PREPARING TO LEARN HOKKU

Only a single day remains before August ends and September begins.  The Summer months — June, July and August — give way to the Autumn months — September, October and November.

Through hokku we are taken away from the excessive obsession with the self and with the thinking mind that characterizes modern society, and returned to our rightful place within Nature, as a part of it, and to the primal experience of the senses rather than our secondary “thinking,” the intellection that we avoid in hokku.

Hokku is thus a way of both recognizing our vital connection to Nature, and of taking us out of busy intellection and into tranquil perception.

There are many old “natural” names for September, names that express what is happening in Nature.  For example, among the Ojibwe people, September is:

Waatebagaa-giizis — the Month of Leaves Changing Color;

Maandamini-giizis — the Month of Corn;

Moozo-giizis — Moose Month.

The word “giizis,” found in each of these, means “moon,” just as in English our “month” is derived from an old word for moon.

Seen in the perspective of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, September is growing yin — an aging and quietening of the vital forces after the maturity of late summer, their gradual decline into the extreme yin of winter.  In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening; in human life it corresponds to the time beginning in late middle age and before the elderly years — the time of greying hair, weakening body, and lessening energy.

I mention these things not for any exotic reason, but because an important part of hokku is their layers of associations, the things they evoke in us.  Keeping this in mind helps us to know what is in harmony with the season, something which eventually becomes second nature as one absorbs the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Do not think that his connection of the Fall with time of day and stage of human life is anything “Eastern.”  Carl Jung, who was Swiss, wrote that this is not simply sentimental jargon, but rather that through it we “give expression to psychological truths, and even more to physiological facts”:

“Our life is like the course of the sun.  In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon.  Then comes the enantiodromia: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase but a decrease, in strength.  Thus our task in handling a young person is different from the task of handling an older person.” (From The Stages of Life, 1930)

And in the same way, our task in writing Autumn hokku is far different from that of writing Spring hokku.

Now that we are entering Autumn, I want to take a few moments to talk about this site.  It is not like any other.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still the only Internet site actively teaching hokku, a continuation of the old verse form practiced from the 17th century to its unfortunate decline near the beginning of the 20th century.  However hokku as taught here is adapted to the English language, while still retaining the important essentials of the old hokku.

That means this is a teaching and learning site, and though sometimes I may seem to talk about things a long way removed from hokku, nonetheless there is some relationship.  I do this because hokku is not just a little verse in three short lines that anyone can write with no preparation.

Hokku is a whole way of looking at the world and at one’s place as a part of it, and a way of living.  It is not, like other kinds of brief verse, subject to radical change at the whims of those writing it.  It has very specific principles and standards, and learning those takes time.  That is why the aesthetics of hokku are so important, and must be understood before one can make any genuine progress.

Hokku as I teach it is a contemplative, spiritual form of verse.  It is also a very selfless form  that helps to take the focus off the ego.  And learning it requires both patience and humility.

Many people who read my site are involved in other forms of brief verse, and they come here to get ideas to apply to their own verse forms.  There is nothing wrong with that, if it helps to make their verses closer to Nature and more hokku-like.  But it is important NOT to confuse hokku with any other kind of brief verse, which is why I use its distinctive and historically-correct name, and no other.

It is also vitally important to know that to obtain the full virtues of hokku, and not just some watered-down or distorted simulacrum, the only way is both to correctly learn hokku and to practice it over a long period of time.  Otherwise one knows really nothing about it.  It must be understood to be practiced correctly, and it must be practiced correctly to be understood.  I offer the instruction here — completely without charge — enabling one to do both. So though many who practice other forms of verse come here to read and borrow and to adapt ideas that I present on this site to those other verse forms, those who sincerely want to correctly  learn hokku from me should be very careful not to mix what they learn here with ideas or practices from any other kind of brief verse.  Otherwise the result will not be hokku.

One can see from all this that hokku is the most challenging of all brief verse forms, demanding more of the writer and of the reader.  Yet that does not mean there is anything complicated about it.  Hokku is very simple and straightforward.  It just means that it is often very difficult for people — particularly in our hectic and materialistic times — to learn to be simple.

All that is needed to learn hokku is a sincere effort to absorb its techniques, principles, and aesthetics, as well as patience and the willingness to put it into practice.  That makes it as easy and gradual as getting from one place to another by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.

All of this is just a preface to what we shall be doing here from the first days of of September onward.  We shall be learning hokku from the very beginning, and in a very traditional way.

Though hokku originated in Japan centuries ago, to learn hokku you need know nothing at all about Japanese history or culture or language.  Hokku is not some kind of cultural outpost of Japan, planting its flags in the various countries of the world.  Instead hokku — if it is to be at all valid — must reflect the language and the place where it is written. Thus hokku written in English is no longer a Japanese or “Asian” form of verse.  It becomes instead thoroughly American hokku, British hokku, Irish hokku, New Zealand hokku, Australian hokku, Liberian hokku,  and so on.

I live in the Northwestern United States.  But what I teach can easily be applied to any part of the English-speaking world, or indeed to any part of the world and any language, with but slight modification.  Hokku should not be an imported hothouse plant, carefully kept alive in an alien environment.  Instead it should be a native plant, growing out of native soil.  So those who want to write hokku in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French or German or Welsh or Russian or any other language will find all that they need on this site, requiring only insignificant modifications to fit the differences of language.

In teaching hokku, I use the best examples from old, pre-20th century hokku, but translated into modern English-language hokku form.  Sometimes I will modify these examples to fit a different cultural environment, but I will tell you when that happens.  Sometimes I will use verses of my own, but predominantly what I teach is derived from old hokku.

I teach using old examples in order to maintain a continuity with the old hokku tradition and to transmit high standards.  Though what we write in English is not precisely the old hokku in language and syntax and writing system, it preserves the important essentials of the old hokku — all that is necessary to make it hokku and not modern haiku or any other kind of brief verse form.  Obviously, that does not mean hokku as we practice it in English is identical to old Japanese hokku.  The cultural baggage is eliminated, but the essence — that which gives it the hokku spirit — is kept as essential.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person teaching this way — working direct from the best examples of the old hokku tradition used as models.  It thus gives students a unique opportunity to continue a tradition whose aesthetic roots go back for many centuries — a tradition that was nearly obliterated and forgotten through misunderstandings that became common in the West in the mid-20th century.

So inevitably, there are certain practices in the old hokku tradition that I do not continue.  I do not, for example, encourage the heavy use of literary allusion.  Nor do I encourage students to write entirely from the imagination.  Though both of these things existed in the old hokku, they are practices that take us farther from direct experience of Nature, and what we want in hokku as I teach it is to be as close to Nature as possible.

That is why I often liken the writer to a mirror reflecting Nature.  The thinking and busyness and focus on the self of modern life is like dust.  When that dust is wiped away, the mirror can reflect Nature just as a pond reflects the full moon.

I would remind readers that they are free to ask hokku-related questions — questions about the techniques and the principles and aesthetics of hokku — and I am always willing to help with problems that arise in writing.

David

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