It often seems to those who practice other kinds of brief verse that hokku is unnecessarily laden down with lots of rules, while they can write however they like about anything they like.
Hokku does have its principles and standards, but there is a reason for them. The “rules” of hokku are just the manifestation of the aesthetics that underlie and give rise to hokku. It is difficult to learn the aesthetics without seeing a visual manifestation, just as one cannot see the wind unless it happens to be blowing the branches of a tree or the grasses in a field. If one studies the motion of things blown by the wind, one learns the nature of the wind.
It is the same with hokku. The rules are a description of the manifestation of the aesthetics of hokku, and by learning them, one begins gradually to learn also the underlying aesthetics. That is why, in learning ink painting, a student will copy examples given by the teacher, will make strokes of the brush in accordance with those of examples. Gradually the student will learn techniques and and aesthetics, and as he or she matures, more and more these will just come naturally.
Our approach is that one must first learn the basic principles and standards thoroughly and then as they become part of one’s being, one will naturally come to understand more and more the aesthetics behind them. That is how one knows when the rules can be made secondary to the aesthetics that gave rise to them.
Those who write Westernized forms of verse may say, “Well, why not just omit the rules, and start out with the student free to go beyond them?”
The reason is that in order to go beyond the rules — while still maintaining the same underlying aesthetics — one must first thoroughly know the rules — and that means not just theoretical knowledge read from a book or Internet site; it means understanding how they are applied in practice, in this case when actually writing hokku.
There are many other kinds of brief verse, superficially similar to hokku, in which people write according to their personal whims and wishes, with no underlying aesthetic at all. Except for the very rare appearance of a natural-born genius, this is a path that generally leads nowhere, and it accounts for the volumes of virtually worthless brief verse that such people have produced and continue to produce. It is like a child trying to bake a cake without knowing the ingredients or techniques for making a cake. The result will be something, but it will bear very little resemblance to a real cake.
There is a further benefit to the “rules” of hokku. They require humility. Many times in the past, new students have come to me saying they wanted to learn hokku, yet the first time something they wrote was criticized or corrected, their attitude was, “You can’t tell ME how to write!” And actually, they were quite right. I could not tell them how to write, because they refused to listen. And so they never learned. In order for the cup to be filled, it must first be emptied. If someone comes to hokku already thinking they know what it is and how it should be written, they are wasting their time and mine.
Some people say, “Why should we have to capitalize the first letter of each line of a hokku? Isn’t that just old-fashioned”?
One of the first lessons we learn in hokku is not to pay any attention to what is fashionable. Instead we go for what is both practical and in keeping with the aesthetics of hokku, and capitalizing the first letter of each line is both a reflection of traditional practice in English, as well as a simple way to avoid the confusion between the first line beginning with a capital letter and another line that may on occasion begin with a capital letter because the word it helps to form is a proper noun.
Further, in our way of hokku, uniformity of format makes for a sense of community. Those who want to quibble about such things should not attempt hokku, but should instead pick some other kind of verse in which they can do as they wish.
The standards of hokku, then, are the reflection of the aesthetics that underlie it, the same aesthetics shared with the other contemplative arts. They are a means to understanding, not the understanding itself. But it is only by walking on the road to a destination that one will finally reach the destination. And it is only by learning the principles and standards of hokku that one will achieve a unity with its foundational aesthetics.