is important in itself, so I shall say more about it.

Hokku may exhibit either:
1.  Harmony of contrast
or
2.  Harmony of similarity

Harmony of contrast is the inclusion of elements that are quite opposite to one another — something that is hot against something that is cool; something wet against something dry; something unmoving against something moving.

Harmony of similarity includes things that are similar in character (again in terms of Yin and Yang).  For example, we may have a crow and evening (here the similarity is in darkness); we may have a child and springtime (here the similarity is in “youngness” or “freshness”; we may have billowing clouds and the sail on a boat (similarity in “swelling”). All these are things similar in character.

When we have a hokku including similar things, we must be careful not to understand this as simile (meaning one thing in a verse is said to be “like” another) or metaphor (meaning one thing in verse “is” another).  The difference is very important.

If we say, as did Robert Burns,

O, my luve’s like a red, red rose, That’s newly sprung in June.

we are using simile — one thing is openly said to be like another.

In hokku, however, we do not say one thing is “like” another.  Instead, when we put two “similar” things in a hokku — for example an old man and the evening (both “aged” things with increasing Yin), we say that one thing reflects another.

The difference between simile and internal reflection is that in simile, the mind of the reader is pulled between two images — a young woman and  a red rose.  In internal reflection, however, the two similar elements reflect and complement and enhance one another.

In this site I shall treat Shiki — who really marked the shift from the hokku to new kinds of brief verse — as a writer of hokku, because in fact he maintained the form and technique, the seasonal connection and the focus on Nature.

He wrote:

Coolness;
Though the hole in the stone lantern —
The sea.

Look at all these elements:
1.  Coolness (Yin) — cold is Yin.
2.  A hole (Yin) — absence is Yin.
3.  Stone (Yin) — immobility is Yin.
4.  Sea (Yin) — water is Yin.

All of these “like” elements reflect one another, creating an airy hokku filled with coolness, in spite of the fact that this is a summer verse!  It is pleasant to experience these “cool” things in summer.

There are many reasons for an experience that strikes us as significant enough to make a hokku, but a major contributing factor is often the presence of such internal reflection in the elements of an experience.  When we have such reflection, we say the elements of the verse are harmonious, that they work together to create a unified experience.

But again, we must remember that in hokku there are two kinds of harmony — the harmony of similar things and the harmony of dissimilar things.  That is why in summer, verses which have internally reflecting Yang elements (heat, dryness, roughness, brightness, etc.) are harmonious, but so are hokku with internally reflecting dissimilar and contrary elements (a spring of water against the heat of day, shade against sunlight, a fluttering bird in the still silence of a forest).

Everything I have discussed here is very important to an understanding of hokku and its aesthetics.  Next time you are out for a walk, look for harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast.  Eventually you will see that this is just another way of describing the changes and transformations and interplay of the two universal elements, Yin and Yang.

This concept is very ancient.  In Daoist cosmology, first there is only unity, The ONE.  The ONE separates into two — the primal opposites of Yin and Yang, and the interplay of these two in all proportions and combinations then creates the “Ten Thousand Things,” by which is meant everything that exists, the cell, the flower, the world, the star, the galaxy, the universe.

David

THE HOKKU OF SUMMER

All hokku are seasonal hokku, being written and marked (as practiced today) with one of the four seasons.  That comes from hokku having originated in a temperate climate.  In other climates this may vary to a summer season, a rainy season, and a winter season; to a spring, summer, and fall without winter; or  to even just a dry season and a wet season.

I am in a temperate zone with a climate similar to that of Japan (and of Britain), so hokku as I teach it has four seasons.  Those individuals living in areas with fewer seasons should adapt their hokku to those areas.

Because hokku is seasonal verse, we write according to the present season, and not only that, we read hokku according to the season as well.  That is to keep us in harmony with Nature.  Occasionally we will use out-of-season verses for learning, but in doing so we must remember that these are exceptions to the standard practice when writing and reading.

But on to summer hokku.  We cannot fully understand the aesthetics behind summer hokku without a knowledge of the two elements of Yin and Yang that comprise the universe.  These are qualities that are opposite, but which combine and work in contrary harmony throughout all things.

Yin is cold, silent, motionless, wet, dark, passive.
Yang is warm, noisy, moving, dry, bright, and active.

The entire year is a cycle of change from Yin to Yang and back again:

Winter is deepest Yin.  When Yin reaches its maximum it begins to turn to Yang.  As Yang grows, winter changes to spring.  As the Yang of spring grows further, it changes to summer, and finally it reaches a point of maximum Yang — the height of summer, at which it begins to change to Yin.  As Yin grows, summer fades into autumn (fall), and as Yin grows even more as Yang declines, autumn dissolves into Winter, and Yin grows to its maximum until the cycle repeats.

The same cycle happens in a day.  The middle of night is Yin, which begins to change to Yang.  Dawn is a mixture of Yin and Yang, and Yang grows until midday, when it reaches its maximum and begins to decline into afternoon as Yin increases, then evening, then night again.

This is the cycle too of life, including human life.  Birth is comparable to the beginning of spring; youth is the height of spring, which fades into the summer of maturity; then comes the decline into autumn, which is like the late afternoon of the day.  And then come evening and night, old age and death.

One will see these cycles repeated again and again in hokku, and when we know their correspondences, we will begin to grasp an important part of the aesthetics of the hokku.

Summer, then, is a season when Yang grows gradually to its height before beginning its decline into autumn.  In the first part of summer, Yin declines as Yang increases.  In the second part, Yin grows as Yang begins its decline.

The most obvious characteristics of summer then, are the Yang characteristics of heat and dryness.  This is just the opposite of the Yin characteristics — cold and dampness — of winter.  So we can say that both summer and winter are the “extreme” seasons, while both spring and summer are the “balanced” seasons in which both Yin and Yang work out their proportions without extremes.

That was a rather long but essential introduction.  But knowing all that, we now know that because summer is one of the “extreme” seasons, its hokku are likely to often be characterized by opposites.  That is why Yin qualities are frequently so important in summer hokku.  It is Yin that brings out the “extreme” character of the season.  So we only realize fully the importance of water (Yin) on the hottest and driest days of summer.  The same may be said of the coolness (Yin) of a breeze on a blazing hot summer day.  And there are further interesting but opposing combinations of the two, for example the sweltering heat (Yang) of a summer night (Yin).

It is important in discussing these combinations and permutations to realize that the balances and proportions of Yin and Yang are constantly changing and are not absolutes.  There are Yin elements to be found even in the height of summer, and we often take advantage of these to set off the intensity of the Yang elements of heat and light and dryness.

I recall when in my college days an instructor asked us all a question about how one character in a play acted as a “foil” to another.  It quickly became obvious that none of us knew what he meant by that, assuming mistakenly that he meant a “foil” in the sense of a fencing sword.  But the use of the term originates in a time when thin, bright metal foil was placed behind an inferior gemstone in a setting to enhance its brightness and make it stand out.  One thing being a “foil” to another, then, means one thing emphasizes the qualities of another, makes another stand out more strongly.  That is how we use Yin as a foil to the Yang of summer:

They have rolled
Out from the leafy shade–
The hot melons.

