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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Each blossom --

One blossom's warmth

On the plum tree.


That hokku, loosely translated from Ransetsu, expresses how the plum is a kind of measure of the coming of spring.  Each opening blossom shows us the increasing  warmth of the early season.

Chora wrote:

How fragrant!

The unseen plum tree

Next door.







Posted at 08:22 am by hokku

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hokku differs from most other kinds of verse not only in its form and brevity, but also in its seasonality -- when we write, we write only about the present season; and when we read hokku, we read them in season. This brings us more in harmony with Nature. Instead of being in the past, or anticipating the future, we live in what is happening in the present -- at least to the extent that our personal development permits.

Spring is a time of beginnings. It is the increasing yang of activity, growth, and warmth after the chilling yin, passiveness and silence of winter. We see this beginning in a verse of Issa:

At every door,
Spring begins with the mud
On the shoes.

The original actually says "at every gate" and it uses "geta," which are high wooden sandals, but I have "put it into American" so that it becomes an American verse.

The ice is past, the snow thaws and water flows. Where earlier the ground was hard with frost, now it is soft and oozes with the water of spring. We see this on the mud on the shoes left on each porch, outside the door of every house -- big shoes and the little shoes of children.

This mud on the shoes is the beginning of spring -- water and soil, all that is needed for life and new growth.


Posted at 03:08 pm by hokku


Only the sound
Of white camellias falling;
The moonlit night.

It is important to know that these are white camellias, as colorless and pale as moonlight. There is something remarkably pure about this recurring, gentle "plop" of falling blossoms in the night, the only sound to be heard from time to time in the deep silence.

It reminds us of Andrew Marvell's The Garden, only instead of

"Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade

Rank˘'s hokku reduces all things to whiteness amid shadows -- a white sound of white camellias in white moonlight.

David Coomler

Copyright 2007

Posted at 03:06 pm by hokku


Yaha wrote:

When the garden
Had been swept clean,
A camellia fell.

 This verse shows us that that there is something artificial about all our sweeping and cleaning, something ultimately pointless, yet we continue to sweep and clean, we continue to live our lives and do our duties. Yet the verse also shows us that the work really is not complete until the camellia falls, until Nature puts the finishing touches on our sweeping -- at least for the moment -- and then it all begins again.

David Coomler

Copyright 2007

Posted at 03:04 pm by hokku



There is a hokku by Onitsura that expresses well the change from winter to spring, the time of transition, the sense of new beginnings in spite of the lingering of winter:

On the tips of the barley leaves,
Spring frost.

This frost of spring is different than the frost of winter; because it is no longer the extreme of yin; instead it is combined here with the increasing yang of the growing barley, expressing the renewed life of early spring. That is seen also in the time of day -- dawn.

Spring hokku express this sense of newness and freshness. In humans this season corresponds to birth, to childhood and youth. It has both delicacy and increasing strength, and the utter simplicity of Onitsura's plain and austere style expresses it very well in few words.

In some parts of the country winter will remain for a while with its ice and snow, but inevitably it will give way to spring. And so we move from winter hokku to spring hokku, always following the lead of Nature, always in harmony with it. In the words of the old song that children sang when I was small, "Welcome, sweet springtime!"

David Coomler

Copyright 2007

Posted at 03:00 pm by hokku

Sunday, February 04, 2007

when we had our snowfall here in the Northwest this winter,  I noticed that the pure whiteness of the snow showed every bit of stain and grime that came along.

I am sure someone could give a long metaphorical talk on this -- how encountering purity suddenly makes glaringly obvious all that is unpleasant in our lives and thoughts.

One can look at the other side also -- how snow can cover and beautify the ugly -- but even then, as the old Swedish proverb goes, "What is hidden in the snow comes up in the thaw." Sooner or later it will all come out. So we have to work on cleaning up our messes, both in the outer world and in our inner worlds.

