Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience. Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.
Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility. That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind. And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.
Hokku are very simple. They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.
In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season. There is no added commentary or ornament.
Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible. They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so. And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.
By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.
The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse. But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic. It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today. The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.
Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of the kind of hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. The first was Onitsura (1660-1738). He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity. Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death. We can say, therefore, that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century. Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686. Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.
The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant. It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.
I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards. I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.
And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.
The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts. Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.