Kyorai wrote that.  We can see it does what we have just talked about; it combines the Yin of the shade and leaves and the watery melons with the heat characteristic of summer.  We feel the heat even more, seeing the Yin, watery melons that have grown hot in the intense sunlight, and the leafy shade from which they have rolled.

There is also another way of emphasing the heat — by “pouring it on,” that is, by increasing the extreme of heat by using something that is in harmony with, rather than contrasting with it.  This is using harmony of “like” things rather than harmony of contrasting things.  Hyōka wrote:

There’s a wife
And children in my house;
The heat!

The activity and wants and chatter of the children, the wife with her remarks and tasks and complaints, all combine in the hot little house to make the heat even more intense for the man, who feels that if he were alone, things would somehow seem cooler.  It is this sense of “crowding” when one wants space and coolness that is in harmony with the heat of summer.  That is why, for example, a mass of buzzing flies on a hot day would also be in harmony with the summer heat, making it even more irritating.

An extreme may be found even in the intense light of summer, as in this verse by Kyorai:

Stones and trees
Are glaring bright —
The heat!

That reminds me of a beach I once visited in the height of summer, and the light reflected off water and sand was so intense one had to squint.

Summer, then, gives us an opportunity to work with extremes, with Yang modified only slightly to greatly by the addition of this or that Yin element.  That does not, however, mean that all summer hokku must be harsh.  Summer has its harshness, but its pleasantness also.

Here is a summer verse by Kitō which nonetheless is heavy with Yin:

Little fish
Carried backwards;
The clear water.

Looking into the flowing clear water on a summer’s day, we see the tiny fish, tails wriggling, being pulled slowly downstream in the current up which they are facing.   The predominant element here is the Yin of the water, but we feel the summer in its clearness and in the wriggling of the fish.

Summer too has its more “Yin” days and its more “Yang” days.  Everything is relative, and it is the wonderful changes wrought by these differences in proportion that make things all the more interesting.

And so we return to our original premise:  All hokku are seasonal hokku.  At base, each verse is about a season.  So summer hokku should express the summer in some way.  And they should do it through sensation, through touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

We must remember always to keep our hokku simple, our sensations direct.  Deal in real things, with water and stones and wind and flies and leaves; omit thoughts and abstractions and commentary, and do not try to write “poems.”  Instead, our goal in hokku is to express the season through sensation — through sensory experience — and if we succeed in doing that, the poetry will take place inside us, instead of on the page.

That is how hokku works.

ON THE OLD DOOR

I repeatedly remind readers that hokku is very simple.  Here is a good example — a verse by Shōha:

Furuki to ni    kage utsuriyuku   tsubame kana
Old  door on   shadow changing swallow kana

In essence, this is saying

On the old door,
A changing shadow —
The swallow.

But we could make it better in English like this:

On the old door,
A constantly-changing shadow —
The swallow.

Or even better,

On the old door,
A flitting shadow —
The swallow.

Or we could say,

On the old door,
A shadow flits to and fro —
The swallow.

In the West this is likely to be a weathered barn door, and the constantly-changing shadow is that of a barn swallow flitting to and fro with remarkable speed and agility.  The focus, however, is not on the swallow; it is on the old door and the shadow that flits across its surface repeatedly.

On this we see both the sense of time and age that is appropriate to hokku and the sense of transience in the constantly-changing shadow.  It is the combination of these two elements — the fresh and active and the old and passive — that gives this hokku its interest.  Regular readers here will recognize this as just another manifestation of the principles of Yin (passive) and Yang (active) that we find so often in hokku, used in so many ways.

David

METAPHOR AND INTERNAL REFLECTION

Metaphor is not a part of good hokku as I teach it.  Let’s look at just what a metaphor is:

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive term is transferred to some object different from, but analogous to, that to which it is properly applicable.”

Anyone who has studied Western poetry or English literature in general should readily know what that means when applied to poetry.  It means, put simply, saying one thing is another, as opposed to the simile, which says one thing is like another.

If a writer, for example, says that mountains are “silent folk,” he is saying that mountains are “folk,” meaning people.  He does not, of course, really believe the mountains are silent folk; he is just using metaphor as a poetic technique to make his point.  If he were using a simile (which he probably should in this case), he would say instead, that mountains are like silent folk.

When William Wordsworth wrote that he would “sit and play with similes,” he came up with many names for the daisy.  He called it “a nun demure, of lowly port” and “a little Cyclops, with one eye.”  These, of course, are really metaphors used in that manner, but if Wordsworth had written instead, “The daisy is like a nun demure, of lowly port,” he would be using simile.

Where Robert Burns said in simile, “My love is like a red, red rose,” Robert Herrick instead chose metaphor — “You are a tulip seen today…”

There is no confusion, then, about what a metaphor is and what a simile is, and neither is to be found in good hokku as I teach it.

Yesterday I used this verse to demonstrate how some misunderstand and misinterpret hokku.  It is Bashō’s hokku:

Summer grasses –
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams.

You, dear reader, know what metaphor is, and there is not the slightest trace of it to be found in that verse.  If Bashō had said instead

Warriors’ dreams–
They are only summer grasses
In the fields.

THAT would be metaphor.  But of course that is not what Basho wrote, just a rewriting to make his verse fit Western metaphor.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned another old hokku of Bashō that is commonly misinterpreted as metaphor.  Let’s look at it again, because it reveals the technique that was really used:

Kare eda ni   karasu no tomari-keri   aki no kure
Withered branch on   crow ga has-perched   autumn ‘s evening

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Some go wild with this one, finding it filled with metaphor.  The see it in terms of Western poetry instead of hokku aesthetics.

The verse, instead of being an example of metaphor in hokku, is instead a very good example of the principle of internal reflection.

To clarify, let’s look at the difference:

Metaphor is saying one thing is another.
Internal reflection is the combining of elements that reflect one another.

Here is how internal reflection works in this particular hokku:

We have these elements:

1.  A withered branch
2.  A perching crow
3.  An autumn evening

The branch, which is withered, is reflected in the autumn, which is the time of withering in Nature; further, evening is the time of day when Yang energies decline into night, so all these elements exhibit a loss of Yang energies.

The crow is black; this is reflected in the gathering darkness of the evening,

Everything in this verse, then, depicts a decline of Yang.  The crow has settled on the branch, reflecting the passivity of Yin; the darkness of the crow is Yin, as is the evening, as is the autumn, as is the withered branch.

One may alternatively translate aki no kure as “autumn’s end,” but the same principle still applies.  The end of autumn is a decline of Yang energies, a time of growing Yin.

It is just that simple.   We should not see metaphor in the verse, but rather the internal reflection that takes place among its component elements.

Now why do so many fail to see this?  It is because they have never been taught the importance and significance of the use of Yin and Yang in hokku, and how they are employed in internal reflection.  So they misinterpret the verse — as they misinterpret numbers of other hokku — as examples of metaphor, because they see it only in terms of what is already familiar to them, and what is familiar to them is the methodology of Western poetry and literature, which they then misapply to hokku.

David

FLICKERING SHADOWS

Buson, who wrote some rather artifical and contrived hokku, also managed to write one of the simplest and most effective of spring hokku:

Shoku no hi wo   shoku ni utsusu ya   haru no yū
light   ‘s  flame wo light at  transfer ya spring ‘s evening

The flame of one light
Transferred to another light
The Spring evening.

