In hokku as I teach it, we may write both from direct experience and from creative selection.
What is meant by direct experience? It is a hokku written from viewing an actual event, with everything in it faithful to that experience, whether the hokku is written on the spot or hours or days or weeks later.
This principle goes back to a very old practice common in Chinese painting — that one entered and contemplated Nature, mountains and rivers, rocks and streams, trees and birds — and if one did this with sufficient awareness and perception, one would absorb the characteristics of such things, so that when one returned home to paint, one would paint a scene that, while not a photographic representation of Nature, nonetheless faithfully expressed the spirit of what was seen.
In life we accumulate a great many direct experiences of Nature. We see spring rains and autumn rains, trees in bud and trees withered, wild geese arriving and leaving. We see fog and snow, lightning and windstorms, twilights and dawns. All of these experiences, if noticed with sufficient awareness, are stored away in the memory as a kind of library or vocabulary of sensory experience of Nature.
When writing a hokku, then, we have these options:
1. One may write a verse faithfully from an immediate experience, a hokku of a single, actual event. I did this with my verse:
The tall tree
Cut up in a heap.
Every part of that hokku is faithful to an event I experienced.
2. One may write a verse from a mixture of direct experience and creative selection, meaning that while part of the verse reflects an actual “immediate” event, another part may be selected from the mental vocabulary of past sensory experience.
For example, one may have seen:
Pass to and fro.
But that requires a setting. Perhaps the “real” setting is that you saw the shadows passing on the grass. But you think the verse would be more expressive with a different setting, so you might make it:
The paper screen;
Pass to and fro.
The actual old Japanese hokku from which I have made this example was:
On the white wall,
Pass to and fro.
So one has the freedom to use creative selection in composing, based on one’s own personal vocabulary of things and events. The key is to make it “real,” by which is meant keeping it in harmony with Nature. And to do that, one must have direct experience of Nature.
3. One may write a hokku entirely from creative selection, meaning the verse is not a reflection of a particular actual event, but rather a combination of elements from different past events, yet united and harmonious.
A good example of this is Bashō’s “Old Pond” verse:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.
Now Bashō did not write this verse from direct experience, according to old accounts. He had the last two lines, and was looking for a setting, so the story goes. He tried many possibilities; someone suggested beginning it with the yamabuki, the yellow shrub Kerria japonica, often translated, rather confusingly, as “mountain rose” in the West.
But in a sudden inspiration, Bashō spoke “Furu ike ya,” — “The old pond”; and according to the possibly apocryphal story, everyone was thunderstruck.
Whatever the truth of the story, we know that Bashō would have experienced many frogs jumping into water in his life, and would have seen many old ponds. He just did not happen to see this precise event when he composed the verse. Instead it was composed from his mental vocabulary of past sensory events. It was thus written from experience, but not from immediate experience. This is an important point.
Some old hokku never happened. Buson, for example, wrote a verse about stepping on his dead wife’s comb; but his wife was not dead! He did it merely for effect.
One could write like that, but there is a great danger of artificiality. The more we draw from our own imagination instead of from actual experience — whether immediate or from our mental vocabulary of past experiences — the less likely our hokku are to seem real and in keeping with Nature. Too many of Buson’s hokku thus seem artificial and contrived for effect.
That is why I discourage students from writing strictly from the imagination. In today’s world we are more and more separated from Nature, and because of that, our verses — if not directly connected by immediate experience or by creative selection from genuine past experience — tend to be rootless and “phony.” And so we must keep in mind the old advice that when writing about pines, one goes to learn from the pine — meaning that if you want to express Nature faithfully, you must go and learn from Nature, absorbing it until you can express it naturally and without artificiality.
In our way of hokku we have the principle that the writer must get the ego out of the way, must be a mirror reflecting Nature. That applies whether the experience is immediate or creative selection. Our purpose in writing is to restore the unity of humans and Nature, not to escape into the imagination.
Our course is directly the opposite — out of abstract fantasy and back to Nature as the true home of humans, our mother and father, our origin and our ending.