HOKKU FORM IN A NUTSHELL

Hokku in English has very definite standards and principles, and these extend even to the appearance of a verse on the page, specifically to lineation, capitalization, and punctuation.

An English-language hokku is a verse of three lines, the middle line often — but not always — visually longer than the others.  Here is a typical hokku, by Ryôta, set in August, the “month of leaves.”

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.
There are two parts, a longer and a shorter.
The two parts of hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation.
The hokku ends with appropriate punctuation.

Follow these standards and you will have the accurate form of hokku — the container which holds the content, just as a shell holds a nut.

In hokku everyone follows the same form.  That is because the form works excellently, is very appropriate, and has proved its worth.  But equally important, it gives no occasion to  bickering over form.  It thus contributes importantly to a sense of community in hokku.  We speak the same “language” of form, the form works superbly, and that enables us to concentrate on content.

Now regarding punctuation, its great virtue is that it guides the reader through the hokku smoothly and effortlessly, and without confusion.  It enables very fine shades of pause and emphasis, very important in how we experience a hokku.

As a general guide, here is how to punctuate hokku:

A semicolon indicates a strong, definite pause.  It is generally used to enable the reader to absorb the setting of a hokku, for example in presenting the setting before moving on to the rest:

The summer wind;

A dash is used to indicate a longer, more meditative and connective pause, in cases such as

The summer wind —

It is typed as two hyphens.

One may also use ellipses for that purpose:

The summer wind …

A question mark is usually used to ask a question that in hokku is never answered:

The summer wind?

The exclamation mark is seldom used; it indicates something surprising or unexpected:

A summer wind!

The comma indicates a very brief, connective pause.  It is often found at the end of a line that begins with a preposition:

In the summer wind,

A hokku always ends with punctuation, whether a period (.) — which is the most common — or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!) very sparingly used, and also the seldom-used final ellipses (….).

That is hokku form in a nutshell.

As for length, we should not exceed by too much the standard, which in English is a pattern of 2/3/2 essential words.  Essential words are those words essential for meaning, but not for grammatical correctness.  For example, we have already seen the verse

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

To show you how loosely and thus flexibly we understand essential words, we can say this has a pattern of 3/2/3/, well within our standard of 2//3/2, from which we should not depart too drastically.  In arriving at that, we may consider these words in the first line as essential:

1. at every house

In the second line, morning glory may be taken as a whole because it is one thing, so we understand it as

2.  morningglory blooms

And finally in the third line, we can regard it either as

3.  month of leaves

which gives us 3 essential words, or we can consider it a whole — as we did morning glory — by regarding it as “leaf-month,” thus one essential word.  It matters little, because in either case we have not exceeded our standard by too much.

This flexibility is very important to English language hokku, because a thing in English may be as visually brief as the word “fly” or as long as the word “dragonfly,” so we must be sparing while not becoming too rigid.  The standard of poverty, if followed, ensures that in hokku we use only a few simple, ordinary words, including only what is necessary for clarity and good grammar.

There is thus nothing peculiar about the appearance of hokku in English.  It uses ordinary language, ordinary words, ordinary punctuation.  And again that frees us to concentrate on content, because though form may make something appear to be a hokku visually, it is only the content that will make a real hokku.

David

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