Translated woodenly — literally — like that, it does not look like much.  That is why when we translate a hokku into English, we must not just say exactly what the verse means in Japanese, because the Japanese language does not say things as we would say them in English.  We only get the full effect of the verse when we make it fully English, like this:

Using one candle
To light another;
The spring evening.

I always stress to my students the importance of Yang and Yin in hokku, of understanding how they are applied in countless verses.  We see here a very effective use of the Yin-Yang principle.

Yin, you will recall, is the dark and passive principle in the universe; Yang is the bright and active principle.  Everything is a combination of Yin and Yang.  The summer is Yang, the winter Yin.  Yin grows until it reaches its maximum, then it becomes Yang; Yang grows until it reaches its maximum, then it transforms to Yin.  Spring is a period when Yin and Yang are mixed, but it is growing Yang, because Yang increases until the height of summer; then Yang begins to decline into fall (autumn), which is another mixed season, but of growing Yin and declining Yang.

This hokku, then, is set in spring, when Yin and Yang are mixed, and Yang is growing.  It is also set in the evening, which is growing Yin — the light of day declines into the darkness of night.

Knowing all this, we can appreciate the interplay of elements in Buson’s hokku.

It is twilight — evening begins, and the light of day is fading and the shadows growing.  Someone has lit a candle that shines in the gathering darkness.  And someone is using the flame of that candle to light another candle, increasing the Yang element in the midst of the Yin of evening.

One can easily see that this lighting of a “Yang” candle, this “doubling” of the Yang of the lit candle by using it to light another is in keeping with the growing Yang of spring.  It shines in the darkness and dispels — but only partially — the Yin of the evening, just as the growing Yang dispels — but only gradually — the Yin element of spring, as Yang begins to move to dominance.

To say all of that, however, is to overthink the verse.  We are not supposed to work it out in ratios of Yin and Yang, like a mathematical formula.  Instead we are just supposed to feel the Yang of the candle flame dispelling — but only partially — the Yin interior darkness of evening.  Buson did not sit down and work this verse out in measures of Yin and Yang; it was already a part of his understanding of the universe, so when he wrote it, it came naturally and without intellection.  Yin and Yang are often new concepts to Westerners, however, so we must make it a part of our understanding of things, and then we will understand countless hokku without having to think it all out.  It will just come naturally to us as well.

With our electric lights in the modern world, we miss the rituals our ancestors used to know so well — the lighting of a candle or a lamp at evening.  It is an act filled with significance, and we see the effect in many old paintings where the light is only that of a candle.

Twilight used to be a time of calm and closeness for families, who would gather around the light of a candle or a lamp as the shadows of evening grew.

There is a very old-fashioned song, popular generations ago, that in spite of its romanticism, captures the quiet of this time of evening:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;
And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go.
Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love’s old song,
Comes love’s old sweet song.

If we were to make a hokku of that, we would use only the “non-romantic” parts:

Flickering shadows
Softly come and go;
The twilight.

That would make a fitting verse to go with Buson’s hokku.

David

SPRING AND NEW BEGINNINGS

In old hokku, spring began with the Lunar New Year, which came on varying dates between the end of January and the middle of February.  This year, for example, the Lunar New Year will happen on February 14th.

In modern hokku, however, we orient ourselves neither to the Western calendar nor to the Lunar calendar.  Instead, we either follow the old traditional European calendar, in which Spring begins on Candlemas at the start of February, or we see what is happening in Nature.  When we see the first early signs of spring, that is when spring begins for us.

Yesterday I took a long walk up a nearby hill, and on the way I saw pussy willow catkins already appearing, and that means early as it is, spring is beginning.

In hokku we always orient ourselves as well to the universal elements of Yin and Yang.  Beginning spring is the most yin time of the season, but already yang is visible within it.  Yang will increase until it reaches its spring high at the end of the season.  Then it will continue to increase into summer, when yang reaches its peak, and then it will begin its decline again as yin increases through autumn and finally reaches its peak in winter.  So all of Nature — all of the seasons — are the interplay between Yin and Yang, and that is important to know in hokku.

The beginning of spring, then, means the first obvious signs of growing yang appearing in Nature — the appearance of green shoots out of the earth, of catkins and buds on trees.  In human life this corresponds to infancy and early childhood.  In the day it corresponds to the first signs of dawn and the early hours of and after sunrise.

It should be obvious, then, that hokku expressing spring deal with freshness and beginnings, of signs of activity appearing out of the inactivity of yin.

Every writer of hokku must keep in mind two things:  Nature and season.  Without Nature there is no hokku.  Without season there is no hokku.  Hokku is the verse of Nature and the seasons.  It expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set within the ever changing context of the season.  That is why anthologies such as that of R. H. Blyth (though he mislabels hokku as haiku) present hokku divided into four seasons — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter.  And within each season, the hokku are further divided according to traditional Japanese categories.

Those categories for spring are:

The New Year (traditionally a category of its own);
The Season;
Sky and Elements;
Fields and Mountains;
Gods and Buddhas;
Human Affairs;
Birds and Beasts;
Trees and Flowers;

These remain useful categories for our hokku today.  When further subdivided, they reveal the characteristics of spring in a given location — local climates and plants and creatures, which vary from region to region.  Spring in the Pacific Northwest, for example, manifests itself differently than spring in the Appalachians.  One will find different trees, different plants and flowers, different creatures, and so on.

The most important thing, however, is never to forget that a hokku should manifest the nature of the season through what is included in it.  A spring hokku about pumpkins would be incongruous and inappropriate.  A spring hokku about violets is in harmony with Nature and the season.

I have always taught hokku primarily from the best examples of the old Japanese writers translated into appropriate English-language hokku form.  By studying these, by using them as models, one may quickly learn the structure and nature of hokku.  They show us what to do and sometimes what not to do in composing.  Teaching from old models further ensures that what the student is learning is real hokku, not some form of modern haiku or make-it-up-as-you-go brief free verse.

Spring is the time of beginnings, and it is a very good time to begin learning real hokku, seeing how the season was expressed by those who founded our practice of hokku so long ago.

Whenever discussing hokku, it is always a good idea to say something about R. H. Blyth.  Unfortunately his books are all out of print at present.  The modern world has such different goals that Blyth has been, if not forgotten, put aside for the present.  That is a very sad symptom of what our society has become.

The most important things to know about Blyth are these:

1.  He unfortunately generally referred anachronistically to hokku as “haiku,” using the term popularized by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  One must forgive Blyth, because he simply used the term popular in the Japan of his day.  It can be very confusing to readers, however, who must know that in reading him, the bulk of what he talks about is hokku, not haiku, even when he uses the latter term.  Today we correct that by simply recognizing that haiku did not begin until the revisions of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, and that what came before is correctly termed hokku.  Bashō, Onitsura, Buson, Issa, and all the rest who came before Shiki were writers of hokku within the wider context of haikai.  So hokku is much older than haiku, and it is very important today to make the distinction.

2.  Having said that, one must recognize R. H. Blyth as still the foremost authority on the aesthetics of hokku.  If one wants to understand what is behind hokku, one should read all of Blyth’s commentaries very carefully, comparing them to the verses on which he is commenting.  This provides the reader a “master class” in the aesthetics of hokku, and learning from Blyth in this manner is invaluable.

