The outer form of hokku is quickly described; the content of hokku takes more time, because it has so many aspects.
First, the basics.
The content of hokku is always Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Knowing that, we can say that a hokku is a sensory experience — meaning something seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched — set in the context of the seasons.
Knowing that is a great deal, but still not enough; such an experience must be felt to be significant, and it must be presented in a unified and harmonious manner.
It is very common for beginners to first write verses like this;
In the dust of the field;
A summer afternoon.
Well, it is an experience of Nature — but there is no significance felt in it. True, it is ordinary — and hokku deal with ordinary things — but when using a very ordinary subject, it must be seen in a new way. Otherwise the result will be merely mediocre.
Here is an example by Issa of something seen in a new way — an Autumn hokku:
The old dog
Leads the way;
Visiting the graves.
First, the dog here is in an unexpected context — the visiting of the family graves. Second, there is the position of the dog, going ahead instead of following. We have the feeling the dog has done this many times before. And then there is the age of the dog. We see him walking slowly and deliberately, not jumping about and exploring things like a young dog. We feel the significance of the visit in his measured pace. And then there is the seasonal context of it all, which is Autumn — the time of things withering and dying, of returning to the root. The cemetery is old, the dog is old, the graves are remembrances of things past. Everything in this poem speaks of change, of impermanence, of the transience that is so evident in hokku. And because of that, every thing is in harmony, unified. That makes for good hokku.
So when beginning to write, keep in mind that hokku are not just random assemblages of things with no significant relation to one another. Instead, everything in the verse should feel that it belongs, that it is in keeping with everything else.
We have seen Bashō’s hokku
On the withered branch
A crow has perched;
The autumn evening.
Even without the seasonal marker that we put on every verse we write in English, we can see that this is identified as an autumn hokku. So that is the seasonal context. Autumn is the decline of yang into yin, of heat and activity into coolness and growing inactivity. It corresponds with evening, which is the decline of the day into night. And evening brings growing darkness, which is in keeping with the blackness of the crow. And the settling of the crow on the withered branch is in keeping with the move from activity (yang) to inactivity (yin). And the branch itself, being withered, is in keeping with the withering of leaves and plants in autumn. So again, everything in this verse is in harmony and unified.
We can see from these two examples how very important season is in hokku. That is why we mark every hokku we write with the season — either written out in full as Spring, Summer, Autumn (Fall) or Winter, or in quick abbreviation, like Sp, Su, F, W. The important thing is that the season be conveyed with the hokku. Then when read, it will be read in its appropriate context, and when anthologized, all Summer hokku go under the same heading, as do those in the other three seasons.
What I have discussed here is harmony of similarity in a hokku, for example the similarity of the black crow and the growing shadows of evening. Please note that the crow is not a symbol of anything, not a metaphor, and neither is the evening. But all of these things have layers of associations that are evoked in the reader, just as I have said that evening corresponds to autumn. And those layers of associations are very significant in how we experience a verse.
There is also a second kind of harmony however, a harmony of contrast — of combining things that are quite different, such as the heat of a day in summer and the coolness of water in a mountain stream. Even though those things seem quite opposite to us, we nonetheless sense the harmony in their combination. But I will discuss this more in another posting.
For now, keep in mind these essentials:
Hokku are not just random assemblages of things.
Hokku are not just ordinary things, but ordinary things seen in a new way.
Hokku should have internal unity and harmony.
Seasonal context in hokku is very important, and all hokku should be marked with the season in which they are written.