THE RAW MATERIAL OF HOKKU

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,

Winter silence;
The long-drawn howls
Of wolves.

Or perhaps

The long cry
Of a single wolf;
The winter moon.

Or

Wolves howling
All together;
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.

David

HOKKU IS NOT HAIKU, AND VICE-VERSA

Many are still confused by careless and indiscriminate use and mixing of the terms hokku and haiku in print and on the Internet.  Are they the same?  Are they different?  It is important to know, because the survival of hokku depends on understanding just what it is, so that we do not confuse it with all the superficially similar verses that go under the umbrella term haiku.

Without going into detailed description, we can say that hokku is a short verse form that first achieved real popularity near the beginning of the 16th century.  For our purposes, however, hokku as we know it began with the writings of two men, Onitsura (1661-1738), who left no students to carry on his work, and Bashō (1644-1694), who did have followers, and so has become much better known.  From the time of Onitsura and Bashō all the way up to the time of Shiki (1867-1902), the verse form was known as hokku.  Haiku as the term is understood today did not exist until it was created by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

It should be obvious, then, that anyone who speaks of the “haiku” of Bashō, or the “haiku” of Buson or Issa or Gyōdai or any of the other early writers of hokku, is speaking both inaccurately and anachronistically.  That is a simple fact which anyone can easily verify.

Why, then, do so many people persist in inaccurate and anachronistic terminology, pretending that hokku and haiku are the same?  There are two simple reasons.  First, it is in the interests of modern haiku organizations, who have confused haiku with hokku for so long in their publications that it is embarrassing to make the correction.  After all, it was the founders of the Haiku Society of America who tried to get the term “hokku” declared obsolete!

The second reason is commercial.  Scholarly writers who know better sometimes misuse “haiku” when referring to hokku simply because they or their publishers or both want to sell more copies, and it is a simple demographic fact that more people have heard of “haiku” than have heard of hokku.

The result is the perpetuation of a mistake that is well known to be a mistake among scholars.  There is, therefore, no reason for not correcting the problem and using accurate terminology.  Bashō did not write haiku, nor did any of the other writers up to the end of the 19th century, because “haiku” as known today simply did not exist until that time — in fact much of the kind of modern haiku written today in English and other European languages did not exist until the middle of the 20th century onward.

Shiki began the confusion of terms almost three hundred years after Bashō.  Strongly influenced by Western thought in art and literature, he decided to “reform” hokku by separating it from it spiritual roots and divorcing it completely from the verse sequences of which the hokku previously was used as the opening verse.  Up to that time, hokku could appear either as independent verses or as the opening verse of a verse sequence.  After Shiki, his new “haiku” — with a name chosen specifically to send the old hokku into oblivion –could only appear independently, because he did not consider a verse sequence to be legitimate “literature.”

Shiki’s reforms damaged hokku, but the result might not have been too serious had not even more radical writers come after him, following his impatient tradition of innovation.  Both in Japan and in the West, writers appeared who continually remolded the new “haiku” into forms that led it farther and farther from the standards and aesthetics of the old hokku.  So with time, hokku and haiku grew ever farther apart.  This tendency was only hastened by Western writers, who from the very beginning misunderstood and misperceived the hokku, combining it with their own notions of poetry and poets. So when they in turn began writing haiku, they confusedly presented it to the public as “what was written by Bashō,” when of course it had almost nothing in common with the hokku of Bashō but brevity.

Today, in fact, the modern Western haiku tradition, which was virtually brought into being in the 1960s, has become so varied that it is not inaccurate to say that haiku today is whatever an individual writer considers it to be. If a writer calls his verse “haiku,” it is haiku.  There are no universally-accepted standards defining the haiku, so it is at present nothing more in English than a catch-all umbrella term for short poems of approximately three lines.  In reality, a modern haiku is often simply free verse.

This is in great contrast to the hokku, which has very definite principles and aesthetic standards inherited — even in English and other languages — from the old hokku tradition, which is why it can continue to be called by the same term.  Modern hokku preserves the aesthetics and principles of the old hokku in essence, whereas modern haiku is a new verse form with widely-varying standards depending on the whims of individual writers.

This situation has led to a great deal of not always well-suppressed anger among writers of modern haiku.  Haiku forums on the Internet are notorious for bickering and viciousness.  There are many reasons for this.  In a form allowing each person to be his own arbiter of what is and is not “haiku,” there are bound to be countless disagreements and sandpaper friction among those who each consider their own version of “haiku” superior.  And of course nearly all of them are quite opposed to the revival of the old hokku, which they thought had been quietly buried and forgotten all these years, because for some reason they find a verse form with legitimate connection to the old hokku, and with definite standards and principles and aesthetics, somehow threatening to their Western sense of the poet as avant-garde, revolutionary, intellectual.  The rest I shall leave to psychologists.