3.  One must realize that Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku.  When he began, he was explaining an old tradition that by his time, after the revisions of Shiki, was in a profound state of decline aesthetically.  He thought that hokku was virtually dead, and though he bemoaned the fact as evidence of the stupidity of man, he did not anticipate an interest in its revival until near the end of his writing of works on hokku.  Even then, he made only a few perfunctory suggestions as to how what he called “haiku” (but meant “hokku”) might be written in English.

What this means is that though Blyth was an excellent teacher of the aesthetics of hokku, he was primarily a commentator and a translator.  One might expect that one could learn to write hokku in English simply from copying the patterns of his translations, but that is only partially true.  His main purpose was in conveying the meaning of Japanese hokku in English, and to do that he sometimes took liberties, translating what the writer “meant” and not what he actually wrote.  Blyth was superb at this because he really understood the spirit of Japanese hokku, but it can sometimes be confusing for the learner, because in translating Blyth could be much more loose in the use of structure and form than the originals he was translating.  Again, that is because his purpose was to explain hokku to Westerners, not to teach them how to write it.

Of course those of you who have been long-time readers here will know how to write it in matters of form and structure, because I have explained all of that, based directly on the structure of Japanese hokku and of how they are best adapted to the nature and structure of the English language.  It is really quite simple, and once one knows that, one knows how to adapt Blyth’s explanations so they are both meaningful and helpful rather than misleading.

Having said all of that, reading Blyth, though immensely helpful, is not necessary to learning hokku.  Over the years I have taught students what they need to know for an excellent foundation in hokku, and the rest is up to the student.

One need only keep in mind that hokku and modern haiku are two very different things.  In fact one could say that hokku is one thing, and modern haiku is a multitude of often contradictory things, because while hokku has very definite standards and aesthetic principles, modern haiku varies to fit the whims of individual writers, who feel quite free to make up their own versions of haiku.  For all general purposes therefore, hokku is not haiku, and the two should never be confused.  One should never refer to pre-Shiki hokku as “haiku,” because it is both anachronistic and historically incorrect.  Further, it only causes endless and needless confusion.

This rather rambling posting is my way of saying that spring is at the doorstep, and it is time for many of us in temperate regions to begin thinking of spring hokku instead of winter hokku.  And thinking of spring hokku, it is also a good time to refresh and review our practice and understanding of hokku — or for those who know little or nothing about it, a good time to begin learning hokku.

Though I may sometimes mention haiku here for historical and other reasons, I do not teach haiku, and have little interest in it.  I teach hokku, a continuation in English of the same kind of verse that was practiced in Japan for several centuries prior to the popularization of the haiku by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century.  There are multitudes of haiku sites and teachers.  But to my knowledge, this is the only site that teaches all aspects of the practice of hokku as a modern form of verse making.

I wish there were other legitimate teachers of hokku out there, but they simply do not exist at present, sad though the fact may be.  I hope some day that will change.

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

SADNESS, OBJECTIVELY

Yesterday we discussed emotion in hokku, and how it is better not to present it openly but rather indirectly, through the objective elements of a hokku.

There are certain old hokku, however, where direct mention of an emotion is found, for example in Rōka’s

Kanashisa ya   shigure ni somaru   haka no moji
Sadness     ya winter-rain at/by dyes    gravestone ‘s written-characters

We may translate as:

Sadness;
Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

Even though the emotion “sadness” is stated directly, this is a far more reserved and objective verse overall than the overlong and overdramatic verse of Bashō,

A night of  the sound of oars striking waves,
And of freezing bowels;
Tears.

What do we learn from all this?  That in hokku emotion should either be indicated by use of certain objective elements in a hokku, or else it should simply be stated directly and objectively, simply and undramatically, as in Rōka’s hokku — which is far better as hokku than the awkward example of Bashō given here.

One further thing to notice in Rōka’s verse.  We talk much about Yin and Yang here, because they are important to the aesthetics of hokku.  You will remember that winter is the most yin season, and that water is yin as well, as are cold and darkness as opposed to light.  Look again at Rōka’s hokku:

Sadness;
Winter rain dyes the letters
On the tombstone.

The winter rain, the darkening of the letters, both of these are yin and in harmony with one another, as is the lifelessness of the tombstone.  It is this overwhelming yin effect that contributes to the sadness.

David

DECEMBER AND YULETIDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

And of course the other line,

See the blazing Yule before us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

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

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow
.

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

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

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

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

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

David

THE HOKKU OF WINTER

Winter is at the door.  In some places it has already come.  So it is time to begin considering what a winter hokku should be.

Remember the Yin and Yang of the seasons, the interplay of the two universal forces.  Yang is the active force — light, warmth, movement; Yin is the passive force — darkness, cold, stillness.  In the wheel of the year, spring is diminishing Yin and growing Yang.  Yang grows in spring until it manifests as summer, in which Yang reaches its maximum and Yin its minimum.  And as you will remember, when one of these elements reaches its maximum, it begins to change into its opposite.  So as we pass the very height of summer, Yin begins to grow again, as Yang begins to decline.  Autumn is growing Yin and declining Yang, and at last we again reach winter, which brings us Yin at its deepest, and Yang at its weakest.

Added to that, as writers of hokku we must remember that these two forces — Yin and Yang — also manifest in the changes of day and night.  Morning — like spring — is growing Yang and diminishing Yin.  Midday, like summer, brings Yang to its maximum, and then it begins to decline into the growing Yin of afternoon.  This continues through evening until we reach the depths of night, in which Yin is at its maximum, Yang at its minimum.

Did you ever wonder why it is — traditionally — that some people in some places and circumstances may see ghosts at night?  It is because night is the most Yin time, and ghosts are considered part of the Yin world.

We see that Yang and Yin apply to everything in similar ways.  In human life, birth and childhood are growing Yang; as young adults, humans reach their most Yang period,  and then the decline of growing Yin begins — people start to age and begin — like Nature — to wither.  We can compare that time to late summer and autumn in the year, to afternoon and evening in the day.  And finally comes maximum Yin, which is the deepest part of night in the daily cycle — the ending of life in the human cycle — and in the seasons it is winter with its cold and stillness, when the energy of plants has returned to root and buried seed, until the growing Yang of spring brings the energies of life forth again.

Snows are already falling in the high country.  Frost has come to many regions.  The energies of Nature are retreating — Yin is growing, Yang declining.

Some might think that because Yin is the predominant element of winter, that everything in winter hokku should be cold, still, and silent.  That is a mistake.  Keep in mind that Yin and Yang never separate, even when one is at its extreme.  So even in the Yin cold and stillness of winter we will often see Yang manifesting in some way, and it is this interplay of the elements — the predominant against the weaker — that gives us hokku.

An excellent example is this very powerful verse by Gyōdai:

Akatsuki ya   kujira no hoeru   shimo no umi.
Dawn     ya whale  ‘s  roaring  frost ‘s sea.

Dawn;
Whales roaring
In the frosty sea.

That is a rather literal version — but effective.  In English, however, whales do not “roar,” so we would say

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

Anyone who thinks that hokku are always about the very small and the very close up will see from Gyōdai’s hokku that that is not always so.  But let’s take a closer look at the verse and see how it manifests not only winter, but the interplay of Yin and Yang.

