What is most important in hokku is understanding its aesthetics, which are generally quite different from those of English-language poetry. One who understands the aesthetics and knows the basics of form and punctuation in hokku could actually do self-teaching merely from studying old hokku.
Unfortunately, when hokku first came West, English-speakers (and those of other European languages) did not see it afresh. Instead, they looked at it and mistakenly saw what they already knew of Western poetry reflected in it. So when they began to write, they were generally merely writing what they thought hokku was, not what it really was. They looked at hokku and instead of seeing it for itself, they instead saw their own misconceptions reflected back at them.
To write hokku, one must therefore understand its aesthetics. Anyone who does not may write all kinds of brief, three-line verses, but they will not be hokku.
If, as I said, one who understands hokku aesthetics can learn to write merely by reading old hokku, how is that done? Here is an example:
It is old
From the day it is made —
We can see immediately that the pattern for this hokku is not that of the standard hokku, which is setting-subject-action. Instead, in this verse a statement is made about the subject:
It is old from the day it is made.
And then, to indicate what the statement is about, the subject is added:
This kind of hokku is called a “statement” hokku, for the obvious reason that it is a statement made about something. But it is not just any kind of remark. The statement in the hokku must be something that is quite plainly true. It is not merely an opinion or a commentary, but rather something that when said, the reader knows that is the way it is. A statement hokku usually tells us something we already know, but do not know that we know until the little surprise that comes from reading it. “Oh, yes, that is true! I knew that, but never consciously thought about it.”
The writer looks at the scarecrow — face made of old cloth, body made of old clothes hanging on an old stake — and he realizes that a scarecrow is something that is never new; it is old from the day it is made. And he shares that little illumination with the reader, who then experiences it for himself or herself on reading the hokku.
There is something else to be learned from this verse. It uses a technique called “repeated subject,” which is very useful to know when writing hokku in European-origin languages. Here is how it works.
“It” is the first subject, but when it is first used, we do not yet know what “it” is:
IT is old
From the day it is made —
Then comes the second, clear subject:
Because “it” and “the scarecrow” both refer to the same subject, we call this the “repeated subject” technique. If you learn it, it will enable you to write countless hokku.
But now the aesthetics of the verse.
We are in autumn now in the Northern Hemisphere, and autumn is a time of aging and withering and dying in Nature. The scarecrow, put together from old parts and stuffed with straw, reflects the character of the season. Everything about it is old, withered, dry. Scarecrows in autumn also make us think about the withering of the fields around them. And because they look like people but are not — cannot move, cannot talk back — they also contribute to the lonely feeling of autumn.
Chasei wrote another scarecrow verse with a somewhat different feeling. It does not translate precisely into English, so I will vary it slightly:
There are more scarecrows
Blyth translated the first line as
Where I live,
That is good too, though the original does not literally say “Where I live.” It still conveys the intent, though not literally.
In any case, the verse tells us that the writer is in a lonely place, a rural, agricultural place. In a way the scarecrows take the place of the missing people.
Notice that Chasei’s hokku is also a “statement hokku,” but it does not use or need the “repeated subject.”
Shōha wrote yet another “statement” hokku:
Its shadow reaches the road —
Here again we use the “repeated subject” technique, though the form is slightly different in this verse than in the others.
The sun is very low in the western sky. The angle of its light stretches out the shadow of the scarecrow until it touches the road at the edge of the field — a stretched-out scarecrow shadow. There is something slightly creepy and Halloweenish about this, and we could talk about just why that is, but if we talk too much about it, it spoils the atmosphere of a hokku. It is better just to experience it than to over-explain it. So I will just tell you to picture the setting sun and the growing, lengthening shadow of the scarecrow just before the sun disappears and the darkness of night grows as well. And of course the setting of the sun is the active, bright “yang” energy waning into the receptive, dark “yin” energy, which reflects what is happening in autumn as the yang energy of summer wanes and dissipates gradually into the cold, dark yin energy of winter. Remember this reflection of the character of one thing in another, because it is very important in hokku.
Returning to the “repeated subject” technique, do not think that the “repeated subject” word must always be “it.” We can see that from a very simple verse by Sazanami:
To scarecrow they fly —
Here the repeated subject takes the form of “they” and “the sparrows.”
In the autumn fields, a little flock of sparrows lights on one scarecrow momentarily, twittering and chirping, then they rise into the air and fly off to another scarecrow momentarily, then on to another more distant….
Again, anyone who understands the aesthetics of hokku can learn to write it by reading all kinds of old hokku such as those given here. But to do so takes patience and a sincere desire to learn without imposing one’s own preconceptions on the verses.