Hokku is verse composed from the raw material of Nature and the seasons. It may begin with an experience or a memory, but ultimately it all comes from Nature and time. So writing a hokku is simply a matter of careful selection.
In 1877 a young man named George Willard Schultz felt himself drawn from Missouri to the West. He boarded a steamboat and ended up in the Rockies among the Blackfoot people. Many years later, looking back from the vantage point of age, he began his story with these words:
“Wide, brown plains, distant, slender, flat-topped buttes; still more distant giant mountains, blue-sided, sharp-peaked, snow capped; odor of sage and smoke of camp fire; thunder of ten thousand buffalo hoofs over the hard, dry ground; long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night, how I loved you all!” (My Life as an Indian, 1907).
Things and experiences — sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch — these are the elements that comprise hokku. And except for his last five words, that is what Willard gives us here. But what he gives us is in its entirety too rich for hokku, which turns from wealth of impressions to poverty, so that each aspect of Nature may be felt and appreciated individually — for itself — and not just for what it contributes to the whole.
A school teacher knows this instinctively. Her little class of squirming boys and girls is not important as a whole, but as individuals — for the spirit and character of each boy and each girl, the hopes and abilities and skills and drawbacks of each. Any teacher who tries to teach “the child” and not individual children is committing a crime against Nature.
We can see, then, that while hokku sees Nature as a whole, it does not make use of Nature in that fashion. Hokku is not generalities but particulars. So out of the paragraph of George Schultz, the writer will take just one or two things, for example,
“…long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night….”
That gives us a subject. But in hokku a subject alone is not enough. Everything exists not only in the wider context of Nature, but also in the context of time and change, which we find expressed in hokku first through the season. So an experience by itself is not a full experience until it is realized in the context of the season.
The result might be a hokku like this,
The long-drawn howls
The long cry
Of a single wolf;
The winter moon.
The snowy night.
The last is actually an old hokku by Bunson.
Often people ask me about writing hokku while living in the midst of a big city. It can be done — one can look for Nature virtually poking up through cracks in the sidewalk — but in general the result will not compare with what one can write from actual experience from the heart of Nature — from mountains, fields and forests, from streams and waterfalls and lakes, from reeds and huckleberry bushes and giant trees. So the worst environment for hokku is a big city. Writing it there really takes work, unless one happens to have a good back yard or a large park. Next best is a small town, perhaps a little place with a river flowing through it, lots of trees, lots of gardens. But of course best of all is the Great Wild, where man is not the center but the periphery.
The solution — for those who live in a city and want to write hokku — is to realize that to express Nature, one must experience Nature. If one spends all one’s time in a city apartment, there is not going to be much raw material. So if Nature does not find you, you must go to Nature, or else take up some other kind of verse that does not have as its focus Nature and the seasons. But if you do that, you will lose the opportunity to realize just how much a part of Nature you are, the opportunity of returning to it and experiencing it, just as Schultz felt the call to the West in 1877.