Today, then, the situation is this:  There is the old hokku, practiced from the time of Onitsura and Bashō up to the time of Shiki.  This hokku tradition continues today among those of us who still practice it as a spiritually-based, Nature-related, seasonal short verse form and as a way of life.  But there is also the much better known and more widespread new haiku tradition, which began near the end of the 19th century in Japan and got under way in English in the 1960s in the West.  Modern haiku requires no spiritual basis, nor does it necessarily have a connection with Nature or the seasons.  Nor does it necessarily have anything to do with one’s lifestyle or how one views the universe and the place of humans within it.

To the frustration of many in the modern haiku communities who like to think of their haiku as the elite form, the chief impact of haiku in the modern world — among the general public — has been as a new and deliberately low-class satirical verse form.  That accounts for the popularity of such variations as “Spam-ku,” “Honku,” and “Redneck Haiku.”   Haiku has consistently failed to gain acceptance into mainstream English literature, in spite of scattered experimentation by notables such as Richard Wright and W. H. Auden.  Instead it is viewed today as “grade-school poetry,” and that has contributed to its transformation into satirical verse, giving it much the same place in modern Western writing that the satirical senryū had in Japan — which was similarly both low-class and humorous.  Perhaps this is the real future of haiku in the West.

Whatever the modern situation, however, hokku and haiku are today two different verse forms that should not be confused in either scholarly or popular use.  Hokku and haiku are historically related — because modern hokku is a continuation of the old hokku, and modern haiku evolved out of the old hokku — but nonetheless they are separate and distinct in practice and aesthetics.  And with a movement afoot in modern haiku to eventually discard even the name “haiku” — leaving simply a form of short free verse  that may be called whatever the writer wishes to call it — hokku more than ever stands apart from all that is today called “haiku.”

Given this situation, the existence today of both the old Nature and season-based hokku tradition and the newer, innovationist haiku tradition, it is up to the individual to choose which he or she prefers, but it is nonetheless important to use the terminology appropriate and accurate for each — hokku for one, and haiku for the other.

As for me, I follow the old hokku tradition, because I find it not only more profound in comparison to the shallowness of most haiku today, but I also find it far more satisfying in its spiritual purity, its selflessness, and its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.

That does not keep me from being amused by such verses as the “Redneck” haiku about a fellow named Clyde who introduces himself to girls by banging on his pickup door and howling like a dog (Redneck Haiku Double-Wide edition, by Mary K. Witte).

David

THE NATURAL APPROACH TO SEASONAL SUBJECTS

In previous postings I have talked about how hokku intimately relates to Nature and the seasons, and I have said that the key to hokku is understanding that it expresses the seasons in its subject matter.  Merely setting a hokku in a given season is not enough; the hokku must express that season in one of its many manifestations, whether it is reddening leaves, falling leaves, a garden withering, pumpkins, Halloween, and so on.

It should be obvious, then, that the more one is in touch with Nature, the more one will be able to express the nature of a season through understanding natural changes in the world and life around us, as well as in ourselves.  One can hardly find a better example of such keeping in touch with Nature than the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, who meticulously noted seasonal changes in the area of Concord, Massachussetts, in the 19th century.  We can hardly write with much versatility about autumn if we do not know what Nature is doing in autumn.

Of course there are many good hokku to be written from obvious autumn subjects, but a wider range comes only from learning the changes of Nature from season to season in the place where we live .  Autumn in New England will be somewhat different from autumn in the Cascade foothills of the Northwest, and autumn in the Salinas Valley will be different from both.  And of course we can say the same of autumn in the Basel region of Switzerland, autumn in the east German region of Bautzen, autumn in the Netherlands, or autumn in Norway or Finland or the south of France, the West Country of England, or the Rhondda Valley of Wales.

Given the huge range of local variation in life and climate, it has simply become impractical to write hokku based on the old season word system, even overlooking its other faults.  That is why the “natural” system is preferable in our time.  The natural system is the “Thoreau” system — becoming familiar with Nature in its seasonal changes and manifestations in the plant and animal world around us, not just in the category of “human affairs” or the obvious aspects of autumn.

David

WRITING BY SEASON

In hokku old and new, there are two ways of relating to the seasons.  One is fixed and somewhat artificial (old hokku), the other natural (new hokku).

The “fixed” way is the compiling of season words and season dictionaries, and spending years learning them and how to apply them.  But even then, the result will generally be overlooked or unperceived by those who do not write hokku.  So the use of fixed season words is rather like an esoteric language that can in many cases be understood only by initiates.  This was the system that gradually developed and became more complex and artificial in old hokku.  It has its benefits, but it also presents writer and reader with major difficulties.

