A summer hokku by Sh˘haku:
A chestnut leaf sinks
In the clear water.
We have already discussed how one part of a hokku is often reflected in the other part. Here the purity and clarity of the silence is reflected in the purity and clarity of the water through which a single chestnut leaf sinks. This is the purity and clarity of the silent mind as well.
It is this stillness, this clarity, that makes the sinking of the leaf significant in a way that transcends our usual notions of significance and worth.
Posted at 12:13 pm by hokku
Shiki, who brought into popular use the term "haiku" for his revision of the older hokku near the beginning of the 20th century, did not really understand hokku, which is why he thought it should be a kind of sketch from Nature -- at least, unlike many modern writers of haiku, he retained the connection to Nature!
His lack of understanding led to many verses which, while not displeasing, lack depth. Shiki's "haiku" was essentially a little picture in words, and we see that here:
Tied to a low tree;
The summer fields.
Contrast that with a verse of Buson, not at all a sketch or illustration, but rather a sensory experience:
Crossing the summer river,
Sandals in hand.
The coolness of the water in the warm air, the smoothness of pebbles and stones and sand underfoot, the contrast of warmth and cool wetness, all this -- and happiness! That is Buson's sensory experience, and how much more strongly it affects us than Shiki's little picture drawn in words of a horse, a tree, a field.
It is unfortunate that so many emulated Shiki and carried his revisionism even farther, so that hokku nearly disappeared in the enthusiasm for change and the urge to write "haiku" without understanding what was being lost in discarding the hokku.
Those of us who prefer the hokku are today in the minority, and that is just a part of the nearly universal tendency to abandon anything that takes time and effort to learn. But just as Buson's verse is deeper than that of Shiki, hokku is generally deeper than the modern haiku.
Posted at 03:02 pm by hokku
I often talk about the poverty of hokku because poverty of spirit is essential to it. Thoreau understood the importance of poverty. In Walden he writes:
Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts....
We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is the sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.
Posted at 01:57 pm by hokku
Regular readers will have noticed that there is much more to learning hokku than to learning modern haiku. And much of what is learned in the study of hokku, unlike the vagaries of modern haiku instruction, is very practical and straightforward and can readily be put to good use.
For example, a few postings ago I presented more of the forms common and helpful in writing hokku.
Among those forms was one summarized thus:
Adding to the variety of hokku types, there is one we might call "Also / Even." Such verses rely on the use of the words "also" "too," or "even" to achieve a certain effect.
How does one put such information into practice? It is very simple. Just learn the basic forms, and when the occasion arises, it will pop into your head.
Yesterday was one of those sunny, warm, pleasant days of the beginning of summer. The heat brought out the seed fluff in the cottonwood trees along the stream, and soon it was carried everywhere by the wind currents, filling the sky. In my garden, I watched dragonflies darting to and fro through the fluff drifting on the air. One could see and feel summer beginning in the experience. So deep was the effect that I was able to write this hokku the next morning:
It even blows into
If you have never seen cottonwood down filling the air on a warm day at the beginning of summer, you might not "get" this verse. But anyone who has will get it immediately.
But note the form of the verse. It is exactly the form I described in the previously-posted lesson. These forms are not just for beginners in hokku. They are tools that remain useful all through your maturing practice. If you learn them thoroughly, they will be at hand when you need them.
Posted at 06:37 am by hokku
There is a verse by Issa:
Having nothing at all;
This peace of mind,
Blyth translated it as
I have nothing at all, --
But this tranquility!
We should pay attention to the severing comma here, and not understand this verse to mean, as modern haiku might inadequately present it,
I have nothing at all
but this tranquility
It is not that Issa has nothing at all except the peace and coolness, but rather that on having nothing at all there is for Issa this peace, this coolness, that no one owns -- it just is. The having nothing and the peace of mind and the coolness are one and the same. The peace of mind and the coolness are the nothing.
Note how confusing this verse would be if presented as modern haiku are generally written. It should not be read as
I have nothing at all but this tranquility
but rather as
I have nothing at all. But this tranquility!
Through such examples one begins to see how completely incorrect or inadequate punctuation may change the understanding of a verse.
Posted at 07:31 am by hokku
Edward Fitzgerald composed a verse -- a quatrain -- based on one by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam:
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
That is Persian poetry -- all roses and nightingales, cypresses and the moon. This verse has more the atmosphere of waka than hokku, but it expresses well the passing of youth and time through the ending of spring.
