Depth in hokku depends on both writer and reader. We can see that on examining two verses of Bashō written in two different years, both winter hokku. Here is the first:
Byōbu ni wa yama o egaite fuyugomori
Screen on wa mountain o painted winter-seclusion
On the screen,
A mountain is painted;
On the surface this is a really mediocre verse. Remember, not everything Bashō wrote was worth keeping — in fact only a fraction of his verses are memorable. But this is where season and context come in, so let’s look closer.
Imagine that you are forced to stay indoors because of icy or snowy winter weather, day after day. In that case, your eyes turn to the painted mountain on the folding screen, because you cannot go out to see the hills or mountains. The stillness of the painting is in keeping with the stillness of your seclusion and isolation. In such a case, suddenly the verse becomes significant. The painted mountain reflects your winter seclusion, your isolation from the world outside. Without this, the verse is a waste of time.
Now we must ask ourselves, was this in fact what Bashō intended, or is it something we are reading into the hokku? That is a matter of concern only to academics. We, as readers, have found the meaning in the verse, whether Bashō consciously put it there or not. But if we do not have the perception to see the meaning, the verse remains flat and tasteless. So a great deal in hokku depends not only on the writer but on the reader.
That is the explanation for the peculiar fact that sometimes people who are just beginning hokku will come up with a really significant verse, and then their other verses will simply be wasted ink. It is often the case that a reader will perceive a meaning there that the writer was completely unaware of, creating a good hokku quite by accident. Of course one cannot find significance in any verse. There must be something there to trigger the aesthetic perception of the reader of hokku.
One can see from this that the aesthetic perception of the reader plays a great part in the evaluation of any hokku. A good writer of hokku will be able to write more good hokku than simply one fortunate accident, but a good reader of hokku may sometimes transform a lack on the writer’s part into something significant.
Here is the second of the two hokku by Bashō:
Kinbyō no matsu no furusa yo fuyugomori
Gold-screen ‘s pine ‘s oldness yo winter-seclusion
On the gold screen,
The pine is ancient;
We can easily see how close it is to the first. But there are differences. First, the screen is gold, and as a screen with gold ages, it takes on a slightly different cast. Added to that is the aged pine painted upon it. This combination makes us feel the slow passage of time through many long years. That reflects the feeling when one is shut in and isolated for a long duration in the middle of the cold and frost and snow of winter. So we have here a strong sense of time and transience, of time passing with almost painful slowness.
We can liken that to what I call “Coomler’s Theory of Relativity.” It is simply that work time passes far more slowly than free time. Any office worker may verify this experientially. Compare two hours at work (work one does not particularly enjoy) to two hours of watching an interesting movie or talking with friends.
There is a variant of the verse that uses “aging” instead of “aged”:
On the golden screen ages;
I prefer this version. The effect is like sitting in a room, hour after hour, with the slow tick of a grandfather clock in the background. It gives us a remarkable sense of the drawn-out passage of time, unenlivened by television or music or chatter or any other distractions. In such circumstances we begin to get a much clearer picture of what our minds are like, of how much they crave distraction.
All of this is a kind of lead-in to telling you that in the past, I have discussed hokku very much in the context of its history — of what this or that writer did to make a good verse. From now on — to the extent that I post here — I will advocate simply my approach to hokku.
That takes us completely away from discussions of what Onitsura meant by sincerity, what Bashō meant by not imitating, and all the other things with which people interested in the history of hokku like to occupy their minds.
That does not mean the kind of hokku I present here will change much. It just means that I will concentrate on the approach to hokku that is meaningful to me, and not waste time with anything else that may ever have been written as hokku — examples that may diverge from that approach in one way or another. I will generally not bother with mediocre verses by any writer, no matter how famous, because my interest will not be in illustrating the range of old hokku. I may, however, occasionally throw in a bad verse just to show what not to do.
What I am intending, of course, is defining a “school” of hokku, which again means a particular aesthetic approach to writing hokku, along with all others who share the same general aesthetic considerations and preferences.
Perceptive readers will perhaps think, well, isn’t that what he has been doing all along? To a great extent it is. But a major difference will be that I will make no effort to justify this or that historically (though in most cases that can be done). I will simply present what I think is the best way to read and write hokku.
In doing so, I will no doubt continue with old hokku used as models, because they do such a good job of conveying the matter. But I will feel perfectly free to depart from conventional translation and understanding of such verses whenever doing so fits the needs of explaining the kind of hokku that really make the matter as a whole worthwhile for me.
Hokku must relate to life. If it does not relate to life, it loses its value. Yesterday I was thinking about Chinese brush painting, and how one can become proficient in it by learning to paint things one has never seen. But does one really want paintings of a stork by someone who has never seen a stork, paintings of a wild goose by someone who has never seen a wild goose, paintings of a water lily by someone who has never seen a water lily? Such things are worse than imitation of life — they are simply imitations of imitations. Our hokku should never be like that. That is why we must write from our own experiences, constantly deepening and maturing as we walk the path of hokku.
I have often thought that I would like to write what I would call “American talks on Japanese hokku.” Well, what I will do from now on — again to the extent that I am moved to do so and my time permits — will be pretty much that, except there will be no emphasis whatsoever on the “Japanese” part of it. Instead, whether I am talking about hokku originally written in Japan or not, it will be simply one American’s talks on hokku.
I hope you will join me if what I have to say on the subject speaks to your condition.