Predominant, of course, is the force of the season — Yin.  We find that in the words the frosty sea.

The hokku takes place at dawn, when growing Yang first becomes visible.  And of course the blowing and spouting of the whales, with its force and great noise, is also Yang.  But the overall feeling of the verse is very, very cold.  So we see a great and powerful Yang force — the whales — but in spite of their size and power, they are just a tiny element amid the immensity of the Yin of winter.

Structurally, it is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action.  We could diagram it like this:

Dawn;  (setting)
Whales (subject)
Spouting in the frosty sea (action)

You will notice, of course, that really there are two elements that make up the overall setting of the verse — dawn and the frosty sea.  Such a secondary setting incorporated as part of the action is very common in hokku.

Notice the selflessness of the verse.  There is no human anywhere in sight.  All we see is the profound power of Nature — its immense cold, and the Yang of the whale who manages to live in such cold amid the frosty waves.

That last characteristic is something to remember, because things that live in extreme environments tend to manifest just the opposite.  That is why here, amid the great cold of the frosty sea — we find the powerful Yang energy of the whale.  It must be strong enough to resist the opposite element to flourish in it.

That, of course, explains why traditionally, if one was looking for the most powerful ginseng roots to use as medicine, one searched for them in the frozen mountains of North Korea.  Growing in such a Yin environment gives the root great Yang energy.  It is the same principle in Gyōdai’s hokku.

Winter hokku, then, will manifest the season in an interplay of forces.  In some we may see almost only Yin, for example in Chiyo-ni’s verse:

No ni yama ni   ugoku mono nashi   yuki no asa
Field at  mountain at   moving thing is-not  snow ‘s morning

In fields and mountains
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is a very Yin verse.  We see the fields and hills covered in snow, and amid all that chilly, white immensity, not one thing is moving.  That is the stillness of winter.  We see what a contrast that is with the spouting, plunging whales and blowing, frosty waves of Gyōdai’s verse.  But notice that even in the Yin silence and stillness of Chiyo-ni’s hokku, there is the Yang element of light and morning.  In such things we see the interplay of Yin and Yang, with their respective strengths varying from verse to verse.

It is important to recall that it is Yin that brings out the meaning of Yang, and Yang that brings out the meaning of Yin.  That is easy to see.  When do we most appreciate the soft warmth of a thick blanket?  In the Yin of winter.  And when do we most appreciate the heat and bright crackle of a wood fire?  Again, in the cold of winter.

Modern people are often very insulated from the seasons, in great contrast to our ancestors.  Remember the Little House on the Prairie books of our childhood?  They show us what it is like to live closer to Nature and in greater awareness of it.  Winter has great significance when we live close to it.  If you have never read that series, I suggest you do so, because if you are living removed from Nature, it will help to remind you what a life close to the seasons is like.  We cannot write hokku if we do not experience the seasons and their changes.

It is precisely for this reason that R. H. Blyth suggested that if one wanted to write this kind of verse, one should live in a house with a roof that leaks — or at least one with a roof that has the potential of leaking.  That is really a kind of Jungian statement.  Blyth meant that we must live in circumstances in which we cannot avoid the effects of the changing seasons leaking into our lives and our consciousness.  Without that — shut away in perfectly insulated, temperature-controlled environments — how can we experience Nature and the changes of the seasons enough to write about them in a manner that really expresses them?

Let’s look again at Gyōdai’s verse:

Dawn;
Whales spouting
In the frosty sea.

That is the Moby-Dick of hokku.  It is just as dark and powerful in its own way as the novel of Herman Melville — said to be the greatest American novel.  Did you know that Melville actually went to sea for long periods of time in the 19th century, and experienced the kind of environment about which he wrote?  Can you imagine Moby-Dick having been written by someone who lived all his life in a comfy apartment in the midst of a large city?  Of course not.  How then can we expect to write effective hokku — verses that manifest the character of the season — if we are not even exposed to the seasons and their transformations?

I am not, of course, telling everyone who lives in a city apartment to sign up on a ship or to take a trek to the Arctic.  But it is very important for anyone who wants to write hokku to become familiar with its primary subject matter — Nature and the seasons.  Do that in whatever way you can, whether it is visiting parks in the city or making periodic trips to the countryside to renew and refresh your sensibilities.

Winter is a very good time for hokku because it is a season of extremes, and thus the season can potentially have a very strong effect on us.  The result can be as good as the “whale” hokku of Gyōdai, or as good as the “snowy stillness” hokku of Chiyo-ni — if we learn to step aside and let Nature express itself — let Nature speak — through our verses.

David

WHITE DEW

Buson wrote this autumn hokku:

White dew —
A drop on each thorn
Of the bramble.

It is very simple.  There are only two elements — the dew and the bramble, but notice how they are presented.  A single drop hangs from each of the thorns on a branch of the bramble.  We see its cold transparence in the light of morning — the yin softness of water, the yang hardness of the bramble thorns.  One element is very transitory — soon gone when the sun rises higher — the other more permanent, but still as transient on its own time scale.

It is a good idea to have something that moves or changes in hokku.  Generally we see things that do so obviously — a branch moving in the wind, a fish swimming through the water.  But in this hokku the movement is only implied, and very subtle — the temporary nature of the dew, the knowledge not only that at any moment one of those drops could fall from a thorn, but that the dew itself will likely only last the morning.

Buson sometimes tended to spoil his hokku by making them too artificial, too contrived from literary sources, or too obviously intended to impress.  He was both a painter and a writer, and his writing is often influenced by his painting.  But in this hokku it is the simplicity and faithfulness to Nature that saves him.

David

 

HARMONY OF SIMILARITY, HARMONY OF DIFFERENCE

Yesterday I discussed the importance of season in hokku — how hokku is the poetry of the seasons, and how the subjects we choose for our verses should reflect the character of the season in which we are writing in some way.

This is a very new concept for many people, who are accustomed to writing about any subject in any season of the year, in other forms of brief or long verse.  That is not the way of hokku.

Readers here know that I use the word harmony again and again.  It is very important that our verses should be in harmony with the season, and that the elements used with a hokku should be in harmony with one another.

The typical example for this is Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku — an autumn verse:

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

The last word in that setting is obviously appropriate to the season, because it mentions autumn.

Now think about what we discussed yesterday concerning the character of autumn, and how it manifests.  Autumn is the season of declining Yang and growing Yin, a season of the vital energies waning, of things withering. In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening.  That is completely in keeping with the full setting of Bashō’s hokku:

The autumn evening.

The setting, as we see, comes in the third line.  The first and second lines give us the subject and action:

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;

If we rephrase that as “A crow has perched on the withered branch,” it makes it easier to see that “A crow” is the subject, and the action is “has perched on a withered branch.”

So all three elements give us setting, subject, and action — a “standard” hokku.

Having seen that the setting is quite appropriate to autumn, what about the rest?

On the withered branch,
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

In the first line we have a withered branch.  That is obviously in keeping with the character of autumn, the time of things withering.

In the second line, we have a crow.  Of course the crow is black, and that is in keeping with the growing darkness of the evening.  So again we have harmony.

In the last line, as already mentioned, we not only have the evening, which is in keeping with autumn as the late afternoon or evening of the year, but also autumn itself is mentioned.