Shiki has a similar verse, but not at all fragrant -- just matter-of fact, and without the metaphors of Fitzgerald:
The canary escaped;
This day of spring
But Issa's verse has more of the simple sensation of hokku:
Spring is leaving;
The grasses in the field.
Spring is leaving. The roses are dropping their petals, and the first canterbury bells are withering on the stalk. The heat of summer is beginning. One more spring has passed in our lives.
Posted at 04:02 pm by hokku
THE POETRY OF AVOIDING POETRY
For a long time it was thought that a great and impressive subject was necessary for poetry -- "sad stories of the death of kings" and such. There were of course exceptions, a major one being William Wordsworth, who, as Blyth writes in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, "...chooses the aged, the poor, the idiot, the vagrant...."
Having broken out of the notion that a great subject was necessary, there was still the notion that to be properly poetic, a subject had to be "worked up," that is, one had to, as Wordsworth wrote, "...throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination...to make these incidents and situations interesting...."
Fortunately Wordsworth ignored his own advice, but unfortunately there were and are a great many who did not and do not. They think that one has to "oomph" up an ordinary subject to make it suitably poetic.
There are many ways of doing this. One is to dramatize it, to try to make it more exciting. Another is to use conventionally poetic language, so that it is obvious to the reader that what he or she is perusing is POETRY, not prose. One may use exotic or unusual words like Poe's "tintinnabulation." Then too, one may use rhyme, which is not of itself objectionable, but which provides the one thing, in the minds of many, that can transform words into poetry, thus the endless stock of abysmally bad verses that counterbalance such excellent use of rhyme as found in Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. We learn from this that the presence or absence of rhyme is no genuine indicator of poetic content, just an indicator of the desire of the writer to create "poetry."
In hokku we drop all of these methods. We use ordinary subjects. We throw over them no "colouring of the imagination." We might arrange our simple words carefully for smooth flow, but we do not deliberately manipulate them "to make these incidents and situations interesting." In hokku they are either interesting or they are not, and if they are not, we should not use them.
Nor do we do anything unusual in form. Hokku consist of three lines, with the first word of each capitalized, and all having appropriate punctuation. We make no effort to be avant-garde by eliminating capitalization or punctuation or by using it haphazardly or oddly. Instead we take full advantage of the capacity of punctuation to give fine shades of pause and emphasis. This is not simply a bow to tradition, but a recognition that punctuated verse is far more expressive of the intent of the writer than unpunctuated verse, and it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without obstacle or puzzlement.
In fact the elimination of haphazard use of punctuation and capitalization has not been avant-garde in English-language verse for well over half a century, and now it is seen largely for what it was -- an experimental phase that served only to confirm why English adopted punctuation in the first place. There are many writers today who labor under the misapprehension that by not properly punctuating or capitalizing a verse that they are being somehow mysteriously poetic or are somehow cleverly imitating old Japanese verse (if that is the intent, why not go the whole way and write in Japanese?), but that is just a misguided affectation.
So hokku is not anything out of the ordinary. Written in English, it has no flavor of Asia or alien or exotic cultures, it is no more exotic than a "violet by a mossy stone" or a mouse in a barn. When we write it, we forget all about poetry as it is conventionally understood, because the poetry of hokku does not lie in a "colouring of the imagination," does not lie in unusual or conventionally poetic words, does not lie in oddities or absence of punctuation or capitalization. The poetry of hokku lies simply in the fact that it conveys an experience of the senses in a seasonal context, without either "poetry" or the writer getting in the way of that experience. The reader thus becomes the poet, allowing the experience to happen in his or her mind when the verse is read, and manifesting it inwardly through the reader's own past sensory experiences and memories.
Each person will thus experience the same hokku differently. A pond in hokku will be different for each person, depending on that individual's past experience of a pond or ponds. Mention the moon above trees in hokku, and one may see it above dark firs, another above tall maples, another over sycamores or elms or other kinds of trees. That is how the reader participates in the experience of hokku, and that is one reason why the poetry of hokku is not on the page, but rather in the mind of the reader.
Posted at 10:16 am by hokku
Many poems begin in the mind -- in the imagination and emotions of the "poet." But hokku is not like that. Hokku begins in physical sensation.
You are in the garden early in the morning. You reach to examine a blooming flower, and in doing so, your hand shakes cool dew from the flower onto your wrist.
