Sooner or later (I hope sooner) in the study of hokku, one begins to ask just what makes an extraordinary hokku. The question is inevitable because all of us, in our practice, are going to write lots of very ordinary hokku — pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable. Here is a “summer” hokku as an example:
A clear morning;
Above the distant clouds
Blue mountains rise.
That is what I like to call a “block print” hokku. It makes an attractive scene, like the landscape block prints of the Japanese artists Yoshida and Hasui, but there is nothing striking or memorable about it.
Why is that? We can answer with what generally defines a good hokku — a good hokku shows us something seen in a new way. That should be engraved on the memory of every student of hokku — something seen in a new way.
Though the example hokku is not unpleasing, there is really nothing new about it, no different perspective that allows us to see something freshly. And that in essence is what makes the difference between an ordinary hokku and an extraordinary hokku.
As an example of something seen in a new way, here is a summer hokku by Onitsura:
The leaping trout,
This is another of those hokku requiring the poetic intuition of the reader, but such an intuitive leap in hokku should be easy, not difficult, and should happen split-second quickly. Onitsura watches a trout leap out of the water, and in the water below the trout, passing clouds are reflected.
Such an unusual perspective often distinguishes extraordinary hokku from merely ordinary hokku. Also note the sense of movement and change in Onitsura’s hokku, something we do not find in the “ordinary” example, where everything seems static and unmoving, just as in a block print. Generally we avoid hokku in which nothing is moving or changing, though it does not hurt to write one now and then. Movement adds energy to a hokku. An exception, however, would be when we deliberately want to stress the lack of movement in a verse, which can happen occasionally.
Don’t fear to write ordinary hokku. You may wish to create them to remember a particular time or for some other reason. But be aware that what really makes hokku worthwhile is the good hokku, even the extraordinary hokku, and to write those we must see something in a new way, from a different perspective. That different perspective need not be as obviously striking as in Onitsura’s example.
Over time we will write hokku that range from ordinary to better-than-ordinary to an occasional extraordinary verse. All are part of learning. But we should be able to tell the difference. That is why in hokku we place such great emphasis on understanding its aesthetics and techniques. If you do not know what makes a good hokku, an extraordinary hokku, how can you write them? But learn the principles of hokku, and your discernment will improve.