In old hokku, spring began with the Lunar New Year, which came on varying dates between the end of January and the middle of February. This year, for example, the Lunar New Year will happen on February 14th.
In modern hokku, however, we orient ourselves neither to the Western calendar nor to the Lunar calendar. Instead, we either follow the old traditional European calendar, in which Spring begins on Candlemas at the start of February, or we see what is happening in Nature. When we see the first early signs of spring, that is when spring begins for us.
Yesterday I took a long walk up a nearby hill, and on the way I saw pussy willow catkins already appearing, and that means early as it is, spring is beginning.
In hokku we always orient ourselves as well to the universal elements of Yin and Yang. Beginning spring is the most yin time of the season, but already yang is visible within it. Yang will increase until it reaches its spring high at the end of the season. Then it will continue to increase into summer, when yang reaches its peak, and then it will begin its decline again as yin increases through autumn and finally reaches its peak in winter. So all of Nature — all of the seasons — are the interplay between Yin and Yang, and that is important to know in hokku.
The beginning of spring, then, means the first obvious signs of growing yang appearing in Nature — the appearance of green shoots out of the earth, of catkins and buds on trees. In human life this corresponds to infancy and early childhood. In the day it corresponds to the first signs of dawn and the early hours of and after sunrise.
It should be obvious, then, that hokku expressing spring deal with freshness and beginnings, of signs of activity appearing out of the inactivity of yin.
Every writer of hokku must keep in mind two things: Nature and season. Without Nature there is no hokku. Without season there is no hokku. Hokku is the verse of Nature and the seasons. It expresses Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set within the ever changing context of the season. That is why anthologies such as that of R. H. Blyth (though he mislabels hokku as haiku) present hokku divided into four seasons — spring, summer, autumn or fall, and winter. And within each season, the hokku are further divided according to traditional Japanese categories.
Those categories for spring are:
The New Year (traditionally a category of its own);
Sky and Elements;
Fields and Mountains;
Gods and Buddhas;
Birds and Beasts;
Trees and Flowers;
These remain useful categories for our hokku today. When further subdivided, they reveal the characteristics of spring in a given location — local climates and plants and creatures, which vary from region to region. Spring in the Pacific Northwest, for example, manifests itself differently than spring in the Appalachians. One will find different trees, different plants and flowers, different creatures, and so on.
The most important thing, however, is never to forget that a hokku should manifest the nature of the season through what is included in it. A spring hokku about pumpkins would be incongruous and inappropriate. A spring hokku about violets is in harmony with Nature and the season.
I have always taught hokku primarily from the best examples of the old Japanese writers translated into appropriate English-language hokku form. By studying these, by using them as models, one may quickly learn the structure and nature of hokku. They show us what to do and sometimes what not to do in composing. Teaching from old models further ensures that what the student is learning is real hokku, not some form of modern haiku or make-it-up-as-you-go brief free verse.
Spring is the time of beginnings, and it is a very good time to begin learning real hokku, seeing how the season was expressed by those who founded our practice of hokku so long ago.
Whenever discussing hokku, it is always a good idea to say something about R. H. Blyth. Unfortunately his books are all out of print at present. The modern world has such different goals that Blyth has been, if not forgotten, put aside for the present. That is a very sad symptom of what our society has become.
The most important things to know about Blyth are these:
1. He unfortunately generally referred anachronistically to hokku as “haiku,” using the term popularized by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century. One must forgive Blyth, because he simply used the term popular in the Japan of his day. It can be very confusing to readers, however, who must know that in reading him, the bulk of what he talks about is hokku, not haiku, even when he uses the latter term. Today we correct that by simply recognizing that haiku did not begin until the revisions of Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century, and that what came before is correctly termed hokku. Bashō, Onitsura, Buson, Issa, and all the rest who came before Shiki were writers of hokku within the wider context of haikai. So hokku is much older than haiku, and it is very important today to make the distinction.
2. Having said that, one must recognize R. H. Blyth as still the foremost authority on the aesthetics of hokku. If one wants to understand what is behind hokku, one should read all of Blyth’s commentaries very carefully, comparing them to the verses on which he is commenting. This provides the reader a “master class” in the aesthetics of hokku, and learning from Blyth in this manner is invaluable.
3. One must realize that Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku. When he began, he was explaining an old tradition that by his time, after the revisions of Shiki, was in a profound state of decline aesthetically. He thought that hokku was virtually dead, and though he bemoaned the fact as evidence of the stupidity of man, he did not anticipate an interest in its revival until near the end of his writing of works on hokku. Even then, he made only a few perfunctory suggestions as to how what he called “haiku” (but meant “hokku”) might be written in English.
What this means is that though Blyth was an excellent teacher of the aesthetics of hokku, he was primarily a commentator and a translator. One might expect that one could learn to write hokku in English simply from copying the patterns of his translations, but that is only partially true. His main purpose was in conveying the meaning of Japanese hokku in English, and to do that he sometimes took liberties, translating what the writer “meant” and not what he actually wrote. Blyth was superb at this because he really understood the spirit of Japanese hokku, but it can sometimes be confusing for the learner, because in translating Blyth could be much more loose in the use of structure and form than the originals he was translating. Again, that is because his purpose was to explain hokku to Westerners, not to teach them how to write it.
Of course those of you who have been long-time readers here will know how to write it in matters of form and structure, because I have explained all of that, based directly on the structure of Japanese hokku and of how they are best adapted to the nature and structure of the English language. It is really quite simple, and once one knows that, one knows how to adapt Blyth’s explanations so they are both meaningful and helpful rather than misleading.
Having said all of that, reading Blyth, though immensely helpful, is not necessary to learning hokku. Over the years I have taught students what they need to know for an excellent foundation in hokku, and the rest is up to the student.
One need only keep in mind that hokku and modern haiku are two very different things. In fact one could say that hokku is one thing, and modern haiku is a multitude of often contradictory things, because while hokku has very definite standards and aesthetic principles, modern haiku varies to fit the whims of individual writers, who feel quite free to make up their own versions of haiku. For all general purposes therefore, hokku is not haiku, and the two should never be confused. One should never refer to pre-Shiki hokku as “haiku,” because it is both anachronistic and historically incorrect. Further, it only causes endless and needless confusion.
This rather rambling posting is my way of saying that spring is at the doorstep, and it is time for many of us in temperate regions to begin thinking of spring hokku instead of winter hokku. And thinking of spring hokku, it is also a good time to refresh and review our practice and understanding of hokku — or for those who know little or nothing about it, a good time to begin learning hokku.
Though I may sometimes mention haiku here for historical and other reasons, I do not teach haiku, and have little interest in it. I teach hokku, a continuation in English of the same kind of verse that was practiced in Japan for several centuries prior to the popularization of the haiku by Shiki near the beginning of the 20th century. There are multitudes of haiku sites and teachers. But to my knowledge, this is the only site that teaches all aspects of the practice of hokku as a modern form of verse making.
I wish there were other legitimate teachers of hokku out there, but they simply do not exist at present, sad though the fact may be. I hope some day that will change.