This initial sensation, perceived by the experiencer, is the first stage.
If you then begin to think about the experience, to add thought and emotion, this is the second stage.
Hokku remains in the first stage. It does not go on to thoughts and commentary and building of emotions. That is too much for the poverty of hokku.
In the continual rain,
He gives us the experience only. He does not tell us what he thinks about it, or what we should think about it. He does not use it as a symbol of something else, or a metaphor for something else. He allows it to be what it is, and thus he lets Nature speak through him.
If he had added his own thoughts and commentary, that would have been Gy˘dai speaking, not Nature.
A good part of English-language poetry goes on to the second stage, and much of it begins with the second stage. But that is not the way of hokku. Hokku is not about impressing the reader with the writer's thoughts or cleverness, nor about trying to convince the reader of anything moral or political or religious. Hokku is just the writer getting out of the way so that Nature may speak.
Posted at 11:05 am by hokku
The old waka -- "five-line" verse in English, as opposed to "three-line verse" -- was much more formal than hokku -- formal in language and subject matter.
In fact, hokku developed as a kind of reaction to the formality and elegance of waka, by mixing in the commonplace and earthy. That was what gave hokku its "playful" nature, which was essentially the old meaning of haikai, the formal name for the linked verse practice in which the hokku was the opening verse.
All of that would mean little to us today, were it not for the fact that numbers of old hokku show that deliberate mixing of formal and playful elements, a mixing that still affects how we write.
Waka inherited certain seasonal phrases and concepts from old Chinese verse. It used such phrases again and again to set the proper tone for a verse.
But hokku took those elegant, meaning-packed phrases, and added something unexpected and on a much more ordinary level, and it was the surprise of this mixture of "high and low" which was part of the appeal of hokku in contrast to the formality of waka.
Issa, for example, begins with one of those aesthetic, waka-appropriate seasonal settings -- "In the spring rain..." Yet here is what he does with it:
In the spring rain,
The beautiful maiden gives
A huge yawn.
Readers in those days were familiar with the association of "spring rain," and of course beautiful, elegant women had been an acceptable verse topic in the old Chinese verse that so influenced waka -- but giving the girl a "huge yawn" -- well, that is entirely the playfulness of hokku.
There are quite a few of these seasonal topics, which had their own associations in the "high verse" of waka. One of the most common is "the autumn wind."
The autumn wind is associated with loneliness and desolation and the ending of things, and was certainly appropriate for the formality of waka, which often emphasized transience and a kind of wistful sadness, but hokku brings it right down to earth:
I met the cow
I sold last year;
The autumn wind.
That is Blyth's translation and there is not much better that could be done with it. But the significant thing is the jolt between the old associations of the autumn wind and the very commonplace event of meeting -- not a lover, not a beautiful woman -- but a cow! And yet this verse, by Hyakuchi, manages to show us something deep and profound in this event, the kind of event that would not have been mentioned in waka.
This mixing of the season-associated phrases standard in waka with the ordinary, day-to-day things and events of life -- this was the genius of hokku. Suddenly the meeting of a cow became as significant -- or even more significant -- than a courtier longing for a departed love as the autumn wind was blowing. People could finally see the depth and profundity that was all around them, but had not previously been noticed.
If the contrast of elegant and ordinary had been all there was to hokku, it would have soon lost its interest once the "shock of the new" became old news. But it was the new perception of depth and profundity in ordinary events and things that gave hokku its staying power. And that is what keeps it alive even today.
Posted at 08:34 am by hokku
Adding to the variety of hokku types, there is one we might call "Also / Even." Such verses rely on the use of the words "also" "too," or "even" to achieve a certain effect. We see this in Buson's verse:
Tilling the field,
My house too is seen
As darkness falls.
And in this verse by Issa:
Evening cherry blossoms;
Today also is now part
Of the past.
It was even used by Shiki, who began the changes that nearly destroyed hokku:
Even the paths
Are deep in grass;
A stone Jiz˘.
(Jiz˘ is that smooth-headed bodhisattva with a staff, very popular as one who protects deceased children and saves from suffering.)
This use of "even," "also," or "too" gives a feeling of things being connected, of something being part of a greater whole, not excepted. It was used long before Shiki in the waka of Saigyo:
Even in the mind
Of the mindless one,
When a snipe rises in the marsh
On an autumn evening.
Posted at 08:33 am by hokku