ARRANGING A HOKKU: SHIKI’S GATE

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

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

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

What Shiki actually wrote was this:

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

A garan is a temple or monastery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Winter)

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

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

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

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

David

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SPRING CONTRAST, SPRING SIMILARITY

Here is a variation on a hokku by Buson:

The heavy doors
Of a temple gate close;
The spring evening.

What is behind appreciation of this verse?

First, it is set in the season of spring, which is a time of new beginnings, freshness, and growth. But in contrast to this, we see the heavy, old wooden doors of a temple creaking shut. The weight of the doors is in contrast to the physical lightness of spring. The age of the doors, which being temple doors means they are quite old, is also in contrast with the newness of spring. Further, the time of the hokku is evening, when light (Yang) gradually gives way to darkness (Yin).

Now we know that spring, in the cycle of Yin and Yang, is increasing Yang. Evening, on the other hand, is increasing Yin. The weight of the doors is a downward, passive pressure, another Yin impression.

Obviously this verse uses harmony of contrast, a common hokku technique. The point of the verse is the combination of spring, the time of beginnings, with the closing of the great doors and the coming of evening, both “ending” events. So in this one brief verse we have Yin contrasted with Yang, beginnings contrasted with endings, and that is what gives the verse its effect.

In it we feel that even in the freshness of spring, there is already the sense of impermanence and things aging and ending.

That is how to understand hokku. A hokku, you will recall, expresses a season through an event happening in that season. And in this hokku we feel the sense of transience that is so essential a part of both life and of hokku.

Here is another variation on the same verse:

The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close;
Spring is ending.

In spite of the setting still being spring, the effect now is predominantly a harmony of similarity: the closing of the great doors (at the end of the day), and the ending of spring. Now the weight of the great doors reflects our feelings of reluctance, our sense of time’s inexorable passing, at the departing of spring.

All of that in three short lines, eleven words, fourteen syllables.

We could rephrase the second variation, like this:

Spring ending;
The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close.

That way it flows a bit more smoothly.

David

YIN AMID YANG: BUSON’S MISTY GRASSES

Here is a spring hokku by Buson. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of 19th-century American paintings of the rural countryside as it was in those quieter, greener days:

The grasses are misty,
The water silent;
Evening …

It gives a very good impression of the stillness of evening.

Though this is a spring hokku, it uses the hokku technique of “harmony of contrast,” because while spring is a time of increasing Yang energy (active, growing, warm), evening by contrast is an increasing Yin time of day (passive, receding, cool). Such a hokku expresses that even in the time of year when Yang is growing, Yin is nonetheless present, giving us a subtle feeling of aging, of transience amid the freshness, warmth, and new growth of spring. The mist, the water, and the silence are all Yin, as is the fading of the light of day. That predominance of Yin elements amid the growing Yang of spring is what makes this hokku effective in its very quiet way.

I always like to remind everyone that no knowledge of Japanese is needed to write hokku in English. I only add the Japanese version here because I have one particular faithful reader who always writes me a note if I do not include it.

The word translated here as “grasses” is kusa, which is somewhat more inclusive and general than the Engish, comprising not only grass but also other short plants below the level of shrubs. Higure is the time of sunset, of twilight.

Here is the transliterated Japanese with a literal translation:

Kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana
Grasses mist water at voice is-not evening kana

David

GLAD YULE!

Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice — Wintersonnenwende — Great Yule.

Ian Capper [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ian Capper [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

With that long-celebrated day, the sun will then begin to rise higher in its arc across the sky, the days will slowly but surely grow longer, and light and warmth will return to the world.

In the hokku Wheel of the Year, the Winter Solstice is at the very bottom — the most Yin time. But on that day a spark of Yang becomes apparent in the darkness and cold of Yin, and will begin to grow. All since Midsummer’s day, Yin has grown to dominance in the year; but now Yang will grow and grow until it becomes dominant. We will now be on the rising turn of the Wheel of the Year instead of its falling.

Here are a few lines from an old carol appropriate to Great Yule, the Winter Solstice:

TO DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all the rest of the year,
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer!
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend,
That doth but the best that he may;
Forgetting old wrongs, with carols and songs,
To drive the cold winter away.

Let Misery pack, with a whip at his back,
To the deep Tantalian flood;
In Lethe profound let envy be drown’d,
That pines at another man’s good;
Let Sorrow’s expense be banded from hence,
All payments have greater delay,
We’ll spend the long nights in cheerful delights
To drive the cold winter away.

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now;
If wrath be to seek do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow.
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks,
Both beauty and youth’s decay,
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

David

COMMENTS

Ash commented on GLAD YULE!