That is why in modern hokku the old system of season words has been dropped, but not the important and essential aesthetic connection.  As a means of linking hokku to the seasons, now we use a simpler, more practical and more convenient way.  That new method is  to mark each verse with the season in which it is written.

The important thing — and of course the fundamental characteristic of hokku — is its intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All hokku then, ideally, reflect an event happening in the context of a season.  But that is only the first stage of learning hokku, and without the next step, it is incomplete.  To take us to the next stage — to genuine hokku rather than just to some kind of brief verse that resembles it superficially — we must write verse not only of an event happening in the context of a season, but also that event must reflect or express the nature of the season.

As I said in an earlier posting, this is truly the key to hokku — the realization that it expresses the nature of the season in which it is written.

Some topics are self-evident.  In spring we may write about the return of wild geese, and in the fall — in autumn — we write about the departing wild geese, as well as other birds such as ducks and swans whose migratory patterns are most obvious to us in those seasons.  That does not mean, of course, that we cannot write about geese, ducks, or swans in summer, but when we do so, it must be done in a way that reflects the nature of the summer, just as lines of wild geese crossing the sky as they fly southward reflect the nature of autumn.

Those learning hokku would do well to keep in mind the old categories in which hokku were placed:

The Season — the season itself, in settings such as “Autumn begins.”

The Sky and Elements — for example “The October sky,” or “The autumn wind.”

Gods and Buddhas — Religious figures or activities that express the season in one way or another.

Fields and Mountains — withering fields, autumn mountains, etc.

Human Affairs — all the things people do that are characteristic of autumn, such as a change to heavier clothing, or a child returning to school.  Included are such things as scarecrows that we think of particularly in autumn.  And of course Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Birds and Beasts — such things as wild geese leaving, and animals beginning hibernation, etc.  And do not forget the “creepy-crawlies,” — insects, etc.

Trees and Flowers — Red leaves, falling leaves, blooming chrysanthemums,  withering flowers in the garden and other such things.

Keep in mind these categories, and they will help you greatly in selecting and in eliminating subjects for hokku.

It is important to remember that just placing a verse in a seasonal context by marking it as spring, summer, autumn or winter does not quite achieve hokku.  To take that last step, one must not only put the verse in the context of the season, but one must also express the season through the elements used in the verse and their interaction.  Those elements must work in harmony to present a unified verse in which some aspect of the season is perceived in a way that is felt to be significant.

David

ROBERT HARRY HOVER

ROBERT HARRY HOVER (Rathmines, Australia, Spring 1975 (photo courtesy of Leslie Vanderham)
ROBERT HARRY HOVER
(Rathmines, Australia, Spring 1975; photo courtesy of Leslie Hover)

Yesterday I learned, quite by chance, that a person very significant for me died in December of the last year.  That person was Robert Harry Hover — “Mr. Hover” — who was my direct teacher in a meditation course that changed my way of viewing the world.

Robert Hover (February 22, 1920 – December 15, 2008) was an American aerospace engineer who went to Burma and studied Vipassana meditation under a teacher named U Ba Khin.  U Ba Khin, in turn, was a lay teacher in a tradition going back through his lay teacher Saya Thetgyi to another noted meditation master, the monk Ledi Sayadaw — and from there back through the centuries to the time of the Buddha.  U Ba Khin commissioned Mr. Hover — as well as several other individuals — to teach Vipassana in the West.

Robert Hover taught 75 Vipassana courses in 9 countries and in 15 different states in the U.S., from November 21, 1971 through May 29, 1988.

With Robert Hover there were none of the frills — no images or incense or pictures at his meditation course.  There was only this Western man with a fringe of hair on the edges of his head, stepping onto a platform in front of us, wearing a Burmese-style longyi — a cloth wrapped around his waist — and seating himself with crossed legs to give us the Dhamma — the Way Things Are.

Seated there before us — a mixed group of rather shabby-looking individuals in a little retreat camp between Portland and the coast — Robert Hover proceeded to teach us basic Buddhism in practice, beginning with the fundamentals of existence — Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta — the unsatisfyingness of all things, the impermanence of all things — the absence of any permanent “I” or self.  And  he taught us the means for seeing into these things — the two meditation forms of anapana — attention to the in-and-out flow of the breath at the nostrils — and vipassana — awareness of other bodily sensations, which when practiced correctly and persistently leads to insight into the nature of reality.

I had never experienced anything so remarkable and beyond my ordinary experience.

