It is very easy to superficially notice, or to unthinkingly gloss over, the critical importance of season in hokku. It is not going too far to say that hokku is the verse of the seasons — that the REAL subject of every verse is the season in which it is written.
Seen from that perspective, it is easy to understand why the writers of old hokku placed so much emphasis on the importance of season that subjects were classified by season, and these classifications — specific words indicating the season and incorporated into the hokku — were compiled into dictionaries.
The great advantage of such a system is that one had only to mention the word in the verse and the season was evoked. For example the word “haze” in a hokku let the reader know immediately that it was a “Spring” hokku. That was a great benefit. But there was also a negative side. The classification of season words became artificial to some extent, and the numbers of them so great that learning how to properly use them took years.
That is why in hokku as I teach it, we still emphasize season, but no longer keep lists or classifications of season words. Instead we categorize every hokku by season. Each verse — when written — is marked with the season. And when shared that seasonal classification is passed on with the verse.
There is a very serious potential danger in this system too, however, if it is understood only superficially and not deeply.
The danger is precisely this: Some writers think that merely categorizing a verse by season makes it a verse OF that season — that if I write, for example, about getting a drink of water as autumn begins, that automatically makes it an autumn verse.
This is a very serious error, and it is related to the equally serious error of thinking that hokku are just assemblages of random things.
The whole point of the use of season words in old hokku — and the point of seasonal classification in modern hokku — is to express the essential nature of the season through events in which that essential nature manifests.
This is not really as difficult as it first sounds. We all know that pumpkins, scarecrows, and falling leaves are manifestations of autumn. Even a child recognizes them as autumn subjects. BUT THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING HOKKU IS TO REALIZE THAT WHATEVER MANIFESTS THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS APPROPRIATE TO THAT SEASON, AND WHAT DOES NOT MANIFEST THE NATURE OF THE SEASON IS NOT APPROPRIATE.
Did you ever wonder why I talk so much about such things as Yin and Yang? It is because they are direct pointers not only to what is happening in a season, but to what manifests — what evokes the essential nature — of a season.
NOT EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN A SEASON MANIFESTS THE ESSENTIAL NATURE OF THAT SEASON. And so of course, things that do not, are not really appropriate for hokku of that season, though they may be appropriate for many other kinds of verse.
If you want to write hokku, then, you must be aware of the character of each season, of its inherent qualities. One can begin such learning — which is really a becoming aware — very simply, and then gradually build up a deeper understanding of these things. Anyone knows intuitively, for example, that spring is what is young and fresh and new, summer is maturity, autumn is declining and withering, and winter is the prevalence of darkness, cold and stillness.
In terms of Yin and Yang — the passive and active elements — spring is growing Yang; summer is maximum Yang; autumn is growing Yin; and winter is maximum Yin. That is not just some clever little bit of Asian philosophy, it is an expression of the relationships that govern all of Nature. In the day, morning is growing Yang; noon is maximum Yang; afternoon and evening are declining Yang, and the middle of night is maximum Yin. In human life, childhood and youth are growing Yang; maturity is maximum Yang; then the life forces begin to decline in growing Yin; and finally, old age leads to death, maximum Yin.
In Nature, when one thing reaches its maximum, it turns into its opposite, just as when noon is reached, Yang is at its maximum; and then it changes to its opposite, and gives way to growing Yin.
Summer, then, is extremely Yang. That is manifested in its heat. Winter is extremely Yin, manifested in its coldness. Spring is growing Yang, so in spring coldness weakens and warmth grows. Autumn is growing Yin, so in autumn heat weakens and coldness grows. The same applies to moisture, which is Yin. In spring, moisture gradually declines until the heat of summer replaces the showers of spring; and in autumn the Yin moisture begins returning, until in winter the cold rains come, and then snow and frost.
Consider all of this carefully. We already know that certain subjects are not appropriate for hokku, for example things that disturb the mind, such as war, violence, sex and romance — and things that take us away from Nature, such as modern technology. But what most people fail to realize is that out of all the many things that leaves us for writing hokku, not everything is appropriate to every season.
I will explain all of this in more detail as we progress. The important things to remember now are that Hokku, the verse of Nature, is also the verse of the seasons; and further, that there are things appropriate to each season because they manifest its character. And those things that do not show us the character of the season are not appropriate for hokku written in that season.
I hope this comes as a revelation to many of you.
Knowing this explains why specific season words were so critical to old hokku. They were an attempt to express a season by listing things in which the character of the season was manifested. Though it had its flaws, we could say that the system of specific season words is the “easy” way; what is theoretically appropriate to a season is already decided and codified in a dictionary of season words.
But in modern hokku more is demanded of us. We are able to avoid the artificiality and complexity to which the use of specific season words eventually led because we replace them with simple seasonal classification of each verse. But as a consequence, we must become far more personally aware of what is inherently, aesthetically appropriate to each season. Otherwise no matter how we classify a verse by season, if we do not understand the inherent nature and character of a season and the resulting aesthetics appropriate to it, we will fail miserably at hokku.
What this means is that we must become more like our ancestors, who were keenly aware of each season, its weather, its changes, characteristics, foods and cultural associations.