One of the great differences between hokku and modern haiku is found in subject matter. In modern haiku one finds verses about all the things that hokku, for one reason or another, rejected. I say “for one reason or another,” but actually there are two principal reasons.
First, hokku avoids topics that tend to disturb or obsess the mind. That of course means romance and sex and violence. The omission of such things comes from the spiritual origins of hokku in Mahayana Buddhism. If we think of hokku as one of the contemplative arts — which it is — then it becomes readily obvious why these things are not used.
Second, hokku avoids modern technology. It is very common for those in the modern haiku community to think that this is because such technology did not exist for the greater part of the history of hokku, but that is incorrect. Hokku avoids technology because the real subject matter of hokku is Nature and the place of humans as a part of, not apart from, Nature. Technology tends to take us away from Nature, and the farther we go in that direction, the farther from hokku we are.
That is why those in modern haiku who say “If Bashō were alive today he would write verses about texting and iPods and jets and freeways” (I cannot tell you how often I have heard that in one form or another) are simply exhibiting their ignorance of the fundamental aesthetics of the hokku.
It is not hard to see when and why technology began to be admitted to Japanese verse. It happened near the end of the 19th century. We can blame it on Shiki, who nonetheless did hold to the traditional standards in theory — that a verse should not be just about technology. Nonetheless some of Shiki’s verses go a bit too far in admitting technology, and haiku (not hokku) writers who came after him saw that as license to go all the way. That is why in modern haiku one may find a verse about nothing more than an elevator opening and closing. That is very far from hokku, but often characteristic of modern haiku.
A few days ago we looked at the last stanza of a poem by Edward Shanks (one of the “Georgian” poets of England) called “A Night-Piece.” An earlier stanza in that verse exhibits the kind of transition in English verse that we find also when Shiki began writing borderline verses:
All’s quiet in the wood, but, far away,
Down the hillside and out across the plain,
Moves, with long trail of white that marks its way,
——The softly panting train.
We see the gently puffing steam engine moving across the valley far away, though we are standing surrounded by Nature. Its puffing is only gentle because it is distant. Shiki, however, brought it much too close when he wrote a verse about smoke from a passing train and then draws our attention to “the young leaves.” This is really too much for hokku. Technology is beginning to overwhelm Nature.
The general rule of thumb in hokku is that Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature must always be the chief focus of a verse. We of course often find the presence of human artifacts in hokku, but they are generally “pre-Industrial Revolution” kinds of things, like pots and and kites and wagons, things that do not interfere with our perception of Nature. To use anything else in hokku requires both skill and a thorough understanding of its aesthetics, and is generally best avoided by both beginning and advanced students.
We must not make the childish mistake of thinking in “either-or” terms. “Either I must write about modern technology in hokku or I cannot write about it at all.” Again we must keep in mind the adage, “the right tool for the right job.” There are many kinds of verse in which one may freely write about modern technology. Hokku just does not happen to be one of them, because it has, and has always had, an entirely different purpose.