One of the major influences on the writers of hokku was the old collection of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems.” These were the famous classics of the Chinese Tang Dynasty that were to Japanese writers what college anthologies of poetry are to us.
There are a number of translations of the Tang anthology, some of them online. Here is verse from the anthology by Witter Bynner, translating Jia Dao:
When I questioned your pupil, under a pine tree,
“My teacher,” he answered, “went for herbs,
But toward which quarter of the mountain,
How can I tell, through all these clouds?”
That has the genuine spirit of hokku though it is obviously not hokku. The reason is that such verses are among the roots of hokku. Jia Dao’s poem obviously focuses on “Nature and humans as a part of Nature,” which is exactly what we want in hokku.
My point in mentioning it here is to emphasize that hokku is not the only short verse form that may have the spirit of hokku behind it, which is why I refer to the whole range of such poetry — whether old or new — as “contemplative” verse, meaning verses having their origins in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, verse which deal, as does hokku, with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and have behind them a deep spirituality.
Readers may have noticed that in the past few postings I have moved toward discussing a wider range of verse forms than just the three-line hokku. I have done that to encourage readers not to abandon an experience of Nature just because it has too much content for a hokku. One can write hokku-like verse in not only in three lines, but also in four or five, and perhaps even more, depending on the experience. One just has to keep in mind the basic aesthetics of the hokku, aesthetics common also to ink painting, flower arranging, and landscape gardening in Japan.
Writers of hokku are free to write in any number of lines necessary to adequately express an experience. That does not change the hokku. It is still three lines. But it does give us the option of using longer verse forms without abandoning the essential aesthetics of the hokku, without abandoning the hokku spirit. And that is why I include all these other forms here, along with the hokku, as part of the wider practice of contemplative verse.
Old hokku had its wider practice of haikai, which included linked verse and journaling, etc. Similarly, the practice of contemplative verse includes not only the hokku but also longer, aesthetically-related verse forms.
So whether we write an experience as a hokku in three lines, or in four or five-line verse forms, we can still keep the hokku aesthetic, the “spirit of hokku” that is also the spirit of contemplative verse in general.
That does not, of course, mean there is no difference between a hokku and verses written in more lines. Hokku demands the ultimate of poverty, and the most care in selection. To explain what I mean by that, here is a repeat of an article I wrote earlier:
Hokku is verse composed from the raw material of Nature and the seasons. It may begin with an experience or a memory, but ultimately it all comes from Nature and time. So writing a hokku is simply a matter of careful selection.
In 1877 a young man named George Willard Schultz felt himself drawn from Missouri to the West. He boarded a steamboat and ended up in the Rockies among the Blackfoot people. Many years later, looking back from the vantage point of age, he began his story with these words:
“Wide, brown plains, distant, slender, flat-topped buttes; still more distant giant mountains, blue-sided, sharp-peaked, snow capped; odor of sage and smoke of camp fire; thunder of ten thousand buffalo hoofs over the hard, dry ground; long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night, how I loved you all!” (My Life as and Indian, 1907).
Things and experiences — sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch — these are the elements that comprise hokku. And except for his last five words, that is what Willard gives us here. But what he gives us is in its entirety too rich for hokku, which turns from wealth of impressions to poverty, so that each aspect of Nature may be felt and appreciated individually — for itself — and not just for what it contributes to the whole.
A school teacher knows this instinctively. Her little class of squirming boys and girls is not important as a whole, but as individuals — for the spirit and character of each boy and each girl, the hopes and abilities and skills and drawbacks of each. Any teacher who tries to teach “the child” and not individual children is committing a crime against Nature.
We can see, then, that while hokku sees Nature as a whole, it does not make use of Nature in that fashion. Hokku is not generalities but particulars. So out of the paragraph of George Schultz, the writer will take just one or two things, for example,
“…long-drawn, melancholy howl of wolves breaking the silence of night….”
That gives us a subject. But in hokku a subject alone is not enough. Everything exists not only in the wider context of Nature, but also in the context of time and change, which we find expressed in hokku first through the season. So an experience by itself is not a full experience until it is realized in the context of the season.
The result might be a hokku like this,
The long-drawn howls
The long cry
Of a lone wolf;
The winter moon.
The snowy night.
The last is actually an old hokku by Bunson.
Often people ask me about writing hokku while living in the midst of a big city. It can be done — one can look for Nature virtually poking up through cracks in the sidewalk — but in general the result will not compare with what one can write from actual experience from the heart of Nature — from mountains, fields and forests, from streams and waterfalls and lakes, from reeds and huckleberry bushes and giant trees. So the worst environment for hokku is a big city. Writing it there really takes work, unless one happens to have a good back yard or a large park. Next best is a small town, perhaps a little place with a river flowing through it, lots of trees, lots of gardens. But of course best of all is the Great Wild, where man is not the center but the periphery.
The solution — for those who live in a city and want to write hokku — is to realize that to express Nature, one must experience Nature. If one spends all one’s time in a city apartment, there is not going to be much raw material. So if Nature does not find you, you must go to Nature, or else take up some other kind of verse that does not have as its focus Nature and the seasons. But if you do that, you will lose the opportunity to realize just how much a part of Nature you are, the opportunity of returning to it and experiencing it, just as Schultz felt the call to the West in 1877.