And quite by chance I learned something else.  Very early in the course, I developed a headache.  For me, at that time, a headache usually lasted at least a whole day, perhaps as many as three days.  When — no doubt feeling sorry for myself — I approached Mr. Hover after the group meditation, he very kindly invited me into his cabin, asked me to sit down in front of him, and proceeded to have me pay very close attention to my headache.  Where was it located?  How deep?  How large was the area?  How was it shaped?  What was its texture?  What were the edges like, vague or definite?  He asked me to look inward and to describe it in detail, which led to a kind of inner seeing that I had not experienced before.  He told me to be in that area — not outside my body, or thinking about it, but to literally BE in that area.  Then he told me to position myself behind the “object” of pain, and then “Now, PUSH!”  I pushed from my new, inside-the-body position, against the object in front of me.  Instantly it slipped and moved right though my skin and outside the body, and my headache was gone — IMMEDIATELY!

I was astonished, to say the least.

The healing method he taught me — which was a particular interest of his in later years — was not at all a regular part of the course I attended.  In fact, had I not had a headache and mentioned it to him, I doubt that I would have had any awareness that he could teach such a thing.  I am sure that most if not all of the others who took that Vipassana course ended it and went home without any knowledge whatsoever of the healing method he so kindly shared.  It was something he kept separate from his teaching of Vipassana, though the method was apparently derived from his experiences with Vipassana.  It certainly came in handy for me at that time.

As for his Vipassana teaching, my impression was that he was deliberately conservative; that he took no liberties with what had been passed on to him, but seemed to want to stick very closely to what he had been taught by U Ba Khin in Burma.  This extended even to such a culturally-conditioned (in my opinion) matter as asking students not to sit with the the bottoms of one’s feet pointing at the teacher, something which is considered very impolite in southeast Asian religious culture, where one never points one’s feet at a teacher or a Buddha image.  Though it was no doubt a puzzlement to his American students, he maintained it in his course; and that he did maintain it is an example, I think, of his attempt to adhere closely to what he was taught in Burma.

During the course, we were taught awareness of the passage of the breath at the nostril area for several days (anapana), and just when I finally began to “get” it, we then moved on to awareness of sensations throughout the body, starting from the head and going down the whole body part by part.  I expressed to Mr. Hover a certain reluctance to leave anapana so “quickly,” and his response was that anapana could indeed take one “all the way” — but that we should also learn the other method — I think he described it as having another tool — and my impression was that after having learned both during the course (the basics of both) one could then use either.

I talked to Mr. Hover by phone — rarely — from time to time (he was in one state and I in another),  and I recall that during one conversation he happened to mention that he received “posthumous” teachings from U Ba Khin.  “Posthumous” of course means “after death,” and when I asked him to clarify, in typical Mr. Hover fashion he did not go into detail, but just indicated that death is not the end.

That reminds me of two things I recall particularly about our conversations:  he always seemed very moderate in his speech, and reluctant to talk about anything that might enhance him personally, always being very modest; and second, when asked about other teachers or rumors of “controversial” events among those teaching in the U Ba Khin tradition — events that puzzled students then and still do to this day — he would never say anything negative about anyone, remarking only that there had been a split in the Sangha, with no elaboration upon that simple statement.  He never said a word to discourage one from studying under other teachers in the tradition.  At least that was my experience.

Many years ago, in a memorial  text to his own teacher U Ba Khin, Robert Hover wrote:

I am indebted to Sayagyi U Ba Khin for the rest of my lives.”

I can say the same for my teacher, Robert Harry Hover, who gave a priceless gift whose value we unfortunately did not all fully realize at the time.  But our personal shortcomings or failures in no way lessen the value of the gift, freely and compassionately given, or the merit of the giving.

Those who may be interested in Robert Hover’s method of healing will find his “how-to” book on the subject at:  http://www.amazon.com/Internal-Moving-Healing-Manual-Instruction/dp/1418438855

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Update 2020:

I notice that an online forum has re-posted the segment about my “headache” experience with Mr. Hover.  Someone there made this comment:

This sounds like hypnotherapy to me (healing by faith). The presence of an authoritative figure is [sic] probably helps a lot in aiding the faith in the subject that the method works.

To me that is a complete misunderstanding of what happened.  When I seated myself in front of Mr. Hover, I had no idea what he was going to do, nor did I have any inkling he even knew of a healing method.  One can hardly have “faith” in a method one does not even know exists, or an “authority” one does not even know is an authority.   Nor did Mr. Hover tell me what to expect, or even just why he was running me through this process of internal examination and mental action.  There was no “hypnotherapy” involved.  In fact the process reminds me rather of a scientific methodology.  My astonishment was due to the fact that the instantaneous disappearance of my headache was completely unexpected, and came as a complete and unanticipated surprise to me — certainly not as a result of any “faith.”

 

David