It is not hard to see, then, that in this verse everything is not only in harmony with autumn, but each element — withered branch, crow, evening, autumn — is in harmony with every other element.  Even the act of the crow perching on the branch, ceasing its active flying about, is in keeping with the weakening energies of autumn.

If you remember all that I say here about harmony with the season and internal harmony in a verse, it will make your learning go much easier.

When we talk about harmony, we must remember that it is of two primary kinds:

1.  The harmony of similarity.  That is what we see in Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku.  It is composed of things that are in some way alike.

2.  The harmony of difference.  This kind of harmony relates again to the principle of Yin and Yang.  Remember that we said that when Yin or Yang reaches its maximum, it changes into its opposite?  Yang, for example, grows until midday, at which time it begins declining — which means it has changed into growing Yin.  Winter, at its deepest (maximum Yin), gives way to a faint hint of warming, meaning it has changed into growing Yang.

Following this principle, things that seem to be opposites are actually in harmony with one another.  For example, a roaring fire in the stove on a freezing winter night is in harmony with winter; and stepping barefoot into a cool stream on the hottest day of summer is in harmony with the summer, even though coolness is a Yin characteristic, and we normally think of Yang heat as in harmony with summer.

So there is harmony of similarity and harmony of difference.  Both are very appropriate to hokku.

What we do want to avoid are verses that are not in harmony with the season, and elements within a verse that are not in harmony with one another.

When we look at the hokku of a given season, we can see that some verses manifest it more obviously, others in a less obvious way.  That gives us a suitable range of subject matter.  Again, what we want to avoid are verses that do not manifest the character of the season at all.

Compare the obviousness of Bashō’s “Withered Branch” hokku with this autumn verse by Kyoroku:

Even in the pot
Where potatoes are boiling —
The moonlit night.

Now from the perspective of English-language hokku, this verse would be marked when written as an Autumn verse.  So unless it is written by someone who does not understand hokku, we know that there are within it connections to autumn, even if not directly obvious to a beginner.  And if we hone our perceptions, we will begin to recognize them.  In a way it is like the hokku version of “Where’s Waldo?”  We learn to recognize where in verse an element manifests a relation to another element and to the season.

First, there is the setting (remember that the setting is generally the BIG element in the verse):

The moonlit night.

In autumn the moon seems particularly big and bright and round and near.  So there is harmony between the moon and the autumn.  There is also a harmony of difference between the light of the moon and the darkness of the night.

Then there is the rest of the verse:

Even in the pot
Where the potatoes are boiling —

The roundness of the pot is in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  The whiteness of the potatoes (which would be “Irish” potatoes in the West) is in keeping with the whiteness of moonlight.

What this verse shows us (for our purposes) is a pot of white potatoes boiling in the water on a moonlit night.  They are being cooked in a dim or shadowed place, so that the moonlight can be seen in the water in which the potatoes are boiling.  We need not worry in such a verse if the “boiling” seems to bear little relation to the season, because it is the overall effect that is important, though by stretching it a bit, we could even say that the bubbles in the boiling water are in keeping with the roundness of the moon.  But we must be careful about overdoing things.

Now one can see that this verse makes substantially more demands of the reader than Bashō’s “Withered Branch.”  But that is quite all right, because in hokku we should become more aware of things, of our environment, of Nature and how we relate to it as part of it.

It is important for beginners not to get worried by how complex this may be seem at first.  It is really quite simple and not complex at all, because when we hone our perceptions, events we experience that seem somehow significant to us and worthy of hokku will often seem so because they already contain elements that are in harmony with one another and with the season.  So in explaining the matter as I have here, we are putting the cart before the horse.  What often happens is first  the experience that affects us strongly, and then later we understand — from the principles of hokku — why it affects us strongly, why it seems so in keeping with the season.

David

THE SEASONAL KEY TO HOKKU

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, we could say that the system of specific season words is 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, foods and cultural associations.

David

HOKKU IN AUTUMN

In hokku it is essential to write in harmony with the season.  The most important quality of autumn is transience — the fact that everything changes, all is impermanent, nothing stays.  Autumn is transience.

In autumn hokku, we experience and express this transience through the subjects we choose.  We favor things withering and changing, things aging and weakening, things that do not stay.

We find this expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Márgaret, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts car for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child the name:
Sórrows spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

These are the same sentiments at heart as those expressed in the Hōjōki of Kamo no Chōmei, who lived in the second half of the 12 century and first few years of the 13th, and who lived his latter days as a Buddhist recluse in a tiny hut:

Though the flow of the river never ceases, the water passing moment to moment is never the same.  Where it eddies, bubbles rise to the surface, bursting and vanishing as others replace them, none lasting.  Thus are people and their dwellings in this world — always changing.

(My rendition)

Transience is characteristic of the universe; the universe is transience.  And yet in some things it is more apparent than in others; we see it more readily in the leaves of autumn than in the shapes of the hills.

Another significant quality of autumn is loneliness, but the loneliness of hokku is not the desire for human company.  It is more akin to the inner solitude that is the consequence of knowing that nothing stays, neither parents, nor friends, nor family.  Ultimately everything goes.  And the “loneliness” of hokku, what we call here the solitude of hokku — is the feeling we have in knowing, as we sit among the changing and falling leaves, that everything is temporary, from a single morning glory flower that lasts but a day to a star that perishes after aeons of time.

In the autumn all the abundance and vigor of summer is leaving, vanishing.  And suddenly we see the real nature of existence — that all is impermanent.  That leads us to the third important quality of autumn — poverty.  By poverty we do not mean simply lack of money or resources.  Instead we mean spiritual poverty, the knowledge that the gathering and amassing of wealth and possessions is meaningless, because none of it can be kept; one way or another, sooner or later, it will all leave us.  Knowing this puts the sigificance of possessions into perspective.  We realize what we need for living and what we do not need, what is important and what is not.  And in autumn we see the poverty of Nature, as the leaves fall from the trees, revealing their hidden forms, and plants wither and gradually return to the root for the long sleep of winter.

If our hokku reflect these things — transience, solitude, and poverty — they will be in harmony with the season.

The aesthetics of autumn hokku, then, are an appreciation of that which is aging — of cedar wood turned whitish-grey, of rocks worn by rain and wind, of  things with the weathered surface that time gives.

Have you ever noticed a newly-created landscaping job with large rocks brought in and set in the ground to give the garden a sense of being anchored to the earth?  All too often the knowledge of the landscaper in such things is only superficial.  He will bring in big boulders, but we see on them the fresh marks of being broken, and the light-colored grooves worn by the chains used to lift and move them.  That defeats the purpose, because the rocks look very new, and it will take much time before rain and wind, frost and heat, weather them to a mellow look of age.

In writing autumn hokku, we should avoid that appearance of newness because it is contrary to the feeling of the season.  And we should also avoid giving that sense of artificiality to our verse.

Of course the best way to understand what is in harmony with autumn is to go out into Nature often during the season, to walk, to sit, to watch and observe its characteristics — and then to write in keeping with those characteristics.

That keeps us in harmony with Nature in our writing, in harmony with the seasons, and the seasons are the life of hokku, which changes with them as does Nature.

David

PREPARING TO LEARN HOKKU

Only a single day remains before August ends and September begins.  The Summer months — June, July and August — give way to the Autumn months — September, October and November.

