The Germans have a great expression — “Na, und?” It is the equivalent of the American “So what?” — or more briefly, “So?”
That should be our attitude toward those who like to argue and intellectualize about hokku.
Suppose, for a moment, that Bashō’s practice of hokku was in some or many respects very different from how we practice it today.
Suppose, further, that old hokku had nothing whatsoever to do with “Zen” or with spirituality.
Suppose, finally, that what we practice today as hokku had little or nothing in common with the old hokku. What would all that change in our aesthetics and practice? Precisely nothing, because we need no authorization from any actual or supposed authority.
Why? Because we do not do this or that in hokku “because Bashō did it.” We do it because it works in conveying precisely what we want to convey in the English language and in non-Japanese cultures today — verse focused on Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, expressing the continual changes of Yin and Yang — verse not as intellection, not as “literature,” but as sensory experience — tasting, touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, expressed in poverty, simplicity, and transience, and based in a deep, non-dogmatic spirituality.
We could, in fact, teach and practice our hokku without the slightest reference to Japan or old Japanese writers, because our modern hokku has its body of principles, practices, and aesthetics that stand perfectly well on their own.
And if we wished, we could choose an entirely new name for the kind of verse we write. That we do not is merely a nod of respect to the old hokku tradition.
That is one reason why in hokku we have no reason to argue and debate with those who practice other kinds of verse. If people come to us quoting this or that writer on the history or practice of old hokku, saying that what we do differs from it in one way or another, we really have nothing to say to them, because it does not matter whether it is true or not. Our aesthetics and our practice stand on their own.
The point of saying all this is that our practice of hokku is not validated by anything said or done in the past in Japan, as someone might try to validate a religious dogma by referring to the “scriptures.” Our practice of hokku is self-validating. It is what it is because it does what we want it to do, and it does it superbly well. That is a remarkably liberating position, because it frees us from all the petty quarrels and bickering that plague other kinds of brief verse practice.
So if people tell us that our hokku differs from their understanding of old hokku — no matter what they may call it — in this or that way, we can only respond, “Perhaps, but that is irrelevant.”