One who learns hokku learns to be free from poetry.
Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Isn’t a hokku a poem? The answer is that a hokku is not a poem, and hokku is not poetry, and those who write hokku are not poets.
If you stand on a rocky shore and look out at the sea, what you see is not poetry; what you see is a thing-event. An event is something happening, and of course without a “thing” nothing happens. So a bird flying is a thing-event; a bud on a branch is a thing-event. The sun rising is a thing-event. An old man sneezing is a thing-event. A child burping is a thing-event. Similarly, a hokku is not a poem as we usually think of a poem; instead it is a thing-event.
Haru no umi hinemosu notari notari kana
Spring ‘s sea all-day undulating undulating kana
The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.
Where is the poetry in that? It is just a statement of what is happening.
You may say it is a “poem” because it is divided into three lines, but by that definition the address on an envelope is poetry. And of course if we present it like this,
The spring sea, rising and falling all day long.
— nothing has really changed. So it is not simply the division into lines that makes poetry, in spite of the fact that the “beat” writer Gary Snyder made a name for himself by simply dividing prose into lines to make it appear superficially like poetry. That is a common trick from the mid-20th century onward, deceiving many.
Nonetheless, when we look at the spring sea there is poetry in it, and R. H. Blyth tells us clearly and correctly why:
“There is a poetry independent of rhyme and rhythm, of onomatopoeia and poetic brevity, of cadence and parallelism, of all form whatsoever. It is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions, and lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry. It is the seeing we do when a white butterfly flutters by us down the valley, never to return.” (Eastern Culture)
To summarize all of this quite simply, hokku is not what we ordinarily think of as poetry (so-called), but hokku lives a life separate from that of so-called poetry. There we have it in a nutshell.
When we say, then, that hokku are not poems, not poetry, we are saying it so that we may distinguish it from all poetry so-called, by which we mean all that normally passes as poetry in English-language cultures.
What then, do we mean by poetry in hokku? We mean simply a thing-event in which we perceive an unspoken, deep significance.
Blyth tells us that “This poetry of things is not something superimposed on them, but brought out of them as the sun and rain bring the tender leaf out of the hard buds.”
That means poetry (as we are speaking of it in relation to hokku) is not something we add to a thing-event as one adds condiments to spice up a soup. It is not a dash of metaphor, a thick slice of iambic pentameter, a pinch of alliteration. Instead, poetry is something awakened by certain thing-events, and when we experience such a thing-event, we “automatically” perceive the poetry in it. That is the poetical experience of hokku, and that is the entire point of hokku. Without this poetry in a thing-event, hokku would not, could not exist.
We can say then of hokku what the German mystic Meister Eckhardt said of the Nativity:
Was nützt es mir, wenn Gott früher einmal in Bethlehem Mensch geworden ist, wenn er nicht in mir geboren wird?
“What good is it to me that God once become man in Bethlehem, if he is not born in me?”
That means, when applied to hokku, that the poetry in a thing-event does not really exist until it is perceived as such by the experiencer.
That is why when Buson saw the sea of spring — when we read Buson’s verse that gives us only the sea of spring with nothing added — we experience that thing-event and poetry is born in us. Yes, the poetry is in the event, but only when it is perceived by the person able to recognize the poetry, in which case the spring sea is born in that person, the thing-event takes place, and the poetry is felt.
We can say, then, that in hokku the poetry is not in the verse but rather in the reader. Without the reader the verse is just words on page. But when read, the words and page disappear, and the thing-event “is wordless and thoughtless even when expressed in words and notions.”
If you find that confusing, just remember this and you will grasp the essence of the matter:
Hokku is an experience of the senses, a thing-event put into words, but when read, the words disappear and the thing-event takes place in the reader.
It is simply that when you read Buson’s verse, words and page disappear and you see and experience only
The spring sea,
Rising and falling
All day long.
And that, in Blyth’s terms, is your “little enlightenment.”