In only about eleven days, we shall be at Candlemas (February 1/2) — the traditional beginning of spring in the hokku calendar. In the intervening days, I would like to review the aesthetic foundations of hokku.
It has been common to say that hokku came out of Zen, but people often do not understand what that means. Historically, Zen is a form of Buddhism that grew out of the encounter in China of Buddhism with Daoism. It tends to asceticism and simplicity of life, along with a sense of the intimate relationship between humans and Nature — in fact humans are a part of Nature — and so in a sense are Nature — not separate.
But what does Zen in hokku mean? R. H. Blyth put it very simply and well:
“…it is that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.”
So if you want a definition of Zen in hokku, that is it. We are all a part of Nature — of the universe — and yet we are not separate from it. We are ourselves, and yet we are the universe.
A great deal of misunderstanding arose in the West in the 20th century through the confusing of hokku with poetry. By “poetry” here is meant the standards and perspectives of literary poetry as it developed in the West — and for us English speakers, it means specifically the cultural viewpoint as to what is and is not “poetry.” The problem here was that when hokku came West as “Japanese poetry,” people assumed that it was just a shorter and simpler but exotic-looking version of English-language poetry. They interpreted it in terms of what they already knew, instead of looking at it with fresh eyes and seeing how really different from Western poetry it is. Some of the early translators of hokku even rendered it in rhyme, which is quite alien to hokku, but again reflects the Western errors in perceiving it in terms of one aspect of Western poetry.
Because the interest in hokku — though presented under the anachronistic name “haiku” — really grew in the latter half of the 20th century, many applied to it characteristics of experimental 20th century poetry such as that of E. E. Cummings, which led to Westerners writing what they now called “haiku” with minimal or no punctuation or capitalization, and often a lack of common grammar.
Now you know why I do not refer to the verse form hokku as poetry. It is not at all what we in the West have been conditioned to think of as poetry, and the sooner that is learned, the sooner one can progress in understanding it.
One of the common characteristics of traditional Western poetry is lyricism, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the beautiful expression of personal thoughts and feelings in writing or music.” Hokku avoids lyricism.
Hokku also avoids mind-coloring — the imposition of our personal interpretations and imagining and commentary — again something common in Western poetry.
Hand in hand with mind-coloring is intellectualism — using “thinking” in place of sensory perception — saying what one thinks or reasons about a thing or event instead of just letting it be what it is. That too is common in Western poetry, but is avoided in hokku. In hokku we do not interpret Nature or go off on flights of fancy about it. We just present it as it is.
Symbolism and metaphor and simile are also very common in Western poetry, but are absent in the best of hokku. That again is part of letting things be what they are, without interpreting or manipulating them for “poetic” ends.
The poetry in hokku is not in the form or the words, but rather is found, as Blyth wrote, in “a representation in words of the real world,” of Nature as it is, and humans as a part of that, not separate.
Hokku takes us out of the constant chatter of our thinking minds into the real world of things — of rain falling on cedars, of water rushing around stones in a stream, of blossoms opening and blossoms falling, and the harsh cry of a crow.
Hokku records moments in time — experiences of Nature and the seasons — that are felt to have a particular significance, and it is presenting those in all their simplicity and directness that characterizes hokku and makes it different from all other kinds of verse. The poetry of hokku is in each individual moment of significance, and not in the outward form of the verse on the page or in its words. The words are only a finger pointing to the poetic experience — the unspoken significance — beyond them.
See how very different this winter hokku is from Western poetry:
The water jug burst
In the icy night.
In it, we feel the winter and the cold and the silence of night broken by the bursting jug. It gives us a particular poetic feeling of the moment and the season and our place as a part of it. We hear it and feel it — simple sensory perception, without analysis or any of the frills of elaboration or commentary. It puts us in a particular state of mind that is not separate from the cold or the bursting water jug. We become the event — the experience. That is the great virtue of hokku, and what gives it its power and particular worth and distinction among literary forms.
Hokku does not aim for beauty, but rather for that feeling of significance, that sense of the unity of things. There is a beauty in hokku, but it is not conventional — and it is a kind of humble beauty that is sensed behind and with the unspoken significance of a hokku experience. As Blyth wrote, “The real nature of each thing, and more so, of all things, is a poetical one.”
Originally, and often due to the nature of the language, Japanese hokku were sometimes rather vague, giving rise to different interpretations of the same verse. It could happen that one had to guess at what the writer meant, and guesses differed. This was one of the faults of old hokku in my view, because it did not enable the reader to have a clear and strong experience of the hokku event. In English-language hokku this is no longer such a problem, because English enables one to be more definite in writing. Nonetheless, each person will experience a hokku in a slightly different way, because we all have a different personal memory of things and experiences. When, for example, we read
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
— we will each see a different pond, a different frog, hear a different plop — but the essence remains the same. In hokku, one old pond is all old ponds, one frog is all frogs, one “plop!” is all “plops.”
In my view, it is very unfortunate that hokku was so misunderstood and misinterpreted when it was introduced to the West. Those misperceptions gave rise to the modern “haiku” movement, but hokku itself was very nearly completely lost in the process. It was so far abandoned that until very recently, many people had no idea that the verses of Bashō, Taigi, Onitsura and all the rest were originally called hokku, not “haiku.” In fact, when I began telling people on the Internet that many years ago, they simply did not believe me. Now the term hokku is making a comeback, but is still greatly misunderstood and underestimated. For many years now, I have been trying to remedy this by returning to the basic traditions of the old hokku, presenting its aesthetic essence — based on the best of the old tradition — but in English language form.
I often begin by telling people that hokku and “haiku” are not the same. Since the term “haiku” began to be retroactively applied to the hokku — something that was a gradual development in Japan around the beginning of the 20th century — it has only been the cause of great confusion and misunderstanding as hokku and “haiku” have diverged ever more widely over the decades. Today, in their principles and aesthetics — hokku and “haiku” really have become in general two very different things. Hokku is still based on the essence of the aesthetic traditions of the old hokku, its foundation in Nature and humans as a part of Nature, within the context of the seasons. “Haiku” by contrast has become whatever one wishes to be, with its standards left up to the individual writers. That has made it very popular, because with no common standards, it is very easy to write a verse and call it “haiku.”
Hokku, however, is more challenging. It requires not only a knowledge of its English-language form and techniques, but also an understanding and appreciation of its fundamental aesthetics, which are often very different than those in the modern “haiku” community. Unlike “haiku,” hokku is not and should not be simply a hobby or pastime — it should be a way of life.
From my perspective, if you want instant gratification, write “haiku.” But if you want something deeper and more spiritual, then it is likely hokku will, as the Quakers put it, “speak to your condition.”