Bashō — the best-known writer of hokku — tried to follow the overall aesthetic in his verse that he found in the other contemplative arts of tea, of ink painting, of waka, and of renga. He mentioned a representative master of each, and that for renga — the linked verse that preceded the kind of hokku Bashō wrote — was Sōgi.
Sōgi (1421-1502) is worth remembering not just because Bashō found his work admirable. He is also the person who formalized the connection between the hokku and the seasons.
We must remember that Bashō did not invent the hokku. Instead he developed it in a different direction by mixing the traditionally “high” subjects of the slightly longer Japanese waka — such as the cries of wild geese — with “low” subjects such as a frog jumping into the water, where formerly in waka it was customary to have the crying of frogs. In doing so, he expanded the range of hokku while keeping its overall aesthetic.
Knowing then, that Bashō did not create the hokku, let’s take a look at some of the older hokku of Sōgi, which in their subject matter are very akin to the more elegant and deliberately poetic waka.
The moon sets,
The morning tide is swift;
The summer sea.
Wild geese in the clouds,
Ducks crying in the gorge;
The mountain path.
This morning they cover
The rains that fell in the night —
It is not hard to discern a general pattern in many of Sōgi’s earlier kind of hokku. He likes to present two things or events, and then to unify them by a third, for example the setting moon and the swift tide both joined by the summer sea; then the wild geese in the clouds, and the crying ducks in the gorge, both united by Sōgi’s perspective of witnessing them from a path in the mountains — geese above him, ducks below. And finally, what falls in the morning (leaves) covering what fell in the night (rain) — the falling leaves covering the puddles and traces of rain.
It is a rather elegant and simple way to write, and again, with its choice of subjects it is closer to waka. What Bashō did was to lessen the elegance and to increase the commonness, to lessen the obvious poetry, and to make the poetry more in the experience of everyday things seen in a new way — telling us things we already knew, but did not know that we knew until we read the hokku:
In the morning dew,
Muddy and fresh —
After the elegant hokku of Sōgi, written as part of renga (linked verse), came the development of a new kind of renga that mixed in wit and humor, and was thus called “haikai no renga” — “playful” linked verse. But this approach gradually degenerated into clever attempts at word-play. It was this kind of low-class hokku that Bashō first learned. But as his sensibilities developed, Bashō realized that the hokku could take on depth and profundity if it took a middle way — not quite the elegance of Sōgi’s hokku, and no longer the cheap wit and low humor of writers such as Teitoku — but a mixture of the high subjects of Sōgi’s “waka-like” hokku with the ordinary subjects of haikai; and that is how the hokku we practice today, which mixes the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, came to be. Of course Bashō was not the only one to see the advantages of such a middle way — there was for example Onitsura as well — but Bashō, probably because he had students to carry on his name, is the best known today.