Cooks and craftsmen know that it is important to choose the right tool for the right job. The same applies to verse.
In my years of teaching hokku, I commonly and often heard the complaint from haiku enthusiasts that hokku did not permit them to write about such things as their romantic relationships, or their attitude to a current war, or their cars or cell phones. One phrase I heard so often that it seemed a mantra among them was, “If Bashō were alive today, he would write about these things.”
No, he would not. How can I know that? Because hokku is specifically about Nature and the place of humans in Nature, and to make it other than that would be to turn it into a quite different category of verse (i.e. “haiku”). The root of the problem is that the would-be writers — the haiku enthusiasts — did not grasp or share the hokku aesthetic, and that is the reason for their dissatisfaction.
But the principle of using the right tool extends more widely than simply the differences between hokku and modern haiku. Donald Keene gives an excellent example in his book World Within Walls: Japanese LIterature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. Kamo no Mabuchi, a waka writer of the 18th century, made a verse on the death of his mother, prefacing it with this:
“When I was told that my mother had died I could hardly believe it was true; I had spent seven years away from her, able to see her ony in dreams. But the person who informed me was in tears. I had supposed our separation would last only a little while longer, and had long looked forward to spending her old age with her, going together to different places, living in one house. But what a vain and sad world it proved to be. What am I to do now?”
His waka (my translation) is:
That like wild geese
We’d gather —
But all in vain;
The great village of Yoshino.
As Keene points out, without the preface one would not be able to make head nor tail of the waka; but even more significant, there is more poetry in the prose preface than in the verse itself when divorced from the preface.
Mabuchi would have been wiser to have written in the wider format of Chinese verse (which Japanese sometimes did), giving the scope necessary to convey in verse what he tells us in his preface.
Bashō made a similar error, as R. H. Blyth points out, by trying to write as hokku what minimally required the somewhat wider format of waka:
The autumn wind;
Brush and fields —
How flat and spiritless it is, compared to the waka on which it was based:
No one dwells
At the Fuha Barrier;
Its wooden gables
Have fallen to ruin.
Only the autumn wind.
That is far superior to the weak soup of Bashō’s attempted hokku, and again, the reason is that Bashō chose the wrong tool for the job.
Hokku, as I often say, was never meant to be all things to all men. It has its tasks and it performs them well. But when one chooses a subject requiring more scope, one should write it in a more expansive form, whether that of waka or “Chinese” verse (but in English, of course), or in whatever format fits one’s needs.
Can you imagine Walt Whitman trying to put this into hokku form?
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d — and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
It would have been an exercise in futility. And similarly, writing hokku does not mean one must write ONLY hokku. Some subjects require more space, and for them one must select a format that is most appropriate to the task.
In doing so, one must not try to make hokku stretch and distort to fit whatever one wants to force into it. Instead, use it for its proper purpose, and for other purposes do what a good cook or craftsman does — use other and more appropriate tools.