Entry: NOVELTY AND PROFUNDITY Monday, May 21, 2007



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.


Copyright 2007
David Coomler

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