In hokku as I teach it,  we make a very definite connection between hokku -- our practice of hokku, that is -- and spirituality. If hokku does not do us spiritual good, or if we do not use it for spiritual good, we might as well just drop it.

Spirituality is not identical to religion; religion, as I use it here, is about beliefs and dogmas. Spirituality is about reality and how we deal with it. Spirituality is, among other things, love, kindness, and forgiveness. These are a kind of touchstone for whether a religion is merely beliefs, or whether it also contains some spirituality. Religions that do not genuinely emphasize love, kindness and forgiveness, or that give them only lip service while behaving otherwise, are toxic religions, harmful to the holder and harmful to others. But the greater the content of love, kindness and forgiveness in a religion, the more its sense of unity with others and the universe, the greater its spirituality.

Every now and then we need to examine what we are doing with hokku and ask ourselves whether our practice is making us more aware of our unity with the universe, more loving, more kind, more forgiving -- or is it just the opposite? If you find yourself going in the opposite direction, you need to be aware, so that the practice of hokku will do you good and not harm. Take steps to bring more spirituality into your life.

It sometimes happens that one's beliefs, particularly in very rigid religions, actually get in the way of spirituality. If that is happening, one needs to begin looking elsewhere for spiritual nourishment and practice.

And having said all this, I am obligated to point out that when reading a hokku, we should not read all that I have written here into it. Instead we should just experience the hokku in its simplicity, and then go on. What we do with it, if we do anything with it, comes after that experience.


David Coomler

Copyright 2007

Posted at 09:37 am by hokku


A verse by Chora:

The windy snow,
Falling and blowing about me
As I stand

Though hokku customarily avoids "I," "me," and "my," there are some occasions which require it to avoid awkwardness. In this verse it is important to know that the writer is standing, with the snow whirling about him from head to foot. That way the reader (whether him or her) becomes the experiencer standing amid the blowing snow.


As most of you know, Shiki began the destruction of hokku. Yet some of his verses nonetheless still qualify as hokku, among them this one:

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

If more of Shiki's verse had been like this, and if the destruction of hokku had not proceeded farther, hokku might still be flourishing. All we can do at this point is to continue it, to keep it alive, so that those who are able to appreciate it may find it still exists.

This verse shows us transience not only in the nearly-vanished monastery but also in the withered fields of winter. When we are young we secretly think we are going to live forever, but time and experience teach us otherwise. Everything changes, everything comes into being and then disappears, whether it be a blooming flower or a star system.

Hokku does not cover a vast scale. Usually it deals only with the local, the small. And in this one remaining gate in the winter fields we see the story of the whole universe, ourselves included.

Fortunately this is one of those verses in which Shiki has succeeded in spite of himself and his theories.

David Coomler

Copyright 2006

Posted at 09:34 am by hokku

Monday, January 08, 2007

A hokku by Bash˘:

Rain --
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

This is a very effective yet simple experience of the continuous, cold rain of winter and the darkening and decay of what is left in the fields after the last harvest.

First we are presented with the rain, then given a long, meditative, connective pause in which to experience it. And then we see the dark stubble in the fields as the rain continues to fall.


Once more
It ripples the stars on the pond --
Winter rain.

It is just a passing shower, before which the stars shine clear until the drops begin to fall, and then, after it passes, they appear again.

As translated here, this is another example of the "repeated subject" form, where we alternate naming the subject and repeating the subject in the pronoun "it." In this example "it" precedes the subject, "winter rain."

This is a very cold, clear, and refreshing verse with a strong sense of transience.

The rain of winter is very different from the gentle rain of spring or the warm rain of summer -- it is cold and austere, and is harmonious with the silver light of the winter stars.

A hokku by Issa:

The daikon puller --
He points the way
With a daikon.

I don't know how far the daikon has spread in this country in cookery. When I was a boy most Americans would not have known what it was. Today it is available in lots of groceries -- at least in the Pacific Northwest.

It is a long, narrow radish that looks somewhat like a giant, albino carrot. And sliced thinly, it makes great soup.

