Modern people tend to view the world as a collection of separate and unrelated things, without seeing the whole.  But life is not that way.  In reality, everything is connected to everything else.

No event happens in isolation, as an abstraction.  All events have their necessary contexts.  That is why in hokku, “rain” by itself means little.  It is only when we know whether it is spring rain, or summer rain, or autumn rain, or winter rain that we fully feel it.

Everything in hokku is associated with a season.  In old hokku this was indicated by special “season words” (ki-go).  But this system gradually became much too complicated and artificial.  For a student to become familiar with these season words and how to apply them properly took years.  Whole dictionaries of season words and their appropriate times (saijiki) were compiled.

When hokku moved out of Japan, the situation became even more complex.  Every area of the world has its own climate, its own distinctive plants and animals and trees and local customs.  It is simply impractical to try to categorize all of these things according to season.

Nonetheless, season is an integral and very important part of hokku.  We cannot simply drop it, because if we do so, we lose the context of a verse.  So in modern hokku we instead drop the use of season words, but keep seasonal classification by writing on each verse the season in which it was written.  This is a remarkably simple and practical solution, and quite in keeping with the spirit of the old hokku, which was to simplify, not to make needlessly complex.

There is a hokku by Hokushi, one of the students of Bashō:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This has little meaning unless we know it is an autumn verse.

Summer has drawn to an end, and autumn has come.  We see the dry, lifeless dust that coats the leaves of the grasses, and in it we feel the lingering heat that still remains — for the moment — from the summer that is past.  Soon the dust and stagnant heat will be washed away by the cooling rains of autumn.

This works well as a transitional verse for the period we are now in — the change from summer to autumn.  But notice that without this seasonal context, the hokku would lose most of its significance.

Every hokku I present here is really a little lesson in how to write.   So if you play close attention and apply what is presented here to your own writing, you will gradually learn hokku.  But be careful not to mix it with any other kind of verse, long or short, or you will go astray and end up writing something else.

Let’s look at the example:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

This is called a “standard” hokku.  It consists of a setting, a subject, and an action.  These need not be in that order.  The setting — the wider context in which something happens, is “Lingering heat.”  The subject is “dust.”  The action — something moving or changing — is “lies on the leaves of the grasses.”  

You may wonder why the dust on the leaves of the grasses qualifies as something moving or changing here; after all, it is just lying there, not doing anything.  The reason is that we know formerly there was no dust on the leaves.  And when the autumn rains come, it will be gone.  So an “action” in a hokku can be something with a long-term change, not just something you see moving or changing before your eyes.

Also, how we name the parts of a hokku can change depending on how that part is used in a hokku.  In this one the dust on the leaves is an “action.”  But of course in other circumstances, dust on the leaves of grasses could be a subject.  Never forget that the “formula” for a standard hokku is not an absolute law, but rather just a tool to help you acquire the hokku way of thinking — to get you started — and eventually you will do it naturally and without thinking.

Countless hokku can be written following this simple but effective pattern.  Keep in mind that the setting need not be the first of the three elements.  It may come at the end, as it does in this example.  Pay close attention to punctuation:

Dust lies
On the leaves of the grasses;
Lingering heat.

Notice that in this verse, as in all hokku, there is a longer and a shorter part.  These two parts are separated (and joined) by appropriate punctuation.  Here a semicolon is used.  The semicolon provides a strong a definite pause in hokku before moving on to the second part.  It enables the reader to experience what precedes it fully before moving on.

All English language hokku end with appropriate punctuation, whether the very common period, or ellipses indicating something left unfinished (….) or a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!), which is used sparingly because it indicates something surprising or unexpected or very emphatic.

And do not forget to capitalize the first letter of each line.  That is not only a nod to the English poetic tradition, but from experience I have found that it avoids any confusion.  And it also makes for a unified format that contributes to the sense of community in hokku.  We use a common visual language, a common form, and so there is no occasion for petty quibbling and bickering.  The form works remarkably well, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


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