Through hokku we are taken away from the excessive obsession with the self and with the thinking mind that characterizes modern society, and returned to our rightful place within Nature, as a part of it, and to the primal experience of the senses rather than our secondary “thinking,” the intellection that we avoid in hokku.

Hokku is thus a way of both recognizing our vital connection to Nature, and of taking us out of busy intellection and into tranquil perception.

There are many old “natural” names for September, names that express what is happening in Nature.  For example, among the Ojibwe people, September is:

Waatebagaa-giizis — the Month of Leaves Changing Color;

Maandamini-giizis — the Month of Corn;

Moozo-giizis — Moose Month.

The word “giizis,” found in each of these, means “moon,” just as in English our “month” is derived from an old word for moon.

Seen in the perspective of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, September is growing yin — an aging and quietening of the vital forces after the maturity of late summer, their gradual decline into the extreme yin of winter.  In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening; in human life it corresponds to the time beginning in late middle age and before the elderly years — the time of greying hair, weakening body, and lessening energy.

I mention these things not for any exotic reason, but because an important part of hokku is their layers of associations, the things they evoke in us.  Keeping this in mind helps us to know what is in harmony with the season, something which eventually becomes second nature as one absorbs the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Do not think that his connection of the Fall with time of day and stage of human life is anything “Eastern.”  Carl Jung, who was Swiss, wrote that this is not simply sentimental jargon, but rather that through it we “give expression to psychological truths, and even more to physiological facts”:

“Our life is like the course of the sun.  In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon.  Then comes the enantiodromia: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase but a decrease, in strength.  Thus our task in handling a young person is different from the task of handling an older person.” (From The Stages of Life, 1930)

And in the same way, our task in writing Autumn hokku is far different from that of writing Spring hokku.

Now that we are entering Autumn, I want to take a few moments to talk about this site.  It is not like any other.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still the only Internet site actively teaching hokku, a continuation of the old verse form practiced from the 17th century to its unfortunate decline near the beginning of the 20th century.  However hokku as taught here is adapted to the English language, while still retaining the important essentials of the old hokku.

That means this is a teaching and learning site, and though sometimes I may seem to talk about things a long way removed from hokku, nonetheless there is some relationship.  I do this because hokku is not just a little verse in three short lines that anyone can write with no preparation.

Hokku is a whole way of looking at the world and at one’s place as a part of it, and a way of living.  It is not, like other kinds of brief verse, subject to radical change at the whims of those writing it.  It has very specific principles and standards, and learning those takes time.  That is why the aesthetics of hokku are so important, and must be understood before one can make any genuine progress.

Hokku as I teach it is a contemplative, spiritual form of verse.  It is also a very selfless form  that helps to take the focus off the ego.  And learning it requires both patience and humility.

Many people who read my site are involved in other forms of brief verse, and they come here to get ideas to apply to their own verse forms.  There is nothing wrong with that, if it helps to make their verses closer to Nature and more hokku-like.  But it is important NOT to confuse hokku with any other kind of brief verse, which is why I use its distinctive and historically-correct name, and no other.

It is also vitally important to know that to obtain the full virtues of hokku, and not just some watered-down or distorted simulacrum, the only way is both to correctly learn hokku and to practice it over a long period of time.  Otherwise one knows really nothing about it.  It must be understood to be practiced correctly, and it must be practiced correctly to be understood.  I offer the instruction here — completely without charge — enabling one to do both. So though many who practice other forms of verse come here to read and borrow and to adapt ideas that I present on this site to those other verse forms, those who sincerely want to correctly  learn hokku from me should be very careful not to mix what they learn here with ideas or practices from any other kind of brief verse.  Otherwise the result will not be hokku.

One can see from all this that hokku is the most challenging of all brief verse forms, demanding more of the writer and of the reader.  Yet that does not mean there is anything complicated about it.  Hokku is very simple and straightforward.  It just means that it is often very difficult for people — particularly in our hectic and materialistic times — to learn to be simple.

All that is needed to learn hokku is a sincere effort to absorb its techniques, principles, and aesthetics, as well as patience and the willingness to put it into practice.  That makes it as easy and gradual as getting from one place to another by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.

All of this is just a preface to what we shall be doing here from the first days of of September onward.  We shall be learning hokku from the very beginning, and in a very traditional way.

Though hokku originated in Japan centuries ago, to learn hokku you need know nothing at all about Japanese history or culture or language.  Hokku is not some kind of cultural outpost of Japan, planting its flags in the various countries of the world.  Instead hokku — if it is to be at all valid — must reflect the language and the place where it is written. Thus hokku written in English is no longer a Japanese or “Asian” form of verse.  It becomes instead thoroughly American hokku, British hokku, Irish hokku, New Zealand hokku, Australian hokku, Liberian hokku,  and so on.

I live in the Northwestern United States.  But what I teach can easily be applied to any part of the English-speaking world, or indeed to any part of the world and any language, with but slight modification.  Hokku should not be an imported hothouse plant, carefully kept alive in an alien environment.  Instead it should be a native plant, growing out of native soil.  So those who want to write hokku in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French or German or Welsh or Russian or any other language will find all that they need on this site, requiring only insignificant modifications to fit the differences of language.

In teaching hokku, I use the best examples from old, pre-20th century hokku, but translated into modern English-language hokku form.  Sometimes I will modify these examples to fit a different cultural environment, but I will tell you when that happens.  Sometimes I will use verses of my own, but predominantly what I teach is derived from old hokku.

I teach using old examples in order to maintain a continuity with the old hokku tradition and to transmit high standards.  Though what we write in English is not precisely the old hokku in language and syntax and writing system, it preserves the important essentials of the old hokku — all that is necessary to make it hokku and not modern haiku or any other kind of brief verse form.  Obviously, that does not mean hokku as we practice it in English is identical to old Japanese hokku.  The cultural baggage is eliminated, but the essence — that which gives it the hokku spirit — is kept as essential.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person teaching this way — working direct from the best examples of the old hokku tradition used as models.  It thus gives students a unique opportunity to continue a tradition whose aesthetic roots go back for many centuries — a tradition that was nearly obliterated and forgotten through misunderstandings that became common in the West in the mid-20th century.

So inevitably, there are certain practices in the old hokku tradition that I do not continue.  I do not, for example, encourage the heavy use of literary allusion.  Nor do I encourage students to write entirely from the imagination.  Though both of these things existed in the old hokku, they are practices that take us farther from direct experience of Nature, and what we want in hokku as I teach it is to be as close to Nature as possible.

That is why I often liken the writer to a mirror reflecting Nature.  The thinking and busyness and focus on the self of modern life is like dust.  When that dust is wiped away, the mirror can reflect Nature just as a pond reflects the full moon.

I would remind readers that they are free to ask hokku-related questions — questions about the techniques and the principles and aesthetics of hokku — and I am always willing to help with problems that arise in writing.

David

AUTUMN BEGINS

In some parts of the country summer lingers.  In others autumn has already come.  Here is a hokku by Taigi, which expresses the transition from one to the other:

Autumn begins:
The summer shower becomes
A night of rain.

Taigi thought the sudden sprinkles of rain were just another brief summer shower; but when the rain persisted into the twilight and then the darkness of night, he realized that summer had ended, and autumn had come.

