Hokku with a psychological element often appear among those of Issa, who wrote near the beginning of the 19th century. Issa was a psychologically-scarred individual who tended to interpret much of what he saw in terms of the sorrow he endured both as a child and in later life. Westerners often find him appealing because this “psychological” quirk of his in hokku is something with which they are already familiar with from Western poetry, and also certain of his verses are sometimes perceived by them as “cute” for the same reason. The result is generally that they overlook what is best in Issa, and go instead for what is worst, magnifying it in their own verses written in imitation of him.
I learned early on as a teacher of hokku that when students turned in verses in which an animal, an insect, or a bird was addressed directly in the verse, that student had taken on one of the quirks of Issa, thinking it somehow worthy of imitation. I came to call this the “talk to the animals” syndrome, because it was so common among new students, and began to warning against it before it appeared in their work, which inevitably it would if they were not cautioned.
That does not, of course, mean that all of Issa’s hokku are bad hokku, though many of them do tend to lead students off in the wrong direction, into subjectivity rather than objectivity. That is because people tend all too quickly to perceive something new in terms of what they already know, which is an excellent way to completely misunderstand. That is precisely why the “haiku” writers of the mid-20th century up to the present were led astray by misperceiving hokku in terms of what they already were familiar with in Western poetry. The early writers of haiku in English thus completely misunderstood the old hokku, and that misunderstanding gave rise to modern haiku in English — a whole verse category created from mistaken notions, a category that still exists today, not as a continuation of the old hokku but rather as an ersatz replacement created by Westerners who failed to see the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.
Let’s examine a winter verse of Issa:
Yuki chiru ya kinō wa mienu shakuya fuda
Snow falls ya yesterday wa unseen rent-house sign
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.
Remember always that the real subject of every hokku is the season in which it is written. What is said in a verse must be understood in that context. That is why I take so much time explaining the “character” of a season, and in talking about Yin and Yang.
Winter, as I have said, is the season of want, of deprivation in Nature, of hardship. It is the time when life — when simply surviving — becomes the most difficult. It is the most yin time of the year, the time of cold and silence and stillness. Therefore, when we read a verse such as this, we see it as a manifestation of those characteristics.
A “For Rent” sign
Not seen yesterday.
We know this is not for happy reasons. It means something difficult. Either someone has had to move because they cannot pay, or someone has had to go elsewhere to find work, or perhaps even someone has died. These are all possibilities in keeping with the character of the season, but note that none of them are specified in the verse. That means we are just to get the overall feeling of the unexplained absence of the old tenant or tenants; it is precisely this absence which gives us the “feeling” key to the verse — that and the falling snow.
We see from this that hokku are not intended to tell a story. Instead, hokku simply give us those elements that arouse certain sensations and feelings in us, in most cases without specifying what those feelings are or should be. Because we are human, they just naturally arise in us when we are presented with a certain thing-event
So when we read this verse, we feel the coldness and austerity of the falling snow; we see the “For Rent” sign and recognize the absence — the emptiness — within the house or apartment. A question arises within us about what happened to the people or persons formerly living there, but it goes unanswered, and that questioning feeling remains as part of the atmosphere of the verse.
All of this expresses the character of the season of winter. That is the essence of this hokku
I hope that new readers here are beginning to realize why an understanding of the aesthetic principles of hokku is so important — in fact critically important — to both reading and writing them. It is because these principles were not known or understood by those who first began writing in the West in attempted imitation of hokku that modern haiku arose as a misperception and a misunderstanding of hokku. When one does not understand the principles underlying a verse form, it is not possible to write that verse form.
To get back to real hokku then, one must know precisely those things that the early writers of haiku in English and in other European languages did not know or even notice — the aesthetic principles that are the basis of hokku. And very important among these is the fact that a hokku expresses a season through a particular thing-event that manifests the character of that season, as we see in
this verse by Issa.