This is an example of the humor of hokku, which is not the laugh-out-loud variety, but much more subtle.

It is also, interestingly, a rather un-Issa-like verse, which sometimes means, as in this case, that it fits our approach to hokku rather well.

Much of Issa's verse does not; it is too personal, too much influenced by the sorrows of his troubled childhood.

Notice, by the way, that this verse is translated in our old, useful "repeated subject" form. Only in this case, instead of "it" to repeat the named subject, we use "he" (the daikon puller -- he).

If you are paying attention to the various forms of hokku and how they are used in the model verses I have been posting, you will be forming a formidable array of tools to use when composing your own verse, and you will find that these tools pop right up when need calls.

The order of elements in a hokku is very significant in the final effect.

As is common in everyday life, the most recent event tends to have a kind of emphasis in the mind. Similarly, the last line in a hokku tends -- simply by its placement -- to have a bit more emphasis than the rest.

We can see the effect in this verse by Ry˘ta:

Who is it,
Burning a lamp at midnight?
Winter rain.

It is the winter rain that receives the emphasis -- the cold rain we are left with.

Keep this in mind when composing and arranging elements.

Of course the overall form of this verse is a "question" hokku -- a verse that asks a question -- always unanswered -- so that we are left with the feeling that only an unanswered question can give.

One could remark, "Well, Blyth said the same thing about the same verse." Yes, essentially he did, though using his own translation. Unfortunately, however, almost no one paid attention to what Blyth said, but rather far too much to what others said who couldn't hold a candle to him. If people had listened to Blyth instead of the "authorities" of the new haiku establishment, the course of modern haiku would have been drastically different, and there would not be the great gap that exists at present between it and hokku.

Superficially, hokku and "haiku" look very similar, but the differences are very significant, and it is such "click" moments that bring us gradually to the mind of hokku, to moving our focus from the subjective individual to humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature.

Hokku requires a literal "change of mind,"  something very difficult for those conditioned in contemporary haiku to understand; that is why hokku requires a willingness to give up one's preconceptions, and once that is decided, fresh and new things begin to happen -- things begin to fall into place with "clicks" of insight.  Such "clicks" become more frequent until one begins to see the point behind it all. Everything begins to make sense.

That is why when one first is exposed to hokku, it seems very easy. Then as one learns more, it begins to seem difficult and even somewhat arbitrary. But then, as one goes deeper and deeper and perception grows (more of those "click" moments), it begins to seem very easy again, but on a whole different level.

As many of you know, "haiku" began with Shiki near the end of the 19th century. Many of his verses still qualify as hokku, but his idea that a verse is a "sketch" from nature led, as I have already written, to a kind of shallowness. We can already see it in verses by him such as this:

One red berry,
Spilled on the frost
Of the garden.

The point is in the contrast of the bright red berry with the white frost, but as such it amounts to little more than an illustration, however pleasant it might be for what it is. We see its limits when contrasted with a verse such as this, by Bash˘"

Winter desolation;
In a one-color world,
The sound of the wind.

This verse is by Kyorai:

The windstorm
Will not let it fall to earth --
The winter rain.

Instead of falling, the rain is blown sideways by the strong wind.


Winter, as noted repeatedly, is a return to the basics of life -- light, warmth, nourishment. Take away television, take away electric lights, take away the ability to easily go when and where one wants, and we experience something much closer to the season.

In the old days, there was little to do in winter but remain inside, and if one happened to be alone, inevitably one turned inward.

This time of human "hibernation" was the seclusion of winter, and there are numbers of hokku on the topic, one of which is this by Bash˘:

The aging
Of the pine on the gold screen;
Winter seclusion.

Change is not just found in the world outside, but also inside -- inside the dwelling and inside the body and mind. One sees this change in the aging of the pine painted on the screen, noted when all other sensations fade out in the stillness of winter.