The harmony in this verse is in the rain persisting into the growing darkness, which is in keeping with the coming of autumn, the weakening of the Yang energies;  it is also in the persistence of the rain, in which we sense the long and darker interval until spring comes again.

Taigi has another hokku relating to this time of year:

Autumn begins;
The weak feeling
After a bath.

In the first verse we saw the beginning of autumn in the continuing rain.  In this verse we see it in the lack of physical energy after a warm bath.  Ordinarily it would not be significant, but Taigi feels in it the weakening of all the energies of Nature, and realizes that his body is expressing the coming of autumn, just as in the rest of Nature the high energies of summer have have begun their long weakening first into autumn, and eventually into the deep Yin of winter.

David

ENTERING AUTUMN

Summer is ending, autumn is beginning.

I have already mentioned the transitional verse by Kyoroku that leads us into the season:

August;
First on the ears of millet –
The autumn wind.

There is a related hokku by Chora:

It blew first
Upon the morning glories —
The autumn wind.

In Japan, morning glories were considered flowers of the beginning of autumn.  So when one sees the morning glories in bloom in late summer, and suddenly the delicate flowers are troubled by a cool wind, one senses the change to autumn.

So here too on this site we begin the change to autumn.

Buson wrote:

Sadness;
The fishing line trembles
In the autumn wind.

This does not mean he is sad, and then sees the line trembling in the wind;  it means that seeing the line trembling in the wind of autumn is in itself sadness — the seeing is the feeling.  That is because of all the layers of association it evokes — the withering of things, the ending of things, the certainty of mortality, and yet none of these things are mentioned in the verse, and mentioning them goes too far in explaining it.  That is the suggestiveness of hokku.

Bashō wrote:

In the cowshed,
The sound of mosquitos
Is weak.

Because this is Bashō, we know that there is some significance to this, not just a random event.  The insects that formerly buzzed with such vigor in the height of summer now sound only faint and feeble, their numbers diminishing.  That is in keeping with the weakening of vital energies in autumn.

Autumn, again, is the weakening of the Yang energy, the decline of the energy of warmth and life and active movement.  It corresponds to the period after middle age in human life, and to the late afternoon and twilight in the day.  All these things are automatically associated in hokku; we do not need to even think about them.  That is why the faint sound of the mosquitoes is so significant; it expresses the nature of autumn.  We hear all of autumn in that weak sound.

It is important to keep in mind that hokku are not metaphorical or symbolic.  The faint buzz of the mosquitoes is only the faint buzz of mosquitoes.  Everything else is merely suggested by them, below the level of the intellect.  All of my explanations are only to teach you with what mind a hokku should be read, with what attitude.  To put such things, that are automatically associated, into words, is really going too far, but for beginners it must be done.

We see the effect of these “hidden” layers of association in Issa’s evocative verse:

The autumn wind;
In Issa’s mind
There are thoughts.

What is the nature of those thoughts?  We know already, because the autumn wind tells us.  They do not have to be spelled out or made clear, and should not be.

Issa’s Autumn verse is an expression in that season of the same thing Bashō expressed in a Spring verse:

Many things
They bring to mind —
Cherry blossoms.

In both we see the sense of transience so common to hokku, and in both we also see the suggestiveness of hokku, which again are to be evocative, not in any way explanatory.   For either Issa or Bashō to tell us exactly what these thoughts are, exactly what is brought to mind, would remove every trace of poetry.  We do not have to ask.  We know.

David


BEGINNING TO LEARN CONTENT IN HOKKU

The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.

First, the basics.

The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.

Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.

It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;

Dog tracks
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.

Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it.  True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way.  Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.

Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an Autumn hokku:

The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.

First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves.  Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following.  We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before.  And then there is the age of the dog.  We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog.   We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace.  And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root.  The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past.  Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku.   And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified.  That makes for good hokku.

So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another.  Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.

We have seen Bashō’s hokku

On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.

Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku.  So that is the seasonal context.  Autumn is the decline of yang into yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity.  It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night.  And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow.  And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (yang) to inactivity (yin).  And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn.  So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.

We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku.  That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W.  The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku.  Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.

What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening.  Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening.  But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn.  And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.

There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast — of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream.  Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination.  But I will discuss this more in another posting.

For now, keep in mind these essentials:

Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.

Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.

Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.

Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.

David

THE WHEEL OF THE YEAR

In her bittersweet children’s book Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt writes:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.  The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn.

It is the way of Yin and Yang — whenever one reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite.  And that is where we are now in the turning wheel of the year.  The hot and bright summer having reached its peak — “the top of the live-long year” — the days have now begun, almost imperceptibly, their decline into autumn — the time of growing Yin.

This is when the hokku of Kyoroku comes to mind,

August;
First on the ears of millet —
The autumn wind.

We stand looking out on a field of millet still in the quiet midst of August.  Suddenly a cool wind, almost a mere hint of wind, stirs the heavy seed heads that bend in a gentle wave.  And we suddenly realize that it is the wind of autumn, and summer is ending.

What a world of significance in that verse!

That is the subtlety of  hokku.  We express all of Nature in a single, small thing-event.  And in expressing Nature, we express our own nature as well.

You will find that I repeat certain things again and again, and one of those things is the importance of harmony and unity in a hokku.  In this verse the maturity of the summer matches the maturity of the ears of millet, and suddenly we see a manifestation of this aging — the first sign of decline, the first coolness of the wind that speaks of autumn.

When I say the wind “speaks of autumn,” I mean that in hokku, when the writer gets out of the way, removing the ego from the verse, Nature is able to speak, sometimes in the wind, or the water, or the rain, or any number of things.

Returning to harmony, here is a hokku I wrote:

The tall tree
Cut up in a heap;
Summer’s end.

Read it, see it, feel it.  Can you sense the harmony of elements, the ending of summer, the formerly tall and green and growing tree all cut up into a drying heap of wood?  Can you feel the change in it, the transience that is inseparable from existence?

That transience is an essential element of hokku.  It is what makes Babbitt’s book so filled with that mixture of near sadness and almost lonely wistfulness that the Japanese called sabishisa. It is the knowledge that nothing in life is permanent, everything changes, nothing abides, that all of existence is in constant movement and transformation from one state to another, endlessly being born, growing, dying, changing.  It manifests in the withering of a leaf and in the eons of evolution that have carried life through ceaseless transformations, as Loren Eiseley reminds us in The Immense Journey:

The truth is that we are all potential fossils still carrying within our bodies the crudities of former existences, the marks of a world in which living creatures flow with little more consistency than clouds from age to age.”

We find the same feeling in Marcel Pagnol’s comments that sum up the ending of his childhood in Le Château de ma Mère My Mother’s Castle:

“Le temps passe, et il fait tourner la roue de la vie comme l’eau celle des moulins.”

“Time passes, and it turns the wheel of life as water does that of a mill.”

And he finished with these words:

Telle est la vie des hommes.  Quelques joies, très vite effacées par d’inoubliables chagrins.  Il n’est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants.”

Such is the life of man — a few joys, very quickly erased by unforgettable sorrows.  It is not necessary to tell that to the children.”

So now we must prepare ourselves, as summer is coming to an end, for the arrival of autumn, a season filled with the sense of things passing and aging and changing, and thus filled with the spirit of hokku.

David