This is a wonderful carol & really lifts my spirits just as the Yang rises & grows. Where is this carol from? What are its origins?

*
David replied:

The text dates at least to the early 17th century.
The tune is 17th century.

You will find some free MP3 renderings of the tune here (some with words):
http://mp3skull.com/mp3/drive_cold_winter_away.html

You will find more verses and information on its history here:
http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/drive_the_cold_winter_away.htm

It is a very pleasant song when sung in a lively and happy fashion, and it should be much better known.
*

WINTER BEGINS: THE SEASON

Winter begins;
The hilltop trees
Vanish in fog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David

INCREASING YIN: THE LIGHT GOES OUT

lightdark

I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.

David

AUTUMN: RETURNING TO THE ROOT

The autumn equinox has passed. That means the days are growing shorter, the nights longer.

In my recent discussion of the hokku Wheel of the Year, I emphasized how very important the seasons are to hokku. It is a new concept for many people — writing in keeping with the seasons — but it is nonetheless a very old practice.

Hokku, you will recall, are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing seasons. In autumn, autumn hokku are written. To do that, one has to understand the character of autumn — what it is like, and how it manifests in Nature.

As are all seasons, autumn is a stage in the interplay of the two forces, Yin and Yang. In autumn Yang is decreasing and Yin increasing, and that is particularly obvious after the autumn equinox has passed. Withering and dying are Yin, and in autumn we see plants and leaves begin to wither and die. Cold is Yin, and in autumn we feel the air growing ever cooler as the sun declines lower and lower in its arc across the sky. Darkness is Yin, and in autumn darkness (night) grows while light (the day) wanes. Things that retreat or fall are Yin, and in autumn the sap retreats from twigs and branches in trees and leaves begin to fall; in annual plants the energy has gone into the seeds, and in many perennial plants the life energy leaves the withering, visible part of the plant and retreats to the root.

So in autumn, the general feeling is of withdrawal, of “returning to the root.” It is a preparation for the quiet and chilly days of winter, the beginning of a natural turning inward.

It may interest you, in this regard, to know the basics of the traditional Five Elements associated with seasonal change. Summer was a “fire” season, as you might guess from its very Yang character. As Yang began to weaken in late summer, the element changed to earth. Now that autumn is here, the predominant element is metal. And when winter comes, the element will be water, to be followed in spring by the wood element. These are significant because all relate to processes in the human body and its cycles of energy. For example, now is a good time to begin adding lots of “black” foods to your diet. Why? Because foods black in color relate to and strengthen the “water” element in your body, and after the “metal” season of autumn comes the “water” season of winter, so eating black foods now helps you to prepare your system for winter; that is good for your kidneys and your basic energy, which are also “water” element-related. There is much more to say about this and the relationship between the seasons and health, but this aspect is not so important to writing hokku, except in so far as it helps to keep you even more attuned to the seasons and their changes. So I will not talk more about it now, but encourage those interested to learn at least the simple basics of the traditional Five Elements Theory. You will find many web sites that give charts showing the interrelationships of the seasons, the five elements, appropriate helpful seasonal foods, and the cycle of the body.

Of course hokku written in autumn should be in keeping with and expressing the character of the season. Buson wrote this autumn hokku:


Going out the gate,
I too become a traveller;
The autumn evening.

Autumn is often thought of as a time of travel, of migration. That is because it is the time when migratory birds take the long journey to where they will spend the winter, and animals move from their summer haunts to places where they will winter. So that feeling of “changing homes,” of being a rootless traveller, is very in keeping with the atmosphere of autumn. So Buson says that just by walking out his gate in autumn, he too becomes a part of this feeling of “migration,” and now you understand better why this is a hokku appropriate to the season.

It is appropriate too that the hokku is set in the evening, when the light is waning and darkness coming on, because of course increasing darkness is increasing Yin, and autumn itself is a time of increasing Yin. So this verse uses two things associated with autumn — travel and the waning of the day. You will recall that in hokku correspondences, Autumn relates to the time from late afternoon to early evening, and in human life to the time past middle age through the onset of old age. So we can see that Buson’s verse uses “harmony of similarity,” the putting together in a hokku of things that reflect one another by having a similar character. In this verse both travel and the coming of evening relate to autumn.

To get a better grasp of this relationship between hokku and the seasons, you might wish to again visit the recent posting on the Hokku Wheel of the Year, which you will find here:

https://hokku.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/a-review-of-hokku-basics-the-wheel-of-the-year-and-its-significance/

David