This verse, with its gold screen, is a bit rich for hokku, but Bash˘ tempers that by noticing in it no kind of glory, only seeing that here too all is transitory -- "Et in Arcadia Ego."

Even in times and places when and where one feels, for the moment, happy and secure, even there one finds transience intruding. The Latin phrase is transience speaking: "Even in Arcadia, I am."


A verse by Kyűkoku:

Munch, munch --
The horse eats straw;
A snowy evening.

We have the sound of the horse crunching on his food, we have the cold and the snow and the silence that magnifies the chewing sounds. All this together makes a very sensory yet simple winter hokku.


An end-of-the-year loose translation of a verse by Issa:

The cat
Sits here as one of us;
The departing year.

Issa often saw the commonality among humans and other creatures. Such a verse is particularly meaningful in America, where cats or dogs are often members of the family in spite of the differences in outer form and abilities.


You will recall that when I translate old hokku, I usually stick to those that could easily have been written as "American," but I want to vary from that slightly today (though I plan to make up for it, as you shall see), because a certain verse by Buson is very helpful in learning one aspect of hokku. So here I will translate it as it is in the original, and then I will add an "Americanized" version as a slight variation.

Winter seclusion;
The hills of Yoshino
Of the inmost mind.

It is the silence of winter, and the writer is stuck indoors, "snowbound" whether literally or figuratively. In the stillness one turns inward, and all the outward thoughts dissipate. Suddenly, deep in the mind the hills of Yoshino appear.

This is, as you will recall, one of the ways of writing hokku about one's "self" -- the subject (the writer) treated objectively. One writes about one's "self" no differently than one would about any other sensory experience -- and an image in the mind is something seen, though seen internally. Buson unites inner and outer.

An Americanized (and thus different) version might be:

Winter seclusion;
The Grand Tetons
Of the inmost mind.

This must not be taken as metaphorical but as literal. One could write the verse as:

Winter seclusion;
In the inmost mind,
The Grand Tetons.

That, however, has less of a oneness of mountains and mind than the phrasing of Buson's original.

Posted at 11:35 am by hokku


Try to avoid making a "picture" or "painting" in hokku.   Something moving or changing in a verse strengthens it and helps to avoid the "photo" syndrome.

That was Shiki's mistake -- thinking that a verse could be just a sketch from Nature -- and that is what helped to take his verse away from what hokku had been. When we have just a "picture," we tend to lose depth in hokku, and that is one reason why so many of Shiki's "haiku" suffer from a shallowness not found in hokku.



Posted at 11:33 am by hokku


Language cannot reproduce experience perfectly. It has its limits. All we can do in hokku is to present events that the reader will repeat through his or her own past experiences. For example, in Bash˘'s "Old Pond" hokku, the pond each person experiences will be based on previous experience of ponds -- no two the same. So hokku -- words -- can only approximate.

Nonetheless there is an immense gap between this approximation, which can nonetheless create very strong experiences in the reader, and verses so ambiguous one cannot determine exactly what the original experience was.

Partly as a result of the fall of English-language poetry into this kind of ambiguity in the 20th century, it has also been adopted into "haiku," where it wreaks disaster, with no one knowing quite what a given verse represents.

In hokku we use very simple words that do not draw attention to themselves or to their phrasing, so that the experience transcends the words, which are just the raft to get us to the experience. What that experience is, and how strong it is, will depend on the ability of the writer to present the essence of an event clearly, as well as on the strength of the original experience.

Ideally when reading a hokku there is no writer, there are no words, there is only the experience. But if the writer stands out, or if the words in themselves distract from the experience, the hokku will fail.

To use the painting analogy, ambiguity in poetry is like abstract art -- combinations of non-representational forms and colors with no definite, inherent significance. Its "meaning" is in the mind of the beholder. But hokku is different. It has inherent significance, and each reader will "get" that significance in terms of his or her own vocabulary of experience and memory. That is why hokku deals with sensory experience, avoiding intellection and "thinking" in general.


Posted at 11:30 am by hokku

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