In our practice of hokku, we must beware of using the entire body of existing old hokku and its related literature as a fundamentalist uses the Bible. By this I mean that we should not say, for example, “Jōsō did this in that particular hokku, therefore we should do it in modern hokku” or “Bashō used what looks like metaphor in this verse, therefore we should use metaphor in writing hokku today.” That is a very distorted way of understanding our practice of hokku.
Instead, we begin with what we want to achieve in hokku: We want to write verses that emphasize sensory experience — experiences of seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, and smelling — having as our subject matter Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, and that set in the context of the changing seasons.
Further, we want to write verse exhibiting poverty, simplicity, and transience — verses that show us not only freshness and youth but also time and age.
And we also want “selfless” verses, a de-emphasis on the ego, treating the person — even the person of the writer — with the same objectivity with which we would write of a tree on a rocky hillside or a bird in the forest. We want our verse to have an inexpressible significance that is felt through what it does present, but never overtly stated — because such significance is impossible to put into words.
In the practical matter of putting the words on the page, we already have the hokku form, which works superbly well, with punctuation used to guide the reader smoothly and to provide fine shades of pause and emphasis.
We want our hokku, further, to be free of intellection and abstraction, free of added commentary and explanation, free of unnecessary “poetic” frills and ornamentation.
If all of this is how we want to write hokku (and as taught on this site, it is), then we really need waste no time on the academic side of it all. We need not learn Japanese; we need not learn Japanese history; we need not learn Japanese culture. Above all, we need not search through old hokku literature, as the fundamentalist searches the scriptures, to see just what Bashō said about this or that, or whether this or that author wrote hokku from the imagination rather than from reality. In fact we need no reference to old hokku at all beyond the simple fact that I like to use the best of old hokku, translated into English, as models when teaching how to write good hokku in English.
I do not and have never pretended that hokku as I teach it incorporates absolutely everything ever employed in the old Japanese literary practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse, of which the hokku was the first and starting verse. Instead I teach what in my view is the distilled essence, the best, aesthetically, of the old hokku, as it applies to a spiritual and contemplative lifestyle. Keep in mind that even in speaking of Bashō, only a small percentage of his verses are really worthwhile for us today.
In the past I have sometimes, perhaps, spent too much time on historical examination of the old practice of haikai, something that is entirely unnecessary for what I teach. Such things are a matter for scholars and may be of interest to some, but they really need play no part in the living practice of hokku today, and in fact for the most part we are better off when just working on our practice of hokku, rather than dispersing our energies in historical and literary research.
All of this, you can probably tell, is leading up to something. That something is simply a shift in approach on this blog. From this point onward, I want to emphasize the practical approach to hokku, leaving most of the linguistic and historical aspects for those who want to spend the time on them. Given the general goals in writing hokku mentioned earlier, there is really no reason at all for dwelling here on the history of hokku or all the minutiae of hokku as practiced more than a hundred years ago when it was part of the wider practice of haikai-no-renga — the writing of linked verse.
That change in emphasis here means that I hope to be spending more time on the aesthetics of hokku specifically as we practice it here, and though I will no doubt continue to use old examples as models and bits of old literature to illustrate aesthetics, I really want to get away completely from anything that looks even remotely like the “proof-texting” attitude toward hokku.
As I said in a previous recent posting, we need not look to any aspect of old haikai practice to validate our practice of hokku today. Our practice has its own body of aesthetics and principles and techniques, the essence of the best, as I have said, of the old hokku. So from now on I would like to focus on that.
In practical terms, that means I am likely to lessen or omit entirely the use of transliteration and literal translation of Japanese hokku here, concentrating more on what the old hokku examples mean (or should mean) in English as models for our new verses. I hope that will serve to make this site less “academic-appearing” and more practical and direct in serving those who want to understand how to write good hokku today.
I will continue, no doubt, to range rather widely in my subject matter, throwing in a non-hokku poem now and then when the mood strikes me, or a commentary on matters not obviously directly relating to hokku. And I would like to spend some time discussing the “Chinese” influence on our hokku — specifically the effect of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism, and Chinese Nature poetry. But fear not, I will do this in a practical rather than academic manner — for example, I want to show how to write “Chinese-style” Nature verses in English, and how doing so differs somewhat, yet is nonetheless similar to, hokku.
I hope all of this will not be too disappointing for the Japanophiles and for those who like digging about in the literary and cultural history of hokku in Japan. But modern hokku in English and other non-Japanese languages, as I have said before, should not be a cultural outpost of Japan. It should be a plant native to the soil in which it grows — Russian hokku in Russia, Welsh hokku in Wales, Brazilian hokku in Brazil, an expression of the environment and language in which it is written.
One more point. I have said that from now on I want to emphasize hokku as we practice it here. To do so, we need to distinguish that from everything else that may fall under the category of hokku, the good and the bad, the usable and the impractical. So I am going to give hokku as taught here a distinguishing name — I will refer to hokku as I teach it as “Yin-Yang” hokku, because as frequent readers here know, I often use the universal elements of Yin and Yang to explain hokku, how it utilizes the changing combinations of those opposite yet complementary forces in Nature in creating verses that are harmonious and unified. I think that distinguishing our practice of hokku here thus will prove helpful and practical in a number of ways.
One more point. In the use of old models in the future, I will make no practical distinction between good examples that are chronologically correctly termed hokku and later examples — specifically the better verses of Shiki — that are not. A good part of what Shiki wrote was, in all but name, hokku. So I will use whatever serves to illustrate and improve our practice of hokku, regardless of chronology.