One cannot compose hokku without a form, and the form of English-language hokku is simple and practical. One need not worry about what it is to be because it already exists and serves quite well.
A hokku in English consists of three lines, the center often (but not always) a little longer than the other two, which are approximately equal in length.
As a guide for length, hokku in English has as its standard a sequence of 2, 3, and 2 “essential words.” Essential words, as the term is used in hokku, means those words necessary to meaning but not to good grammar. That means we need not count articles such as “the,” “a,” or “an.” Nor need we often count prepositions such as “to,” “from,” “under,” “in,” and “on.” That leaves us largely with nouns, verbs and an occasional personal pronoun.
There is a hokku by Bonchō:
Rusted in one night;
The summer rains.
The essential words in that verse would be:
rusted one night
That gives us a pattern of 1-3-2 essential words, which is close enough to the standard. We may also go slightly over the standard, and often we will use precisely the standard of 2-3-2. One need not be too rigid about it, because the purpose of the standard is merely to ensure that we do not begin adding needless words, putting too much into a hokku and violating the principle of poverty.
Punctuation is very important in English-language hokku. It has two related purposes: It indicates the length of pause and the nature of separation or connection between two lines — working in a somewhat “musical” sense, and equally important, it guides the reader smoothly through the verse without confusion. Both of these are significant in how a reader experiences a verse.
Punctuation, like the overall form, is something already determined in English-language hokku. Once one knows the significance of each mark, it really becomes quite easy:
To understand hokku punctuation, we first must know that every verse consists of two parts, a longer and a shorter. There is always a punctuation mark separating them, and there is always a punctuation mark at the end of the verse.
The two parts of a hokku may be separated by:
1. A semicolon (;) — this gives a definite, strong meditative pause.
2. A comma (,) — this gives a brief connective pause.
3. A question mark (?) — which of course indicates a question.
4. A dash ( — ) indicating a long connective pause.
A hokku usually ends with a period (.), more rarely with an exclamation mark (!), a question mark (?) and occasionally ellipses (….)
Finally, hokku in English have the first letter of each line capitalized, and of course the first letter of any proper noun (a name, such as “Spirit Lake”) is capitalized as well.
This form — this system of lines, of punctuation, of capitalization — works extremely well and does everything we need to do in a hokku. Because it is all settled and standardized, there is nothing to excite quibbles. It works and it works well, requiring no change.
Knowing all this, if one sees a verse that looks vaguely like hokku but is not capitalized or punctuated, or has merely a hyphen as a separating mark, we know it is not a hokku, but some other kind of brief verse. I am speaking in all cases here of hokku written in English, of course, though the same general principles apply to other European languages.
I have already said that every hokku consists of two parts — a longer part and a shorter part — and that these are separated by a punctuation mark. We see that in a verse by Kikaku:
Yesterday in the East,
Today in the West.
Notice that each line begins with a capital letter;
Notice that the internal separation mark in this verse is an exclamation point, which indicates something unusual or unexpected;
Notice that the verse ends with a period;
And finally, note that the hokku consists of a pattern of 1-2-2 essential words, quite close enough to our 2-3-2 standard.
That is a quick summary of the hokku form in English. Yet a verse can be correctly punctuated and capitalized, and be the right general length, and still fail as a hokku. That is why without knowing the aesthetics and techniques, there is really no hokku. The outer form is the shell, like the shell of a walnut. And as with a walnut, it is what is inside that makes it worthwhile. That means to practice hokku, one must devote considerable time to its aesthetics and techniques, to learning its overall spirit and how it is applied when one writes. Having covered the form of the hokku, we are now ready to go on to that deeper topic, to what really makes a hokku a hokku and not something else.